What is HDR10+? Samsung and Amazon are trying to win the TV war

Another day, another HDR format. And no, ignoring the new kid on the HDR block is not an option. Here’s your guide to HDR10+.

Back in April, Samsung and Amazon got their heads together to announce a new format of high dynamic range technology. Called HDR10+, it claimed to improve on the standard HDR10 industry standard by adding a layer of extra, scene-by-scene information to help TVs handle HDR playback better.

Given how complicated and messy the world of HDR already is, reactions to HDR10+’s announcement largely boiled down to journalists burying their heads in their hands and consumers burying their heads in the sand.

Following developments at the recent IFA technology show in Berlin, though, HDR10+ has shifted – for better or for worse – from unwanted fringe complication to major player. Ignoring it and hoping it might go away is no longer an option. So here are the key facts you need to know about HDR’s latest signing, including the fact that it appears to have kicked off another AV format war.

Related: Best TV

Credit: Samsung

HDR10+: The IFA Effect

Prior to September’s IFA show, the only announced support for HDR10+ had come from Samsung on the hardware side, and Amazon Video on the content side. And Amazon has yet to actually deliver any HDR10+ content.

On the eve of IFA, though, we learned that a new HDR10+ Alliance had been established, comprising three founder members: Samsung, Panasonic and 20th Century Fox. This changed the HDR10+ format’s status overnight, as it proved that other big hardware players and a major Hollywood film studio were willing to back the upstart format.

Samsung and Panasonic account for a substantial chunk of the global TV marketplace, and 20th Century Fox is one of the most prolific studios around – especially when it comes to launching 4K Blu-ray discs. And the fact that these three companies have gone so far as to form an alliance around the HDR10+ format suggests they back it against Dolby Vision, rather than alongside it.

Note that while Amazon isn’t a member of the alliance, it has reconfirmed that it is committed to launching HDR10+ titles before the end of the year.

HDR10+: Why does it even exist?

While it would easy to feel annoyed at Samsung for muddying the HDR waters with another new format, there are actually six seemingly pretty solid reasons for its existence.

1) Better picture quality

It should make HDR picture quality better. The HDR10 industry standard only provides a display with a single luminance guide value from each HDR title that has to apply across that title’s entire running time.

With HDR10+, content creators can use an extra layer of data to add updated luminance information wherever they want to – potentially scene by scene, or even frame by frame. Having this extra data to work with should help TVs deliver a more consistently impressive HDR picture. Cue HDR10+’s second raison d’etre…

2) HDR quality, for less

It can deliver a more uniform HDR experience across the TV world. The idea behind this is that cheaper, lower quality TVs usually don’t have enough picture processing power and know-how to handle HDR properly using the limited amount of information available with HDR10.

So adding dynamic extra data should have the most positive impact on the lowest quality TVs, finally – hopefully – meaning you no longer have to spend a fortune on a TV to get a decent HDR experience.

3) It’s free!

HDR10+ is free. Even though it’s chiefly been developed by Samsung, any brand can use it without having to pay Samsung a royalty. This is significant because the only other ‘dynamic’ HDR format currently in play, Dolby Vision, does come with a royalty fee attached.

In fact, Samsung’s refusal to pay Dolby its royalty is one of the key reasons why it’s gone to the trouble of developing HDR10+.

Credit: Samsung

4) And offers more freedom…

HDR10+ is apparently less prescriptive than Dolby Vision. By which I mean that it leaves a little more freedom for different HDR displays to bring their own strengths and processes into play.

Both Samsung and Panasonic have previously argued that they trust their own processing and in-depth knowledge of their own screen capabilities to deliver better results than Dolby Vision’s ‘locked in’ approach.

5) An open standard

HDR10+ is an open standard. This means that unlike Dolby Vision, it can constantly be evolved by anyone who uses it.

6) Easier to create with

HDR10+ is apparently easier to use in the mastering process. I only have anecdotal evidence of this from knowledgable sources so far, to be clear.

But if true, it could play a big part in the format’s potential success, as content creators generally lean towards the simpler – and thus cheaper – of two solutions where a choice is available.

Related: What is HDR?

HDR10+: How can you get your hands (or eyes) on it?

The catch with HDR10+, of course, is that it doesn’t just magically happen. TVs, set-top boxes and 4K Blu-ray players have to carry the firmware to handle it, and content has to be made in it.

