New ultra-high-definition TVs with high dynamic range look superb, but beware the format war.
It’s an old trick for a TV maker to pull: show a fancy new TV set displaying a video so lifelike that you might be looking through a window at the real world. But in 2016, the trick is working better than ever. Technological advances swirling in a soup of abbreviations – from high dynamic range (HDR) and organic light emitting diode (OLED) to quantum dot (QD) technology – are delivering picture quality we literally haven’t seen before.
Yes, the latest high-end TVs to hit the market are big, curvy and expensive. But they signal the type of elevated experience we’ll soon see on cheaper TVs as economies of scale make these technologies more widely available.
The big question is how quickly Hollywood, video-on-demand services, such as Netflix, and broadcasters can gear up to deliver content in a format that makes the most of these screens.
The new line-up of TVs from Samsung and LG, unveiled in the past couple of weeks, are all 4K ultra-high-definition (UHD) models, with four times the screen resolution of the full HD sets that sit in the corner of most lounges. But there’s still a dearth of UHD content. Some Netflix shows and YouTube videos are in the format, but broadcasters haven’t upgraded yet. Newer Blu-ray players will probably upscale the content to UHD, but that delivers less impressive results than movies shot in the format.
So the focus has shifted to a technology most familiar to still photographers. HDR imaging manages the ratio of light and dark in a photo. Think of those moody Instagram-style photos that have been put through software to add more drama and vibrancy.
Luckily, HDR televisions don’t resort to those tricks. Packing more pixels into a screen has been the industry’s mantra for a decade, but the reality is that a great television picture needs to have excellent contrast ratio and accurate colours.
HDR broadens the range of colours and contrast markedly to deliver pictures that are as lifelike as possible. The clincher for me was standing in front of LG’s new 65-inch E6 model ($12,995) watching a video of Earth taken from the International Space Station. The mottled blue globe, with the green wash of the Northern Lights shimmering over it, stood out brilliantly in the absolute blackness of space. I could watch that sort of stuff all day.
What makes HDR work on TVs is new screen technology that allows every pixel to be individually controlled and lit with the desired colour. Filmmakers are excited about HDR because the images they colour in the film’s post-production are more likely to be replicated as intended on our screens.
But just when we thought there was a clear way forward, a format war is emerging, as rival players try to outdo each other in delivering HDR technology. The standard format is HDR-10, but Dolby, the company responsible for surround sound in our home-theatre systems and the 3D film experience in cinemas, has its own flavour of HDR called Dolby Vision. Naturally, it thinks its version is better.
All future films, and all the back catalogue, have to be given the HDR treatment if you are to take full advantage of this new TV feature. But you’ll need to ask about the HDR format the TV supports when shopping for a new screen. LG’s new line-up supports both formats and will, I suspect, become the norm.
The real winner will be determined by Hollywood, which will be opening its vaults to remaster its classics in HDR of one or both varieties.
So TV buying its as complex as ever. But the true test is to sit in front of one of these sets. Take as long as you want. The real beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Samsung SUHD range: 55- to 78-inch ($4399-$14,999); LG 4K UHD range: 55- to 65-inch ($7999-$12,995).
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