Dynamic contrast has improved over the years and in the era of HDR gaming monitors is often essential to getting impactful image quality in games, movies, and TV content.
We often get asked about contrast these days, a query that’s been growing in popularity ever since HDR burst big time onto the screen, or scene, circa 2016. Contrast has always been an essential spec of displays, but with HDR it makes an even bigger difference. Then there’s dynamic contrast, a wildly variable figure that often leaves consumers confused. After consulting several of our product managers and engineers here at BenQ HQ, we decided to…shed more light on the issue. Contrast is of particular interest to gamers, as video games rely on pixel-perfect details to express themselves. However, movie buffs aren’t far behind in their reliance and appreciation of a good contrast ratio.
All monitors and TVs rely on contrast to showcase dark scenes or black parts of the screen. Nearly all of them can do whites generally well, but blacks are a different matter. With low contrast, blacks or dark areas appear more like grey. Some people don’t mind this, but overall it’s better to have high contrast to ensure dark scene accuracy. If you’re playing something like Outlast or Resident Evil 7 you don’t want blacks to look like greys and give every hidden detail away. That would detract from the point of playing a horror game. Ditto for movies and TV shows: sometimes directors and cinematographers don’t want you to see certain things, so they hide them in darkness. Poor contrast will ruin that effect.
So contrast is the maximum difference between black and white on a given screen. Again, because white is not that much of a problem for monitors, it’s used as the reference point. So when you see a number like the EX3501R’s 2500:1 that means the panel can have blacks that are 2500 times darker than its brightest value. This is generally good, although even 1000:1 is more than adequate.
Note: when we say bright or white areas of the screen aren’t an issue for monitors, we don’t mean all brightness is equal on every panel. Brightness is measured in nits or candelas and varies greatly between displays. To do HDR, a panel must be able to exceed 350 nits/candelas. Also, contrast is measured per panel, it isn’t a universal value. Engineers test every panel and figure out the difference between the brightest point and the darkest point on a given monitor to arrive at a contrast ratio.
While a value like 2500:1 is native contrast as produced by the panel with no additional processing, dynamic contrast often goes into the spec stratosphere with values like 20,000,000:1. If you look at your monitor or TV’s settings, you’ll likely run into something called contrast enhancer or a similar name. BenQ monitors use a variety of algorithms and processing tools like Black eQualizer, Light Tuner, and HDRi to refine and adjust both contrast and brightness. This processing on modern displays improves contrast to great effect, and should not be discounted as marketing fluff.
Once upon a time dynamic contrast was greatly frowned upon. It was considered cheating by image aficionados, and many felt the effect resulted in lost detail. Additional lag due to extra processing was also a big worry among gamers.
All of these remain somewhat valid points. For example, we can’t deny that dynamic contrast adds a tiny bit of input lag, as it’s indeed another step added to delivering an image. However, the processors on monitors keep getting better. Most of the stigma associated with contrast enhancement dates back to the 2000s, when the first really popular LCDs had poor contrast and implemented shady contrast boosts.
Those days are gone. Your typical good quality monitor or TV ships with considerable processing power onboard and can handle effective contrast enhancement without reducing detail. As for lag, back when 50ms was good for an LCD input lag figure then for sure, any extra processing was a problem. But now a good gaming monitor with 144Hz barely goes over 20ms even in the worst case scenario with everything turned on and connected to an especially demanding or slow source. Contrast enhancement lag is not noticeable under these circumstances unless you have superhuman perception.
Dynamic contrast has a lot of use these days. With high speed processing elements on monitors and TVs, contrast enhancement improves image quality and delivers inkier darks than those produced natively by panels. Take a look at professional TV review sites and you’ll see that most recommend activating contrast enhancement to get the best HDR effect. That’s because panels are still produced with native contrast ratios that may be too low for the dramatic output HDR demands.
The time for being afraid of dynamic contrast has passed. Give it a try. You can always turn it off if you don’t like the results!