Navigating The Tricky Waters Of Buying A 4K HDR TV

Where to begin?

Buying a new TV is a bloody nightmare at the best of times. You don’t ever want to buy one without seeing it first, but then when you go to the shop to have a bit of a snoop, they’re all in a special mode that makes all those colours way more saturated than is real, the brightness is all the way up, the contrast all out of whack. And now you have to try and figure out what on earth is going on with HDR as well?

With the PlayStation 4 Pro releasing later this week, HDR 4K TVs are quite likely clambering their way up on people’s wish lists. So here’s some of the things to take into account when buying an HDR TV.


Buzzwords and marketing terms

This is where the minefield begins. Every TV manufacturer seems to have come up with their own buzzwords to try and say the same thing. The main one to look out for is UHD Premium, the UHD Alliance determined term to show that a TV provides an excellent HDR experience. These TVs have 4K, can process 10-bit colour, have at least 90% DCI-P3 colour space and 1,000 nits (AKA cd/m2) peak brightness down to 0.05 nits for blacks (or 540 nits brightness and 0.0005 nits blacks for OLED TVs).

That’s the standard, but then LG has “HDR Super with Dolby Vision” – this is actually an excellent thing – Sony have “X-tended Dynamic Range”, Panasonic tout “4K HDR Pro”, and there’s “Crystal Colour” or “Quantum Dot” to worry about with Samsung, Hisense have “ULED” TVs that should not be confused with OLED. I’m picking and choosing here. They all mean something and nothing at the same time. A TV might not have UHD Premium on the box and still be an outstanding TV, but the UHD Premium mark is an industry defined standard and one of the easiest ways of cutting through the noise.

It’s a shame that not everyone uses it, then. Only Samsung and Panasonic have currently adopted it. So prepare to dive deep into the actual specs of a TV… You’ll have to forgive us, but it’s pretty jargon heavy from here on out.

Manufacturers aren’t likely to fess up to much, but the information is all out there. An excellent resource is displayspecifications.com, where you can simply type in the model number and get a wealth of system specs. Two other great websites are rtings.com (just beware of US model numbers) and HDTVtest.co.uk, though they have fewer TVs reviewed.


The panel

This is the screen itself, the bit with all the pixels on it that creates the various shades of colour, which are then lit by the backlight. For HDR, you ideally want a 10-bit panel, which means that each pixel’s red, green and blue sub pixels can produce 210 or 1024 different shades, which are then combined with the other subpixels to create a particular colour. 8-bit panels can only produce 16.8 million colours, but 10-bit panels have 1.07 billion colours to choose from.

Other terms for this are ‘Deep Colour’ (as opposed to an 8-bit’s ‘True Colour’), or 30-bit colour, referring to the combined number of bits of all three subpixels.

But beware, 10-bit colour can be faked on an 8-bit panel by using dithering, also known as Frame Rate Control or FRC. This uses slightly different shades of colour with successive frames to create the illusion of more colours. 8-bit+FRC TVs as still qualify as UHD Premium, as the TV is accepting a 10-bit signal, processing it and capable of displaying it accurately, but having a native 10-bit panel is naturally the preferred option. Some purely 8-bit TVs still tout HDR as a feature, at the lower end of the scale.

You might want to keep an eye on the colour gamut specs as well. To illustrate these, this spectrum represents all the colours that the human eye can see, while the marked triangles within show the colour spaces that refer to Rec. 709 (colours used in conventional TV, DVD and Blu-ray), DCI-P3 (a wider colour gamut that Apple has adopted) and Rec. 2020 (a recently defined range that has been adopted for the HDR10 specific). No TV is anywhere near close to full Rec. 2020 support, and even getting close to 100% of DCI-P3 is restricted to a select few.

colourspace

Another panel characteristic to consider is the type. VA panels have better and deeper colours but tighter viewing angles, while IPS panels have wider viewing angles, but blacks suffer and often appear grey. OLED is the creme de la creme of display technology, widely seen in Android smartphones and now VR headsets. They’re hideously expensive, but since each pixel lights itself and can be turned completely off, they’re outstanding for HDR content.


