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HDR explained: what is HDR, why should I get an HDR TV and what does it cost?

It’s been a little while since we were all urged to cough up thousands to upgrade our TVs to a snazzy 4K model, so guess what? Now there’s a new telly technology called HDR that promises a lot, with the sole aim of emptying your wallet.

You may already have heard of HDR, possibly from photography circles or even your mobile phone’s camera app, where it has been producing awful, over-processed images for some time. But HDR for TVs is something very different. The basic idea is the same, but the execution promises to wow you with a lot more detail in every frame and an entirely new experience for watching TV and movies. Best of all, unlike 3D, there are no stupid glasses to wear, and the tech can be widely applied to a lot existing movies. Although HDR is not something that just happens without a bit of extra equipment.

So what is HDR, and is buying an HDR TV worth it?

What is HDR?

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and it’s a new feature coming to TV and movie production. In overly basic terms, dynamic range is the “amount” of light in a video signal.

To use photography as an example, HDR allows you to expose scenes so that you get detail in both the very bright and very dim areas. Imagine you have taken a photograph of a friend in shade, while behind them there is a bright blue sky. In this photo you can either see the detail in your friend’s face, or the deep blue and wispy white clouds in the sky – but not both. HDR is basically a way of combining both into one image.

The result of HDR hitting our TVs should be that you see a lot more detail on your screen. This is more than just a resolution increase; this is a huge change that will deliver a lot more detail and information to your eyeballs. With the improved colour and brightness levels delivered by HDR standards, it’ll feel like you’re actually inside the football stadium or whatever else you’re watching.

Sure it sounds like an overstatement, but HDR really will be one of the biggest improvements in TV tech for a long time. Some people say it’s better even than the move from SD to HD broadcasting. That might be an overstatement, but it’s fair to say that HDR is more impressive than the move from HD to 4K.

What do I need to watch HDR movies and TV shows?

Enjoying HDR is a bit like the process involved with moving up to HD, or 4K. You’ll need a TV that supports an HDR standard (there are, frustratingly, two of these standards – more on this later) as well as a special Blu-Ray player. There will, eventually, be TV services broadcast that can support the format too. You can also use streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, and this is by far the easiest way to get HDR video.

In the future we’ll see games consoles that support HDR, and your PC – when connected to a TV – will also be able to display content in HDR too. For now though, this is all about movies and some select TV shows.

Is HDR the same as 4K?

All HDR screens will be 4K, but not all 4K TVs are HDR capable. HDR requires that a TV is able to understand instructions that are bundled along with video signals. You could send HDR information with a 1080p signal, but standard HD screens lack the electronics required to understand that additional information.

How are HDR TV shows and movies made?

You’re probably used to the fact that, as a rule, film is much better than video for capturing moving images. Film has some cool properties that mean it’s able to capture quite a lot of dynamic range. This is usually wasted on cinemas and TVs because they lack the sophistication in projection and broadcast to pass on these benefits to the viewer.

Good news is, it’s therefore possible to go back to some quite old film stock and recover more information for future ‘HDR mastered’ releases. This may or may not be done by film companies, but it does also mean that special HDR versions can be produced from movies like Star Wars – which was shot on 35mm film – as well as Deadpool, which was shot digitally.

None of this just happens though, so don’t expect to be overwhelmed by loads of HDR content any time soon. Think of this a bit like the switch to HD – it took years to get any meaningful amount of it.

What are the different HDR systems?

We mentioned earlier that there’s a mini-battle going on over HDR standards. There are two competing technologies in HDR and, ultimately, only one will prevail. It’s not a total disaster like the war between Blu-ray and HD DVD, or VHS vs Betamax, but it’s still frustrating.

The first HDR system comes from the audio experts at Dolby. This is technically the better standard, but like all “named” products it comes with costs that a generic version won’t. However, Vision is 12-bit colour capable, which is better than the 10-bit colour of HDR 10. That means that TVs will need to licence the tech from Dolby, and they’ll need to make their panels capable of displaying 12-bit colour.

Dolby Vision can also be custom-tweaked to each display too, which means that you can really optimise for different technologies. That might be why LG has used it for OLED, which produces a different type of light than LCDs do. It seems likely that Dolby Vision will be found only on high-end products. At the moment, it’s only possible to get on LG’s OLED TVs.

HDR10, on the other hand is more accessible and is built around a “one size fits all” approach. This is the spec that most consumer TVs will follow, and that Blu-ray players and other third-party devices will stick to. While Dolby’s system is better, technically, HDR10 is still amazing and will change your opinion about home cinema.

Which HDR TV should I buy?

This is a really important question because, obviously, it’s not as easy as it seems.

Firstly, yes, look for something that says HDR on it. This is not the end of the story though, because you also need to understand which HDR format it supports, and which it will not.

Dolby Vision TVs will all support HDR at the best possible quality. It’s not clear if there will be HDR discs recorded in 12-bit colour with Dolby Vision, but the UHD Blu-ray spec doesn’t support this colour depth, so it’s quite unlikely.

There’s another labeling system that attempts a sort of standard for TVs. It’s called UHD Premium, and any TV that has this label will offer certain levels of quality, but there is a basic standard to which all must reach to use the name.

Some companies are banding with UHD Premium, but others, like Sony are weirdly avoiding it and using their own HDR labelling. This might be because Sony has some TVs which don’t meet the spec for UHD Premium, but wants to be able to sell them as HDR sets. That’s fine, but be aware you’ll have to work a little harder to understand what you’re getting when you buy a UHD TV.

Choosing a TV with HDR support

One of the big problems with HDR is that, while there were some TVs released last year that supported it, the bulk of HDR-ready screens will arrive in 2016. That in turn means paying a hefty mark-up on a screen because you will probably need to buy a new one.

One of the core requirements of HDR is that the TV needs to produce a lot of light. Edge-lit LED screens are less able to do this, and maintain an even light on screen. So if possible go for a “full LED” or OLED screen when you buy HDR. Unfortunately, these will also cost you a lot more money than an edge-lit TV.

Consider too that, while this technology is very exciting, it may be better to wait if possible. If you have a 4K TV already, as good as the upgrade will be, you might be better off hanging back a few years until there’s more stuff to watch. At the moment shows are limited to Netflix and Amazon with a smattering of Blu-ray movies.

Also bear in mind that you’ll need to get a new Blu-ray player too, which start at around £400. This won’t last, and in the next few years the prices of these will fall dramatically too.