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Digital Foundry: the best 2017 4K TVs for HDR gaming

Looking to make the jump to a UHD screen? We've got you covered.

Choosing a 4K TV for gaming can be difficult, especially if you're looking for an effective HDR presentation. Differences in peak brightness, colour gamut, and backlight dimming implementations all have a dramatic impact on picture quality, and finding the best display at different price-points is a minefield. Not only does picture quality need to be considered, but a low level of input lag is essential for a great gaming experience - something that was a problem on many TVs last year when using HDR. Input latency varied greatly across various makes and models, with the all-important game mode implemented in many ways. On some TVs, there was simply no way to get a low latency gaming experience in HDR - and even the process of setting up a screen to accept and display HDR correctly could be convoluted.

The good news is that all the major manufacturers now offer up low latency modes in their 2017 line-up when using HDR. And better understanding of how the format works also allows for refinements in picture quality in various areas, from better resolved highlight detail to more accurate colour tracking. So, if you held back from investing in 4K screen last year, now is finally a good time to make the jump. While HDR standards are in flux to an extent, most of the key elements are finalised, including the use of HLG (Hybrid Log Gamma) for broadcast content, and the introduction of Dolby Vision for UHD Blu-ray. That said, the upcoming arrival of HDMI 2.1 will introduce some major upgrades, including variable refresh rate (VRR), support for higher frame-rates (like 4K 120Hz), and dynamic tone-mapping for HDR10. So, at some point down the line you'll be needing to reinvest in another 4K screen if you're looking to take advantage of these features.

In the here and now, there's a feeling that manufactures know how to better handle HDR; implementations are improving, and a low latency game mode that works with HDR can be expected on most 2017 TVs. And crucially, the experience is excellent on displays using the current standards. Of course, to get the best experience you'll still need to target mid-range displays or above, which mostly hit the UHD Premium specifications for HDR content. Lower-end models usually lack backlight dimming, and feature narrower colour gamuts, greatly limiting HDR performance. So, while they still make for a great 4K display they don't work particularly well for high dynamic range. This means that to get the most faithful HDR presentation you'll be looking at displays retailing from around 1000, where basic dimming and wider colour gamuts are available on most TVs. Lower-end 4K sets still deliver great performance with SDR, but you'll be missing out on the complete UHD package at just the time where HDR is really set to take off.

If you're looking to buy a 4K screen in the here and new, here are our recommendations for the best UHD screens for 2017, with a particular focus on high dynamic range. We're aiming to cover off both high-end and mid-range units, along with a pick for the best HDR and SDR 4K screens for those with a more modest budget.

Sony XE90: The best mid-range 4K screen for HDR gaming

While high-end displays deliver the best performance, not everyone can afford to splash out over 3,000 on a 4K screen, but moving down to the 1,000-2,000 bracket still offers up some excellent choices, with the Sony XE90 our pick for the best balance of price vs performance. Unlike other mid-range 4K screens, the XE90 features direct LED local dimming instead of the edge lighting usually seen at this price point. This is limited to around 48 zones, but the results are noticeably better compared to an edge-lit display. More areas of the screen can be dimmed at one time for better precision, resulting in a more faithful presentation. Combined with 936 nits of peak brightness and a wide colour gamut (97 per cent DCI P3), the XE90 delivers excellent HDR performance for the money.

The low level of input lag with 4K signals is also excellent. Latency comes in at a speedy 31ms in game mode (SDR and HDR) - very responsive and low enough for most gamers. HDR performance is also a step above many mid-range displays. A high peak brightness level and accomplished tone-mapping allows for detailed highlights that have plenty of impact. Of course, the low number of dimming zones does lead to some blooming and haloing artefacts, which can be distracting when viewing in dimmer environments. The lack of a colour management system (CMS) also means colour accuracy could be better. Obviously, some compromises are expected with any mid-range TV, but overall the Sony XE90 is our recommendation for those looking for excellent performance at a keen price-point.