The Backlight

OLED might not have to worry about backlighting, but LCD TVs most certainly do. There’s a few things to think about here, but the biggest factor by far is whether or not the TV’s backlight supports local dimming in any form. If it doesn’t, you won’t get the same kind of contrast in the same frame between light and dark. It’s a key part of the pitch for HDR TVs to have this feature.

However, not all HDR compatible TVs have this, and when they do, there are two types of backlight that affect how effective it is. Full-array backlights have hundreds of LEDs behind the panel, and local dimming allows for each of these to be adjusted individually. Edge-lit backlights have LEDs only around the edges of the TV, generally losing the precision needed to light only a small section of the screen without also blooming to the surrounding area. That said, it’s something that’s getting better and more precise over time.

The backlight naturally determines how bright the image is, and 1,000 nits peak brightness is the prerequisite for a UHD Premium stamp, though this doesn’t need to mean the entire screen is capable of outputting 1,000 nits all at once. 500 nits is still a very bright display, but again, having up to 1,000 nits allows for greater contrast between brightness and darkness within the same scene.


Input lag

Companies very rarely talk about input lag, let alone put it in their spec sheets. The problem is that early HDR TVs, particularly those grandfathered into the HDR spec from 2015, often have high latency when dealing with HDR or 4K content. There’s usually a “Game Mode” on modern TVs to cut out unnecessary image processing, but then some older or lower end models don’t let you combine Game Mode with HDR.

Ideally, you want less than 33.3ms of input lag, which equates to a single frame in a 30FPS game. Samsung TVs have an excellent reputation for this.


Recommendations

While we don’t have any personal recommendations for TVs, there are a number of models that do stand out from the crowd.

Samsung’s KS7000 series is well regarded in some corners and come with a UHD Premium sticker and feature a very low input lag of 22ms, but they start at around £1000 for 49″. It should be noted that game mode with HDR was added via firmware to this series, but Samsung are continuing to tweak and improve this.

Eurogamer and Digital Foundry have adopted the Panasonic DX750 as their TV of choice. It’s cheaper – £849 for 50″ -, but for that step down you lose UHD Premium, as the peak brightness is only 500 nits, and local dimming is more basic. Input lag is slightly less than ideal, at 41ms according to DF.

However, these are just two possibilities from dozens, and each company has several tiers of TVs, ranging from around £500 up into the thousands, and many of them will be a marked improvement over a 1080p screen, both in terms of resolution and the range of colours displayed. However, there is a lot of variability, so make sure to look, then look a second, third and maybe even fourth before you leap.

My personal advice would be to wait until at least the middle of next year, at which point 2017’s range of TVs will be out and some of the more advanced features will be better within reach of the average customer. I still balk at the notion of spending £500 on a TV, let alone a thousand.

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14 Comments

  1. My now-ancient 46″ 1080p Sony set was a snifter under £1600 when I bought it and it’s still running very well. However, I think I’d try to keep it down to a grand next time. Then again, I’m gaming so much on the PC, it REALLY can wait. The PS4 is plugged into my monitor as well so I might upgrade this instead and sod the TV! It loves dust. :D

    • My Phillips 52″ was £2200 and I bought it for the PS3 launch. It’s stil going strong, not a dead pixel in sight :)

      • Same here, fella. Stunned with how well mine’s doing. Well, not stunned but very pleased. :) It’ll need to be a smouldering husk before I think about changing it.

  2. I was planning on waiting until I purchase a place of my own via renting and then getting a TV so in theory(hopefully), it would fall into the “Hmm, expensive but just a one off payment so I think I’ll do it.” price range. Instead of the “HOW MUCH!? OH SOD THAT! SOD THAT HARD! I AIN’T PAYING THAT MUCH!” category.

