Here's our very simple guide to everything you need to know about HDR TVs

TV manufacturers are always selling you on the next big thing.

Oftentimes, that thing is little more than hype. From 3D to curved screens to 4K, TV makers have a special affinity for promoting niche features as paradigm-shifting breakthroughs to convince people to upgrade your TV set.

With HDR, however, they have finally got something legitimate. High dynamic range, as it’s called, doesn’t rely on gimmicky illusions or stuffing more pixels where they aren’t needed — it simply takes your TV’s picture and makes it better.

Actually understanding and using the tech, however, isn’t that straightforward. So, to help you combat the barrage of marketing fluff you’ll inevitably face when buying your next TV, here’s a quick and simplified guide to what HDR is all about.

Dolby vision hdrDolbyAn example of how Dolby advertises its Dolby Vision HDR tech. The left side has HDR enabled.

In one sentence, tell me what HDR does to my TV.

At its best, HDR creates a deeper, more realistic picture by dramatically expanding how bright and dark your TV can get, and how much colour it can present.

Sounds fancy. Could you talk a little more about how it works?

HDR isn’t a totally new term. It’s been around in photography (hold that thought) and audio for several years. With TVs, though, we’re mostly talking about a type of technology that significantly boosts a picture’s contrast ratio — i.e., the difference between its brightest whites and its darkest blacks.

It doesn’t just blast those extremes, though; it allows for much finer detail in the shades between them. HDR video uses more data than the standard dynamic range, which allows it to more accurately reproduce the little nuances in colours a scene is trying to present. A night sky, for instance, shows more than one black blotch, yet is still very dark where needed.

HDR can also produce deeper reds, greens, and blues, but it’s often packaged with another display quality called wide colour gamut (WCG), which enables even more tones than common TVs can produce. Again, this helps colours “pop,” but it doesn’t blow out the picture to the point of seeming unnatural. Instead, think of it as unlocking a sense of realism that wasn’t previously available.

I cannot stress enough just how critical all of this is to display quality. With very few exceptions, a 1080p TV with superior contrast and colours is better than a 4K TV without them. Put it all together, and you have TVs that are closer to recreating what you see in a movie theatre.

Is this the same as that thing I see whenever I take pictures with my iPhone?

No, no, no. That kind of HDR usually involves taking multiple photos with different light levels (or, exposures), then merging them into one picture, ideally bringing out more details from both the bright and dark portions of a shot.

HDR photos do not fundamentally expand the level of contrast and colour they can produce, though. If anything, lots of people find them to look too unnatural for comfort. HDR video does the opposite. It’s an upgrade more than a modifier.

OK then. So is that it? I just buy an HDR TV and everything looks prettier?

I wish. As with any other major change in display quality, HDR displays require HDR content.

Traditionally, movie and TV creators have effectively limited the dynamic range of the stuff they have shot when it comes time to adapt it for TV displays. With HDR, those restrictions are loosened, and the extra data noted above can be pumped in.

Making this stuff the norm, though, is a process. Today, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have added some HDR programming to their lineups, though it’s still less prevalent than even 4K-only streams. You’ll also need a fairly robust internet connection to stream it reliably.

The other way to take a peek is through Ultra HD Blu-ray players and discs. This is an updated version of the Blu-ray you already know. They make for a fantastic, steady image, but they’re pricey, and again, not exactly flowing with content.

The new Xbox One S could help normalize things, but for now, HDR is a premium feature angled more toward enthusiasts than everyday people. It will be a while before you see it en masse.

Are some HDR TVs better than others?

Yep! So far I’ve talked about HDR at its ideal point. In reality, more than a few TVs have claimed to be HDR-compatible without taking full advantage of the tech. For instance, some sets can read the HDR-specific data, but can’t get bright enough for the effect to really take shape.

The Ultra HD Alliance — the consortium of media and tech firms that oversees the development of next-gen TV tech — has tried to help this by creating an “Ultra HD Premium” badge. This is essentially a stamp of approval — if you see a TV with it attached, you can generally rest assured that it’s got all the HDR (and 4K) bases covered.

The problem is that not every TV maker has been willing to adopt the label. Vizio, for one, has been pretty vocal about its disagreements with the certification process. At the same time, Vizio’s TVs are usually pretty good.

So it’s tricky. If you must buy an HDR set today, just try to consume as much feedback on it as you can. (Rtings is a good place to start.) It’s still early days.

What about those OLED TVs I keep hearing about? Can they do HDR, too?

Yes, but there’ll still be a difference in display quality. To put it very simply, the deal with OLED panels is that they can produce deeper blacks and more vivid colours than your usual LED LCDs, but they can’t get as bright. The UHD Alliance has set up different standards for OLED screens to attain that UHD Premium badge as a result.

Most HDR sets today use LCD screens, but then again so do most TVs in general. The companies that are going in on OLED — namely, LG and Panasonic — have introduced 4K OLED TVs that support HDR, but they don’t come cheap.

Does this mean we’re heading toward an HDR “format war”?

You’re onto something. HDR doesn’t have one universal standard. Right now, most compatible content and hardware you’ll come across supports two main formats: Dolby Vision, and HDR 10.

We could go really deep in the weeds here, but to keep things simple: Dolby Vision is proprietary to Dolby, and lets the company specify how compatible sets should handle HDR content. It’s technically more capable — since it’s like an add-on to HDR 10 — but that difference is hard to see in practice. HDR 10 is more open by comparison, but it leaves everything up to the TV maker itself, which could be good or bad.

As far as support goes, HDR 10 has a bit of a lead, but there is a split, and a handful of TVs have added support for both. It’s not clear which one will “win” going forward, but you’ll get a superior picture either way.

I’m guessing these TVs are pretty expensive.

You would be right. Vizio sells an HDR-capable model for $850, for one, but the actual HDR quality of it isn’t as good as it could be. For now, you have to go well into four figures to get something good — think somewhere between $1,200 – $4,000.

That said, this isn’t an OLED situation, where some companies have been hesitant to jump aboard. Plenty of HDR TVs have launched this year, and as more are released, the price of a good set should come down to “normal” levels.

Should I really try to buy one today then?

TVs are an eternal treadmill. Today’s new and cool thing will always be replaced by tomorrow’s before long.

That said, if you can wait, wait. HDR is a genuine step forward, but for most people, the content and prices aren’t there yet. That format kerfuffle is still figuring itself out, too. When everything settles down, though, your movies and shows will look better than ever.

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