Samsung Q7F: low input lag and excellent contrast ratio

The Samsung Q7F is this year's replacement for the KS7000 in the mid-range category, and features improved quantum dot LCD panels with wider viewing angles. Despite the QLED moniker, the Q7F is an LCD display with edge-lit pseudo local dimming, and not a self-emissive technology like OLED. The lack of true local dimming means that the Q7F cannot match the Sony XE90 in terms of displaying bright and dark imagery on screen at the same time. However, the Q7F features a slightly higher peak brightness level and wider colour gamut (99 per cent DCI P3), so brighter scenes have more pop with more accurate colour saturation. HDR can still look impressive, just like the KS7000.

The wider viewing angles allow for better off-axis performance than most VA panel LCDs, and this is backed up by low input lag of just 24ms, so games should feel extremely responsive. Deep black levels, excellent video processing, and generous calibration controls round off the benefits of the Q7F.

The inability to disable edge-dimming is an odd backwards step from the KS7000 though, while the new sub-pixel structure can lead to aliasing on some bright objects. Even so, with a recent discount that sees prices start at a reasonable 1499 for the 49-inch model, the Samsung Q7F comes recommended as an alternative to the Sony XE90 for those wanting better colour accuracy - although HDR performance isn't on the same level.

Panasonic EZ952: The definitive OLED HDR experience

Competition in the OLED market is fierce, with each manufacturer needing to offer up something different to stand out. For Panasonic, this comes in providing the most accurate images seen on a consumer TV to date, with colour accuracy after calibration approaching that of a studio mastering monitor. This is joined with stunning black levels and contrast performance that only OLED can achieve, excellent viewing angles, and low input lag. Latency comes in at just 26ms for both 4K and 1080p, making it a great choice for 60fps gaming. On top of that, latency only increases to 34ms when using black frame insertion, so motion clarity can be improved without impacting controller response to any noticeable degree.

HDR performance is excellent too, with plenty of highlight detail resolved. Due to the self-emissive characteristic of OLED panels, bright highlights pop into the screen without compromising dark imagery, resulting in a highly impressive level of dynamic range. Due to OLED's limited peak brightness capabilities, the brightest scenes can't hit the level of punch provided by the top LED LCDs (like Sony's ZD9), but the presentation is superior in mixed and dark scenes, where the EZ952 feature more depth and precision.

Compared to LG's B7 the Panasonic EZ952 provides a perceivable brighter HDR image with content mastered to 4000 nits, despite featuring a slightly lower level of peak brightness. Panasonic's tone-mapping approach provides a better balance of resolving details close to 4000 nits, while still providing plenty of impact in bright scenes. Factoring in accurate colours with game mode enabled and the ability to use black frame insertion, it's the best all-round performer for a top-end HDR screen. Alternatively, the LG B7 supports Dolby Vision, and maintains true blacks in bright rooms due to featuring a light rejecting filter. This is missing on the EZ952, leading to a purple-ish tint to blacks when viewing in brighter conditions.

LG B7 OLED: The best all-round screen for both SDR and HDR gaming

Last year's B6 was superb value for money with prices coming in as low as 1,400 as remaining stock was cleared out. It's a great TV, though this year's B7 improves upon it in various ways, including superior HDR tone-mapping, lower input latency, smoother near black handling, and improved viewing angles. Input latency is also dropped to 21ms (from 28ms on the B6) in both SDR and HDR game modes, by labelling the HDMI inputs as 'PC'. OLED's self-emissive characteristic also ensure that SDR content looks superb with true blacks and stunning levels of three-dimensionality.

One of the biggest improvements on the B7 is in how HDR is handled. There is more detail resolved in bright highlights: 4000 nits of detail on the B7 vs around 1000 nits on the B6. This means that content mastered at high peak brightness levels will be displayed more accurately, with less information clipped out in brighter scenes. The downside is that HDR appears dimmer compared to the B6 due to this method of tone-mapping, so the impact is lessened somewhat in terms of punch. In this respect, the Panasonic EZ952 delivers a more balanced image, while the B7 offers up the most highlight detail.

