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How to upgrade your home theater system for 4K and HDR

Thinking of getting a new 4K HDR TV? Make sure you’ve got all the gear necessary to go with it.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
5 min read
CNET/HDMI Licensing

With high dynamic range (HDR) becoming available on more and more TVs , chances are your next TV will have it as a feature. But you might need to upgrade more than just the TV to get the full HDR experience. 

Depending on how complex your system is, you may also need to upgrade all or some of your gear, since it might not be able to handle 4K and HDR. As a reminder, right now all HDR is also 4K, but not all 4K is also HDR.

Think of this guide as a sort of checklist to make sure you've got everything you need for 4K HDR at home. This begins with the assumption that you already have the TV, and ideally an HDR TV that actually does HDR.

1. 4K and HDR content

After the TV itself, this is the most important item. Though many HDR TVs can artificially convert standard dynamic range content into a sort of "faux HDR," that's not nearly as good as your new TV can look. Also, all TVs can convert SD and HD content to 4K, and they do a pretty good job. But again, upconverted is not the same as native 4K content. It just won't look as sharp.

To truly experience the loveliness of 4K HDR, you need 4K HDR content. Pretty much every HDR TV is going to have built-in apps that let you stream HDR content from Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services.

Amazon Fire TV 2017
Sarah Tew/CNET

If the show or movie doesn't have some sort of HDR label in its description (or a Dolby Vision or HDR10 label), it probably isn't HDR. You might need to upgrade your subscription. Netflix , for example, only streams HDR on its most expensive monthly option.

2. Your internet

This may seem like a given, but it's important. If you want to stream 4K and HDR content, you may need a faster internet connection. 4K HDR involves a lot more data than HD, so even if your streaming picture quality looked OK before, it might not be enough for 4K.

Amazon recommends at least 15 megabits per second. Netflix and YouTube recommend 20Mbps. All of these services will give you HDR even if your internet's too slow for 4K -- although of course it won't be as sharp. That is to say, you'll get HD HDR, one of the few examples of that.

How to improve streaming quality on Netflix, Hulu and more.

3. A 4K HDR streamer or Blu-ray player

The apps built into TVs are pretty limited, so an external streaming device offers a far greater variety. Your old streamer likely can't do 4K HDR though. 

Amazon Fire TV 2017

There are more 4K HDR streaming devices available today than ever before.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The latest, step-up versions of the most popular streamers can all do 4K and HDR. They include:

We'd recommend the Roku for most people, but check out the full reviews for details on all of them.

For the best possible image on your new TV, you need a 4K Blu-ray player. This will play, you guessed it, new 4K Blu-ray discs. The majority of these will look vastly better than Blu-ray or streaming. These players will also play standard Blu-ray and DVD discs. Check out our picks for Best Blu-ray Players.

Of course a 4K Blu-ray player needs 4K Blu-ray discs to look its best.

If you get an external source, you might need to upgrade other gear in your system, starting with…

4. No need for new cables (probably)

Your current cables will most likely work just fine. All but the longest current HDMI cables should be able to handle the sizable amount of data that comes with all 4K and HDR content.

The only way to be sure, though, is to test them with that new gear. If they work, you'll see an image and it'll look good. Sweet! No need to get new cables. If you don't get an image, the picture cuts in and out or if there's something that looks like static, then the cable can't handle the higher resolution and you will need new cables.

You don't need to spend wads of cash. Amazon and Monoprice both sell 6-foot cables that can handle 4K HDR for well under $10. Check out Which HDMI cable should I buy? for more info.

5. Receiver or soundbar

If you have a more complex system, with a soundbar or receiver, you might need to upgrade those as well. It all depends on how you have it all hooked up. For example, if you have your Roku connected to the receiver, and the receiver connected to the TV, the receiver also needs to be 4K HDR compatible.

Every step in your home theater's signal chain needs to work with 4K HDR. If any one link in that chain isn't compatible, then none of it is. You won't get 4K HDR. If your receiver/soundbar is more than a few years old, it almost certainly is not 4K HDR compatible. Most new receivers and soundbars are, however.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As you probably expected, if you've got a more elaborate system, it's going to be more expensive to upgrade to 4K HDR. You'll need a new source and a new receiver in addition to that TV, and maybe new cables as well

Alternately you could get the 4K HDR source, connect it directly to the TV, and deal with the TV speakers (or ARC, if you've got it). Also, many 4K Blu-ray players have dual HDMI outputs, so you can run one to your TV, and an audio-only HDMI connection to your receiver. 

Although there are lots of extra steps with 4K HDR, modern TVs can look amazing, so it's worth taking the extra time and effort to make sure they're looking as good as they can.

First published Nov. 2, 3:34 a.m.

Update, Dec. 22 at 4:25 a.m.: Adds new updates on current cables.

Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the sameTV resolutions explainedLED LCD vs. OLED and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel.