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The Definitive Guide to HDR TVs: Why You Need One in 2021

If you‘re serious about home entertainment, there‘s never been a better time to upgrade your TV. And if there‘s one feature that should be at the top of your must-have list, it‘s HDR (High Dynamic Range). HDR technology has revolutionized the viewing experience, offering a level of visual quality that truly needs to be seen to be believed. In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll dive deep into the world of HDR TVs, exploring what makes them so special and why investing in one is a decision you won‘t regret.

Understanding HDR: A Quantum Leap in Picture Quality

To appreciate the impact of HDR, it‘s important to understand how it differs from traditional Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) technology. SDR TVs are limited in their ability to display a wide range of brightness and color, resulting in a picture that often looks flat and muted. HDR, on the other hand, greatly expands the range of both, allowing for images that are more vibrant, detailed, and true-to-life.

One of the key metrics for measuring HDR performance is brightness, which is typically expressed in nits. While SDR TVs usually max out at around 300 to 500 nits, HDR TVs can go much, much higher. Many HDR TVs can hit peaks of 1000 nits or more, with some high-end models reaching an astonishing 4000 nits. This increased brightness allows for stunningly realistic highlights and specular details, like the glint of sunlight off a car‘s chrome bumper or the sparkle of a diamond.

But HDR isn‘t just about brightness – it also enables a wider color gamut, meaning it can display a broader range of colors. While SDR is limited to the traditional Rec. 709 color space, HDR TVs can display colors in the wider DCI-P3 or even the ultra-wide Rec. 2020 color spaces. This translates to colors that are richer, more saturated, and more lifelike. In fact, HDR TVs with a wide color gamut can display over a billion distinct shades, compared to the mere 16.7 million of SDR.

Here‘s a quick comparison of SDR and HDR:

Metric SDR HDR
Brightness (nits) 300-500 1000-4000+
Color Gamut Rec. 709 DCI-P3, Rec. 2020
Color Depth (bits) 8 10-12
Perceivable Colors 16.7 million 1 billion+

The difference in color volume between SDR and HDR is astounding. According to a report by the UHD Alliance, HDR can deliver up to 40 times more color volume than SDR. This means that HDR images have a level of depth, nuance, and realism that simply isn‘t possible with SDR.

But the benefits of HDR extend beyond color and brightness. HDR also enables much greater contrast, with deeper black levels and brighter highlights coexisting in the same image. This is thanks to technologies like Full Array Local Dimming (FALD) in LED TVs and the self-emissive pixels of OLED TVs, which allow for precise control over brightness in specific zones or pixels. The result is an image with stunning pop and dimensionality, as if you‘re looking through a window rather than at a screen.

The HDR Ecosystem: Content, Formats, and Compatibility

Of course, to fully experience the benefits of HDR, you need content that is mastered in HDR. Fortunately, the library of HDR content has grown exponentially in recent years, with a wide variety of movies, TV shows, and video games now available in the format.

Streaming services have been at the forefront of the HDR revolution. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and Apple TV+ all offer a growing selection of HDR titles, often in 4K resolution for the ultimate in picture quality. To watch HDR content from these services, you‘ll need a compatible HDR TV and a subscription to the service‘s premium tier.

On the physical media front, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs are the gold standard for HDR content. These discs offer the highest bitrates and the most reliable HDR performance, thanks to their ample storage capacity and lack of compression. Many new release films and even classic catalog titles are now available on 4K Blu-ray with HDR.

Gaming has also embraced HDR in a big way. The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X both support HDR for compatible games, as do many gaming PCs. HDR can greatly enhance the visual experience in games, making environments more immersive and realistic. It‘s especially impactful in games with high-contrast scenes, like those with dark shadows and bright highlights.

But not all HDR is created equal. There are several different HDR formats, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Here‘s a quick rundown of the most common formats:

  • HDR10: The most widely supported format, HDR10 is an open standard that uses static metadata to map out the brightness and color of the content. It‘s supported by all HDR TVs and most HDR content.

