ASUS PA32UCXR: The best HDR monitor for photographers?

FYI B&H is currently offering $200 off this monitor.

The new HDR display technology is the greatest leap forward in image quality in decades, offer super sunset color, highlight details, and the ability to truly show a wider dynamic range (this is completely unrelated to the old “HDR” software that many of you know, but confusingly has has the same name). And it’s much more widespread that most people know as it is already in the majority of TVs, smart phones, and Apple displays sold in the past few years. We’ve seen rapid updates in software to support it over the past few years, and we’re seeing a growing range of external HDR monitors for editing with a large display.

ASUS has an impressive lineup of HDR monitors. I previously reviewed their budget-friendly PA32UCR-K and in this review want to focus on their new flagship model, the PA32UCXR.

This monitor boasts an impressive set of specs, including:

  • 1,600 nits peak brightness with 2304 local dimming zones.
  • 1,000,000 : 1 contrast ratio
  • deltaE <1%.
  • Support for calibration in the monitor hardware itself. This is ideal for HDR because there is no standard for the typical ICC-based calibration at this time.
  • A colorimeter is built into the monitor itself and can even run automatically on a schedule.
  • It offers 4k resolution, a 32″ display, and a wide gamut (99% Adobe RGB, 97% DCI-P3, 85% Rec 2020)
  • Includes a nice monitor stand which includes easy adjustments for height, tilt, swivel, and even 90 degree rotation to view in portrait orientation.
  • Includes a detachable, wrap-around hood to minimize reflections if needed.
  • Overall, these claims are comparable to the Pro Display XDR, but with 4x the dimming zones and support for both MacOS and Windows at half the price with a stand.

 

Image quality:

I tested three different ASUS monitors and they have consistently under-promised and over-delivered on brightness. I actually get up to 1,800 nits of brightness with this display. This translates to 3.3 stops of HDR headroom on MacOS and up to 4.6 stops on Windows (due to Windows “SDR content brightness” slider, which allows you to customize display characteristics while in HDR mode). That’s excellent in both cases and class-leading on Windows. Sustained brightness is 1000 nits, which in practice means you’ll almost never have brightness the limitations which are more likely to impact your experience with an OLED display. This monitor offers outstanding HDR capability.

Just as important as that HDR capacity is its accuracy, and this monitor delivers. Unlike most monitors, the ASUS ProArt displays support full calibration for SDR and HDR in the hardware. That is a huge benefit, as there is no standard yet for the sort of ICC profiles we typically create for SDR displays. This particular model also includes a slick built-in colorimeter. It’s motorized and will automatically pop out when needed and hide the colorimeter when not in use. This display shows great color accuracy after calibration in the custom User Modes. I have some questions on the results in the default system modes which may need a firmware update (I have sent details to ASUS). That isn’t much of a concern as the User Modes work great.

It supports a wide range of capability and control for calibration. You can target all common gamuts (with covering including 100% sRGB, 99% Adobe RGB, 97% DCI-P3, and the option to target Rec. 2020). You can target various EOTFs (sRGB, gamma, PQ, HLG, etc). And can set a target white luminance in SDR modes, which is very handy to have as a consistent reference for evaluating images to be printed.

A common question with any mini-LED display is blooming / haloing, which may occur in dark pixels near very bright areas of the image. This display offers minimal haloing and even out-performs the Pro Display XDR when viewing dark shadow areas, likely due to it having four times as many local dimming zones.

Overall, this is a great monitor for both serious SDR and HDR photography.

 

Other aspects of the monitor:

The monitor comes with a very nice stand. It is easy to setup – you just snap the display right onto it and it secures itself nicely. It looks beautiful and offers simple adjustment. You can easily adjust height, tilt, and swivel. You can even rotate the display between landscape and portrait orientation, though you will need to momentarily tilt the display somewhat to clear the base while rotating it.

