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New Sony TVs show why high dynamic range is more important than resolution

Greater UHD picture detail is taking a backseat to HDR, wider colors, and better contrast

Published: April 22, 2015 04:30 PM
HDR capability could be the next big advancement in UHD TVs.

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When Sony took the wraps off its 2015 TV lineup last week, the buzz wasn't about higher resolution but rather about the coming improvements in high dynamic range, or HDR, and wider ranges of color. Not everyone's eyes are keen enough to detect the extra detail of a 4K image at a normal viewing distance, but many will notice the deeper, richer colors and brighter images.

The 2015 Sony UHD line will include six new series, ranging in price from $1,300 for a 43-inch set in its entry-level X830C UHD series to $8,000 for a 75-inch model in the flagship X940C series. The X850C-series and above get Sony's Triluminos technology, which produces a wider color gamut. The company will also offer HDR in two of its flagship sets this year.

The other big news was that Sony is adopting Google Android TV as its smart TV platform, so you can use Google Cast to beam content from apps on your Android or iOS portable devices—as well as Macs, PCs, and Chromebooks—to the TV. Android TV also supports voice search with a remote control or a compatible smartphone.

Eye-popping images

The highlight of the Sony press event was the demonstration of HDR technology. High dynamic range refers to the difference between the very brightest and darkest images that a TV can produce. It allows a TV, when presented with HDR-enabled content, to display more dramatic, high-contrast pictures, with brighter whites and greater details in dark shadows, resulting in images that pop off the screen. Many TV brands and Dolby have shown what HDR content can look like on an HDR-capable TV, but Sony's was the most effective when viewed on a consumer TV.

Sony says that the $4,500 XBR-65X930C and the $8,000 XBR-75X940C UHD TVs will receive a firmware update this summer that will make them compatible with HDR content. Several streaming services, including Amazon, Netflix, and Vudu, have said they'll offer HDR content later in the year, and we expect to see new 4K UHD Blu-ray players, which will support HDR, by year's end.

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During our short demo, which used 4K content captured with an HDR-capable camera, the results were impressive, especially in the area of specular highlights—that's the way that shiny objects become more brilliantly illuminated, as if reflecting light.

In two scenes with a lot of metallic gold objects, these images shone brightly with rich, golden hues, while the same scenes played on a non-HDR-capable set looked washed out. In other scenes, you could see differences in illumination even among bright objects, with levels of intensity that were lost when viewed on the regular UHD set.

There were also improvements in color: For example, the primary colors in an illuminated carousel were much deeper, richer, and more vibrant than on the other set, and I was able to distinguish more shades of colors in shadowy areas.

The trick, according to Sony, is to combine the HDR technology with smart local dimming, so that you retain details in the dark areas of the picture while boosting brightness in others. The HDR TV we watched had a full-array LED backlight, which can more effectively dim darker ares while keeping brighter areas illuminated.

Right now, there isn't a single standard for HDR, though Sony and Samsung say they're following an SMPTE standard for both HDR and expanded color. A UHD Alliance has been formed to establish benchmarks for things like HDR and wider color gamuts to avoid consumer confusion and interoperability issues.

We're looking forward to getting several of the 2015 Sony TVs into our labs for a complete evaluation.

—James K. Willcox

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