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H.D.R. Is Coming to a TV Near You. Here’s Why You Should Care.

If you go shopping for a TV today, virtually everything in the store will be a 4K TV. Only some, however, have an increasingly popular feature called High Dynamic Range, or H.D.R. This little acronym can make your favorite shows look sharper, more vibrant and it might just be worth spending a little extra on your next TV.

H.D.R. actually refers to a collection of traits that lead to a better overall image. On a TV that supports H.D.R., bright parts of an image will appear brighter than before, while dark parts of an image will be darker than on older TVs. This gives TV shows and movies better contrast and can make some scenes feel more real. H.D.R. also expands the range of colors your TV can display beyond what you’re used to seeing on previous generations of TVs.

All this adds up to a meaningful upgrade, if your TV and the TV shows and movies you watch support it.

How H.D.R. works

Your TV can only display a small fraction of the colors your eyes can see. Each pixel on your screen contains a tiny red, green and blue light. These lights can shine up to 256 different shades of each color. Combined, every pixel can display up to about 16 million colors. That’s more than enough to paint a picture, but H.D.R. screens can do a lot better.

On a basic H.D.R. TV, each light can shine up to 1,024 shades of red, green or blue. This means every pixel can display over a billion individual colors. This expands what’s known as the “color gamut,” or the range of possible colors your TV can reproduce. You might also hear this part of H.D.R. referred to as “wide color gamut” or “wide color space” in stores. Not only does it mean that it can produce more vivid versions of individual colors, but it can display finer detail on shades in between. This means shots of things like forests or sand, which can often have subtle shades of similar colors, appear much more vibrant and detailed than they would have on previous TVs.

In addition to expanding the color gamut, H.D.R. TVs can also display brighter brights and darker darks. What your brain normally interprets as “black” on a TV screen is more accurately some shade of gray. Depending on the kind of TV you have, this could be a very light gray, which means bright colors don’t stand out as much. By lowering the black level, and letting your TV emit more light, H.D.R. makes it possible to display much richer pictures.

H.D.R. doesn’t set a specific standard for how dark or bright the TV itself must be capable of. Instead, it defines what range a TV has to meet in order to be described as “H.D.R.” The UHD Alliance uses a rainbow-twist Ultra HD Premium label, for example, as a way to signal that a given TV is capable of a specific peak brightness and black level that’s far above what regular HD sets are capable of. This means that a TV with that label has the necessary specs required to make H.D.R. content look good. Some TVs may have an even wider range of levels and thus look better, but this sets a baseline.

The two competing H.D.R. standards: HDR10 vs. Dolby Vision

Further complicating your shopping trip is the fact that there are two very different versions of H.D.R. Both provide the benefits described above, but one is better — and more costly — than the other. The first, HDR10, is an open standard that is free for manufacturers to include in their sets, and predictably, is in the majority of TVs that support H.D.R. Dolby Vision, on the other hand, provides even more colors and better bright/dark levels, but Dolby charges manufacturers a fee to use it. This means that Dolby Vision-compatible TVs are likely more expensive than other H.D.R. TVs.

There’s nothing stopping manufacturers from including both HDR10 and Dolby Vision in a single set (aside from cost), so some may even support both. HDR10 supports 10-bit color, which gets you that huge billion-color gamut discussed earlier. It also sets a baseline brightness level that’s higher than you’ll usually see on a non-H.D.R. set.

Dolby Vision, on the other hand, supports 12-bit color for a whopping 68 billion possible colors. The Dolby spec also allows for televisions that support up to ten times the brightness levels of even baseline HDR10 sets, and can even adjust brightness levels on the fly during a movie or show. However, in practice most TVs don’t reach that upper limit. In other words, it will be a long time before you can buy a TV that pushes the limit of what Dolby Vision can do.

Dolby Vision offers some advantages over HDR10, but here’s the kicker: The TV shows and movies you watch have to specifically support Dolby Vision, not just generic H.D.R. However, since comparatively few TVs can support this — and Dolby Vision-compatible TVs tend to be more expensive — many productions optimize for the basic HDR10 standard instead. That means, for now at least, you’re spending more money on a better TV even though there’s less content that makes use of it.

You’ll need H.D.R. content, but there’s more arriving every day

Your fancy new H.D.R. TV won’t mean much if the TV shows and movies you watch still look like the old stuff you’re used to watching. In 2019, there’s more H.D.R. content available than ever.

Netflix has a wide collection of shows that stream in H.D.R., including “Stranger Things” and “Glow.” And Amazon has its own shows and movies, like “The Grand Tour,” all streaming in 4K H.D.R. You can also rent or buy supported movies from iTunes or Vudu and stream them to your TV. 4K H.D.R. content will require a fairly high-speed internet connection (25 Mbps or higher according to Netflix’s help documents), although streaming content can compress the quality compared to playing it from a disc. While Netflix, Amazon and Vudu charge more for 4K content, that upgrade includes H.D.R. Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t charge extra for a 4K upgrade on its movie rentals at all.

When it comes to broadcast TV, there are a few options available, however, your TV will need to support a slightly different H.D.R. standard called H.L.G. It’s common for TVs that support HDR10 to also support H.L.G., but due in part to this extra minor hurdle — and broadcast TV’s notorious tendency to upgrade slowly — there’s not as much H.D.R. content coming in over the air as you can find from streaming sites.

4K Blu-ray players offer the best option, as these don’t need to stream over the internet. If you want to watch H.D.R. content, you’ll need a compatible Blu-ray player, as well as 4K H.D.R. versions of any movies you buy. 4K discs can be a bit more expensive than a standard HD Blu-ray, and not all of them will fully support Dolby Vision, but most of them support some form of H.D.R. and when you upgrade to 4K, H.D.R. almost always comes with it.

Finally, there are H.D.R.-compatible games. If you have a PS4 Pro or an Xbox One X (the latter of which is also a 4K H.D.R.-compatible Blu-ray player), then some games can make use of H.D.R. on your TV. The list of compatible games for each console grows every year and you can check out lists like this one for the PS4 or this one for the Xbox One X.

H.D.R. is an optional upgrade to 4K TVs, but it’s probably worth it

Eventually, H.D.R. will probably be available on just about every TV you can buy. For now, you can buy a 4K TV without it, but you might not want to skip it. Upgrading to a 4K TV adds more pixels. Depending on how close you sit to your TV, you might not even be able to tell the difference.

H.D.R., however, changes what those pixels can display, and adds a much wider range of colors and better brightness levels than you had before. Upgrading to 4K can be a costly endeavor, requiring a new TV, Blu-ray player or game console, but H.D.R. is an even better stealth upgrade that comes along for the ride. Outside of the TV itself, H.D.R. doesn’t cost anything extra once you’re in the 4K world.

If you want to have the option for the best possible version of a show or movie, then a Dolby Vision TV is your best, most expensive bet. Fortunately, most Dolby Vision TVs also support HDR10 so you won’t miss out on anything. If you’re O.K. with just basic H.D.R. — which is still a much better picture than you’re used to — then you can stick with HDR10. Whichever direction you choose to go, though, if you’re planning to buy a new 4K TV and you care about picture quality at all, H.D.R. will do even more for you than 4K alone would. Even if you have to spend a little extra money for it.


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