It includes a wide range of inputs: Thunderbolt 4, Display Port or HDMI. The Thunderbolt is the ideal option as it can supply 90W to charge your laptop and enables pass-through connections to downstream devices. Its downstream ports include one Thunderbolt 4, one USB-C USB 3.2 , and three USB-A USB 3.2 connections so that you can easily dock a laptop with a single cable.

The on screen display menus offer typical controls and is fairly easy to use, but like most monitors may be a little daunting to users who aren’t experience with customizing their display. Thankfully, there is little that needs to be done. However, switching between SDR and HDR modes will be a new experience for many people, and is something you’ll occasionally want to do to make the most of any HDR monitor if you make prints or use MacOS and want to dim the display for a dark room.

It includes a speaker, but like most monitors is nothing special. Expect to use your laptop or other external speakers if you want great sound.

 

What could be better?

There are a few software / firmware updates which I believe would enhance the experience of using the ASUS:

  • The last SDR or HDR mode should always be the default when toggling HDR mode. So for example, if I last used User Mode 2 for SDR and HDR P3 for HDR, that’s what I should get when I toggle HDR mode in the operating system. This would be extremely beneficial for MacOS, where you need to disable HDR if you wish to change SDR brightness. That could be achieved via a firmware update, so hopefully we’ll see that in the future.
  • The settings for the User Modes should be clearly shown on the monitor or at least in the ASUS calibration software. It can be a little confusing to confirm what color gamut, EOTF, white point, and brightness setting is in use (the ASUS software will keep clear records for you, so this isn’t a concern if you know where to look).
  • The on-monitor option for calibration (including automatic calibration) should include the User Modes so that you can easily keep them up to date.
  • Firmware updates are rare, but it would be ideal if the process were simpler. Updating requires using a USB drive no larger than 32GB (to use the required FAT32 formatting), inserting it into a specific USB port on the monitor, and doing a 2-button press to start the update. Once you understand those quirks, it isn’t hard, but that will likely confuse some users. Ideally, the ASUS ProArt Calibration software would be used to deliver updates (as it already communicates from the computer to the monitor).

For Windows users, there is nothing else that quite compares to this display. An OLED TV can be excellent (and more affordable), but has some limitations (such as no simple calibration option). MacOS users with a large budget do have the option of the excellent Apple Pro Display XDR.

 

How does it compare to the Pro Display XDR?

The PA32UCXR has several advantages over the Pro Display XDR:

  • Half the cost of the XDR
  • Built in calibration.
    • I believe calibration of the XDR is entirely optional for most users, but the ASUS offers a complete calibration solution that supports HDR and can be fully automated (to update itself on a schedule).
    • Most Apple users would be able to use the “fine tune” calibration method with a modestly priced colorimeter, but you’d need to spend $8k+ for a spectrophotometer to do a full calibration.
    • We will likely see options for more standard calibration of any display once HDR standards are finalized, but it may take some time before we get to that point.
  • Supports both MacOS and Windows (the Pro Display XDR doesn’t really support Windows). This is quite simply the best mini-LED HDR display available for Windows (unless you’re looking to spend roughly the cost of a new car for a reference monitor).
  • You can connect a single USB cable to the monitor for the display, to power the laptop, and to connect to downstream devices via one spare Thunderbolt or four USB ports. The XDR does not support any downstream devices.
  • Less mini-LED bloom in dark shadows due to 4x the dimming zones.
  • and other secondary benefits:
    • Full calibration. The XDR offers only a partial calibration when using fixed reference / custom presets (full calibration is an option if you have access to an $8k+ spectrophotometer). The accuracy of the XDR is so good that I consider calibration unnecessary for most users.
    • Support for the Rec 2020 color gamut, which shows modest increases in green / cyan saturation (which are printable colors beyond the P3 gamut).
    • Includes a monitor hood.
    • Can accept HDMI or Display port signal inputs (in addition to Thunderbolt).
    • Supports picture-in-picture (or picture-by-picture) display of two simultaneous inputs.