All of Samsung’s 2017 HDR TVs can support it, and the brand initially said that its 2016 TVs would be updated to handle it too. Though they sounded a touch less certain of this latter fact the last time I spoke to them about it.

Panasonic has announced that it can add HDR10+ via firmware update to its 2017 ‘4K Pro’ TVs – essentially the EX750 LCD, and the EZ952 and EZ1002 OLED models. No other TV brand has yet announced HDR10+ support, though.

No 4K Blu-ray players have so far announced support for HDR10+, and 20th Century Fox hasn’t yet put a date or name on its first HDR10+ release – be it streamed or 4K Blu-ray. Indeed, the 4K Blu-ray specification does currently include support for HDR10+.

It seems unlikely there will be any issue with adding HDR10+ to the 4K BD specification though – especially given that Panasonic is well represented on the Blu-ray Disc Association that decides such things!

I suspect we will get an explosion of HDR10+ hardware and software news at the CES in January.

Related: What is 4K?

Credit: Samsung

HDR10+: Is it actually any good?

It’s unlikely that Samsung would have bothered slaving over HDR10+ if it didn’t think that adding dynamic metadata could introduce some substantial extra picture quality advantages. But seeing is always believing, of course.

Fortunately I got the opportunity to see three separate HDR10+ vs normal HDR10 demonstrations at the IFA show. The one running on Samsung’s main stand has to be discounted, though, on the grounds that there was clearly too much variance in the core performance levels of the two displays being used. Fortunately Panasonic had a seemingly much more ‘authentic’ demonstration in a blacked out room on its stand, and Samsung allowed me to see a much more credible behind the scenes demonstration.

In both cases, the benefits of HDR10+’s extra metadata were clear to see. The main benefit comes in the amount of visible detail in the brightest parts of the HDR image; there’s much less ‘clipping’ of subtle shades and tones than you get with vanilla HDR10.

This helps the picture look more detailed, and the impact of this detailing is further enhanced by a slight uplift during both demonstrations in the apparent brightness of the image’s most intense highlights.

Samsung’s head to head demonstration was done using a pair of its 2017 flagship Q9F models, and even on these high-end sets the HDR10+ difference was instantly obvious. Even though, as discussed earlier, HDR10+ is expected to have the most impact on relatively affordable screens.

I saw no significant impact on colour tone reproduction during the Panasonic head to head, though, and on the Q9F the colour situation was it and miss. Some tones did look richer and punchier under the influence of HDR10+, yet others actually looked a touch more washed out. This latter issue may be down, though, to the Q9F’s edge lighting array struggling to control its light locally enough to prevent excessive light ‘bleaching’ some tones slightly.

Related: Dolby Vision

HDR10+: Do we have ourselves a format war with Dolby Vision?

Dolby and the HDR10+ Alliance will tell you there’s no format war their two dynamic HDR formats, since all HDR releases on disc and the vast majority of HDR streams will always provide an industry standard HDR10 ‘core’. So you’ll always get an HDR picture no matter what advanced HDR format your TV supports.

However, for me we are indeed now facing at the very least a ‘soft’ format war, as some films will only give their best picture quality on some TVs – depending on which advanced HDR format the content and the display are using.

It’s possible some TVs will appear that try to solve this issue by supporting all of the available HDR formats – including Dolby Vision and HDR10+. However, given their apparently implacable opposition to Dolby Vision (they’ve gone so far as to develop a free rival, after all!), it doesn’t seem like we can expect Samsung or Panasonic to adopt a ‘universal playback’ policy any time soon.

HDR10+: Will it even survive?

HDR10+ didn’t get off to an auspicious start. Its arrival this year feels at least 12 months late, and it adds more confusion and competing standards to the already wildly confusing HDR realm.

It’s also got to play catch up with a Dolby Vision system that’s been around since HDR first appeared, too.

Some of those six advantages of HDR10+ noted earlier are pretty persuasive, though, and Dolby arguably hasn’t gained as much of an advantage from its head start in terms of actual released content – at least on 4K Blu-ray – as might have been expected.

Dolby Vision support likely never showing up on the TVs of the world’s biggest (by far) TV brand has to be an issue, too.

In short, it’s currently impossible to predict with any certainty how the new HDR format war is going to pan out. Though my personal hunch is that some TVs, at least, will start supporting all types of HDR – and that these may be rewarded with persuasively handsome sales figures.

Keep an eye on Trusted Reviews for further updates on this fast-moving corner of the AV world – especially come the CES in January.

Related: 4K Blu-ray guide

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