As 4K continues to increase in popularity, 2016 is sure to be the year when the next big thing in display tech, HDR, takes off. But what is HDR and why should you care about it? Here’s everything you need to know.
As companies make more affordable 4K TVs and Ultra HD continues to rise in popularity, the next stage in high-resolution viewing is truly here. But, as with all technology, the next big thing is never far away, and if there’s one TV feature that’s going to define 2016 it’s HDR.
HDR, or High Dynamic range, was the talk of CES 2016, with every major TV manufacturer unveiling new HDR-compatible TVs. It's even coming to phones now. The new Samsung Galaxy Note 7 supports HDR video, the first smartphone to do so.
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But what exactly is HDR? Some may be familiar with the term in relation to photography, but how does it pertain to TV screens? Allow us to explain as we take a closer look at the big TV tech of 2016.
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What is HDR?
In a nutshell, it’s the ability to display a wider and richer range of colours, much brighter whites, and much deeper, darker blacks. This gives the TV picture a more ‘dynamic’ look, which is where the name comes from.
HDR content preserves details in the darkest and brightest areas of a picture that are lost using current standards. It also allows for more natural, true-to-life colours that are closer to how we see them in real life.
Contrast and colour are therefore the two main things to keep in mind when thinking about HDR. We’ll take a closer look at both, but first it would pay to go over the newly announced Ultra HD Premium label.
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How do I know if a TV is HDR compatible?
One of the big TV announcements to come out of CES 2016 was the Ultra HD Premium label. The standard was unveiled by the UHD Alliance, a consortium of TV manufacturers, technology firms, and film and TV studios, whose aim is to prevent abuse of the term ‘HDR’
Previously, HDR was rushed out to consumers before anyone had really agreed on a set of standards to define it. TV manufacturers and content providers therefore had very little in terms of clearly defined specs to work to when creating HDR screens and content.
With the UHD Premium label, we now know the precise specifications to which a TV must conform in order to be considered truly HDR compatible.
Our guide ‘What is Ultra HD Premium?’ provides an in-depth breakdown of the logo and what it means, but read on for a condensed explanation.
That said, not all TVs that say they are 'HDR' have the UHD Premium certification. In these cases, you will get some of the benefit of HDR content, but these TVs won't offer the best possible experience.
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What makes an HDR TV?
As noted earlier, there are two things that define an HDR TV. Their contrast performance and the number of colours they can display. Let’s start with the first.
Contrast is one of the most important factors in how good a TV picture looks and it’s a key part of what makes an HDR TV. It refers to the difference between light and dark. The greater the difference the greater the ‘contrast’.
There are two components to consider here. One is peak brightness, which rather unsurprisingly, refers to how bright a TV can go, measured in what’s known as nits. TVs must meet a specific target of nits in order to be given the HDR label.
The other measurement is black level. Similar to peak brightness, black level refers to how dark a TV image can appear and is also measured in nits. So, for example, a TV could have a peak brightness of 400 nits and a black level of 0.4 nits.
The difference between the peak brightness and black level is known as the contrast ratio. HDR TVs have to meet specific standards for peak brightness and black level which helps give them the dynamic appearance.
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This is the second of the most important aspects of HDR. When it comes to colour, a TV must be able to process what’s known as 10-bit or ‘deep’ colour. 10-bit colour equates to a signal that includes over a billion individual colours. In comparison, Blu-ray uses 8-bit colour, which amounts to around 16 million different colours. With 10-bit colour, HDR TVs will be able to produce a vastly expanded range of colour shades, reducing overtly obvious gradations between shades and making scenes look far more realistic.
However, as is always the case with these things, it isn’t quite as simple as this. In order to be considered HDR compatible, a TV doesn’t need to be able to display all the colours in a 10-bit signal. It just has to be able to process the signal and produce an image based on that information.
And it doesn’t stop there. If you’re still with us, there’s more colour stuff to go over. An HDR TV must be able to produce a certain amount of what’s known as ‘P3’ colour. P3 colour refers to the range of the colour spectrum which is included. The best way to think about this is imagine an overall colour spectrum, and within that a set of defined spaces. The P3 colour space is a larger than the what standard TVs use, Rec. 709, which means it covers more colours.
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Essentially, HDR means a TV can cover a wider space within the colour spectrum, and within that space, the various gradations of shades will be much smoother than on current TVs.
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What’s all this OLED vs LED talk and does it affect HDR?
The two big display technologies in the AV industry are OLED and LED LCD. For a full explanation of these two approaches check out our ‘OLED vs LED LCD’ feature. In short, LED TVs use LED lights to illuminate the pixels in a traditional LCD screen, while the pixels in OLED displays produce their own light.
So now we know what a TV has to be able to do in order to be called HDR compatible, does it matter whether that TV is LED or OLED? The short answer is no, and the long answer is kind of.
LED TVs are capable of producing high peak brightness and as such, offer the best way for manufacturers to create HDR compatible TVs. Many argue that OLED technology isn’t a great option for HDR due to its difficulties in producing a very bright image versus LCD/LED.
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However, at CES in January, LG debuted its G6 and E6 range of OLED TVs, the top-end models of which are UHD Premium certified – i.e. they have been classified as capable of producing an HDR image.
