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Everything you need to know about HDR TVs

Reviewed.com logo Reviewed.com 7/29/2021 Lee Neikirk
a television that is sitting in front of a brick building: Everything you need to know about HDR TVs © Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar Everything you need to know about HDR TVs — Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.

If you don’t own one already, a TV with High Dynamic Range (HDR) is likely in your future. Don’t believe me? Consider that out of almost 40 TV series in lineups confirmed by Samsung, LG, Sony, Vizio, TCL, and Hisense in 2021, only one—the entry-level Vizio D-Series—wasn’t HDR compatible. In other words, virtually all TVs will be HDR TVs soon enough.

But what is an HDR TV? The HDR format can be as confusing as it is exciting. And because getting an HDR-compatible TV is almost unavoidable these days, it’s worth learning about what it is, how it works, and—perhaps most importantly—why you’re paying for it. Here’s what you need to know about HDR.

What is an HDR TV?

a fireplace in front of a brick building: HDR TVs can play HDR content, and ideally deliver high brightness and wide color production. © Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar HDR TVs can play HDR content, and ideally deliver high brightness and wide color production.

In simplest terms, HDR refers to a delivery format for content that has been mastered to take advantage of the high brightness and improved color saturation offered by modern displays. An HDR TV is one that is able to decode and display that content. Ideally, an HDR TV also delivers high brightness and improved color saturation.

HDR can be seen as a huge upgrade to color and contrast, much like how 4K resolution was an upgrade to pixel count over 1080p HD resolution. Something important to understand is that HDR content itself doesn’t make HDR TVs brighter or more colorful, but rather, it is content that’s designed from the ground up to take full advantage of the improved brightness and color abilities modern TVs already have.

Some HDR TVs are as much as ten or twenty times as bright as their pre-HDR brethren from 10 years back, which often only offered about 100-200 nits of peak brightness. This is thanks to improvements in display tech, including better LED efficiency, as well as the introduction of wholly new technologies (like OLED).

This increased brightness, utilized alongside technology like color phosphors or quantum dots, also allows for a big increase in color saturation: Some HDR TVs are as much as 30% more colorful than TVs from previous years, for example, and take advantage of a “wide color gamut” sometimes called DCI-P3. There’s an even wider color space, Rec.2020, that new TVs are starting to reach. These TVs are able to produce vivid, colorful images that look a lot more like the real world than TVs used to.

shape: HDR TVs can display much more color than pre-HDR sets, and this range is measured against a color space or color gamut. © Reviewed / TJ Donegan HDR TVs can display much more color than pre-HDR sets, and this range is measured against a color space or color gamut.

How HDR content works its magic is by way of something called “metadata.” This metadata, a kind of embedded signal information, tells a TV exactly how bright and how colorful it should be across different scenes. This makes it possible for content creators to optimize contrast and brightness in very impressive ways, and perhaps most importantly, to optimize it so that it looks as good as possible on the TV you actually own.

This metadata can either be “static,” meaning it isn’t responsive to the abilities of the TV playing it, or “dynamic,” meaning it can change from scene to scene. How that scene optimization is handled is determined by the HDR format the content was mastered for.

What are the different HDR formats?

HDR is available in a range of different formats, but the ones you’re most likely to see are Dolby Vision, HDR10, HDR10+, and, to a much lesser degree at present, HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma). Below is a quick breakdown of each:

  • Dolby Vision is the HDR format that gets the most attention and it’s probably the one most folks have actually heard of. As Dolby’s proprietary HDR format, manufacturers have to pay a licensing fee in order to utilize Dolby Vision on their TVs. Dolby's version is the most advanced HDR format from a pure specifications standpoint, utilizing Dolby-mastered, dynamic metadata. Dolby has also suggested that displays wielding Dolby Vision be able to hit at least 1,000 nits of peak brightness, but this isn’t always the case.

  • HDR10 is the generalist, meat-and-potatoes version. It’s an open-source HDR format developed by the CTA (Consumer Technology Association), and while it’s the most common HDR format supported by TVs, it’s also the most limited: it uses static metadata and is not backward compatible with non-HDR TVs.

