High Dynamic Range video is both the most exciting aspect of the 4k Ultra HD format and also the most confusing. With their new flagship products, JVC and Panasonic have teamed up to simplify HDR tone mapping (the process by which an HDR signal is adapted to fit within the limitations of an HDTV or projector display) to a few easy settings. Unfortunately, such convenience will cost you a pretty penny.
Things seemed so much easier with Standard Dynamic Range, where all video content was (and still is) mastered to the same target standards. Perhaps not every TV or display can reach the full potential of the format, but you at least know what you’re aiming for. If you calibrate your screen to as close as it will come to the standard, you can get a really good video image.
When displayed optimally, High Dynamic Range video can be incredibly dynamic and vibrant, more so than SDR can achieve. The problem is that getting that to work is a damn mess. We currently have four different HDR formats (HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and HLG), and within any of them content can be mastered to peak brightness of anywhere from SDR levels (100 or 200 nits) up to 10,000 nits at the filmmakers’ discretion, yet no (really, no) video displays on the market can actually deliver brightness at the upper levels of that. In fact, there are no standards for how bright a 4k TV is supposed to be at all.
In order to view HDR content on a screen not capable of rendering the full dynamic range of the video, the image has to be “tone mapped” down to the capabilities of the display. Sadly, the tone mapping functions in most TVs, projectors, and video sources (such as UHD Blu-ray players or streaming devices) range from decent to crap, and because there are no standards for how bright HDR movies are supposed to be mastered, viewers often wind up fiddling with their video settings on a title-by-title basis until they land on a picture that’s mostly watchable without clipping or crushing all the detail in bright or dark parts of the frame. In a best case scenario, they’ll wind up with something still decidedly better than 1080p SDR. In a worst case scenario, HDR may actually look worse than SDR.
Most 4k HDTVs are bright enough that less-picky viewers can select a middle-of-the-road preset and still get a pretty good HDR picture without thinking about it too much. However, the process is much more difficult with projectors, which simply cannot hit anywhere near the light output that a flat panel can, and typically struggle with black levels and contrast. With many allegedly “HDR” capable projectors, the visible difference between SDR and HDR video is negligible, if discernible at all. Furthermore, projection systems have so many variables regarding screen size, screen gain, ambient light and reflections in the room, and light output from the projector itself, that getting good HDR can be a terrible ordeal.
Enter the Corporate Synergy
JVC projectors have long been renowned for their rich contrast and black levels, which may not hit absolute black the way an OLED flat panel can, but are very impressive at significantly larger screen sizes. Nevertheless, tone mapping on them is still a challenge for all the reasons mentioned above.
Over the weekend, I made a road trip to Value Electronics in Scarsdale, NY, which hosted a demonstration of the new JVC DLA-RS3000 projector (a.k.a. the DLA-NX9), and Panasonic DP-UB9000 Ultra HD Blu-ray player. These are the flagship products from each manufacturer, boasting hefty price tags of $17,999.95 for the projector and another $999 for the disc player. The benefit of pairing them together is that the JVC and Panasonic teams collaborated to design special video setting modes that simplify and optimize HDR performance between the two.
The equipment at the event was calibrated by Kris Deering, a reviewer for Sound and Vision magazine (and a colleague of mine from when we worked at Home Theater magazine together) who has recently launched his own home theater calibration and consulting business called Deep Dive AV. Kris knows all the ins and outs of HDR far better than I can even begin to grasp. I trust him implicitly, and was very pleased that he also delivered the presentation and answered questions. I went into the store expecting JVC and Panasonic reps to manage the whole event with a full-force sales push. Instead, during my time there, they didn’t even enter the screening room, leaving it to a third party who wasn’t afraid to speak frankly and cut through some of the marketing hyperbole and BS. I found that very refreshing.
The HDR Optimizer feature in the UB9000 player (as well as the less expensive UB820 model) can read the metadata on an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc to determine its intended brightness levels. As Kris explained it, the UB9000 will then tone map that down to targets of either 500 nits or 350 nits with special video output modes that are designed to work in conjunction with corresponding settings in the JVC projector. Because even 350 nits is more than the projector can actually display, the JVC will take over and tone map the rest of the way down to its own output capabilities. Since the two companies worked together, each one’s tone map algorithm should know right where the other one leaves off or begins.
Panasonic’s 350-nit mode is closer to the end target and will engage the JVC color filter to produce 100% of the P3 color gamut. The cheaper (relatively speaking; it’s still $500) UB820 player only has the 500-nit output mode, which doesn’t activate the color filter. The impression I got was that the UB9000’s 350-nit option may be superior in this case, but the UB820 can probably get you pretty close results with some careful adjustment of the settings.
The downside to this process is that it relies on every movie disc to have accurate HDR metadata. Unfortunately, many have inaccurate metadata or none at all (especially titles from Disney or Fox, which are pretty much guaranteed to be wrong). However, even in that case, the Panasonic’s default tone mapping curve still looks good for most movies, and if you find one you’re unsatisfied with, you can adjust it manually using the settings on a tone map slider. Sadly, this means that you’ll never get away from doing some manual tweaking from time to time, but that should happen much less than on other equipment.
As Kris talked, he played clips from some slow-moving demo footage of scenery in Peru that was shot with 8k cameras and mastered as 4k HDR. He was the first to admit that this type of thing is designed to look good on pretty much any display and may not be representative of what it’s like to watch a real movie, so he followed that with a scene from Lucy that featured a lot of rich blacks, bright whites, and popping colors.
I want to be clear that everything in the demo looked excellent, as you should damn well expect from watching content on $19,000 worth of top-of-the-line hardware. That said, if I’m being completely honest, it didn’t blow me out of my socks like I may have hoped. It was certainly a step up from the older JVC projector I have at home right now, but the Lucy clip still kind of looked like a really good Blu-ray and didn’t scream “HDR!” to me. The projector’s black levels, while definitely darker than you’ll find on any competitor brand, were still high enough that the movie’s letterbox bars were noticeable, and the bright specular highlights could have been a little more piercing. The claims (not made by Kris) that this combination of UHD player and projector would produce an OLED-like image at twice the size were a bit overblown.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have image quality this good in my own home. Nonetheless, it’s a tough sell at these prices.
To be fair, some of this may be due to the room environment or the screen size, and some may be due to Kris’ own preferences for calibration. He noted that he had turned off the dynamic iris in the projector and was only showing its native contrast. With the DI engaged, those blacks might have been darker and the highlights might have popped a little more. I also know some people who would argue that his target average brightness (as I recall, he said it was 23 foot-lamberts) was low for HDR, though he had a strong argument for why he felt that many people watch HDR too bright.
What I mean to say is that it may be possible to adjust this same equipment to taste and alleviate any minor disappointment I felt.
As much as I was excited for this presentation, I was never going to put myself on a waiting list for an $18,000 projector. That’s just not in the realm of feasibility for me right now. Nor do I have any desire to spend $1,000 on another Blu-ray player when I’m otherwise very happy with my OPPO UDP-203, which has important features (like an HDMI input and 21:9 aspect ratio scaling) that Panasonic doesn’t offer.
My plan for a while now has been to save up for JVC’s next step down, the DLA-RS2000. I think that’s still my goal. All of JVC’s current model line have the special Panasonic synchronicity, but I’m not giving up my OPPO. I’m also not completely convinced that this feature is necessarily the end-all/be-all solution for tone mapping. Other options do exist for that. I’ll just have to do some more research into getting the best tone mapping with different combinations of equipment.