You’ve probably noticed that everytime you go shopping for a new piece of audio-visual hardware goodness, there are even more acronyms and initialisms to deal with. These are added to the set of “must have” features that devices – everything from TVs to AV receivers to Blu-ray players and game consoles – boast on the box and in their advertising. Not all that long ago, the buzz was all about 3D. On the audio side of things, the emphasis was on a perplexing array of increasingly complex sound formats; and that’s culminated in the speaker-budget-destroying Dolby Atmos. The common goal with these technologies is to bring some of the advanced tech used in cinema screenings into your living room. That way, you can more faithfully recreate the experience without having to leave the house. So where does HDR come in?
HDR is the tech that’s been getting a lot of attention recently. You’ll see it mentioned constantly on products, especially 4K televisions. But what exactly is HDR? What does it do? Is it just another marketing term to make something simple sound more amazing than it is? After all, electronics companies are well known for making simple concepts sound like space-age science with terms like “Cinema Drive” and “X-tended Dynamic Range PRO” (we’re looking at you, Sony!).
In this case, the hype on the tin is backed up by the results on the screen. HDR is one of the most radical changes to the way your home TV displays video in a very long time. And unlike more fad-based gimmicks like 3D, it’s going to be around for a long time into the future.
If you’re a photography fan – especially one who uses a smartphone camera – you’ll probably have seen the term “HDR” before. It’s a concept that got a lot of traction in photography circles. That’s thanks to the almost surreal, eye-popping results you can achieve by using it on various images types. For example, shots that involve a landscape with a sky that would normally have its colour and detail turned into a white-grey mush if the foreground was exposed correctly.
Photographers realised that if you took several versions of the same photo, exposing each one to allow a little more light through the lens, you could combine all of them in a digital photo program such as Photoshop. This would allow you to capture that huge range of brightness levels in an image that anyone could see on a normal screen or even printed.
What that technique is doing is cheating a little, though. Yes, it’s capturing a wider range of objects in the image so you can see them clearly. However, the technique then smooshes it all down into a conventional image. It’s an illusion – a very appealing one, but an illusion nonetheless.
Enter HDR video
With modern digital cinema able to work with a vastly wider range of brightness – as well as a huge range of the brightness of individual colours – when it comes time to put that movie or TV series onto a Blu-ray disc or streaming service, compromises have to be made. The darkest blacks are never completely black, and the brightest white is never truly white. The range between the darkest and lightest possible things that can be displayed on screen is known as the dynamic range of the picture. HDR does exactly what it says on the tin. It extends that dynamic range to the point where black is completely dark and white is (in theory at least) a pure bright white.
This adds a whole new level of depth and realism to the picture that anyone will notice right away. And this isn’t like full HD and 4K where you need to be sitting close enough to a big screen to see the difference, either. With HDR content playing on an HDR screen, the difference is eye-popping.
To truly understand how impressive it is, though, you have to go to a store and see it for yourself. The big improvement delivered by HDR, hugely extended visual dynamic range, can’t be displayed on a conventional computer or phone screen.
What do I need for HDR?
First up, obviously, you’ll need a HDR-capable TV. These are always 4K displays – HDR is part of the HDMI 2.0 standard that 4K uses. So if you’re in the market for a new TV, it’s another reason to think about making the jump to 4K. But it’s not as simple as that. To properly display HDR, a TV needs to be able to deliver pure black as well as the brightest possible white. LCD/LED TVs are not the best for this because pure black is incredibly hard to achieve. The LCD TVs that can are the ones that use “local dimming” (the ability to change the brightness of individual sections of the backlight as needed). Local-dimming LCD TVs are expensive – so expensive, in fact, that you’d be far better off looking at HDR’s best friend – the OLED display.
OLED TVs don’t have a backlight at all. The pixels that make up the image generate their own light. When asked to display pure black, they simply turn off. This makes them a perfect candidate for HDR, with the available brightness at full white the real differentiator. The brighter an OLED TV can go, the better it’ll handle HDR. Brightness is measured in a unit called “nits”, with an old-school TV delivering around 400 nits at maximum brightness. A HDR-capable TV needs to deliver a minimum of 1000 nits; some displays aim much higher. If you see terms thrown around like “HDR 2000”, it’s this brightness value they’re referring to. The higher, the better.
HDR TVs also need to support 10-bit or 12-bit colour. But that’s actually nothing new, with many manufacturers supporting that on their TVs for well over a decade now (Sony, for example, called it “deep colour”).
The AV receiver
If you’re using an AV receiver to handle inputs, outputs and decoding of surround-sound audio, then you might be in for a shock. Unless your receiver supports HDMI 2.0 or higher, you’re not going to be able to send HDR video through it. If you’re thinking of a new receiver, make sure it supports HDMI 2.0 at a minimum on all inputs and outputs (most now do). But if you’re happy with your old one, you can always plug the player directly into your TV, and get audio to your current receiver via the TV’s output or the HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC).
You’ll only find HDR support on 4K disc players. Not surprising, since it’s part of the 4K standard. So if you’re buying a 4K UHD player you’ll be set to go; but they’re not cheap. On the other hand, if you have either a Playstation 4 (regular or Pro) or an Xbox One S game console, both of those support HDR. The PS4 can’t play UHD discs, but it can do HDR from streaming services like Netflix (many of their own shows are in HDR) as well as an increasing range of the latest games (and Horizon Zero Dawn in HDR is jaw-droppingly gorgeous to behold!. The Xbox One S (and upcoming Xbox One X) does HDR on streaming and games, and comes with a UHD disc drive, making it an absolute bargain as an HDR video source (it can regularly be found for under $300).
Is it worth it?
If you love your big-screen entertainment and spend a lot of time watching movies, TV or playing games, HDR is a technology that’ll delight you from the moment you set eyes on it. But it’s not cheap, at least not when it’s done right. If you were planning on upgrading your TV, you should consider an HDR-capable model as your next purchase – even if you don’t have any HDR content to play back yet. This one’s no gimmick or fad. HDR is here to stay. And the best part is, you don’t need to wear big plastic glasses to enjoy it!