What is HDR10+? What you need to know

Another day, another HDR format to get to grips with. And no, ignoring this one isn’t an option. Here’s your guide to HDR10+.

Back in 2017, Samsung and Amazon announced 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.

Since then, perception of HDR10+ has shifted – for better or for worse – from unwanted fringe complication to major player. So here are the key facts you need to know about the latest variant of HDR.

Related: What is HDR?

HDR10+ – The Alliance

HDR10+

Early in HDR10+’s life, the only announced support had come from Samsung on the hardware side and Amazon Video on the content side, the latter now available on compatible TVs (although it isn’t a member of the HDR10+ Alliance).

Initially seen as an upstart, that changed when word of the HDR10+ Alliance emerged. Comprised of three founder members – Samsung, Panasonic and 20th Century Fox – this changed HDR10+ status overnight, as it proved other big hardware players and a major Hollywood film studio were willing to back it.

Samsung and Panasonic account for a substantial chunk of the global TV marketplace, and 20th Century Fox – soon to be incorporated as part of Disney – has a huge library of content. And the fact that these three companies formed an alliance around the HDR10+ format suggested that they backed it against Dolby Vision, rather than alongside it.

HDR10+

Wonder Woman on the Panasonic TX-65GZ2000 in HDR10+

That’s changed somewhat in 2019, since Panasonic’s upcoming flagship GZ2000 OLED TV and 4K Blu-ray players support HDR10+ and Dolby Vision, a trend we expect other TV manufacturers to follow (perhaps not Samsung, though). Such a move would mean a user’s 4K library wouldn’t be restricted by a TV’s support for one HDR format.

Since the initial HDR10+ announcement Warner Bros. has become a content partner, and at CES 2019 we saw Blade Runner: The Final Cut and Wonder Woman running in HDR10+ on Panasonic’s TX-65GZ2000 OLED. Suffice to say that the image looked spectacular.

A trickle of HDR10+ 4K Blu-rays has hit the market in the US (A Beautiful Planet and Journey to the South Pacific), and in the UK we expect 20th Century Fox’s Bad Times at the El Royale to be the first big HDR10+ title from a studio, with rumours that Fox is also preparing Bohemian Rhapsody for a release too.

Related: Best TV

HDR10+ – Why does it even exist?

It would be easy to feel annoyed at Samsung for muddying the HDR waters, but there are actually six pretty solid reasons for its existence.

1) Better picture quality

It should make HDR picture quality better. The HDR10 industry standard provides a display with only 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, 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 has 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 HDR, does come with a royalty fee attached.

In fact, Samsung’s refusal to pay Dolby its royalty is one of the key reasons that 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 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 have only anecdotal evidence of this from knowledgeable 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. That being said, the presence of Dolby Vision HDR is growing by the year.

Related: What is HDR?

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

Of course, the catch with HDR10+ 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. So, what does the HDR10+ landscape look like?

All of Samsung’s 2018 HDR TVs support it and we most certainly expect that to be true with its 2019 TVs.

HDR10+

Bad Times at the El Royale is expected to be the first HDR10+ 4K Blu-ray

For owners of older Panasonic TVs, the brand’s 2017 “4K Pro” TVs – essentially the EX750 LCD, and the EZ952 and EZ1002 OLED models – all received a firmware update. The majority of its 2018 4K lineup has also received a HDR10+ enabling firmware.

What does 2019 hold for Panasonic? Well, it did nail its (HDR) colours to the HDR10+ mast, but in light of its CES announcements we also expect its higher-end TVs to have Dolby Vision. Philips also supports HDR10+ across its range of TVs, leaving LG and Sony in the corner of Dolby Vision.

In terms of compatible players, Panasonic’s UB9000, UB450 and UB150 4K Blu-ray players all have HDR10+ support. If you still own a Oppo UDP-203 or the UDP-205 4K player, they both recently received a firmware update for HDR10+.

We mentioned previously that 20th Century Fox’s first HDR10+ 4K release will be February’s Bad Times at the El Royale, with another possible release in March for Bohemian Rhapsody.

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 substantial extra picture quality advantages. But seeing is believing.

Fortunately, I’ve seen three separate HDR10+ vs normal HDR10 demonstrations. The first Samsung demonstration I saw had to be discounted on the grounds there was clearly too much variance in the core performance levels of the two displays. Fortunately, Panasonic had a seemingly more “authentic” demonstration in a blacked-out room, 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. 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 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 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 hit and miss. Some tones did look richer and punchier under the influence of HDR10+, while others actually looked a touch more washed out.

However, this latter issue may be down to the Q9F’s edge lighting array struggling to control its light locally enough to prevent excessive light “bleaching” some tones slightly. We expect more recent TVs to show a better and higher level of performance.

HDR10+ – Has the format war begun?

Dolby and the HDR10+ Alliance will tell you there’s no format war between 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”. As such, you’ll always get an HDR picture, no matter the advanced HDR format your TV supports.

For the majority of 2018 we were looking at a “soft” format war, in a similar way to Dolby Atmos and DTS:X surround sound formats; 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.

Panasonic is trying to solve this issue by supporting all of the available HDR formats, including Dolby Vision and HDR10+. Samsung, on the other hand, seems firmly in the HDR10+ camp, so it isn’t likely we can expect the company to adopt a “universal playback” policy any time soon.

Related: What is Dolby Vision HDR?

HDR10+ – Will it grow?

HDR10+ didn’t get off to an auspicious start, but it’s picked up momentum and now feels like a genuine competitor to Dolby Vision – although Dolby continues to have a sizeable lead in terms of supported content.

Some of those six advantages of HDR10+ are pretty persuasive, though, and with Dolby Vision support likely never showing up on the TVs of the world’s biggest (by far) TV brand, that has to be an issue, too.

In short, it’s currently impossible to predict with any certainty how this HDR format war will pan out. We’re optimistic we’ll see some manufacturers adopt Panasonic’s position, and start supporting all types of HDR – and that these may be rewarded with persuasively handsome sales figures.

Related: 4K Blu-ray guide