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HDR Is Here—But Don't Rush Out to Buy a New TV Just Yet

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Recently, Technicolor announced a single-layer approach that provides HDR to compatible sets and is backwards compatible in a single stream. All other things being equal, a single stream approach to new and older sets is obviously preferred, but the fast changing nomenclature can be as confusing as the frenzied activity in the marketplace.

On the TV side, you’ll almost certainly need to upgrade to take advantage of HDR. According to TechHive, most current TVs have a peak brightness of 400 nits, which is obviously a measure of brightness. In order to handle the expanded contrast, HDR TVs will range in brightness from 700-1000 nits. So if you have an older TV that peaks at 400 nits, you’ll never see HDR on that set.

What’s Happening in the Marketplace?

Here’s an overview of HDR-related events over the last few months. In February, the Blu-ray Disc Association finalized their spec, with support for four HDR standards, including two from SMPTE—ST 2084 and ST 2086, which are mandatory—and technologies from Dolby Vision and Philips, which are optional. In addition to HDR support, the newxlu-ray spec supports up to 3840x2160 resolution, a wider color gamut (up to Rec 2020), and a digital bridge file that should enable playback on many older devices.

While details of the new spec will be fuzzy until products actually ship, according to what I’ve read, the new Blu-ray players will be backwards compatible with older TVs, both 1080p sets and 4K sets without support for HDR. While you’ll likely need a new set to view the video in HDR, the video will drop back to Standard Dynamic Range (SDR, a new acronym) on sets that don’t support it.

Why another disc-based standard? Because 4K videos are notoriously hard to deliver over the general internet, and the compression that must be applied to reduce the file size for delivery can degrade quality. While discs are undoubtedly old school, they should deliver a higher-quality, more robust experience that doesn’t depend upon your internet connection and who else in your family is using it.

On June 24, Amazon announced that its original show Mozart in the Jungle would immediately be available on HDR, but only on a very specific list of Samsung TVs. According to the Amazon press release, “Prime members can start watching Mozart in the Jungle in HDR through the Amazon Video app on Samsung SUHD TVs.” According to HD Guru, the compatible sets include 13 Samsung models over seven series, including the JS9500, JS9100, JS9000, JS8600, JS8500, JS850D, and JS7000 series that start in price at $2,000 and range up to $20,000 for an 88-inch set. I hunted around, and wasn’t able to determine which HDR specification Samsung TVs support, and Amazon didn’t respond to my inquiries (admittedly made around the July 4 holiday).

While the first to ship, Amazon is clearly not the only content provider considering HDR. M-Go has announced plans to release HDR titles using whichever standard is selected by the UHD Alliance, which includes TV manufacturers Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp, technology providers Dolby and Technicolor (which partially owns M-Go), and content producers/distributors Disney, Fox, Warner Bros., Netflix, and DirecTV. At CES, Netflix announced it they will stream its show Marco Polo on LG and Sony displays sometime in 2015, which CNET has reported will support the Dolby spec. Content provider Vudu will reportedly also offer several Warner Bros. titles encoded using the Dolby HDR system, which should run on Vizio TVs running a Vudu app with Dolby Vision decode capabilities.

As a consumer, we seem to be entering a world where the set you buy is determined by the content you want to watch—Samsung for Amazon, LG and Sony for Netflix, and Vizio for Vudu. Call me overly frugal, but for a $2,000 purchase, that seems unrealistic. At least initially, you’d have to expect that this paradigm, like the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD controversy, will slow sales until one or two standards emerge.

So while the emergence of HDR is undoubtedly good news from a technical perspective, the lack of a standard will make HDR more expensive to implement than it needs to be. Beyond that, the scattered implementation within the CE market guarantees that there will be many more obsolete TVs as the market evolves. When it comes to an HDR TV, informed consumers should assume "CE" means "caveat emptor," not "consumer electronics."

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