Last summer I wrote an article on High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology, what it is and why it’s important.

A few months later at the 2015 CEDIA Expo in Dallas, I saw a fair number of displays being introduced with HDR capabilities. This actually surprised me a little given what is required for a television or projector to truly expand its dynamic range.

HDR – Where Are We Now

To see a greater difference between the darkest and lightest parts of an image, you need a display with high contrast. There are two ways to achieve this – deeper blacks or brighter whites. Of course both would be nice but we all know that’s just not realistic with current display technologies. LCD panels have gone about as black as they’re going to go so to increase contrast, they have to be brighter. Dolby Vision talks about levels of 1000 nits as a minimum for proper rendering of HDR content. To this date, there are exactly zero consumer televisions that can achieve this figure. So how are all these new products supporting HDR?

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The fact is that there are no true HDR displays. Support comes in the form of compatibility with a particular standard and sufficient bit depth. Lots of TVs already have 10-bit color, the minimum requirement for HDR. So all a manufacturer needs to do is add HDMI 2.0a and the appropriate firmware to support Dolby Vision and/or HDR10 and boom, they’ve got an HDR TV. Will the picture look better? That depends on your perspective. Actual contrast isn’t any higher but by careful manipulation of gamma, dynamic contrast features and perhaps the addition of zone dimming, it can be convincingly faked.

So rather than launch into an overly-technical discussion of the validity of different companies claims, I thought it would be helpful to provide a quick rundown of just who is doing what in their model lines and what someone shopping for an HDR display can expect to see.

Vizio

When I visited the Vizio booth at CEDIA last year, I was informed that all R- and P-series TVs would accept Dolby Vision-encoded content. This is made more significant by the fact that these panels have full-array backlights. The Ps offer 126 or 128 zones depending on screen size and the Reference displays have 384. The demos I saw looked stunning and if asked what TV one should buy for HDR right now, I would say a Vizio. While they don’t offer 1000 nits of brightness, they come closer to a true HDR display than any other.

Sony

Sony currently has five Ultra HD models in its XBR-series that are HDR-compatible. Ranging in price from $1500 to $8000, these XBR displays use an edge-array backlight unless you go for the top-of-the-line XBR75X940D 75-inch TV which has a full-array backlight though Sony won’t say how many zones there are. They also have a feature called X-tended Dynamic Range Pro which adds an HDR look to SDR-encoded FHD and UHD content. It’s mainly a gamma manipulation, not a true increase of sequential or intra-image contrast. Side-by-side demos look good though and it’s something many viewers might prefer.

LG OLED

Only LG offers OLED panels and they have the potential for greater true dynamic range than any LCD. While they aren’t super-bright, their black levels are truly a sight to behold. Even the best plasma TV can’t achieve the blacks of an OLED. With such high native contrast, OLED panels are a natural for HDR content. LG has added the necessary HDMI 2.0a inputs to their 65 and 77-inch G6P panels which are due to ship this spring. Also significant is their support for both Dolby Vision and HDR10 content. But you don’t necessarily have to buy an expensive OLED TV for this feature. LG’s Ultra HD LCD panels have the same capability and some of the high-end models boast a full-array backlight. But again, there isn’t sufficient brightness nor deep enough blacks to truly expand the TV’s dynamic range.

Samsung

Samsung is the only manufacturer using quantum-dot technology in its LCD TVs. Quantum dots are a special coating added to the backlight that helps enlarge the color gamut. The dots are microscopic chemical deposits that emit specific wavelengths of light when energized by white LEDs. How does this relate to HDR? Well it won’t increase dynamic range but it will get their S-UHD televisions closer to color gamuts like DCI-P3 and Rec.2020. That has little bearing on currently-available content which is still encoded in Rec.709. Additionally, there are no full-array backlight models in Samsung’s line. So at this time their support is limited to a compatible interface and the 10-bit color depth necessary to display HDR content. But you won’t really see any of the benefits.

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Now this is by no means a complete list of HDR displays. But it does show what major manufacturers are currently doing with the technology. Referring back to my longer article, I said that you’d need a 1000-nit panel with full-array backlighting to truly take advantage of HDR. What companies have demonstrated so far is a willingness to support the two major standards, HDR10 and Dolby Vision; and they’ve added the necessary signal interfaces to accept encoded content.

But what’s still missing, and is likely to be for the near-term, is the right display tech. LCDs in their current form aren’t going to cut it. OLED might pull it off but it’ll have to get brighter first. And HDR for projectors is likely even further off in the future.