  • HDR10+ was developed in part by Samsung and promoted as a free alternative to the Dolby Vision format. It builds upon the HDR10 install base, but adds dynamic metadata on top of the existing HDR10 information. Naturally, you’ll find HDR10+ most commonly on Samsung TVs, though other TV brands and content producers have also adopted it.

  • HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma, literally a hybrid of logarithmic transfer functions and analog gamma) is a backward-compatible form of HDR primarily developed for use in cable broadcast scenarios, developed by Japan’s NHK and Britain’s BBC. HLG is currently more of a fixture in Europe, where broadcast HDR is closer to mainstream rollout.

Every HDR TV supports the basic HDR10 format, while many—from LG, Sony, Vizio, TCL, and Hisense—also net you Dolby Vision support. Naturally, you’ll primarily find Samsung’s HDR10+ format on Samsung TVs, but it isn’t exclusive either.

Typically, the “dynamic” HDR formats—HDR10+ and Dolby Vision—are going to look better than static HDR10, but this really only starts to matter when you’re choosing between budget, midrange, and high-end HDR TVs or watching content with minimal compression.

What makes a great HDR TV?

An HDR TV needs to be equipped to deliver high brightness and wide color—but not all of them are. HDR content itself doesn’t make HDR TVs brighter or more colorful, it only expects them to be. But plenty of TVs still provide HDR compatibility, despite not always being equipped with the picture-enhancing technology that HDR content was designed for. The best HDR TVs come equipped to deliver as much brightness and color as possible, and how they achieve those things depends on the display technology that powers them.


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LED vs OLED

Most folks own LED (LCD) TVs. These are traditional flatscreens, using an LED backlight array that shines through a liquid crystal substrate. Nowadays, LED TVs use a range of cool technologies to deliver better color and increased brightness.

Most of the HDR power in an LED TV comes from the backlight: LED backlights come in edge-mounted, full-array, and—more recently—miniLED varieties, this last being capable of incredible brightness.

Performance for LED TVs varies greatly, however: You can find HDR-ready LED TVs that deliver a disparate range of brightness benchmarks, from entry-level 200 nit models to flagship 2,000 nit models. Typically, the brighter the LED TV, the better it’s going to look for HDR. The best LED TVs also use color enhancement technology, like quantum dots, to achieve more highly saturated colors.

OLED is an entirely different technology. Instead of using a backlight, each pixel in an OLED TV emits its own light. Due to heat and power limitations, this means that OLED TVs can’t get as bright as even upper midrange LED TVs. Modern OLED TVs usually reach up to around 700 or 800 nits of brightness. However, OLED TVs have a secret weapon that makes them excellent HDR TVs in their own right.

Brightness vs Contrast

Brightness is only part of the equation when it comes to creating a high-performance HDR display. While an LED TV may be objectively brighter than an OLED TV, OLED TVs deliver much better black levels. Their “perceived” screen contrast, therefore, is often much higher than LED TVs. This is a bit tricky to understand, but essentially, with perfect black levels as a backdrop, a 600 nit point of light can look brighter than a 1,000 nit point of light against a brighter backdrop.

On the other hand, OLED TVs generally perform best in darker rooms while brighter LED TVs look better in rooms with more natural light.

OLED TVs also naturally produce highly saturated colors that range into HDR levels. As such, there’s no need for extra technologies such as quantum dots to be applied for them to reach wider color ranges, making them excellent candidates for HDR in general. Of course, OLED TVs also tend to be very expensive.

As you might have guessed, the best HDR TVs are the ones stuffed with the most light- and color-boosting technology—the TVs with the highest “dynamic range.” Unfortunately, this means that the very best HDR TVs are usually the most expensive TVs you can buy.

But you don’t have to buy high-end flagship TVs to get decent HDR performance, you may just need to scour reviews for brightness results. Generally, we feel that at least 400 nits of brightness is necessary to see an appreciable difference between HDR and what’s now called SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) video content.

What are some good HDR TVs?

a flat screen tv sitting in front of a brick wall: The best HDR TVs deliver a ton of extra brightness and color saturation. © Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar The best HDR TVs deliver a ton of extra brightness and color saturation.

