Current UHDs Can’t Handle HDR – But Buy One Anyway

A series of Your Next TV conference panels held during last week’s annual CE Week confab in New York City exemplified the paradox faced by UHD TV sellers, Hollywood studios, content providers and video/film engineers, and the awkward spot they’re putting consumers in concerning the present and future of HDR.

One panel consisted of gear heads explained with impenetrable equations, charts, graphs, acronyms and tech-specs that would make Mr. Spock blush what a “wow” factor HDR will present to viewers, while simultaneously complaining about the lack of HDR format standards and unworthiness of today’s UHDs to display these coming HDR “wows.”

These video engineering gurus were followed by effusive executives from LG, Sony and Samsung, who were then followed by two retail cheerleaders, all extolling the virtues and encouraging sales of the very UHD TVs the nits and bits geeks had just denigrated in their technical presentation.

One exception to the UHD excoriations were LG’s OLED sets. OLED’s “perfect” blacks and pixel-precise light, contrast and color control make LG’s UHDs far more suitable for HDR display than indiscriminately bright and contrast-challenged LCDs.

But in a delicious bit of obfuscation and irony in the next session, the Sony and Samsung reps ganged up on LG, claiming that their LCD UHDs were superior to OLED. (Example: The claim that, like plasma, OLED isn’t bright enough to be of any use except in a dark room.) OLED may have its flaws – as a remissive technology, OLED may be prone to burn-in, and OLED UHDs are still far pricier than LCD UHDs – but brightness is decidedly not one of them.

HDR – of some sort – is coming

Further exemplifying the HDR conundrum was Amazon’s announcement the day after these Your Next TV CE Week conferences. The online retail giant and video purveyor is now making its original Amazon Prime series, “Mozart in the Jungle” available in HDR –the first HDR content to be so publicly available –to “compatible” Samsung SUHD TVs.

LG followed Amazon’s announcement to say Amazon’s HDR program would be available on its OLED UHDs “in the coming weeks.” (Note: An update to the set’s firmware will likely be necessary for “compatible” HDR playback.) LG officials also told us that more and cheaper OLED UHD models would be coming in time for holiday shopping later this year (and some of them will be uncurved, thank goodness), and that these, along with its current EG9600 OLED flagship, would be updatable for future HDR compatibility.

So, what constitutes “compatible?” What HDR format is Amazon using? What will buyers of non-Samsung or non-LG UHDs see when they stream “Mozart?” Imagine me shrugging because no one will disclose what HDR format they’re using.

A couple of weeks ago, Fox announced four of its most recent filmsKingsman: The Secret Service, The Maze Runner, Life of Pi and Exodus: Gods and Kings – would be the first HDR releases from the studio. These initial HDR titles will be available via the M-Go video service for download to Samsung’s UHD Video Pack for viewing, like Amazon Prime’s “Mozart,” on Samsung’s latest SUHDs.

Again, it is not being disclosed in what HDR format Fox is mastering these and its most recent and future films nor what HDR format the Samsung sets are using. We do know that Warner Bros. is mastering six titles in Dolby Vision HDR for playback via Vudu on upcoming Vizio 65- and 120-inch Reference UHDs, but most HDR constituents are trying to come up with independent HDR solutions to avoid having to pay Dolby HDR royalties.

Whether or not Samsung’s LCD-based SUHDs can fully do HDR justice is an issue left to the platinum-eyed. The capability of SUHDs to conform to what promises to be a cornucopia of current and future HDR formats is solved by its updatable Evolution Kit.

But even with Samsung’s Evolution Kit and OLED’s HDR supreme suitability, this cloudy HDR present and future will continue to vex everyone in the UHD ecosystem until a universal format is agreed upon and adopted. Until then, the more UHD TV makers, studios and content providers hawk conflicting or proprietary HDR-ware, the more consumers will be confused and, worse, the greater the potential for consumer blowback after being hyped to buy a UHD TV today that won’t display HDR tomorrow.