HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range, is the TV trend of 2016. The industry has one standard known as Ultra HD Premium – HDR 10 for short – but Dolby also has its own take. Andy Vandervell has already seen it at the cinema, which you can read on page two, but recently John Archer saw the first serious Dolby Vision demos for TVs. Here's how that went.
Before CES 2016, AV journalists increasingly felt that Dolby’s seemingly histrionic "Dolby Vision" take on high dynamic range (HDR) video might become sidelined, at least where home AV was concerned.
As impressive as its limited cinema screenings are, the recently adopted Ultra HD Premium logo and standard – dubbed HDR 10 in the industry – seems to make Dolby Vision unnecessary.
But CES is over now and while there are still challenges for Dolby Vision, my time with nearly two hours watching Dolby Vision in action – and learning how it works – has convinced me it’s more than an also ran, but a serious step-up over the standard HDR experience.
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Strong support from studios and the industry
For starters, my new optimism is bolstered by the startling number of TV brands, video streaming services and film studios that used CES to publicly proclaim their support for Dolby Vision. On the TV side there’s TCL, Vizio and, of most importance to the UK, LG, which has adopted Dolby Vision for its 2016 generation of OLED TVs.
On the streaming side you have Vudu and Netflix, while on the film studio side Universal, Warner Bros, MGM and Sony Pictures have all announced their support for Dolby Vision.
This is impressive, and I strongly suspect there will be other additions to the Dolby Vision roster in the coming months.
Given that Dolby Vision support requires the integration of a full silicon solution into screens, though, the million dollar question has to be: what does it bring to the party over and above the HDR 10 standard?
Dolby Vision vs HDR 10 – What’s the difference?
The main specification differences are that masters of movies are done at 12-bit, rather than HDR 10’s 10 bits. Also, peak brightness can go – in theory, at least – right up to 10,000 lumens. In reality, most Dolby Vision masters seem to be targeting 4,000 nits – which remains a very big step up from the 1,000 nits that HDR 10 masters work to.
But most significant is how Dolby Vision uses frame-by-frame metadata to manage HDR performance. This helps to deliver the best results as it adapts the source material to the performance of your TV.
It may be a rubbish films, but Pan is streaming in 4K with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos
This is why Dolby Vision requires extra hardware, and why HDR 10 / Ultra HD Premium will be more prevalent, but the Dolby argument is this hardware will deliver better picture quality.
Of course, this also means any players you use must support Dolby Vision as well. As yet, the two Ultra HD Blu-ray players announced by Sony and Panasonic don’t, but presumably LG must have a Dolby Vision player in the works to go with its TVs.
And, in case you were concerned, anything that supports Dolby Vision supports HDR 10 by default, it just doesn’t work in the reverse.
Dolby Vision on TVs – How does it look?
Dolby Vision appears to have come a long way since the slightly "wild west" demos available at 2015's CES. As such, I was keen to visit its large stand in The Wynn Hotel at 2016's CES to see it working in a more real-world environment. I'm pleased to say I wasn't disappointed by what I saw.
For starters, it was impressive to see Dolby Vision now being shown on not one but a series of "real world" TVs: the Vizio R series, an upcoming model from TCL, and most significantly from a UK perspective (Vizio and TCL don’t currently operate here), LG.
LG’s announcement at the start of CES that its latest OLED TVs would be Dolby Vision-compatible initially raised eyebrows. This is because OLED TVs, while certainly more than capable of displaying HDR, aren’t known for their brightness compared with LCD TVs. However, seeing a Dolby Vision demo featuring Pan, predominantly running on an LG 65G6 Signature OLED on Dolby’s stand, was a simply gorgeous experience.
Needless to say this photo isn't representative of the experience
Colours looked incredible – richer and more nuanced than I’ve ever seen colours look on a TV. The dynamic range of the image was clearly superior to any standard dynamic range footage.
Dolby Vision’s dynamic metadata did a better job of mapping the HDR images to the OLED TV’s screen characteristics than HDR 10 feeds, especially when managing the LG OLED’s potential to lose black-level response when displaying content containing just-above-black image content.
The incredible black levels of the G6 OLEDs do an excellent job of making Dolby Vision images look stunningly dynamic, despite the screen’s lack of raw brightness. To me the image appeared more balanced, nuanced and controlled than other HDR images I’ve witnessed, especially in how the brightest luminance peaks feel more integrated with the rest of the image.
This makes for a more immersive experience. You find yourself taking in the HDR image as a whole, rather than having your attention drawn to stand-out peaks, as can happen with less carefully considered HDR images.
The Vizio LCD screen delivered a markedly more brightness-led version of Dolby Vision than the LG. Images were radiant, but crucially still very controlled. Although they didn’t deliver quite such rich blacks as the LG, images certainly contained impressive shadow detail, colour finesse and dynamism.
It was interesting to note, too, how Dolby Vision seems to achieve better black levels from the Vizio screen than standard dynamic range content. Dolby Vision claims this is partly a result of the way its format essentially takes over control of the way a TV’s pictures are reproduced, thanks to its dynamic metadata and the way it adapts to the capabilities of any TV it encounters.
The least impressive demonstration of Dolby Vision came from the TCL screen, which suffered with backlight blocks around bright parts of Dolby Vision images. To be fair, however, the TCL model is still a few months away from launch, so there’s time for this issue to be improved.
Overall, while it was a shame not to see a Dolby Vision vs HDR 10 demo running on Dolby’s stand – or anywhere else at the CES, for that matter – I left the stand feeling confident about Dolby Vision’s future.
While it has the potential to confuse consumers at a critical moment in TV development, it brings more than enough extra quality and movie experience to make it a potent and worthwhile addition to the next generation of television.
It's unlikely to dominate given the extra requirements and the fixed standard of HDR 10, but anyone who craves the absolute ultimate movie experience at home shouldn't rule it out.
And even if you can't afford a Dolby Vision TV, it's worth seeking out the cinema experience, as Andy relates in his take on the following page.