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TV screen technology explained

What is HDR TV?

By Ben Stockton

Article 3 of 9

HDR is heralded as the latest ‘must have’ TV feature – but what is HDR TV and do you really need it?

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HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is a TV standard that allows screens to deliver improved contrast, more accurate colours and more vivid pictures that regular sets. 

It isn’t an alternative to 4K Ultra HD, but rather a complementary TV technology that allows compatible models to make the most of HDR content when it's available.

You will find many 4K TVs with HDR, starting from just £500 – but is this technology as important as manufacturers and retailers tell you?

On one hand there’s not much to watch – content is limited to ultra-HD Blu-rays, games consoles, and a few films and shows on TV-streaming services. But it’s growing in popularity, and is likely to go hand in hand with the rise of 4K, so it’s worth being aware of if you’re looking for a new TV.

The best TVs will plunge to deeper blacks and stretch to brighter whites when showing HDR content, giving you even better picture quality. But 4K HDR picture quality isn’t guaranteed to be better than 4K alone – we’ve seen a few instances of washed-out highlights lacking detail during brighter scenes.

Browse all our TV reviews to find the very best HDR sets.

What’s so special about HDR?

If you’re a keen photographer, you may have heard of HDR before, but it works slightly differently with video. HDR essentially creates a greater dynamic range between the darkest blacks and brightest whites, with more subtle differences in tones in between.

Although 4K TV is great on its own, a 4K HDR picture will seem even brighter and more detailed, particularly with darker scenes in films and TV shows.

HDR doesn’t just improve the TV's brightness. It can also enhance the colours you’ll see, making them appear to pop with more vibrancy and detail - although that does depend on the quality of the TV, too.

Where can I find HDR content?

Just because you have an HDR TV, it doesn’t mean that everything you watch will be in HDR. The content must be mastered in HDR in order for you to make use of your TV’s added capabilities. And as with regular 4K viewing, HDR-quality content is only just beginning to trickle out. YouTube, Amazon and Netflix are starting to offer HDR on their video-streaming services, but you’ll need decent broadband (Netflix recommends 25 megabits per second) to stream 4K HDR content over the internet.

The movie studios are distributing new films in HDR quality, as well as re-mastering older titles, and 4K Blu-ray players from the likes of Samsung and Panasonic can play these 4K HDR discs.

Broadcasters such as the BBC have conducted experiments with HDR TV on iPlayer. But with TV infrastructure struggling to cope with even standard 4K broadcasting, we may have to wait a little longer before HDR TV becomes a mainstream reality.

Should I buy an HDR TV?

You may not have a choice. With many new 4K TVs also supporting HDR as standard, you'll likely find it in your next set. With prices falling, top-notch 4K HDR TVs are available from around £400, so even though there isn't a lot of content around that supports it right now, the sensible bet is to invest in this for the future.