But how can OLED, with its brightness issues, qualify for HDR compatibility which demands much higher brightness levels than standard TVs? Well, the UHD Alliance has got around the problem by introducing two standards:
STANDARD 1: More than 1,000 nits peak brightness and less than 0.05nits black level.
STANDARD 2: More than 540 nits brightness and less than 0.0005 nits black level.
While standard one demands higher brightness and tolerates a higher black level, standard two tolerates a lower brightness and demands a lower black level. This means manufacturers looking to make LED HDR TVs, which most are, will abide by standard one, while OLED TVs will be able to gain the Ultra HD Premium label by conforming to standard two.
And that’s it. In the grand scheme of things, it won’t matter which type of TV you have as to whether it will be HDR compatible or not. But if you want to get technical, LED TVs will give you an HDR image with better peak brightness but less deep blacks, whiled OLED TVs will give you an HDR image with lower peak brightness but deeper blacks.
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So if I have an HDR TV, everything I watch will be in HDR?
If only it were that simple. Content has to be mastered for HDR in order to work with the standard. In other words, both the source, and the TV have to be HDR compatible. Luckily, with the advent of Ultra HD Blu-ray and advancements in online streaming from Netflix and Amazon, content creators will be able to deliver HDR content more easily.
How do I start watching HDR content?
You have two options: buy a new Ultra HD Blu-ray player, only two of which are currently available in the UK, or stream HDR video from the likes of Netflix and Amazon. Your TV must also comply with the HDMI 2.0a standard, though any TV with the Ultra HD Premium label will do so by default.
UHD discs, with their greatly improved storage capacity, can now contain extra information which tells HDR TVs how to interpret colours and brightness levels. This metadata is not provided with standard Blu-ray discs and as a result, the picture on the TV looks somewhat different in terms of colour and brightness to how the creators intended it.
With UHD Blu-ray, the metadata can be included, allowing the disc to effectively tell the TV exactly how to display each image. That doesn’t mean that all UHD Blu-rays will be HDR, but the creators now have the option of including the metadata to make the content HDR.
UHD Blu-rays are now officially available in both the US and UK. At the time of writing, you can pick up 12 UHD Blu-rays in the UK, including Mad Max, Life of Pi, and Kingsman, with much more set to come over the coming year. All of the titles currently available come boasting the HDR logo, meaning if you have an HDR-ready TV and UHD Blu-ray player, such as the newly released Panasonic DMP-UB900 or Samsung UBD-K8500, you'll be able to watch these films in HDR.
And when it comes to streaming, Netflix is making big strides. The company has previously stated that it believes adding HDR will only add around 2.5Mb/s to a consumer’s broadband requirements, versus the 12Mb/s or so of extra broadband speed you need to enjoy 4K over HD. That’s good news as it means that extra metadata can be relatively easily streamed along with the video.
Netflix announced recently that its original series Marco Polo is now streaming in HDR. As spokesperson Yann Lafargue confirmed to Engadget: "We are indeed live with HDR. It works with compatible TVs, both in HDR10 and Dolby Vision." (To get up to speed on Dolby Vision, see our 'Dolby Vision on TV and at the Cinema' guide).
"We have season 1 of Marco Polo for now, but much more content should be available shortly, so stay tuned."
Next up on the Netflix HDR agenda is the second season of Daredevil, which recently premiered on the streaming service. Just when the HDR version will arrive is yet to be confirmed but it seems Netflix is taking HDR seriously for 2016.
Rival streaming service, Amazon Prime Video, has already jumped on the HDR bandwagon, releasing season one of its original series Mozart in the Jungle in the format last year. And YouTube also used CES 2016 to announce it will be supporting the standard.
Netflix has also said it believes a significant number of films can be remastered for HDR. So as the format takes off, we’ll likely see more and more options to stream our favourite shows and films in HDR.
Interestingly, Sony is rumoured to be preparing for the release of the world's first HDR smartphone. According to Phone Radar, the rumoured Xperia X Premium will feature a 5.5-inch Whitemagic LCD display which will only have a 1080p resolution. However, it will be the first to support High Dynamic Range (HDR) playback with 1,000 nits of white brightness, and will be able to go up to a maximum brightness of 1,300 nits. That's roughly twice as bright as your average flagship phone display.
Whether HDR on a 5.5-inch screen will be worth the trouble remains to be seen. But it bodes well for the future of HDR if smartphones are picking up on the trend.
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So should I buy an HDR TV or not?
Now that there’s an official HDR standard, in the form of Ultra HD Premium, the danger of buying a rubbish TV claiming to be HDR compatible has been minimised. If you buy a Ultra HD Premium TV you’ll know you’re getting a TV capable of meeting the HDR standards set by the UHD Alliance.
It’s still worth doing some research on the product before you buy, just to ensure you’re getting the specs you need for a true HDR experience.
That said, now is a better time to invest in HDR than ever. Although 4K has been the big thing thus far, the combination of the relative ease with which HDR content can be produced (versus data-heavy 4K) and (because it’s less data intensive) distributed to consumers really seem to be exciting content producers in a way 4K struggled to do.
Put simply, content creators have more reasons to produce HDR content than 4K, so buying an HDR TV this year is a smart move.
Is there anything you'd like to know about HDR? Let us know in the comments section below