  • Dolby Vision: Developed by Dolby, this proprietary format uses dynamic metadata for scene-by-scene and even frame-by-frame optimization. It also supports a higher peak brightness and a wider color gamut than HDR10. However, it requires compatible TVs and content.

  • HDR10+: An evolution of HDR10 that adds dynamic metadata similar to Dolby Vision, but without the licensing fees. It‘s supported by some TVs and content, but not as widely as Dolby Vision.

  • HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma): Developed by the BBC and NHK for broadcast television, HLG is compatible with both SDR and HDR displays, making it a good choice for live content.

When shopping for an HDR TV, it‘s important to consider which formats it supports. Most HDR TVs support HDR10 at a minimum, but support for Dolby Vision, HDR10+, and HLG can vary. If you want the widest compatibility with HDR content, look for a TV that supports as many formats as possible.

Choosing the Right HDR TV: Key Factors to Consider

With so many HDR TVs on the market, choosing the right one can seem daunting. But by focusing on a few key factors, you can narrow down your options and find the perfect TV for your needs and budget.

Peak Brightness and Contrast

As we‘ve discussed, one of the hallmarks of HDR is its ability to display very bright highlights. So when shopping for an HDR TV, peak brightness is an important spec to consider. Look for TVs that can hit at least 1000 nits of peak brightness, with higher being better for truly impactful HDR.

Contrast is also crucial for HDR performance. A TV with good contrast will be able to display deep, inky blacks right next to bright, punchy whites, without any blooming or halo effects. OLED TVs are the kings of contrast, thanks to their ability to turn pixels completely off for perfect black levels. But high-end LED TVs with full-array local dimming can also deliver excellent contrast.

Color Gamut and Color Depth

To fully realize the wide color gamut possible with HDR, you‘ll want a TV that can cover a large percentage of the DCI-P3 or Rec. 2020 color spaces. Many HDR TVs claim to cover over 90% of DCI-P3, but it‘s worth checking reviews and measurements to see how they actually perform.

Color depth, measured in bits, is also important for HDR. While SDR content is typically mastered in 8-bit color, HDR content can be mastered in 10-bit or even 12-bit color. This allows for much finer gradations between shades, eliminating banding and other artifacts. So look for an HDR TV that supports at least 10-bit color depth.

Panel Technology and Screen Size

The type of display panel a TV uses can have a big impact on its HDR performance. As mentioned, OLED TVs are often considered the best for HDR, thanks to their perfect blacks, wide viewing angles, and excellent uniformity. But they can be expensive, and they may not get as bright as some LED TVs.

QLED TVs, which use quantum dot technology to enhance color and brightness, are a great LED-based alternative. They can get extremely bright and produce vivid, saturated colors. But they may struggle with viewing angles and local dimming performance compared to OLEDs.

Traditional LED TVs with full-array local dimming can also be good for HDR, especially at larger screen sizes where the benefits of OLED may be less noticeable. Look for models with a high number of dimming zones for the best local contrast.

And don‘t forget about screen size. HDR‘s impact is most apparent on larger screens, so consider going as big as your space and budget allow. For most living rooms, a 65-inch or larger TV is ideal for HDR.

HDMI 2.1 and Other Future-Proofing Features

If you want your HDR TV to be as future-proof as possible, look for models with HDMI 2.1 inputs. This latest HDMI standard supports higher bandwidths, allowing for features like 4K at 120Hz, dynamic HDR, and enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC).

Other future-proofing features to consider include support for variable refresh rate (VRR) and auto low latency mode (ALLM) for gaming, as well as next-gen codecs like HEVC and AV1 for streaming.

Setting Up Your HDR TV for Optimal Performance

Once you‘ve bought your HDR TV, there are a few steps you can take to ensure you‘re getting the best possible picture quality.