And there’s the subject of content. We’re only just seeing the first Ultra HD Blu-ray transfers. Ultra HD TVs have been around for three years. So it’s logical to conclude that if 2016 is the first year for HDR displays, we have about three years to wait for the first compatible content to appear. Yes there are a smattering of TV shows in HDR available via streaming right now. But just like UHD streamed content, compression pretty much destroys the benefits.

If you’re shopping for a new television and HDR is something you’d like to check out, make sure you see an in-person demo before pulling the trigger. Checking boxes on a spec sheet is not enough to say a particular display will actually look better than one without HDR. And of course, make sure that enhancements made to SDR content are to your liking.

So my advice, my own opinion, is to wait and see. While I’ve seen some good demos of HDR, none have triggered the “must spend money” response. It’s not so much that the content looks better, it just looks different. A high-contrast display, properly calibrated, showing correctly encoded HD content is still the best ticket to video enjoyment. I’m glad to see the industry moving towards “better pixels” rather than “more pixels.” I just think there’s a ways to go before we get too excited.

  • Richard Whitten

    Please comment on how HDR sets respond to room lighting. I understand they are prone to getting washed out…

  • Thanks for this update, Chris.
    Samsung SUHD tv’s are not the only ones to use quantum dots. Vizio’s Reference series uses q-dots, too.
    How is it that Vizio and LG can slap the “Dolby Vision” badge on their TV’s if Dolby Vision “requires” 1000 nits, and these TV’s don’t produce 1000 nits?
    Also, isn’t there a contrast minimum requirement in addition to the 1000 nits brightness? Are any of these HDR tv’s meeting the contrast requirement, even if they fall short on the brightness?

  • HDR tvs are in every way better tvs. I don’t see how anyone could say they are “prone to” getting washed out. Washing out of the image is usually a combination of poor dynamic range (contrast), poor color fidelity and depth, and a screen that doesn’t perform well in various types of room lighting. So maybe a particular model might have poor performance with room lighting variations due to a poorly designed screen, but to generalize that all HDR tvs are prone to wash-out is misguided, since HDR tvs have by definition, better contrast and dynamic range and color fidelity/depth, than non-HDR tvs (even if said HDR tvs don’t qualify as “true” HDR.)

  • Stacey Spears

    Nice article Chris. Some corrections to the article below:

    1. There are many true HDR displays on the market. Not sure what you mean by no true HDR displays.
    2. Dolby does not require 1000 nits for Dolby Vision. They don’t have any nits requirement. The Dolby Pulsar is a mastering display that does 4000 nits. The Sony BMV X-300 does 1000 nits.
    3. The Samsung JS9500 is capable of 1200 nits in Korea. The US model has a weaker power supply. Fox, and several others, have the Korean model.
    4. Dolby Vision works with HDMI 1.4. Content providers may require 2.0 since they want HDCP 2.2, but Dolby Vision itself works just fine with 1.4. In fact, HDR10 also works with HDMI 1.4 as you can inject the Generic InfoFrame with 1.4 as I have done with a couple different devices. The Prisma 3D LUT supports HDR10 over HDMI 1.4 for example. I have added HDR support to the Quantum Data 780 (original version that only does 1080p) All QD 780s actually support HDR10.
    5. The LG OLED (E6) does 700 nits, so it is brighter than the VIZIO R and P series. VIZIO R65 is 650 nits in a 10% window for example. The LG OLED E6 is probably the most impressive HDR display at the moment.
    6. All HDR content has been mastered at DCI-P3 or greater color gamut. This includes all UHD Blu-ray discs.
    7. Panasonic also has HDR support, but only in the European model. At the office we have the Panasonic, LG 2016 E6, 2015 EG9600, Samsung JS9500, VIZIO P-55 and VIZIO RS65.
    8. Sony, Samsung, LG and VIZIO all shipped 2015 models with HDR and Dolby Vision support.

    Below is a graph showing five HDR displays and the light output vs. window size. Most displays get dimmer as the area gets larger. This makes sense as specular highlights are what will be at the higher nits level. A couple displays go the opposite direction. The OLEDs can actually do single pixel at full brightness, which is pretty awesome.

    My advice on buying an HDR display is this. if you are an early adopter and don’t mind buying a new display every year, then get one today. If you want to buy a display and have it last five years, then wait at least until the 2017 models.