For those who already own the B6, the upgrade here isn't worth splashing out for. But for those yet to grab a 4K TV, it's a great alternative to Panasonic's EZ952 with Dolby Vision support and a slightly more detailed HDR image in bright highlights being the key advantages, and standard dynamic range performance is also outstanding when gaming and watching movies.

Sony ZD9: best-in-class HDR performance for an LCD TV

Sony is one of the few manufacturers providing high-end UHD TVs with full-array local dimming, and the ZD9 is their flagship model. To put it really simply: look no further if you're seeking out the best LCD for both SDR and HDR viewing. The local dimming implementation delivers deep black levels without much in the way of haloing and blooming, making for effective reproduction of HDR material, and excellent contrast for SDR.

Peak brightness of around 1800 nits adds plenty of punch to highlights when gaming in HDR, and allows for bright details to be resolved clearly without losing impact. Mixed brightness scenes also hold up well due to the excellent local dimming implementation, and a wide colour gamut (95 per cent DCI P3) allows for more accurate colour reproduction in HDR.

The ZD9 also supports all the major HDR formats: HDR10, HLG, and Dolby Vision (with a firmware update). Input latency for 4K is reasonable at 42ms in SDR and 45ms in HDR, so fast-paced titles running at 60fps feel good to play for those less sensitive to input lag. It's not the most responsive 4K screen out there, but latency should be low enough to not get in the way for most gamers.

In terms of compromises, a VA panel means that viewing angles are limited, and there can be some occasional grey ghosting in dark scenes. Small bright objects in dark scenes can also appear dimmer than they should be due to the limitations of what local dimming can achieve, compared to the per-pixel accuracy of OLED. Even so, for those worried about image retention with OLED, or a are looking for the most impact with HDR in bright scenes, the Sony ZD9 is a great alternative to the LG B7 and Panasonic EZ952 OLEDs.

Samsung MU8000 (MU9000 US): low input lag and excellent contrast ratio

The Samsung MU8000 (known as the MU9000 in North America) is an alternative for the Q7F in the mid-range category. While it is a downgrade in several areas, the MU8000 should still provide a decent HDR gaming experience at a reasonable price point. 24ms input lag ensures that fast paced games feel snappy in both 1080p and 4K. A wider colour gamut and reasonable peak brightness (around 600 nits) should deliver a relatively decent HDR performance given the limitations of the display, though not to the same level as the Q7F.

However, the MU8000 lacks quantum dot technology, and features a lower peak brightness and a narrower colour gamut than the Q7F, leading to less impact with HDR in brighter scenes. You'll need to move up to Samsung's QLED range for a UHD Premium HDR experience, which starts at 1,499 for the 49-inch model.

That said, deep black levels and solid video processing make the MU8000 a noteworthy 4K screen. Alternatively, the MU7000 delivers a similar level of performance for slightly less money. Peak brightness is a touch lower, but otherwise you should get a similar experience overall.

Panasonic EX700: entry-level HDR and low lag at competitive prices

For those looking for a budget screen for HDR gaming, the Panasonic EX700 offers up a reasonable experience for the price. Essentially, the TV operates like a cut-down EX750, featuring a lower peak brightness, but otherwise similar attributes in other areas, including edge-lit dimming. Low latency and colour accuracy are the main selling points with the EX700. Input lag in game mode comes in at a speedy 21ms, and this can be used in conjunction with the Cinema and True Cinema modes for accurate imagery with low latency gaming in both SDR and HDR.

