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HDR TV: Everything you need to know before you shop for a new 4K television

You'll find high dynamic range at every price point now, and that's made the technology's strengths, differences, and pitfalls abundantly clear.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) is the big buzzword in TVs right now, with vendors adding support for HDR content and pasting the acronym all over their packaging and advertising. But the fact is, a TV’s ability to decode and render HDR content doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll see an improvement in image quality. The “you get what you pay for” axiom comes into play here: Poorly implemented HDR, typically caused by less-expensive TVs being outfitted with insufficient technology, can make HDR content less appealing.

The way TV manufacturers implement HDR matters

With HDR-10, HDR information is embedded in the material once, at the beginning of the program. With Dolby Vision, HDR information is embedded throughout the material, so that it can vary from one scene to the next. The TV is then supposed to take the information and adjust itself to produce the best picture possible, reproducing the artist’s intentions to the best of its ability.

Competing HDR formats: There’s a war raging

The problem is that Samsung TVs don’t support Dolby Vision. Samsung is just about the only vendor that doesn’t, but as royalties are involved, it’s not that hard to guess why. The company makes very good TVs, so we sincerely hope it isn’t falling victim to hubris.

From our point of view, that changes a wholehearted recommendation to one with a rather complicated caveat. Royalty-free HDR-10, which Samsung does support (calling it HDR 1000 because that’s the number of NITS the company’s SUHD and QLED TVs can generate) looks pretty good. And there’s supposedly an HDR-10 successor coming down the pike that features dynamic metadata (adjustment instructions delivered throughout the material’s timeline—just like Dolby Vision) that Samsungwill support. It’s unclear if current hardware can handle the new standard, but I have heard mention of backward compatibility. We’ll just have to wait and see.

But what if Dolby Vision does turn out to be the prevailing standard? Support can’t be added with a down-the-road firmware update, so that would leave Samsung TV high and dry. The Dolby name has a powerful association with high-quality audio, both at home and in commercial theaters, and that could be easily leveraged into video.

Honest HDR implementations

Now that we’ve discussed the pitfalls and disappointments with some of the current HDR technology, we should mention a few vendors that are playing by the rules: Vizio’s 55-inch-class P-Series renders Dolby Vision satisfactorily for less than $1,000. Sharp labels the Aquos N7000 quite honestly as HDR-compatible, and it didn’t go crazy trying to heighten the HDR effect (which was minimal, but noticeable) by darkening everything else. The same goes for the LeEco Super4 X65.

The bottom line is that you should take claims of HDR and Dolby Vision support with a healthy grain of salt. These technologies are not a panacea for all the shortcomings you’ll encounter with entry-level TVs. Dolby does work with its vendor customers, and when its technology is properly implemented, the presence of Dolby Vision should improve any TV’s image. A good HDR-10 implementation should do the same.

As for high-end TVs, leave your wallet at home if you’re prone to impulse buying. Rely on your own eyeballs, and make sure the salesperson plays some HDR material on the TV you’re considering buying. That content is only just beginning to appear in earnest.

Personally, I tell my friends—some of whom are becoming quite impatient—that it might behoove them to wait a year to buy a new TV. The TV industry could have settled on one HDR standard by now; instead, some manufacturers are forcing consumers who want to buy a TV today to bet on which standard will prevail. Rewarding that behavior will only prolong it.

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