We’re halfway through 2017, and it’s safe to say that high dynamic range (HDR) is the “next big thing” in video. It’s the dawn of a new era, when movies mastered in HDR for home viewing are pushing the picture-quality envelope. At the top of the HDR-format heap is Dolby Vision, a video technology ecosystem that delivers next-generation images today.
Currently, HDR comes in three flavors. HDR10 is the standard used for all Ultra HD Blu-rays and by Netflix, Amazon, Google Play, and YouTube. HLG is an HDR format designed to be compatible with broadcast TV. And then there’s Dolby Vision.
Dolby Vision is the only HDR workflow used by North American movie studios for cinematic releases (check out this list by Scott Wilkinson). Furthermore, it supports features that are not available with HDR10 and HLG—specifically, dynamic metadata and 12-bit video. Plus, thanks to Vudu’s early and enthusiastic support for Dolby Vision, the streaming service offers a significant selection of blockbuster films in that format. Now, the format is also offered by Google Play, Amazon, and Netflix as well.
Dynamic metadata is a crucial feature of Dolby Vision. Content mastered that way adapts to the capabilities of the display according to special instructions sent to the TV on a scene-by-scene or even frame-by-frame basis. As a result, you get the maximum HDR performance that a TV is capable of providing. By contrast, HDR10 uses static metadata, which are much more limited and often cause the TV to compromise its HDR performance in one way or another. The cool thing about Dolby Vision is that it provides a visible benefit with affordable HDR TVs. You don’t need to buy a pricey flagship to enjoy the benefits of the format.
Recently, Dolby Vision debuted on Ultra HD Blu-ray as an optional feature, making it the highest quality and most sophisticated video format currently available to consumers. But there’s a catch—to watch content, you need a TV and a player that support the format. As of today, only the Oppo UDP-203 and UDP-205 UHD Blu-ray players offer that capability. (As of this post, the LG UP970, Philips BDP7502, and BDP7302 are slated to add support for Dolby Vision in a firmware update sometime this year.)
So far, three major manufacturers have shipped Dolby Vision-compatible TVs: LG, TCL, and Vizio. Additionally, several Sony models are slated to add support for the format soon, once a firmware update is delivered. Other companies that offer compatible TVs include Hisense, LeEco, and Philips.
Since Dolby Vision represents the “crème de la crème” of home HDR video formats, I compared its performance as implemented on UHD Blu-ray versus HDR10 on disc. I also looked at Dolby Vision UHD streaming, HD Blu-ray, and HD streaming.
For this comparison, The Fate of the Furious provided over two hours of perfectly produced, colorful, and action-filled visuals. It’s the first live-action film available on disc and to stream in UHD with Dolby Vision. I used the 55″ TCL 55P607 TV ($650)—that I recently reviewed here—to perform my comparisons.
Ultra HD Blu-ray with Dolby Vision (HDR)
I played The Fate of the Furious in the TV’s Dolby Vision HDR Dark mode and thought to myself, “This is a reference-quality viewing experience.” Despite the TCL’s low price, it delivers colors and contrast that were unimaginable just a few years ago.
UHD Blu-ray with Dolby Vision’s eye-popping contrast and vivid colors are a pleasure to behold, and yet throughout the film, skin tones were totally natural. I could see into deep shadows, while mid-tones had just the right brightness for comfortable lights-out movie watching.
The Dolby Vision presentation on the TCL was excellent. I never saw grain or artifacts, and color was notably natural—it looked professionally calibrated to my eyes. Moreover, motion was crisp and clear.
Ultra HD Blu-ray with HDR10 (HDR)
Although it’s subjective and anecdotal, I thought that Dolby Vision had the slight upper hand versus HDR10, at least when it came to how the 55″ TCL P-Series TV handled it. Because Dolby Vision uses dynamic metadata, it exhibits differences in tone mapping, which are typically noticeable in shadows and highlights.
I watched The Fate of the Furious in HDR10 on Ultra HD Blu-ray using essentially the same defaults as with Dolby Vision. I used a Samsung UDP-M9500 player ($328)—which does not support Dolby Vision—to watch the movie in HDR10. It provided a high-quality HDR viewing experience, but I felt it did not have quite the same “pop” as the Dolby Vision version.
I put a Colorimetry Research CR-100 colorimeter on the screen and measured the same spot in the same frame—the bright red Chevy Impala featured in the opening at 0:01:27—to see if there was an objective difference in the color rendition of the two formats. The Dolby Vision red was at once a bit more saturated and brighter, but that could be a result of the mode’s default settings and not a limitation of the TV when playing HDR10 content. The same observations held true for the blue sky.
Anecdotally, it appeared that Dolby Vision allowed the TCL to achieve its full picture-quality potential, with HDR10 coming in a very close second. I suspect calibration could bridge the gap, but as it stands, Dolby Vision provided the best out-of-box viewing experience I’ve seen to date, especially on an affordable TV like the TCL.
UHD Streaming with Dolby Vision (HDR)
Vudu’s UHD Dolby Vision stream surprised me with its fidelity. Unlike the Ultra HD Blu-ray presentation, it’s not quite perfect—I saw a greater loss of detail when there was lots of motion on screen. Also, Dolby Vision looked and measured darker, even with the same picture settings.
Overall, though, the picture quality of Vudu’s UHD Dolby Vision stream is amazing when compared to what came before it. It even outclasses the picture quality of HD Blu-ray, thanks to richer color and the extra detail found in highlights and shadows. And when compared to HD streaming, there’s actually no comparison; Vudu UHD with Dolby Vision is the finest streaming picture quality I’ve witnessed to date.
HD Blu-ray (SDR)
Once the undeniable reference for home theater, HD Blu-ray has been superseded—in terms of total image quality—by Ultra HD Blu-ray (be it HDR10 or Dolby Vision) and UHD Dolby Vision streaming on Vudu. Good ol’ Blu-ray still has the upper hand over streaming when it comes to sound quality, and it’s surely better than HD streaming. Plus, there are tons of titles, and prices are low. But the picture-quality gap between Blu-ray and streaming has evaporated thanks to the vibrancy of UHD Dolby Vision HDR.
HD Streaming (SDR)
Unfortunately, when compared to either HD Blu-ray or UHD streaming, HD streaming video looks massively compromised. There’s much less detail, colors look washed out, and compression artifacts rear their ugly head on scene after scene. This is the video equivalent of 128 kbps MP3 where a significant compromise in quality was made for the sake of saving bandwidth. Fortunately, we’re getting past this phase with UHD streaming.
The Fate of the Furious may be about cars, but now it’s time for a food analogy. When it comes to picture quality, UHD and HDR are the cake, while Dolby Vision is the frosting. It’s the layer that makes everything look like eye candy and brings the whole package—content plus display device—together. The result is a visual feast that delivers the rich color and fine detail of theatrical presentations to flat-panel displays in the comfort of your home.
More technically, Dolby Vision tailors content to compatible displays better than HDR10. It supports tone mapping with dynamic metadata that allows it to take maximum advantage of a display’s capabilities. The end result is imagery that looks startlingly realistic—you could say “just right.”
Dolby Vision’s ability to make the most of what a TV can do was evident in scene after scene as I watched The Fate of the Furious. In terms of contrast and color fidelity, it provided a viewing experience that brought the Hollywood motion-picture experience home. Color me impressed.