What the Hell Is HDR — and Is It Worth Buying a New TV For?

Hollywood tech enthusiasts call HDR the true big leap of the 4K era, but is it really worth the hype?

Last Updated: January 12, 2018 @ 8:59 PM

If in the past couple years you’ve gone shopping for TVs, or casually browsed Amazon TV listings, or read any tech site, you’ve almost definitely been exposed to the acronym “HDR.” Odds are also good that you don’t know what it is because it’s a very tough concept to explain. That, somehow, has not stopped the tech sector from calling it the next big leap in entertainment, comparing it to going from standard definition to HD — even as they struggle to communicate what HDR actually is.

HDR stands for “high dynamic range” and that effectively refers to two things: light and color. HDR televisions are able to deliver dark black levels and brighter white levels than TVs in the past, and that has an effect on all the colors of the spectrum in between. Basically, you get a deeper color range. The question is: is it a big enough deal that most people would even notice? The answer is a very complicated “yes and no.”

But before we get to that, let’s talk about the current situation with HDR for a second. First, HDR is an increasingly ubiquitous feature in 4K televisions — most new 4K TVs in 2018 will also support HDR.

HDR is like 3D in that it’s a feature based in the content — just as you couldn’t watch everything you watch in a 3D-capable TV in 3D, you can’t watch everything you watch on an HDR-capable TV in HDR. There’s plenty of HDR content, though. Most Netflix original programming is in 4K and HDR now (including all the Marvel shows, like “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones”), as is many of Amazon Prime’s series. Most new movies are released on 4K blu-ray with HDR now as well, and iTunes has a really robust selection of HDR movies that you can watch if you have an Apple TV 4K streaming box — any movie you own in iTunes in HD they’ll automatically give you an upgrade for if they have a 4K/HDR version.

It’s important to also note that the tech that makes HDR possible in TVs will also make your regular content look better as a matter of course. That tech is a fundamental step forward for TVs just in general — when I first got my HDR TV, before I had any content to watch on it, I marveled at how much better it looked than my previous very-nice-by-2011-standards TV.

Right now there’s a sort of format war going on, between Dolby Vision, which is a proprietary format that studios have to license, and HDR10, which is open source and can be used by anyone for free. The consensus is that Dolby Vision is better, but a new version of HDR10, called HDR10+ is on the way and is expected to arrive this year.

In 2018, it’s a safe bet that most new TVs will support both formats, but HDR10+ is somewhat of a wildcard. We expect that TV sets and 4K blu-ray players that support HDR10 will be able to be updated to support HDR10+ as well, but we don’t know if content that plays in HDR10 already (for example: most 4K blu-ray discs) will see an upgrade after the fact.

In short, it’s a mess right now with competing formats, and we have no idea how it will play out. Will they end up living side by side or will one of them eventually win out? Will updates to these formats render out TVs obsolete every couple years? Right now, the TV business is in flux because of this HDR stuff.

I’ll share two personal anecdotes that I think will effectively demonstrate the situation with HDR, one about me and one about my mom.

I’m the sort of person who cares about tech, and so when HDR and 4K TVs really started to take off back in 2015 I was very curious. And in 2016 I bought a 4K TV with HDR — A Vizio P series. I picked that model because at the time it was one of the few sets that supported both of the dueling HDR standards , and also it was the best quality TV in my price range. I was excited to dive into this new world and see what the deal is with the HDR stuff everybody was talking about — though I didn’t really understand it because everyone was and is so bad at articulating what it is in a way that makes sense conceptually.

Little did I know that it would be a while before I would figure it out. It was a months-long quest that involved buying a PlayStation 4 Pro to play HDR video games, a blu-ray player that could play 4K HDR discs and a lot of time spent watching HDR content through streaming services. Eventually I was able to come up with a metaphor that I believe accurately describes HDR.

To me, regular HD is akin to walking into a room in which the lights are turned up to about three-quarters of their maximum brightness. You can see everything plenty well and you probably don’t realize the lights aren’t turned up all the way. HDR, then, is that same room with the lights turned up all the way — now you can see everything a bit more clearly and the color of objects in the room are now fuller.

If that doesn’t sound like a hugely meaningful change, that’s because it really isn’t. It takes someone like me, who’s intentionally looking for big improvements and who knows what to look for for the difference to matter. Which brings me to my other anecdote.

My mom recently bought a new 4K HDR TV. She upgraded her Netflix so it would play content in 4K and HDR. And she watched HDR content for months without knowing it before I visited over the holidays and pointed that what she was watching was playing with HDR. My mom chalked up the visual improvement to simply having a newer, better TV than she had before — she’d gotten an HDR TV without realizing it, the term never having registered with her until I tried to explain it. To her it just looked a bit better but not so much better that it warranted talking about.

My mom being far more representative of normal people than I am, I’d expect her experience to be how most people experience HDR. Most folks will get a new TV and know it looks better than their old TV did but not realize that the improvement is due to something more than just a regular, iterative improvement in tech.

Part of this is due to the content itself, of course — not everything that’s been given the HDR treatment will really blow your mind with how colorful it is. I own about a hundred movies in 4K/HDR and I’d say most of them don’t feel like some kind of major leap from regular HD. And even I, speaking as someone who cares about these things, don’t really feel like something is missing when I watch stuff in the old standard dynamic range.

Much of what’s at issue right now is just the natural growing pains of a new format, one that is a lot more complicated to pull off than simply an increase in resolution like we had with the leap from VHS to DVD and then from DVD to blu-ray. It’s going to take some time for that standards for HDR content, and the standards for HDR displays, to normalize to a point where it feels similarly functional across the board. Sure, there will always be TVs that are better than others — but here in the early days of HDR it feels more like everyone isn’t quite sure what they’re doing just yet.

2018 may go a long way toward fixing that, but it’s too soon to know just yet. For now, though, I’d recommend against upgrading to a new TV specifically for HDR. But if it’s time for a new set anyway, the best way to future-proof your purchase is to grab a TV that supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Here’s a handy guide courtesy of RTINGS.com.


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