We saw a lot of cool previews and announcements at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, including a lot of stuff related to virtual reality and consumer drone tech, but there was one area that really stuck out: trends in home entertainment.
4K resolution is a big buzzword these days, and pretty soon we’ll be moving onto 8K. Ultra HD Blu-rays are another area of interest, as are OLED screens — but the biggest advancement to be aware of is the new High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature that’s coming to TV sets later this year.
In fact, with every major TV manufacturer soon debuting the technology in their latest models, it would make sense for you to learn about it even if you don’t plan on upgrading your own TV anytime soon. Here’s everything you need to know going forward.
What Is High Dynamic Range?
Take a look at any still image. The “dynamic range” is the difference between the absolute darkest area of the image versus the absolute brightest area of the image. A “high” dynamic range means the darks are dark and the brights are bright.
If this sounds like it has something to do with contrast, then you’d be right — but it’s also related to color display as well. In order for a TV to be considered HDR-compatible, it must meet certain requirements for both contrast and color range.
Regarding contrast, there are two important specs: peak brightness, which is how much light the TV can produce at maximum, and black level, which is how much light is produced at minimum.
The difference between peak brightness and black level gives you the TV’s contrast ratio, and the greater the contrast ratio, the more “dynamic” the images will appear on the TV. This ratio is actually more important than the absolute brightness or darkness.
Which is why there are two contrast standards for HDR. The first standard requires a peak brightness over 1,000 nits and a black level under 0.05 nits. The second standard requires a peak brightness over 540 nits and a black level under 0.0005 nits.
Regarding color range, HDR-compatible TVs must support a new standard that allows for a greater variety of colors to be shown on screen.
Up until recently, most media devices — such as HDTVs and Blu-ray discs — have all adhered to a 25-year-old standard for an 8-bit color space, which can produce 16 million colors. HDR TVs must adhere to the 10-bit “deep color” standard, which can produce over 1 billion colors. (12-bit and 16-bit standards exist as well.)
Unfortunately, due to the additional information that must be included in a 10-bit signal, backwards compatibility likely won’t be possible.
What HDR TVs Mean for You
Basically, HDR TVs can produce darker darks, brighter brights, and a vastly wider range of colors from dark to bright. But what does this mean for you? Is it actually that much better than current TVs? Should you care about it or can you pass it off as a gimmick?
The real benefit of HDR is that it produces truer-to-life images on your screen. Display technologies are still trying to catch up to the human eye in terms of how much it can really see, and HDR is one step closer to that (though still woefully short).
To be clear, simply buying an HDR TV won’t magically allow you to watch every TV show and movie in wonderful HDR quality. The content itself needs to be mastered with HDR in mind, and then your media interfaces need to support HDR content.
That sounds confusing, I know, so here’s an example. Regular Blu-ray discs could actually support a film with 10-bit color, but your Blu-ray player wouldn’t be able to process it. Similarly, watching a Netflix show on an HDR TV won’t be any different unless that particular show has an HDR option.
This is the same kind of problem that has plagued the first generation of 4K TVs. Just because you buy a 4K TV doesn’t mean that everything you watch will be in 4K resolution. The content itself needs to be available in 4K for you to take advantage of it. After all, upscaling only works to an extent.
That being said, the overall image quality that you get from an HDR-compatible TV will probably be better than whatever TV you currently have thanks to the improved contrast ratios, peak brightness levels, and black levels. You just won’t be blown away until the content itself becomes ready for HDR as well.
Note: If you plan on streaming HDR content, you’ll need more bandwidth to handle all of the extra digital information that’s included in an HDR signal. Just bear that in mind if you have data caps.
There’s one more thing you need to know: it doesn’t matter if the TV is LED or OLED. Sure, OLED screens can’t reach the same brightness levels as LED ones, but because there are two contrast standards, HDR is still possible — and worthwhile — on an OLED. If you want brighter, go LED. If you want darker, go OLED.
Obviously if you don’t really care about watching shows and movies in top-notch quality, then HDR TV probably won’t mean anything to you. If you’re the kind of person who still watches in 720p or below, then you probably won’t care enough about the benefits to invest in HDR TV.
Are You Excited for HDR TVs?
So far, it seems that HDR content will only be available in two forms: Ultra HD Blu-ray or streamed from an online service. If you aren’t keen about the Blu-ray option, then now might be the best time for you to start cutting the cord if you haven’t already.
Our recommendation is that you wait a bit — maybe a few months — before diving in and buying an HDR-compatible TV for yourself, but don’t wait too long. This is real and it’s definitely going to happen. It’s just a matter of how long it takes for HDR content to come out.
The good news is that remastering old content for HDR isn’t too difficult. It’s not trivial, of course, but the relative ease should mean that HDR content will come sooner rather than later.
How excited are you for HDR TVs? Will you be an early adopter of it or will you wait and see how it plays out? Let us know what you think in the comments!
Image Credit: TV with Bicyclist by Sergey Kohl via Shutterstock