At this point in 2017, you probably know that you want HDR video in your life (assuming you haven’t got it already), but there’s still much confusion out there regarding the different HDR formats.
We’re going to put Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) and Advanced HDR by Technicolor to one side for now, mostly because neither is particularly prevalent at this point, and focus on HDR10 and Dolby Vision.
HDR10 is comfortably the most common HDR format currently available, while Dolby Vision is rarer but, on paper, more advanced - and should deliver even more stunning pictures.
What's the difference?
The reason Dolby Vision looks set to take HDR to the next level is because it adds dynamic metadata that carries frame-by-frame instructions. A Dolby Vision capable display can then use this metadata to make sure it portrays the content as accurately as possible.
Dolby Vision-capable TVs combine the frame-by-frame information received from the source with an awareness of its own capabilities in terms of brightness, contrast and colour performance.
Unlike HDR10 video, Dolby Vision content is essentially being optimised for your TV on the fly, theoretically delivering the best possible image in every scene.
That’s the theory anyway, and until recently that - and a few manufacturer demos - was all we had to go on. Now, though, we’ve been able to compare Dolby Vision and HDR10 directly in our own testing rooms – and the results are surprising, to say the least.
How we did the comparison
Oppo's UDP-203 Blu-ray player is one of a few to support Dolby Vision, including LG's UP970
But first, how did we conduct the test? It’s certainly not an easy comparison to make, because Dolby Vision TVs are still very rare and because those TVs don’t allow you to switch between Dolby Vision and HDR10. Both points can also be applied to Blu-ray players, and Dolby Vision discs are rarer than a blue steak.
But where there's a will, there's a way. We sourced an LG OLED65G7V (all of LG’s 2017 OLEDs support Dolby Vision) and two Oppo UDP-203 Blu-ray players. We updated one of the Oppos to the latest firmware, which adds Dolby Vision support, and left the other on earlier firmware, limiting it to HDR10.
Finally, we bought two copies of the Despicable Me 4K Blu-ray, currently one of only three discs currently available with Dolby Vision support (the others are Despicable Me 2 and Power Rangers... yes, really).
With this kit we were able to connect the two players to the LG TV simultaneously, play the two discs concurrently, and flick between inputs for instant comparisons of Dolby Vision and HDR10.
More after the break
Which is better?
LG is one of a few TV manufacturers to carry support for Dolby Vision in its 2017 sets
We’re not saying this is a perfect test scenario: there could be small manufacturing differences between the Oppo players and the more recent firmware may have added small picture differences beyond the addition of Dolby Vision.
Added to that, doing a picture comparison using an animated feature is far from ideal, as we’ll discuss in more detail below.
But, comparing an HDR10 disc on the two players delivers a nigh-on identical picture and Despicable Me is the only disc available. Even taking these caveats into consideration, the results are really rather interesting.
Let’s get the headline surprise out of the way now: the Dolby Vision version of Despicable Me, when tested using the kit and method outlined above, looks worse than the HDR10 version.
We’ve got both inputs set to the Cinema Home preset, which is the default mode when a Dolby Vision is detected but has to be manually selected when playing standard HDR10, but the differences are pronounced.
The HDR10 version of the film is bright and punchy, with the kind of contrast that adds definition to objects and a real sense of three-dimensionality. This is a vibrant, exciting picture that draws the eye and makes the film look genuinely spectacular.
The Dolby Vision version is quite pale and flat by comparison. The distance between the bright and dark elements of the image seems significantly shorter, and that relative crushing of contrast leaves colours and shades blending into one another. Objects and characters simply stand out less distinctly. It’s a more subdued image, which is not what we were expecting.
It’s worth pointing out that we’re generally using the default Cinema Home settings as we believe that’s what most people at home will do (after all, the raison d’etre of Dolby Vision is that you’re seeing the most accurate image possible), but we did also spend a long period attempting to get the two images closer to one another – to no avail.
This task was made especially frustrating by the LG presenting you with a completely different selection of settings depending on whether it’s receiving a Dolby Vision or HDR10 signal. Again, we're doing this comparison as best we can...
Switching both inputs to the Standard preset produces a brighter, more vivid image across the board, but there still remains a significant gap between Dolby Vision and HDR10.
So is Dolby Vision a busted flush? We’re certainly not prepared to jump to that conclusion for a number of reasons. The biggest of which is that the sample size is just too small.
Dolby Vision is applied on a disc-by-disc and frame-by-frame basis, and it could well be that Despicable Me just isn’t a particularly good example of its implementation.
Perhaps the next animated film to get Dolby Vision support (that will be The Lego Ninjago Movie (!) by the looks of things) will be a thrillingly dynamic visual delight...
It may also be that the somewhat subdued delivery of Despicable Me is a hint at greater subtlety from Dolby Vision. We think it’s a bit misguided to go for subtlety with an animated film, but perhaps live action movies will benefit from a more nuanced approach. Only time, more compatible products and more compatible content, will tell.
All we can say for now, is that the Dolby Vision version of Despicable Me is a bit of a disappointment.
We’ll be testing more 2017 HDR TVs and HDR 4K discs as soon as we lay our hands on them and will of course report back our findings. One thing's for sure, it's an interesting time for TV technology.