Our current favorite HDR TVs are LG OLEDs, such as the LG C1 OLED, a 2021 OLED that delivers over 700 nits of peak brightness, a functionally perfect black level, and ample color saturation (97% coverage of the HDR color space). The C1 supports HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HLG formats. Naturally, it’s also very expensive, with the smallest 48-inch size still demanding a price tag well north of $1,000. This is an excellent HDR TV, but you’re paying for all that quality.

If you have a brighter-than-average room, you might want to consider a premium LED TV instead of an OLED, such as one of Samsung’s QLED TVs. The 2021 Samsung QN90A, for instance, may not look as good as LG’s OLED in a dark room, but it wins out by a long-shot on brightness. You’re getting over 1,500 nits of peak brightness, solid black levels for an LED TV, and similarly excellent color saturation (around 96% of the wide color gamut). The QN90A supports HDR10 and HDR10+, but not Dolby Vision. The QN90A is another wallet-buster: the 50-inch model starts well above $1,000, and it goes up from there.

It is possible to spend less and get very good quality HDR, however. The 2021 Hisense U8G delivers even more brightness than the QN90A, over 2,000 nits, and equally high-saturation colors. It also nets you a huge range of HDR format compatibilities: HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and HLG, making it arguably a better choice for HDR performance versatility than the QN90A. It’s an especially good value considering that the 55-inch model only costs around $1,000 at time of writing. The overall picture quality isn’t as good as the examples above, but if you’re primarily aiming to get as much brightness and color for your dollar, this is one of the best. As time goes on, more such value-packed displays should arise.

If you want a great HDR TV closer to $500, you’re not going to have a ton of options, especially with recent price hikes, but you can still find a good-enough HDR set.

TCL’s 5-series and 6-series are great candidates there. You can find the 50-inch TCL 5 Series for a little over $500, and that will get you almost 400 nits of peak brightness, good black levels, and decent color coverage (around 91% of the wide color gamut). This is a fine TV by non-HDR standards, but it just cuts it where HDR is concerned. If you don’t mind spending a little more for better HDR, you can find the 55-inch TCL 6-Series for around $800, which will get you close to 1,000 nits of peak brightness and very wide color capabilities.

Regardless of whether or not a TV is HDR compatible, HDR content is only as good as your TV’s hardware, meaning that many of the HDR TVs in the sub-$500 price range can properly display HDR content but won’t have the brightness or color saturation to make it look much different than SDR content. This effectively renders the inclusion of HDR compatibility pointless since there's little to no content that's exclusively available in HDR.

Now that I have an HDR TV, how do I get HDR content?

You can find HDR mastering across a wide variety of content types, including movies, prestige TV shows, and plenty of video games.

The easiest way to access HDR video content is through your HDR TV’s smart platform. HDR is widely available across streaming services, including Netflix, Prime Video, YouTube, Disney+, and iTunes. Since just about every HDR TV is also a smart TV, this is by far the simplest method for finding and watching HDR content.

Where things get more complicated is when you introduce source devices, such as streaming devices, game consoles, and Blu-ray players into the mix. While most new versions of these devices are HDR-compatible, your older stuff—the original Xbox One, older Roku and Apple TV devices, or older Blu-ray or DVD players, for example—aren’t equipped for HDR.

graphical user interface, website: This heatmap shows how HDR modes can enhance visuals in content like movies, TV, and video games. © Microsoft This heatmap shows how HDR modes can enhance visuals in content like movies, TV, and video games.

If you’ve got an HDR-compatible disc device (such as a PS5, Xbox Series X, Xbox One X, or Blu-ray player) you’ll also need to buy Blu-rays and video games that have been mastered in HDR to get the full experience. And you'll want to make sure the format you purchase is compatible with your TV. On the other hand, some devices and even some TVs feature an “Auto-HDR” mode that can upscale the brightness and color metrics of older content to take better advantage of your TV’s capabilities, which is certainly a cheaper (if less impressive) alternative to fully mastered discs.

Just remember that every device in the chain needs the same HDR compatibility, so keeping it to one device (your smart TV) for movies and TV shows is the surest path to success.

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