When shopping for a home theatre projector, you will stumble on the HDR vs. SDR debate, which will undoubtedly have a section devoted to the difference in the price of these units.
And that will undoubtedly spur the question- Is an HDR projector really so much better than an SDR device that you ought to pay more for it? Continue reading for a straightforward and in-depth 4k SDR vs. HDR comparison that will help you to make a well-informed buying decision.
HDR vs. SDR
If you have dabbled in photography, you may have come across the term HDR or High Dynamic Range. Similarly, you may also remember the term SDR or Standard Dynamic Range from your old CRT TV.
The term dynamic range in terms of display be it a screen or a projector, refers to the difference or the ratio between the darkest and deepest black and the whitest/brightest white in an image that a display device can reproduce/represent.
But, isn't that what a contrast ratio is? Precisely! While the terms dynamic range and contrast ratio are synonymous, the former is used in relation to image capture and post-production, and the latter is used in connection with the display technology/device.
In simple words, media of a certain dynamic range type (we will discuss the two types shortly) can only be displayed by a display device that has the contrast ratio to reproduce that dynamic range type. And that brings us back to the two dynamic ranges under discussion.
What is HDR?
High Dynamic Range or HDR is a fairly new imaging technique that has been used since 2014. It first caught the attention of photographers who started using it to properly capture both highlights and shadows.
To do so, they needed a wider dynamic range that SDR just could not offer, and that led to the birth of HDR. The imaging technology simultaneously brightens the lighter shades while darkening the darker hues.
The net effect is a wider color range and conspicuous improvement in details. In fact, with HDR it is possible to get picture quality that is stunningly life-like. So no more overblown skies or details merging into the shadows in darker images.
What is SDR?
As you may have guessed, SDR or Standard Dynamic Ratio is the older of the two and has been around since the ye ol' days of CRT monitors and TVs. Simply because it has endured for such a long time, it continues to be used as an acceptable format to this day.
One of the reasons for this is that people still have devices that only have enough contrast ratio to cater to the requirements of SDR. The big problem with this imaging technique is the lack of color depth.
For instance, imagine the grey concrete façade of a building filmed at night. The lower contrast would lead to the blending of the darker areas into the background. In other words, you'd simply see a whole lot of black nothing.
For better or for worse, SDR continues to be used for a lot of video content; in fact for everything from games to YouTube videos and even movies. In a nutshell, unless the content is rated HDR, what you're watching is SDR. Ditto for devices!
HDR vs SDR: Is SDR better than HDR?
Without a doubt, HDR is far better than SDR. Be it luminance, color depth, color space, or even color accuracy, HDR is levels above SDR.
For instance, if you go back to the example above- if the same image were captured in HDR, you'd be able to see every side of the concrete building along with even the minute physical attributes of the façade like cracks and indentations.
In other words, the imaging would be as precise as what your eyes would capture. And the more details you have to absorb, the more engaging the content is, and hence more immersive.
Then there are games. They are in a class of their own when enjoyed in HDR simply because they are designed to offer a life-like feel and experience, and HDR only helps with that.
After all that, bet you are wondering- Then why do people continue to use SDR? Well, because it is cheaper to do so.
Having said that, there is a middle ground between these two- It's called 4K SDR. If you want to do a 4K SDR vs. HDR comparison- Think of the former as the poor man's HDR.
So, it is somewhere in between the two in terms of performance. In fact, 4K SDR is meant to be the imaging technique for 4K TVs that don't support HDR. What it essentially does is make up for lower quality with higher quantity.
Benefits of HDR Format
1. Wider color gamut (range): The color gamut is literally as it says the range of the three primary colors, i.e. red, green, and blue. In terms of actual figures, while SDR can display a maximum of 16.7 million colors, with HDR, the projector can display more than 1 billion colors.
In addition to this, the term color gamut also refers to the saturation of these colors. As you may have guessed, on this front too, HDR beats SDR by a significant margin.
Because you get more colors with greater saturation, HDR puts all the pixels in 4K to their maximum use. For the viewer, this translates to extraordinarily vibrant colors, particularly shades of red, green, and yellow, and of course every hue that can be created by combining these in various proportions.