    The JS9500 does so many things wrong when it comes to HDR today. I would avoid the Samsung’s, not only for the curve, but also for the HDR quality. It suffers from severe blooming. Gamut is compressed instead of being correctly remapped. I could go on.

    HDR is relative. 1000 nits vs. 100 nits is impressive. 4000 nits makes 1000 nits look like SDR. I plan to master my next montage at at least 8000 nits.

    The HDR EOTF (Electro Optical Transfer function) uses an absolute system where a code value maps directly to a light output level. The E of ETOF is the bit level (electrical signal) and the O of EOTF is the light output of the display. Here is a short example of nits (cd/m2 or light output level) to bit level.

    Left is nits and right is 10-bit code value in limited range. (64-940)
    0.0 = 64
    0.005 = 77
    1.0 = 195
    100.0 = 509
    1000.0 = 722
    4000.0 = 854
    8000.0 = 919
    10000.0 = 940

    To give you an idea of just how efficient the HDR EOTF (SMPTE ST2084 aka PQ or Perceptual Quantizer) is compared to SDR EOTF (gamma -> 2.4 power function) 12-bit HDR using ST2084 needs 14-16 bits in SDR using gamma.

    Hope the above makes sense. 🙂

    Best,

    Stacey

  • Stacey Spears

    There is no required nits and there is no contrast requirement.

  • Stacey Spears

    They are no different than an SDR display. You get a better image in a light controlled room. HDR has the same average picture level as SDR. The highlights pop, but more importantly, you will see colors you have never seen before.

    In SDR, colors go white as you approach 100 nits. Fully saturated blue in SDR is only 8 nits in a 100 nits system. Blue can hit 80 nits on a 1000 nit display. 800 nits on a 10,000 nit display. HDR is NOT about bright whites. So many seem to get stuck on the 1000, 4000 and 10,000 numbers.

  • So then what does the “Dolby Vision ™” badge tell the consumer about the TV, technically? At least with a THX rating on an amplifier we knew what the rating meant (certain minimum specifications were met, and a fee paid). What must the TV accomplish in order to qualify for the Dolby Vision badge/rating?

  • Stacey Spears

    Dolby vision defines how tone and gamut remapping will be done. All DV displays use the same algorithm.

    HDR10 does not have any standard, so Samsung can look different than Sony, LG and Panasonic. HDR10 is not actually a standard. Its a set of technologies that came from Dolby w/o the actual solutions that Dolby Vision provides.

  • So I understand what the color gamut is, and remapping of the gamut (more or less). What are you referring to with “tone”? Sounds like another characteristic related to color fidelity. If so, then Dolby Vision defines only color parameters, and has no requirements with respect to non-color dynamic range (e.g. contrast, black level, white level/brightness)? Or is it that the luminance part of “dynamic range” is embedded in the “tone” and color gamut performance?

  • Stacey Spears

    Tone mapping is for luminance. If you mastered at 4000 nits and display can only do 500 nits, tone mapping is used to roll-off. Gamut remapping is for when you mastered on DCI-P3 and display gamut is less than that. You roll-ff or remap gamut. Basically a roll-off.

    If you search for tone mapping and HDR you will see all kinds of negative comments. Tone mapping is not bad. People have done bad things with tone mapping. You see tone mapping every day. Gamma is tone mapping.

  • Jim Milton

    Vizio P series can produce up to 600 nits across the total screen, not just in a small specific section of the screen. They are at odds with the HDR association because they feel that their displays meet the criteria, just not the specifications laid down by them. Vizio was smart in implementing both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. If a “format war” breaks out, they are covered. I have the P55c-1 and can tell you that DV is impressive (Marco Polo on Netflix) both in contrast and color. Netflix has stated that they will be streaming over 150 hours worth of programing with HDR/DV by years end. With the less expensive M series coming out, now is a good time to think about going 4K.

  • Richard Behling

    I am about to purchase a LG 65UH8500 or 65UH9500 primarily for the passive 3D in 4K and then the HDR in both formats. Passive 3D in 4K with HDR could be a major achievement. Too bad it is not part of the 4k blu-ray spec.

  • jmcd102

    I am finding it hard to choose between a 55in Sony 930D or LG G6 or B6. Anyone care to chime in?

    Looking at a 55in now to move into family room in a couple years then get a 65in.

  • Anonymous

    I find it hilarious that you use a fake image as your example between: NON-HDR / HDR television. Really did your kids draw that forgery? I can’t believe any Videophile would by that.