Dolby Vision HDR: Everything you need to know

Dolby Vision claims to make the AV world’s new-fangled High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology work better, but is it really all it’s cracked up to be? We go behind the hype to see if your next TV or smartphone really should have Dolby Vision.

High dynamic range (HDR) video gets about as close to the classic ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine as any AV technology ever will.

On one hand, it does more to improve picture quality than arguably any TV picture innovation since the development of colour. But on the other, the array of HDR formats and wide variances in how HDR looks on different TVs have made it the most complex and frustrating technology the TV world has ever seen.

Dolby Vision could be the answer to the HDR conundrum. It is the HDR formats, on paper at least, seems to be trying the hardest to make sure we all enjoy a more uniform, more consistently impressive HDR performance.

Dolby Vision has actually been around for a while now, but it’s only recently that it’s enjoyed widespread attention.

Dolby Vision

Dolby Vision: What is it?

We’ll keep this bit brief as, for many of us, the technology behind Dolby Vision isn’t as interesting as the result.

Put simply, the most important thing about Dolby Vision is that it adds a layer of ‘dynamic metadata’ to a normal HDR video signal. This dynamic metadata carries scene by scene instructions from content creators on how a TV should present the images it’s receiving. Potentially, that improves everything from contrast to detailing and, especially, colour reproduction.

This is means that colours mapped with Dolby Vision tend to look richer, more nuanced, and better balanced compared to standard dynamic range footage. Things like shadow detail, colour finesse and black levels are all improved. Overall, the result is a more immersive experience, as you find yourself taking in the HDR image as a whole, rather than focussing on stand-out peaks.

But there’s a catch…

Dolby Vision: What devices support it?

Unlike HDR10, all devices that want to support Dolby Vision have to pay a licensing fee to Dolby. At the time of writing, some manufacturers are willing to do this, while others are not.

The Dolby Vision-supporting TV brands to date in the UK are LG (with its high-end LCD and OLED TVs), Loewe (with its OLED TVs), and Sony with any of its models that carry X1 Extreme chips – though Sony’s TVs need an as yet undelivered firmware update to make Dolby Vision work.

Apple is also fully on the bandwagon, with the 4K Apple TV, alongside the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and the iPhone X.

The two biggest TV brands to not currently offer Dolby Vision support are Panasonic and Samsung. Both manufacturers say that they believe they can get equally good HDR performance by applying their own picture processing and screen technologies to a normal HDR10 video stream. They are pushing a ‘dynamic metadata’ alternative to Dolby Vision, HDR10+.

Without Dolby Vision: Colours are muted and focal point of the welding torch is blown out

With Dolby Vision: Colours are richer and the sparks from the torch brighter and better defined

Dolby Vision: Does it really make a difference?

While the way Dolby Vision works makes it tricky to do perfect-condition head to head comparisons, it certainly seems that Dolby Vision consistently delivers a better result overall than the HDR10 industry standard. The extent of the improvement can vary from title to title, though, and the technology’s ability to adapt to the specific capabilities of your TV isn’t absolutely bulletproof.

Starting with 4K Blu-rays, I watched the two Despicable Me titles, Power Rangers and The Fate Of The Furious in Dolby Vision using an Oppo 203 Ultra HD Blu-ray player and an LG OLED55C7 4K OLED TV. For HDR10 comparison, I played the same discs into the same TV, but using a Panasonic UB900 4K Blu-ray player. Since this player doesn’t support Dolby Vision, it simply plays the traditional HDR10 stream that’s also present on all Dolby Vision discs.

With all four titles the Dolby Vision difference is strong enough to be immediately noticeable and persists with pretty much every frame of each movie.

Colours, for starters, look more natural, more balanced, more detailed and, especially in bright areas, more subtly blended. You can, for instance, see extra subtleties in the wallpapered walls of the bank of evil in Despicable Me, and there’s a greater range of tonal shading in the sun-drenched skin tones on show during The Fate Of The Furious’ Cuban scenes. Some shades actually look quite different in Dolby Vision – and I invariably felt that the Dolby Vision tones looked more effective and natural than the HDR10 ones.

Graphic 3

This graphic shows the luminance range (brightness) of standard TV signals
compared to Dolby Vision mastered footage. (Source: Dolby)

The Dolby Vision image also handles light more effectively than the HDR10 one. The brightest parts of the HDR image look more both punchier but also more full of subtle detail than they do via the OLED55C7’s own management of HDR10. There’s more finesse in dark picture areas too, making them look more detailed and natural, and overall the image’s light range seems to be both more extreme but also more minutely managed.

Great examples of this improved light control are the scenes in Despicable Me 1 in Gru’s lab as he first addresses his minions, and the gorgeous-looking shots in the main alien ship control room in Power Rangers.

Add this improved light control to the subtler colour handling and you’ve got an image that often looks strikingly three dimensional versus the flatter HDR10 experience, with an increased sense of solidity to objects in the image, and an enhanced sense of depth and space.

The extra light and colour refinement also makes the DV images look more detailed and crisp, highlighting just how much precision can be lost when a TV is constantly having to ‘calculate’ how an HDR10 scene should look without any extra metadata information to help it out.

Dolby Vision

 

These various Dolby Vision strengths have a much greater impact on the two Despicable Me titles and Power Rangers than I’d ever expected would be the case. Going back to the HDR10 versions of these films after experiencing them in Dolby Vision feels almost like going back to HD after experiencing good quality 4K.