The availability of a wider color gamut also means that images are portrayed more accurately which leads to content that offers greater engagement.
2. Wider dynamic range: As discussed above dynamic range is another term for contrast ratio. A non-HDR projector will often clip images, and colors and information that is clipped are essentially lost or not seen. This problem becomes obvious for images with a wide range of luminance as well as those that have a wide range of darker tones.
An HDR projector tackles this issue by first calculating the amount of brightness in a given image, including its brightest sections, and then using this information to present sections of the image with various levels of brightness.
The end result is a display that is true to life and one that does not display all bright areas at the same level of luminance. The same thing is done for darker images. This capability allows HDR projectors to offer more realistic-looking picture quality with details that would have been lost in SDR.
You could also understand this difference in terms of figures. As discussed above, the dynamic range or the contrast ratio is literally the ratio of the brightest white to the darkest black. This difference is measured in terms of stops.
SDR typically offers a dynamic range of approximately 6 stops while HDR offers nearly thrice the dynamic range at 17.6 stops. So, images with dark grey tones never get clipped to black in HDR, similarly lighter tones like pastels do not get clipped to white.
3. Higher brightness: Brightness not only accentuates overall image quality but also makes a remarkable difference to the way in which colors are displayed and perceived by the human eye. For instance, you could take the same color and display it on two screens; one that is brighter than the other.
You will find the results of the brighter monitor more appealing and even engrossing. In other words, brightness actually impacts the quality of color as you perceive it. This brightness/luminance is measured in candela/m2 or a less mouthful term nits.
While SDR is capable of a luminance output of 100 nits (which is 100 candela/square meter), HDR or more specifically HDR10 (more on this coming up) offers ten times that at 1,000 nits. So, you get to see more shades of both primary and secondary colors.
READ MORE: 10 Ways to Make Your Projector Brighter
The 4 Different Types of HDR
At this time, there are 4 main HDR formats. Of these, 3 are quite popular and while some are royalty-free, a license is needed for the others.
While all of them are clubbed under the umbrella term /format HDR, each one of them takes a different approach to displaying HDR content. Hence, each one of these has its fair share of pros and cons.
These formats are segregated on the basis of whether they can pick up HDR signals with static or dynamic metadata.
What is Metadata?
The term metadata refers to information pertaining to the color range and the brightness of an image. This metadata is captured in two ways. If the HDR format can pick up static metadata it simply means that it will pick up information about the color range and the brightness level once and then apply it to the rest of the session/video.
In contrast, dynamic metadata involves capturing this information on a scene-by-scene basis. Now, on the surface, it may seem like formats that use dynamic metadata are the way to go forward.
But in reality, that's just a way to make concessions for devices that are not capable of delivering the luminance and the wide color range that HDR requires. So, a dynamic metadata format will turn down the brightness for a scene that primarily has subjects and background that are dark and it will kick up the brightness to its maximum level for a scene with brighter subjects and background.
A format with static metadata keeps the brightness constant, which means even darker images/scenes come across as more brilliant, detailed, and of course engaging. Now, with that out of the way, here is a look at the four HDR formats:
The most popular and frequently used of all HDR formats, HDR10 is royalty-free and hence costs nothing or little to use. This explains its widespread adoption by content makers. The format supports a 10-bit video stream, which means you get a color depth of 1 billion along with a luminance of 1,000 nits.
In simple terms, that's pretty much the most eye-catching digital display possible. The WEMAX Nova supports HDR10, so it's no wonder that its image quality and the vibrant colors of the display often leave viewers spellbound.
This is a 20th Century Fox, Samsung, and Panasonic offering, so it's harder to implement and requires high-end processors and screen panels. HDR10+ uses Dynamic Metadata and produces a peak brightness of 4000 nits. At this time, it is supported by a few production houses and TV brands. But, given the difficulty in adopting it, chances are that HDR10 content will gain widespread implementation well before HDR10+ content.
As the name says, this is a creation of Dolby and it is a paid service with several performance and usage rules. Dolby Vision also uses Dynamic Metadata. The format is only supported by a few TV manufacturers and some streaming platforms.
