What is HDR TV and Should I Start Saving For It?

By Gerald Lynch on at

Berlin's annual IFA tech extravaganza kicks off this week, and of all the major technology trade shows, it's the one to keep an eye on if you're looking at investing in a new telly to plonk in your living room.

Though 4K is only just out of nappies, it's already old news to the big TV manufacturers. While ultra high resolution televisions aren't going anywhere, all the premium sets this year will be packing HDR technology. So, what is it? Should you be taking a sledgehammer to your flatscreen in anticipation?

What is HDR TV, and What Does HDR Stand For?

HDR stands for "High Dynamic Range". If you're the owner of a relatively high-end smartphone, it'll probably sound familiar to you, as it's a setting often offered up in camera apps. In photography, HDR settings allow for one composite photo to be made from many pictures captured at different exposure settings, resulting in an image that has a wider range of contrast, more vibrant colours and richer shadow detail. It gives an image much closer to how the way your eyes adapt to differing light sources.

HDR video, as seen in TVs, works much the same except, of course, in motion. As such, it's able to deliver far more impressive ranges of luminance, the picture information afforded by light sources. This goes beyond the deep blacks that'd make Hawking's black holes blush, or arctic whites, but into the grayscale and colour steps across the spectrum. Anyone that's ever struggled with their TV settings to find a balance picking out in a scene between extreme blacks and and lighter fine details will appreciate what HDR can offer. Colourful scenes on the other hand look equally dynamic, as a more expansive range of colours can sit next to each other on screen. It's a screen technology that can be appreciated even on smaller displays too, while super high resolution images only really come into their own in the largest of screens.

So, Who is Making HDR Televisions?

Pretty much every major manufacturer has thrown their hats into the HDR ring, but you'll be most interested in Samsung and LG. Samsung's JS9 and JS8 series are the first to shops, while LG's IFA showstopper is expected to be a curved 4K OLED TV for HDR capabilities. 4K, OLED and HDR in one set? That's the holy trinity of TV tech (even if OLED panels don't always favour the brightness levels that make HDR content really pop). Dolby too is dabbling, with its Dolby Vision technology delivering eye-searingly bright HDR visuals.

Expensive Then?

Let's not go there. With the premium sets, it's not quite as bad as a pound a pixel, but this is high end stuff, so expect to have to lay down a good few grand.

But What Can I Watch In HDR? Is This Another 4K Waiting Game?

It's not actually all that bad, at least in comparison to 4K's early days. Netflix is diving in head-first into HDR content – most of the streaming service's original content will be filmed in a HDR-ready format going forward, with its Marco Polo series already good to go. A HDR stream only comes at a 2.5Mb/s premium according to Netflix – 4K streams are as much as five times as demanding, and Netflix has suggested that, when scaling the next-gen streams, it'll favour HDR to 4K, dropping resolution to 1080p as it believes HDR has the more pronounced visual impact.

Remastered editions of existing blockbusters should also be easy enough to deliver according to Hollywood's industry bods, and while local broadcasters are only now just dabbling in HDR, the BBC got some early experience in by filming the 2014/2015 New Year's Eve celebrations in London using HDR.

The problem is, however, that there have yet to be set any specific HDR standards. While the definition above broadly outlines what HDR is capable of, differing manufacturers currently have different ways of measuring HDR performance.

A ray of light may come from the Ultra HD Alliance, a recently-formed industry body that aims to define the parameters for 4K Blu-ray. It's expected that within these guidelines will be parameters nailing what exactly constitutes a HDR source, and thus what a TV needs to be capable of in order to deliver it. For the time being, that means it's a bit of a Wild West situation, with TV manufacturers able to slap a HDR spec on the back of the box without a standard to legitimise it. As such, it may be worth holding out a little longer on buying a HDR television, but the connected nature of most modern sets means that, hardware requirements allowing, any eventual HDR standard can retroactively be applied via a firmware update.