First, make sure your TV is in the correct picture mode for HDR content. Most TVs have a dedicated HDR mode that activates automatically when HDR content is detected. But you may need to enable this mode manually in the settings menu.

If your TV has adjustable HDR settings, like HDR brightness or tone mapping, experiment with these to find the best balance for your room and content. Some TVs also offer calibration tools or even built-in calibration patterns to help you dial in the perfect picture.

Pay attention to your room‘s lighting conditions, too. HDR tends to look best in a dimly lit or dark room, where the TV‘s high contrast and deep blacks can really shine. If you often watch in a brightly lit room, consider investing in blackout curtains or repositioning your TV to minimize glare and reflections.

Finally, make sure you‘re using high-quality HDMI cables rated for the bandwidth of your sources. For 4K HDR content, you‘ll want cables rated for 18Gbps or higher. And for gaming or other high-bandwidth uses, consider an Ultra High Speed HDMI cable rated for 48Gbps.

Our Top HDR TV Picks for 2021

Ready to take the plunge on an HDR TV? Here are our top picks across a range of price points and sizes:

Budget Pick: TCL 6-Series Roku TV (R635)

  • Size: 55, 65, 75 inches
  • Display Type: QLED with Mini-LED backlighting
  • HDR Formats: HDR10, Dolby Vision, HLG
  • Peak Brightness: ~1000 nits
  • HDMI 2.1: Yes (1 port)
  • Price: Starts at $699 for 55-inch

The TCL 6-Series Roku TV offers incredible value for an HDR TV, with performance that rivals many higher-end models. Its QLED display with Mini-LED backlighting delivers punchy brightness, excellent local dimming, and a wide color gamut. It also supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, and even includes an HDMI 2.1 port for next-gen gaming features.

Mid-Range Pick: Sony X95J

  • Size: 50, 65, 75, 85 inches
  • Display Type: LED with Full Array Local Dimming
  • HDR Formats: HDR10, Dolby Vision, HLG
  • Peak Brightness: ~1500 nits
  • HDMI 2.1: Yes (2 ports)
  • Price: Starts at $1,099 for 50-inch

Sony‘s X95J strikes a great balance between price and performance. Its Full Array LED panel gets impressively bright for impactful HDR, and its local dimming helps maintain deep blacks and good uniformity. It supports a wide range of HDR formats, including Dolby Vision, and offers two HDMI 2.1 ports for next-gen gaming.

High-End Pick: LG G1 Gallery Series OLED

  • Size: 55, 65, 77 inches
  • Display Type: OLED with OLED evo panel
  • HDR Formats: HDR10, Dolby Vision, HDR10+, HLG
  • Peak Brightness: ~900 nits
  • HDMI 2.1: Yes (4 ports)
  • Price: Starts at $1,999 for 55-inch

If you want the ultimate in HDR performance, the LG G1 Gallery Series OLED is tough to beat. Its OLED panel delivers perfect blacks, infinite contrast, and wide viewing angles, while the new "OLED evo" panel boosts brightness compared to previous models. It supports every major HDR format, and includes four HDMI 2.1 ports for maximum compatibility and future-proofing.

Conclusion

HDR is undoubtedly the future of home entertainment, offering a viewing experience that‘s far more immersive, engaging, and true-to-life than traditional SDR. By investing in an HDR TV, you‘re not just getting a display that looks great today, but one that will keep pace with the rapid evolution of video technology in the years to come.

Of course, HDR is not without its challenges and considerations. Choosing the right TV with the right features and specs for HDR can be complex, and getting the best performance out of your HDR TV requires some knowledge and effort. But we believe the rewards are more than worth it.

So if you‘re serious about home entertainment, and you want to experience your favorite content in the best possible quality, an HDR TV should be at the top of your shopping list. With models available at every size, price point, and level of performance, there‘s never been a better time to make the jump to HDR. Your eyes will thank you.