Written By: Simon Cohen
Date: January 11, 2020
Of all the new TV technologies to emerge over the last few years, it’s arguable that none has had as big an impact on overall picture quality as High Dynamic Range, or HDR. When properly implemented, HDR can make a huge difference in perceived picture quality. We think it has been more impactful than the move from Full HD (1080p) to 4K Ultra HD or even 8K resolution.
But not all HDR is created equal; in fact, HDR is a catch-all term that refers to several distinct and competitive technologies. The one with the biggest brand recognition is Dolby Vision. Dolby Labs has done such a good job of marketing Dolby Vision as its own platform, many consumers aren’t even aware that it’s an HDR format. That shouldn’t be a surprise: TVs that have Dolby Vision technology, are often labeled as “4K HDR TV with Dolby Vision” making it seem as though the two terms aren’t related.
But what is Dolby Vision? How is it different than other HDR formats? And more importantly, how can you get it at home? We have all the answers right here.
What is HDR?
Before we get into Dolby Vision specifically, let’s quickly recap HDR in general. High Dynamic Range is a technology that lets filmmakers and content creators produce videos with increased brightness, greater color accuracy, and better contrast than what was previously possible. While HDR is often utilized in high-quality theaters, it has also become increasingly popular for home viewing. When HDR content is viewed on a quality HDR-compatible TV, you can tell right away — the increase in overall picture quality is dramatic, offering a touch of cinematic quality on the small screen.
There are five major HDR formats to discuss for home use: Two static formats and three dynamic ones. The two static formats are HDR10, the version that every HDR-capable TV supports, and HLG, a version designed for broadcast applications. Static in this case means that the data required to show HDR content is determined once based on the entire movie or TV show. Once the video starts to play, that information doesn’t change.
The three dynamic formats include Advanced HDR by Technicolor, and two much more commonly known formats for the home: HDR10+, a license-free format developed in part by Samsung, and Dolby Vision. Unlike static formats, dynamic formats can adapt as you watch, boosting or reducing HDR elements based on each scene, down to a frame-by-frame level of detail. It takes way more data to do HDR this way, but experts agree: Being able to fine-tune color, contrast, and brightness for each scene can have a big impact on HDR quality.
So What’s so Special About Dolby Vision?
As touched on above, Dolby Vision is a proprietary, dynamic HDR format developed by Dolby Labs. By adjusting the picture on a scene-by-scene (and even frame-by-frame) basis, it lets you see more detail with better color accuracy. It is constantly making adjustments so that each image on the screen is optimized. But there’s more to it than that.
In addition to the ability for content creators to tweak picture settings at a highly granular level, Dolby Vision supports a much wider range of possible settings than the more conventional (and static) HDR10. For instance, HDR10 supports a maximum picture brightness of 1,000 nits for TVs. Dolby Vision can go much brighter — up to 10,000 nits.
The same is true for color accuracy. HDR10 lets content creators specify color using 10 bits of data, whereas Dolby Vision supports up to 12 bits. That spec might not seem like a big deal — after all, that’s only a difference of 2 bits — but it makes a huge difference. With 10 bits, you can pick from amongst 1,024 shades of each primary color, which gives you over a billion total possible colors. Again, that sounds huge until you realize that 12 bits give you 4,096 shades and a total of over 68 billion colors.
If that sounds like overkill, when it comes to your TV, it is. For the moment, there are no TVs you can buy that are capable of displaying 10,000 nits of brightness or the 68 billion colors that Dolby Vision provides. Even the brightest TVs on the market tend to max out at 2,000 nits of brightness, and not even LG’s newest 8K OLED TV offers better than 10-bit color support. That said, TV technology is advancing very rapidly so Dolby Vision’s current above-and-beyond specs may seem perfectly reasonable in another five years.
What about HDR10+?
The Samsung-backed HDR10+ format is similar to Dolby Vision in that it’s also a dynamic format that can optimize on-screen images on a scene-by-scene basis. It has support for higher brightness and color-depth than the HDR10, but it doesn’t quite go as far as Dolby Vision in its specifications. In theory, this means that you’ll get better results with Dolby Vision, but for now, the biggest difference between the two standards is availability.
Few devices currently support HDR10+ and even fewer sources of content are available in HDR10+, though this is beginning to change. In time, thanks to the free licensing of the HDR10+ standard, we could see the tables turn. If you’re wondering about future support for these competing formats, here’s something to keep in mind: Any device that currently supports Dolby Vision ought to be able to support HDR10+ too, via a firmware upgrade. Moreover, there would be little cost to manufacturers that chose to do this. The same is not true for Dolby Vision, which adds a licensing cost in addition to the cost of developing the firmware itself.