Dolby Vision doesn’t have quite so much impact with the Fate Of The Furious, but it’s still beneficial – especially when it comes to bringing out more detail refinement in all the gleaming metal and detailing of the film’s cars.

Power Rangers and The Fate Of The Furious did also highlight one unexpected problem with the OLED55C7’s Dolby Vision images, though. The thing is, OLED technology still has a problem with suddenly losing its usually spectacular black level prowess if its brightness is pushed too high, and strangely the Dolby Vision feed is much more likely to trigger this issue with the OLED55C7 during dark scenes than the HDR10 feed. Even with the screen’s brightness set to the same default 50 level.

So obvious can the sudden loss of black level be when watching Dolby Vision that it really can be quite distracting – especially when, as occasionally happens, the issue also reveals some minor vertical bands of light inconsistency.

LG C8

Fortunately this DV/LG OLED issue only crops up occasionally during a typical film (and I didn’t really notice it at all during the Despicable Me films, perhaps because of their animated nature). You can also pretty much remove the problem by reducing the TV’s brightness to around 46 from its 50 default. Though doing this reduces the image’s dynamism a little, and can lead to a little detail loss in the darkest areas.

It’s also true that to some extent this occasional greyness is ultimately down to a limitation of the TV. Given that part of Dolby Vision’s appeal, though, is its ability to get the very best out of whatever screen it’s being played on, it seems unfortunate that its optimisation processes seem to have missed the OLED brightness limitation that LG’s own internal HDR10 management seems to take into account.

The bottom line, though, is that overall and for the vast majority of the time, Dolby Vision on Ultra HD Blu-ray is a surprisingly resounding success.

Turning next to Dolby Vision on streamed video, I should start by pointing out that I had to change the testing procedure quite a bit. After all, when a Netflix or Amazon stream detects that you’re using a Dolby Vision TV, it automatically feeds you the Dolby Vision stream; you can’t opt to watch HDR10 instead. So I had to run Dolby Vision streams on the LG OLED55C7 alongside HDR10 streams of the same shows on a Samsung UE65KS9500.

Using a combination of Okja, Glow, Bosch 2 and Marco Polo, the good news is that Dolby Vision again appears to deliver a noticeable improvement over HDR10. The picture once more exhibits more subtle colours, more sensitive light control, more detail in the brightest areas, and a cleaner, clearer look to densely detailed areas such as those in the forest where we first meet Okja.

I’d thought that maybe Dolby Vision could deliver a greater benefit with the reduced picture quality associated with streaming than it did with something as pristine as 4K Blu-ray. Actually, the opposite is true. There certainly still seems to be some benefit in terms of overall image refinement, though.

Strangely the Dolby Vision streams on the LG OLED TV looked noticeably less bright and dynamic than the HDR10 images on the Samsung set. It’s difficult to say, though, how much of this is down to a deliberate ‘reining in’ decision by the Dolby Vision system, and how much it’s down to the Samsung TV using brighter LCD technology.

While I can imagine some people preferring the more aggressive look of Samsung’s streamed HDR10 presentation, there’s no doubt that with all aspects of picture quality taken into account the Dolby Vision picture contains more insight and finesse, and so may be preferable to the ‘enthusiast’ market.

I should briefly mention a separate issue with streamed HDR content whereby some titles, at least, look more natural in standard dynamic range than they do in HDR. Recent release Glow, for instance, looks oddly fragile and washed out in HDR compared with the SDR image, while Bosch 2’s dark scenes tend to look noisier and suffer reduced black level depth in HDR versus their SDR counterparts. Okja, on the other hand, generally looks much superior in HDR.

Potential issues with the way the streaming services master for HDR is a discussion for another day, though. The issue at hand here is whether Dolby Vision delivers a better experience than HDR10. And the short answer is that yes, it does. In some cases dramatically so.

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Dolby Vision vs HDR10: What’s the difference?

We’ve said in no uncertain terms that Dolby Vision is superior to HDR10, but why?

The main specification differences are that Dolby Vision masters of movies are done at 12-bit, rather than HDR10’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 HDR10 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.

This is why Dolby Vision requires the extra hardware we’ve talked about, and ultimately why HDR10 and Ultra HD Premium are likely to be the more prevalent standards. But the Dolby argument is this hardware will deliver better picture quality, and we agree.

And, in case you were concerned, anything that supports Dolby Vision supports HDR10 by default, it just doesn’t work in the reverse.

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Dolby Vision: Should your next TV support Dolby Vision?

This is a tricky one. Dolby Vision does, from all the evidence I’ve seen so far, deliver a superior viewing performance to standard HDR10. So as more Dolby Vision content turns up I can certainly imagine some, maybe many, AV fans only wanting to buy gear that supports it.

That said, it’s possible to buy TVs from the likes of Samsung and Panasonic that deliver excellent quality from HDR10 alongside some unique picture features – such as extreme colour volumes and ambient light management in Samsung’s QLED case, and Hollywood-tuned video processing in Panasonic’s OLED case. Then there’s the HDR10+ format being pushed as an alternative to Dolby Vision.

At this point it’s too early to say which format will ‘win’ and become more prevalent in the industry. That being said, if your TV or smartphone supports Dolby Vision, take that as a good thing.