HDR performance won't match more expensive TVs, given the display's limited peak brightness and lack of local dimming, so the experience could be better. Compared to UHD Premium TVs, specular highlights lack impact due to the limited light output (344 nits peak brightness) resulting in a dimmer picture. Global dimming also limits contrast performance as mixed and low brightness scenes can appear washed when highlights are displayed, as the entire backlight needs to be raised and lowered. However, a wide colour gamut (89 per cent DCI P3) is present, and black levels are very good due to the use of a VA panel.

While HDR experience is distinctly average, it's enough to give a taste of what HDR offers for those on a more limited budget, but don't expect the same level of authenticity compared to more refined mid-range TVs.

Samsung MU6400 (MU7000 US): excellent SDR performance for 4K gaming

Without backlight dimming or a suitably wide colour gamut, the MU6400 (branded as the MU7000 in North America) won't deliver a true HDR experience, even though the TV accepts and processes the format. However, for a 4K SDR display the MU6400 offers up great performance, with deep black levels, low input lag (just 21ms), and comprehensive calibration controls allowing for an impressive UHD picture. It's not a display for enjoying HDR, but if native 4K gaming and standard dynamic range are your main priorities, the MU6400 is a capable performer, just like the KU6400 before it.

HDR in 2017: where do we stand?

While it could be difficult to find a 4K display capable of delivering low input lag in both SDR and HDR last year, this is no longer a problem, with all the major manufacturers offering up low latency modes that work across multiple sources and resolutions. With input lag coming in below 30ms on many 2017 TVs, games should feel responsive across most major brands, both entry-level and high-end.

There's certainly something for most gamers out there, although it's worth noting that the quality of the HDR experience still varies greatly across different models, with lower-end sets delivering a passable presentation at best. Mid-range units can start to show the true benefits of HDR, via basic edge-lit or local dimming, which can help to better display the expanded contrast range on offer with this format. Of course, the high-end flagship models achieve an even more authentic presentation, though this doesn't come cheap.

Unfortunately, the technology found in previous high-end models is yet to trickle down to more affordable mid and entry-level displays. What this means is that the best HDR experience is only available on larger more expensive screens, with many TVs under 49 inches often lacking any kind of adaptive backlighting for effectively dealing with the extra dynamic range in HDR content. It's something we need to see improved in future product line-ups, with a little more focus on driving things forward in areas outside the high-end.

Currently, OLED screens - with their incredible contrast, superb motion handling, and per-pixel precision when dealing with HDR - are still limited to the flagship models, and these are only available in 55 inches and above. Meanwhile, most LED LCDs below 2,000 still feature edge-lit panels without true local dimming, limiting HDR performance to a degree. The Sony XE90 stands out here, as it offers up a level of performance not found on other mid-range screens, with true local dimming, excellent tone-mapping, and low input latency. It's easily our mainstream HDR hero for 2017, and comes highly recommended. Our only bugbear here is that screen sizes are limited to 49 inches and above, with no option in the popular 40-inch category - not everyone wants a TV that dominates their room.

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Dropping below 1,000 and 49 inches, choices are limited for a decent HDR experience. The likes of the Samsung MU6400 is simply mediocre when displaying HDR due to the lack of proper dimming, while the Panasonic EX700 lacks a high enough peak brightness to give specular highlights the impact they need. Edge-lit dimming and a wider colour gamut still provides a reasonable experience, but it's still a massive step down from the UHD Premium sets that dominate above the 1000 mark. However, in terms of 4K gaming in standard dynamic range, both these displays offer excellent performance for the price.

Ultimately, the best HDR experience still comes from the top-end sets, and it's here that OLED that really comes to the forefront, with true black levels and outstanding contrast giving scenes outstanding depth and three-dimensionality. Bright scenes may lack impact compared to the brightest LCDs, but performance in other areas more than make up for this. Better motion clarity and precise handling of light and dark imagery on a per-pixel level allow for stunning images that no other display type can match. Here, the Panasonic EZ952 and LG's B7 come highly recommended for those looking for the most authentic HDR experience, and best-in-class SDR viewing.

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