Cord Cutters News Guide to HDR (High Dynamic Range)

We recently took a look at 4K video, what the term means and what you need to enjoy that content. And in this guide, we’re focusing on another feature that’s been creeping its way into mainstream TV and movie watching. It’s time to talk about HDR, or high-dynamic range. We’re going to go over what the term means, how it works, and what you need to enjoy HDR content. So if you’ve ever been curious about the term, hopefully this guide helps. This is the Cord Cutters News Guide to HDR.

What is HDR?

So, yes, as we’ve established, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, but what does that actually mean? Well, if 4K is all about the quantity of pixels being displayed, HDR deals with the actual quality of those pixels, specifically the ranges of colors and brightness levels those pixels are able to produce.

But first, let’s start with what it’s not, because you might have heard of HDR in terms of photography. After all, most modern smartphones tout some sort of smart HDR to squeeze a surprising level of detail and image quality from tiny camera sensors. In general, that type of HDR relies on taking several variations of the same photo at different exposure levels and combining the results into one final picture. The goal is to improve image quality by preserving details throughout the range, from the extremely dark to the extremely bright portions of the image.

When we’re talking about HDR for video, however, we’re less talking about how we’re capturing HDR content and more focused on displaying that HDR content. And when it comes to displaying HDR content, that means having a screen that’s able to accentuate the bright and dark regions of a scene beyond what a standard screen is able to do.

In general, HDR-capable displays can produce brighter and darker images than a non-HDR screen, with more steps in between those extremes. You can think of this as a higher dynamic range, or contrast ratio. And it allows for things like bright elements to really pop on screen compared to their surroundings.

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HDR displays attempt to better simulate the brightness and darkness levels found in the real world.

For example, HDR footage of a car driving at night might make it seem like those headlights are truly bright and shining through the darkness more than they would on a typical screen. It’s not just that it’s a lighter color shade than the darker environment; it’s also noticeably brighter and you can sense that difference more on an HDR screen. One way to think of it is that standard dynamic range, or SDR, is like looking at a photograph of a car with its headlights on. And HDR is like actually standing in front of a car with its headlights on. You can “feel” that brightness more in real life than you can via a photo. That’s not to say HDR TVs can quite reach the brightness levels of, say, bright headlights or the sun, but they get closer than SDR displays and the effect can be pretty impressive on a high-quality display. You can also see this effect with, say, neon signs or laser blasts in a dark action scene.

Case in point: Pacific Rim on 4K Blu-ray. Compared to the already good standard Blu-ray, the 4K version with HDR really highlights all the neon lights and explosions during the nighttime and underwater fights. It’s really an impressive showcase for both 4K content and HDR.

To sum it up, HDR displays have a much broader dynamic range, meaning a greater difference between the darkest they can get and the brightest they can get when compared to older, non-HDR screens.

With the right HDR content, this could mean much more details in both the dark and bright sections of an image, potentially showcasing subtleties you never noticed before.

Is it Just About Brightness and Darkness?

Nope! When we talk about HDR displays, we’re also talking about improvements in color as well. You might hear this referred to as Wide Color Gamut, but the idea here is to offer both deeper colors and more shades of those colors, leading to, again, improved image quality.

So we’re talking about redder reds, greener greens, and so on. If you’ve ever seen an HDR demo at, say, Best Buy, you’ll often see high-resolution close-ups of paints, or fabrics, or fruit. The idea here is to show off how much richer the color can be on HDR-capable displays.

This is one of those things you really have to see in person to truly appreciate, but TV manufacturers will often simulate the difference by putting up a side-by-side comparison between a faded, washed-out SDR display and much more saturated HDR display.

Non-HDR displays can’t really showcase the color improvements HDR offers, so many companies offer up simulated comparisons between SDR and HDR screens.

But it’s not just that red can now be really, really red. Wide Color Gamut also greatly expands the amount of shades you can use. In general, standard displays can produce 16.7 million different colors, which might sound like a lot, but HDR displays can offer up billions of colors. That can lead to much more natural and lifelike imagery in HDR footage.

