If you’ve bought a movie, a television show, a video game, or a television set in the past, you’ve likely encountered two different descriptors: UHD and HDR. That’s the ultra-high definition and high dynamic range. Now, when seen in passing, these two words sound like they mean the same thing. As it turns out, they mean distinct things. So, the big question about UHD vs HDR remains: What’s the difference?
Let’s deep dive into the world of UHD and HDR. We’ll explain their differences, highlight some must-know ‘facts, review their histories, and present their pros and cons. Ultimately, we’ll tell you which imaging standard is superior.
Side by Side Comparison of UHD vs HDR
|Synonyms||Ultra HD television, Ultra HD, UHDTV, UHD||High dynamic range, wide dynamic range, extended dynamic range, expanded dynamic range|
|Aspect Ratio||≥ 16:9||N/A|
|Standards First Established||2012||2014|
|Formats||4K, 8K, 16K||HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, HLG|
|Units of Measurement||Pixels||Nits|
5 Must-Know Facts about UHD and HDR
- UHD describes the number of pixels in a display. HDR describes the luminosity of those pixels.
- Typically, you can have UHD without HDR, but you cannot have HDR without UHD.
- UHD and HDR have SMPTE standards that must be met to qualify as UHD or HDR officially.
- UHD is synonymous with 4K, 8K, and even 16K.
- Dolby Vision was the first instance of what we now know as HDR.
UHD vs HDR: Key Differences
Ultra-high definition, or UHD, is a word that describes 4K and 8K television, films, and video games. Typically presented on televisions in an aspect ratio of 16:9, UHD is the next natural step after SDTV and HDTV. HDR, on the other hand, describes the dynamic range of particular signals. Wide dynamic range, extended dynamic range, or expanded dynamic range are other synonyms. HDR can apply to either visual or auditory signals (or both).
Media storage format
UHD exclusively applies to video, while HDR can describe audio and video. This is only the beginning of what separates UHD and HDR. Beyond this, there’s the actual function of the two descriptors to consider. UHD and HDR are not like SD vs HD. They describe two different quality standards. You could have a television equipped with UHD but not HDR (and vice versa). It’s not likely, as the two tend to be paired together, but it’s certainly possible.
UHD deals with the number of pixels contained in a display. HDR deals with how those pixels are optimized for aesthetic qualities like contrast and brightness.
The History of UHD
On October 17th, 2012, the Consumer Electronics Association — a standard and trade organization representing nearly 1,500 consumer technology companies — made an important announcement. A new quality standard called Ultra High Definition, or Ultra HD, would now be used for displays with an aspect ratio of 16:9 or wider. These so-called UHD displays would have one or more digital inputs capable of carrying or presenting native video at a resolution of 3840 × 2160.
However, this was far from the first time UHD had been seen. Researchers in Japan had constructed a prototype UHD television in 2003, nearly a decade earlier. These researchers — based at NHK — continued to tinker with UHD technology for the next several years. By 2007, SMPTE (the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) released the first set of standards for UHDTV. This effectively kicked off a UHD boom. By 2010, Panasonic had its first UHD plasma screen television. (Granted, it needed 152 inches to reach the proper standards.)
By the time the Consumer Electronics Association made its UHD announcement, Sharp, LG, Samsung, and Sony already had their own takes on the television standard. If it wasn’t official before, it was now: UHD had officially arrived in full force. In the years since, 4K and 8K UHD have gone beyond television to encompass Blu-ray players, video game consoles, video cameras, broadcasts, computer monitors, and even smartphones.
The Emergence of HDR
UHD vs HDR emerged with the establishment of HDR. After the Consumer Electronics Association debuted its official UHD standards, Dolby Laboratories set its own new quality standard: HDR. Dolby Vision’s new display parameters covered everything from content creation to distribution to playback. Dolby Vision uses dynamic metadata to represent luminance levels ranging from 1,000-10,000 nits. As with UHD, SMPTE soon announced a set of standards not long after HDR emerged in 2014.
Amazon Prime Video adopted HDR in 2015, followed shortly after by Vudu, Netflix, Roku, YouTube, and the Blu-ray Disc Association. Dolby Vision, HDR10, and HDR10+ — the latter two serving as the cheaper alternative to the former — continued to spread throughout film, television, and photography in subsequent years.
Today, photos and videos are optimized for HDR from the very beginning to the very end of the process: From the first day of a shoot to the day, the final project is shown. To accomplish this, each camera frame must contain extensive metadata on its brightness and contrast. Then, when displayed, that metadata will optimize each individual frame.
Pros and Cons of UHD and HDR
|Pros of UHD||Cons of UHD|
|Ultra-high definition delivers the best possible video quality on the market today.||UHD displays tend to be much more expensive than non-UHD displays|
|Increased pixels mean images appear crisper and clearer compared to non-UHD||To meet UHD standards, televisions and screens need to be quite large|
|Pros of HDR||Cons of HDR|
|Colors in an HDR display appear more vibrant||HDR cannot be optimized. One must shoot in HDR to display in HDR|
|When paired with UHD, 4K HDR images look more lifelike than non-HDR 4K images||When played on non-HDR displays, HDR-optimized images can look off-putting|
UHD vs HDR: Which Imaging Standard Is Best?
UHD and HDR are two distinct audio-visual display standards. While the two are often paired on television, Blu-rays, and video games, they are not always required to go together this way. They are far from synonymous, as one describes the total number of pixels, and the other describes the total number of nits. As it turns out, comparing UHD vs HDR is like trying to pit apples against oranges.
So, with this in mind, which is the superior standard? UHD or HDR? The simple answer is this: They’re better together. HDR improves UHD, and HDR is improved by UHD. Sticking with the apples and oranges comparison, think of 4K UHD HDR as a delicious, aesthetically pleasing fruit salad. Why have just an apple or an orange when you could have both?
Of course, if we had to pick a winner, it would probably have to be UHD. That’s because UHD is more wide-ranging. In other words, UHD is a more important quality standard compared to HDR. While it’s not possible to have HDR without UHD, UHD can still exist without HDR. After all, what good are optimized colors if your audiovisual technology can’t display them as intended? Even though they mutually benefit, UHD is the more critical imaging standard.