What’s HDR? Only The Most Important TV Innovation Today

The new rule of thumb in TV-buying: Any HDR is better than no HDR.
The new rule of thumb in TV-buying: Any HDR is better than no HDR. 

HDR is best television innovation we've seen in years. Period. It's a display feature that's been name-dropped constantly at CES 2016, and that's set to become ubiquitous on higher-end TVs in 2016. Simply put, HDR, which stands for "high dynamic range," makes brighter content brighter, and darker content darker. Where non-HDR displays might balance out the overall brightness of a given image — dimming the blazing blue sky seen through a car window, while lightening the dark, almost black vehicle interior until it's more of a muddy gray — high dynamic range lets those extremes coexist in the same screen. And its not a feature that kicks into gear occasionally, like during a night scene filled with inky black shadows and twinkling streetlights. Those are the kinds of examples journalists use to illustrate what HDR does, but the technology improves just about every frame you're watching, tweaking visuals to make them appear more lifelike, or at least more similar to what the human eye perceives (when observing real life, rather than, say, a TV screen). The bottom line: HDR is great. Here's everything else you need to know. 

What Isn't It? (HDR in Cameras)

HDR for TVs isn't the same as HDR for cameras. The overlap is unfortunate, since the two approaches have similar aims — to show extremes of light and dark in a single image — but different tacks, and largely different results. HDR photos are composite shots, where the camera captures at least two photos, taken at very different exposures, and then combines them into one image. The results can be striking, and often utterly alien, as dark storm clouds are shot through with an unearthly glow (because the darks and lights in the clouds have been pushed so far away from each other) and colors, in general, become a surrealistic crap shoot.

That's blunt-force HDR. The HDR that's being touted in new TVs doesn't combine frames or turn majestic natural vistas into cosmic hellscapes. It expands the range of lights and darks without degrading the integrity of the image.

Is it Worth Seeking Out?
Yes! Anyone in the market for a new TV should be looking for HDR. This isn't an overhyped gimmick, or a trap for early adopters. In fact, it's far more important right now than 4K resolution, which, if CES is any measure, will remain stranded for another year. The amount of new 4K content announced at the show is laughable. According to Samsung, when its 4K Blu-ray player is released in March, 20th Century Fox will have 10 titles available. By the end of 2016, that number will rise to 30. And Sony, which announced a 4K streaming service at its press conference, has no details regarding when or how many titles will be available. Maybe laughing is the right response. If you've bought a 4K TV in the hopes that content would be imminent, crying is more appropriate.

But HDR amplifies the look of content regardless of its resolution. And since it appears to only be available on 4K TVs, that means it's a legitimate reason to buy a 4K, instead of waiting until ultra-HD content shows up in force.

Are Some Kinds of HDR Better Than Others?
Having seen all of the HDR-capable sets on display from major TV-makers at CES, the companies we're watching closest are LG and Samsung. Each one is preaching the benefits of a specific display technology — organically light-emitting diodes, or OLED, for LG, and quantum dot for Samsung. OLED specializes in displaying true blacks. Think, bottomless-pit black. Samsung's quantum dot displays, on the other hand, are better at brights, including the number of colors that share the screen.

To our eyes, OLED is the more impressive of the two, since the ability to completely turn off pixels creates more perceived contrast, even when the image isn't heavy on blacks. The near-black of an actor's eyelashes, for example, or black text on a page, make the entire image appear more realistic. But Samsung makes a strong case for quantum dots' brightness, pointing out in its press conference that most people watch TV in relatively bright rooms.

Sony, meanwhile, is watching these Korean giants duke it out from the sidelines. With neither OLED or quantum dots to work with, Sony's premium LCD panels can do HDR, but nowhere near as well as the top-tier models from LG and Samsung. Sony showed off a promising display technology in its booth, called Backlight Master Drive, that appears to have the best of both worlds — the true blacks of OLED and dazzling brilliance of quantum dots. However, Sony wouldn't offer a timetable for this tech making it out of the lab. Until that happens, the best applications of HDR are from LG and Samsung. And picking between the two is a matter of preference and content. Aging eyes trained on mainstream TV shows (your CSIs and NCISs) might be better off with Samsung's quantum dots. Cinephiles with a tendency to kill the lights (or at least pull the curtains) might appreciate the stunning depths of OLED's blacks. And if those brands aren't in your budget, here's an easy rule of thumb: Any HDR is better than no HDR.