HDR is the new “most important” television technology, and if your TV doesn’t have it, you’re working with stone-age tech. Just remember: HDR is not an upgrade to 4K, as most recent 4K TVs support HDR — which is entirely unrelated to HD, by the way. Of course, 4K is sort of related to UHD, which is like HD but with more ultra. Anyway, HDR-equipped 4K TVs are undoubtedly better than 1080p displays… which are much, much better than 720p displays. A, B, C. 1, 2, 3. Etc.
If that felt like a lot of information, don’t worry: Trying to keep up with the litany of new tech acronyms that pop up seemingly every year can be dizzying for all but the most diehard of gadget enthusiasts. For most television and film viewers, we just want a screen that can display an impressive image; the kind of screen that displays appropriately inky dark blacks and bright, glossy whites without washing out the overall image. Simple enough.
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HDR (high-dynamic range) is the latest thing in television marketing, and it’s more than just advertising hype. But first: Will shows and films look noticeably superior on an HDR-enabled TV? The short answer is yes. The long answer is, well, longer, but surprisingly more straightforward than the nebulous term might suggest.
A traditional television screen is comprised of numerous pixels that can display up to 256 shades of red, green, or blue. Combined, these SDR (standard dynamic range) televisions can display around 16 million colors. On the other hand, each light on an HDR television can display up to 1,024 shades of those colors, resulting in over a billion potential colors. This allows HDR televisions to display significantly greater variety of colors and shades, which can make softer imagery, such as sand and water, appear much more vibrant and lifelike.
HDR is becoming an increasingly important selling point for streaming services. Disney’s upcoming Disney+ streaming service is expected to disrupt the market for several reasons, including the fact that it will offer 4K streaming, including standard HDR and Dolby Vision HDR as part of its $6.99 monthly subscription fee. That reads like a direct attack on Netflix, which requires subscribers to shell out $15.99 per month for the same privilege. Similarly, all of Apple’s original series on the upcoming Apple TV+ will be available for streaming in 4K HDR and Dolby Vision.
Speaking of Dolby Vision, there are two kinds of HDR, and the more expensive version offers even more colors. Although HDR10 is the standard and offers the aforementioned 1 billion colors, Dolby Vision can offer as many as 68 billion colors. It’s essentially another visual upgrade, but Dolby Vision-compatible televisions are more expensive than ones that just work with HDR10.
One billion or 68 billion — either are much more impressive-sounding numbers than 16 million, but in practice, it’s difficult to visualize the jump in visual quality an HDR television offers without seeing a direct comparison to an older-generation screen. Instead of trekking out to a brick and mortar retailer and doing a side-by-side comparison, consider the difference between watching a video in 720p resolution to one in 1080p. Televisions that boasted 720p resolutions were once considered cutting edge, but videos in that resolution look like blurry messes when compared to content broadcast or streamed with a 1080p resolution.
All the acronyms and technobabble aside, HDR televisions are simply the next graphical upgrade to inch consumers closer to having a cinema-quality viewing experience in their living room. Thankfully, the only real hurdle is price, but even that isn’t much of an obstacle for HDR these days. HDR-enabled televisions are becoming the industry standard, and the prices are beginning to reflect that. Although a high-end Dolby Vision-compatible television could set a consumer back several thousand dollars, entry-level HDR televisions are available for just several hundred dollars. Of course, streaming HDR content will require a suitably fast internet connection.
Mainstream interest in HDR has grown recently due to the lower financial barrier to entry, but workers in the film and television industries have had eyes on the technology for years. IndieWire’s Bill Desowitz reported on the technology in 2016 and noted that a high percentage of industry professionals were eager to see standards develop around HDR. That said, simply adopting a new kind of technology is easier said than done, as HDR requirements differ for recording projects such as films and television show, as opposed to streaming live events. Given the increasing public awareness of HDR, the widespread application of the technology seems closer than ever before.
Although not all streaming services and content are HDR-enabled, the streaming format will become increasingly standardized as 1080p displays continue to get phased out of the market.