    If 4k TVs are sub 300 by then and if a PS4 Pro becomes bundled, I’ll pick up on. May as well get a a darn pro as I do not fancy buying a PS4, finding out that in a year, it starts to get push aside for it’s cousin on steroids whilst it’s own flabby guts puts everyone else off.

  3. Sony released a new system software update for their HDR 4K tv range that improves input lag times. Obviously due to the pro launching this week!

    • Yeah, the XD80 series is pretty good in that regard, but other models in their current range don’t have great response times.

  4. I’ve been debating over buying a 4k HDR TV since the Pro announcement – I almost bought a 60″ 4K HDR Samsung for a grand a couple of months ago, until I researched HDR properly and realised I’d need to spend at least £1500 for a Samsung 60″ which carries the ‘UHD Alliance tag’ and makes HDR worth while.
    Unfortunately, I’ve decided to wait until there’s a major price drop, which will probably be summer next year as I’m not prepared to spend just under 2 grand for a new TV & PS4 Pro. Especially when my current 1080p TV is only 2 years old.

  5. It can take a lot of hunting to find the info you need but a good starting point is:
    http://uk.rtings.com/tv/tests/inputs/input-lag
    It doesn’t have all the main brands though. I haven’t been able to find a similar site that tells you which TV modes includes HDR.

  6. I’ve had both the recommended tv’s above,had the Samsung ks7000 but had issues with it one bit in destiny the screen went that grainy I couldn’t see also in normal tv it was sometimes like things where radio active especially football,the back panel was coming off in places because there glued and the bit that got me most was at the back of the manual it talks about screen burn and recommends you don’t use consoles with it even though it has game mode also was told it can only use 1000nits for about 17 seconds before dropping bellow 500nits.

    I went with the Panasonic dx750 as my other 4K tv is the Panasonic cx700 and I knew what I’d be getting as that’s a great tv with excellent picture and worked wonderfully with PS4,the dx750 was around £1300 when released but I got it at £870 again immaculate build quality solid tv great picture,tested out HDR with The Last of Us looks really nice toggling on and off added brightness and detail to the sun and made the clouds stand out more added shading/darkness in a room to a building I was stood outside looking towards window added colour and detail to other things such as grass ivy brick work graffiti and so on,tried infamous first light in HDR lighting looks great as with neon but in black areas can be very dark as a few places have reported on the game in HDR.

    Roll on Thursday:)

    • Another thing that made me go with Panasonic is HDR is compatible with all TVs modes and doesn’t add extra lag to game mode,where as the Samsung is reported to jump to over 100milliseconds with HDR enabled also read on Sony tv’s Imput lag is in the 50’s and without HDR enabled,so the Panasonic is in the middle with input lag in the 40’s think Panasonic are the lowest after Samsung and I can play PS4 fine works for me can’t speak for others.

  7. I work in richersounds and yeah id say in turns of good 4k for gaming the 750b from panasonic is a fantastic model if you wanted the best possible quality it whould have to be the almighty lg oled tvs unfortunately they start from £2700!
    I personally am not to fussed by 4k so i purchased an older oled a 55EC930v which is an incredible picture never thought id spend 850 on a tv tho!

    • Was recommended RicherSounds never been to one was going to view before purchase there but couldn’t get,didn’t want to just take delivery as I did with the Samsung because offer price was ending shortly so I just jumped on that one.

  8. To add to this, be careful if you use an amplifier as that will also need to be able to interpret HDR+4k…..and if you think you could just use ARC to transfer sound to your amp and go straight into the TV from the PS4, think again, most ARC won’t transfer all audio channels so you’d be left with 4k+HDR with stereo audio.

    From annoying personal experience.

  9. I got my 4K LG Oled while back and I’m not getting pro ATM but the HDR tlou and first light are beautiful. I did my HDR research before hand and was glad I didn’t get the very similar model from currys pc world as that only had HDR on streaming – sneakily hidden in the small fonts!

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