This format comes courtesy of NHK (the Japanese broadcasting behemoth) and BBC. It was created specifically for Live TV and high-definition satellite TV programs. So, more than movies, games or any other form of content, it was created for broadcasted programs.
Because televisions with SDR-only support are still being used the world over, HLG was designed to cater to both SDR and HDR. So, it can support a combination of Static and Dynamic Metadata in the same signal. Furthermore, it has a lower cost of adoption and is considerably simpler to use.
Are HDR Projectors Worth it?
If you have ever used a CRT monitor, you know how much of a performance boost the flat panel LCD and then LED monitors offered above those bulky units. And since the performance of LCD and LED screens was so much superior, wide-scale adoption occurred at a furious pace.
Well, HDR is something similar. It is to SDR what an LED monitor is to the old CRT monitors. Yes, the technology is still in its nascent stages but it won't be long before more content makers jump onto the HDR bandwagon.
In fact, many who have compared the image quality of SDR and HDR side to side state that even when 4K is coupled with SDR, the combination is no match to 1080p HDR.
Now, that should come as no surprise. While resolution is all about quantity, dynamic range is all about quality. So, think about how astounding the performance can be when you put quantity and quality together.
Having said that, it needs to be stated that SDR is far from being dead. But, the fact is that an increasing number of device manufacturers are now coupling HDR with 4K. So, you can be sure that it won't be long before an increasing number of content creators start relying solely on HDR.
And that's when those SDR devices will turn into killjoys. After all, HDR content displayed on an SDR device looks much worse than SDR content displayed on an SDR panel/screen.
So, if you want your projector to be a long-term investment, then it would be best to go with an HDR device. And, here is one that will leave you more than impressed-
Projector Recommendation: WEMAX Nova
The high-end WEMAX Nova has pretty much everything that you need for an immersive viewing experience.
For starters, it supports HDR10, so it is capable of displaying over a billion colors. Now, add that extraordinary color range to 2100 ANSI Lumens and a resolution of 3000:1, and what you get are images that are so lifelike that you will have to pinch yourself to believe that you are not actually a part of the scene.
Plus, the Nova is an ultra-short throw projector. This means all you have to do is place it about 19 inches from the projection surface to get a screen size of a whopping 150 inches.
The Nova also comes equipped with a 4-speaker array, totaling 30W that supports Dolby Audio and DTS-HD. So, the audio and video experience are equally spectacular.
What's more, this is one amazingly feature-rich product. It offers access to a massive 5k apps, so every streaming platform is merely a click away. To cut a long story short- if your favorite content isn't being relayed on WEMAX Nova, sure you are watching it but you certainly aren't living the experience!
Can I watch Netflix movies and shows in HDR?
Although Amazon Prime was the first streaming platform to adopt HDR, Netflix wasn't too far behind. Today, Apple TV, Disney Plus, and others have also jumped on the HDR bandwagon.
So, yes you can watch Netflix movies and shows on HDR with your WEMAX Nova. But, if you want the HDR capabilities of the projector to be utilized to their fullest, add an ALR screen from WEMAX to your home theater setup.
HDR calls for extraordinary brightness and while the Nova offers a stunning 2100 ANSI lumens, ambient light can bring down the actual, onscreen luminance of any projector.
But, if you have an ALR screen in the mix, it tackles the ambient light problem allowing only the brilliance of the projector to reach you. Plus, with an ALR screen like the WEMAX 100" Fresnel ALR CLR Fixed Screen, you get a screen gain of 1.0, which renders the images so bright that you will find yourself glued to the display.
Wrapping It Up
After all that, one thing must be clear to you- SDR is no match for HDR! While SDR isn't going away today, it's only a matter of time before the cutthroat competition in the entertainment business compels content makers to adopt the more appealing and engaging HDR format.
Plus, many upcoming releases and your favorite shows and even games are already in HDR. So, buying an HDR10 4K UHD projector like the WEMAX Nova means that you will get more from your purchase today and tomorrow.
Another thing to consider is that while you can always switch off HDR to watch SDR content, you can't jump on the HDR side if your projector is only SDR compatible. So, with an HDR projector, you are actually getting the best of both worlds. And since a projector involves a sizeable investment of course it makes sense to get the maximum bang for your buck.
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