If you have a newer TV that supports 4K resolution and high dynamic range, you probably want to maximize its potential. The easiest way is to stream actual 4K HDR video from an app like Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, Vudu or Apple TV. Any of those sources can give you gorgeous, punchy images that make your fancy TV shine. Sure Netflix charges $15.99 a month for the privilege — $3 more than the non-4K plan — but with its vast collection of 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision content, video nerds like me gladly pay up. The same goes for people who own nice audio systems that support Dolby Atmos surround sound.
HBO Max, the new service that launched last week at $14.99 a month, doesn't offer any 4K HDR or Atmos content at all, and I think that's a big missed opportunity. Executives at HBO Max acknowledge it's a shortfall: 4K HDR is "a super-high priority," said Andy Forssell, the product chief of HBO Max, in an interview on the day it launched. He said the decision was a matter of prioritizing certain features over others during the development process. "Just know it's a tough calculus. In the end we've got to make the right calls, and I think we made the right calls for launch."
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"4K HDR, Dolby Vision, HDR10 Plus and Dolby Atmos are on our roadmap," a spokeswoman for HBO Max said, but neither she nor Forssell would specify when those advanced audio and video formats would be available.
Read more: HBO Max review: 10,000 hours of great TV and movies but still incomplete
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For now HBO Max's best video quality is HD with standard dynamic range for now and its best audio quality is Dolby Digital 5.1. That's the same as HBO Now, HBO Go and the HBO channel you can get from your cable company. In my experience streaming HBO Now over the years, its HD looks good for the most part, but no HD can match real 4K HDR, especially on a good TV.
The lowest point for HBO streaming quality came in Game of Thrones' final season with an episode called The Long Night, also known as The Battle of Winterfell. Plagued by video artifacts and blotches of indistinct darkness, much of the episode looked bad. And I'm not the only one who noticed — the "too dark" complaint caused quite a stir and I even gave folks advice on how to adjust their TVs to compensate.
Fast-forward to December of last year when the Blu-ray came out in 4K HDR. It looks spectacular. Comparing the two on late-model 4K HDR TVs in my review, I found the high-dynamic range version was cleaner, more distinct, full of pop and just a treat for the eyes.
Yes, some of the difference can be attributed to the fact that I was watching a Blu-ray disc, not streaming, but in my experience with other 4K HDR streaming services, that's not a huge factor. 4K HDR on iTunes, Vudu and Netflix can look just as good as Blu-ray, and leagues better than the non-4K, non-HDR versions.
Beyond Game of Thrones and other recent HBO titles, HBO Max's huge collection of movies could really benefit. Titles that are available elsewhere in 4K HDR include:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Blade Runner: The Final Cut
- Wonder Woman
- A Star Is Born (2018)
- The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Many of those are shot and mastered in 4K HDR (or higher) but some, like 2001 and The Wizard of Oz, received lavish 4K HDR remasters using the original film and, like Game of Thrones Season 8, look much better than the HD versions.
Of course there's plenty of stuff on HBO Max that wouldn't benefit from the 4K treatment (I'm looking at you, Friends). And maybe Warner wants to continue to benefit from 4K HDR purchases and rentals of newer 4K titles, such as Joker, on other services. Meanwhile it costs a studio money to remaster older content, such as HBO classics The Sopranos and The Wire, to be in 4K.
But for my part I'd love to see as much 4K HDR as possible on streaming. And as a relatively expensive service, HBO Max is shooting itself in the foot by not including as much as it can at launch. Disney Plus is the opposite story: At launch it offered Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar movies, as well as originals like The Mandalorian, in 4K, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. At half the price of HBO Max.
Bottom line? Movies and recent HBO shows such as Game of Thrones, Westworld (which has a limited-edition 4K Blu-ray) and Watchmen (4K Blu-ray coming June 2) belong on HBO Max in maximum quality. When big Max titles such as Green Lantern and The Snyder Cut finally hit, I hope I'll be able to watch them in 4K HDR.
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