So HDR can offer up improved contrast and colors compared to standard displays, but there are a few standards you should know about before running out and buying HDR-capable gear.

What’s With all the HDR Standards?

Yes, there are a number of competing standards out there right now in the HDR landscape and while that might seem daunting and confusing, we’ll try to break it all down and point you in the right direction.

First off, there’s HDR10, which is sort of the baseline as far as HDR standards go. And if you see a TV or streaming device that boasts HDR support, odds are it supports the HDR10 standard.

But there are other standards out there competing for dominance, and perhaps one of the biggest so far is called Dolby Vision. It supports some 68 billion colors, which is more than consumer displays can currently display, so it could be considered more future-proof than HDR10. But you’ll need your content, streaming hardware and TVs to all support the standard. As far as alternatives to “standard” HDR10, Dolby Vision is probably the most successful so far, and it’s garnered support from services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

As far as TV support, brands like LG, Philips, and Vizio all offer models with Dolby Vision on board (as well as HDR10, of course). One notable absence from the Dolby Vision party right now is Samsung, and that’s because it’s backing another competing standard, known as HDR10+

As the name suggests, HDR10+ aims to improve upon the baseline HDR10 standard. It hasn’t quite reached the overall industry acceptance of Dolby Vision, but services like Amazon Prime currently support the standard.

Beyond those, we also have options like HLG, Hybrid Log Gamma, developed by the BBC and Japan’s NHK. HLG is more broadcast-friendly and it’s part of the ATSC 3.0 standard we’ve talked about in the past, so it could be worth keeping an eye on, especially if you’re an over-the-air TV user and you’re hoping to enjoy HDR content in the future. Advanced HDR is another broadcast-friendly standard that could gain acceptance as the ATSC 3.0 rollout continues.

And yes, that’s a lot of standards to keep track of in this developing space, but for the most part, if you have an HDR-capable display, you’ll have HDR10 support. It’s more or less the baseline and offers up the improved picture quality we’ve already talked about.

As far as nice-to-have upgrades beyond HDR10, Dolby Vision has been gaining acceptance on 4K Blu-rays, streaming devices, services, and TVs. So having those two standards in mind is a good place to start when you’re out shopping for equipment.

That said, if you’re eyeing a nice HDR-capable Samsung TV, you won’t get Dolby Vision, but you’ll still likely get HDR10+ support, and that’s, again, on top of the standard HDR10, of course.

Things are a bit murkier when it comes to broadcast HDR, and we’ll likely revisit this topic in the future as ATSC 3.0 support expands and we start to see more content filling our airwaves. In other words, stay tuned!

What Do I Need to Watch HDR Content?

If you want to see what all the fuss is about, you’ll need HDR content from either a streaming service or via physical media like 4K Blu-rays. You’ll also need HDR support in your streaming device and TV, although for smart TVs, those two might be the same device, of course.

Services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney Plus support HDR content and standards to varying degrees. You’ll often see specific HDR logos next to supported titles, letting you know if, say, a given Netflix show can be displayed in Dolby Vision.

In general, if a device touts HDR, you’ll likely find which standards it supports in its tech specs or specifications.

On the hardware side of things, Roku’s 4K streaming players support HDR10, but not Dolby Vision. A handful of TCL Roku TVs do support Dolby Vision, but a wider range of Roku TVs from several manufacturers stick to HDR 10 support.

The Apple TV 4K supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision standards, as do Android TV platforms like TiVo’s Stream 4K and the nVidia Shield TV line.

Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K and Fire TV Cube both support HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and HLG.

Regardless of which services, devices, and TVs you opt for, if it says HDR support, generally speaking, you’ll at least have HDR10 available, and that standard likely isn’t going away anytime soon.

Wrapping Up

So that’s HDR in a nutshell. When it’s done right, it can offer notable improvements to picture quality. It used to be a higher-end feature, but we’re seeing it in more affordable devices and TVs these days.

If you’ve already tried out HDR content, feel free to comment down below about what you thought. Your mileage may vary, of course, and not everyone may feel it’s a must-have feature, but with more and more TVs offering HDR support, it’s easier than ever to try it out for yourself.