 

Yet the Apple Pro Display XDR has several advantages over the ASUS (primarily due to its tight integration with MacOS), including:

  • Ability to control SDR brightness while using an HDR mode.
    • You can dim the display while remaining in HDR mode, which is helpful for normal productivity software like MS Word or web browser in a dark environment. The ASUS is around 200 nits for SDR content in HDR mode
    • You can switch the ASUS fairly easily into SDR mode as needed, which always allows brightness control. So you can generally work around this concern – but the XDR experience is completely seamless (and also supports reading web content in a darker room while retaining the ability to show HDR images).
    • I would love to see Apple add a Windows-like slider to control SDR content brightness while in HDR mode. It’s a very helpful feature that would benefit many MacOS users working with 3rd-party displays or TVs.
  • Simple control of SDR brightness via keyboard or control center.
    • This is very convenient with the XDR if you need to adapt to changing ambient lighting or target a specific SDR brightness for print-related work.
    • With the ASUS, you need to switch to an SDR mode to control the brightness (you can do this fairly easily by toggling HDR mode in MacOS settings and then using a shortcut button on the display you set for an SDR user mode you’ve created in the monitor).**
  • Increased HDR headroom.
    • This is a direct consequence of being able to change brightness for the XDR and allows you to get up to 4 stops of headroom vs 3.3.**
  • Superior customer service.
    • Apple generally stands out for its great technical support.
    • My experience with ASUS has been typical of many other computer companies: below expectations. You can get someone one the phone fairly quickly and are likely to get good assistance for issues with billing, returns, etc. No concerns there. However, technical support is a weak spot, and call quality can be quite bad (it was hard to hear some people and there were some random disconnections).
  • and other secondary benefits:
    • 6k vs 4k resolution. The benefits are modest in a 32″ display, though I do prefer the pixel density at 6k for evaluating prints.
    • Simpler setup and control. Everything is done within MacOS (the XDR doesn’t have any buttons at all). The ASUS by comparison has a fairly complex set of options in the on screen display (easy when you understand them and most options can be ignored, but it may be a bit confusing at first).
    • More uniform display, particularly for the edges when viewing very dark and uniform content. In practice, I don’t see this as a huge benefit for most photographers.
    • Always feels like a very premium display, while the ASUS occasionally shows some (relatively insignificant) rough edges. When running calibration (but not nearly so much in regular use), there is haloing around text and the unevenness of the backlight at the edges and top corners is pronounced.
    • See my previous review of the Pro Display XDR for more details.

** Note that neither of these limitations apply to Windows, brightness control is a MacOS-specific limitation. And these limitations could be resolved with a future MacOS update or perhaps some creative solution from display makers like ASUS.

 

Conclusions: Who should buy this monitor and what are good alternatives?

The ASUS PA32UCXR offers an outstanding HDR experience with 1600+ nits, high color accuracy with integrated colorimeter, excellent image quality, several nice advantages over the older Pro Display XDR, and support for both Mac and PC. While $3k is not cheap, it is half the cost of a Pro Display XDR and offers very competitive performance. It is an excellent value. If you use a PC, this is the best mini-LED you can get.

If you are a MacOS user and have the budget, the integrated controls of the Pro Display XDR and darker SDR brightness in HDR mode are really nice. That’s a niche option at that price point (I personally got mine used with stand for $3k off Craiglist). However, I do think it offers some great capability for MacOS users doing professional work. I particularly appreciate the ability to turn down the brightness at night and still be able to see and edit HDR content.

If these displays are out of your budget, see my review of the more affordable PA32UCR-K as well as my recommended HDR monitors page. And an OLED TV can be a great way to get a gorgeous large HDR display at low cost (consider budgeting a bit more for a professional calibrator with OLED if you need highly accurate color, and note that OLED offers the greatest performance if you work in a dark room and use MS Windows).

If you have a 14-16″ M1 or later MacBook Pro, you already have an outstanding HDR display. Given the cost of external HDR displays, you wish to simply use that internal display for now as as HDR options for external monitors continue to expand.

Greg Benz Photography