Which TVs support Dolby Vision?
While Dolby Vision is more prominent than HDR10+, not all new TVs are Dolby Vision-compatible. One prominent brand that does not support it is Samsung, which is all in on HDR10+.
Major brands that offer Dolby Vision include LG, TCL, Vizio, and Sony, but Dolby Vision support can vary from model to model. Before you buy, make sure to read the full specs for the model you’re considering. If it works with Dolby Vision it will likely say so and usually quite prominently.
What else do I need for Dolby Vision?
A Source of Dolby Vision Video:
In addition to having a Dolby Vision-compatible TV (or other devices — some smartphones and tablets are now Dolby Vision-compatible), you’ll need a source of Dolby Vision video. Lots of 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays support Dolby Vision, and video streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video offer a good selection of both Hollywood movies and original series in the format. Disney+ and Apple TV+ both have deep support for Dolby Vision as well as Dolby Atmos — the company’s popular surround-sound audio format. Where you won’t find Dolby Vision is broadcast TV. For the moment, HDR content from over-the-air channels is rare, and when it’s available it uses either HDR10 or HLG due to the lower bandwidth requirements of these HDR formats.
A Dolby Vision Capable Device:
If you use a set-top box, game console, or Blu-ray player for your streaming video content, it also needs to be Dolby Vision-compatible — not all of them are. Roku streaming devices like the Roku Streaming Stick+, for instance, only support HDR10. By contrast, some Roku TVs, like those made by TCL, do support Dolby Vision. The Apple TV 4K supports Dolby Vision, but the Apple TV HD doesn’t. Amazon’s 4K Fire TV Stick is one of the few devices that supports all four of the top HDR formats: HDR10, HLG, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision.
Nvidia’s older Shield TV streamers don’t support it, but the 2019 Nvidia Shield TV and Shield TV Pro do. Microsoft’s Xbox One S and One X have supported Dolby Vision since 2018, but you won’t find it on the basic Xbox One. Sony’s PlayStations do not support Dolby Vision. Again, it pays to do your research.
Finally, if your chosen Dolby Vision device requires an HDMI cable (instead of the dongle-style that plugs directly into a TV) make sure you buy an HDMI cable that is guaranteed to be compatible with Dolby Vision. Any cable that bears the “HDMI Premium Certified” label is ideal. Cables that are rated for lesser speeds may work, but be prepared in the event that they don’t. The good news is that you can buy Premium Certified HDMI cables for less than the price of an IMAX movie ticket.
A FEW GOTCHAS:
Sometimes, even when you do everything right, things still don’t work as planned. We have found instances where even if you have a Dolby Vision source, playback device, and TV, you still don’t get Dolby Vision. One recent example comes from Disney+ where some viewers were surprised to learn that despite having a fully compatible setup, they still weren’t getting Dolby Vision on their Xbox consoles. The reason? The Xbox Disney+ app doesn’t yet support Dolby Vision even though many titles on the service are labeled Dolby Vision.
Another issue you may have heard about also relates to Dolby Vision and Disney+. Some experts have taken issue with how The Mandalorian — an exclusive Disney+ streaming show presented in Dolby Vision — looks. They say it looks too dark, and that even the brightest on-screen moments aren’t as bright as they expect from a Dolby Vision title. Are they right?
As it turns out, yes and no. Yes, The Mandalorian looks dark. But it’s not the fault of Dolby Vision or Disney+’s handling of Dolby Vision. Instead, the show’s creators made a choice during the production process to scale back on the brightness that Dolby Vision allows, in order to infuse the scenes with a more somber tone. The key here is this: Just because a movie or show is available in Dolby Vision, it doesn’t mean you’ll experience every possible color from the Dolby Vision palette, or have your eyeballs seared by the format’s huge brightness capabilities.
Creators will still choose to use Dolby Vision to express their creative intent, and sometimes that might mean a more subdued approach.
What about Dolby Vision IQ?
At CES 2020, Dolby Labs debuted a new video technology called Dolby Vision IQ. You can think of it as an enhancement to Dolby Vision: Using light sensors built into new Dolby Vision IQ-enabled TVs, the software can optimize Dolby Vision content based on the ambient light in your room. In this way, Dolby Vision becomes even more dynamic: It changes the additional color and contrast info on a scene by scene basis and then changes it again based on your viewing conditions. At the moment, only LG and Panasonic support Dolby Vision IQ, but more manufacturers are expected soon.
So there you have it — Dolby Vision fully explained. As the HDR landscape shifts over time, we’ll be updating this article to reflect the latest changes, equipment, and support.
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