High dynamic range, or HDR as it’s more commonly known, is nothing short of a revolution in TV picture quality. At Digital Trends, we’ve said as much countless times, and if you check out other tech publications, you’re likely to run into similar descriptions. But what you may not see or hear quite as often is HDR’s inconvenient truth: It’s a hot mess.
With five different and incompatible formats, the world of HDR has become an unruly collection of technologies, made even more difficult to navigate because of all of the moving parts. TVs, Blu-ray players, streaming media players, streaming services, apps, and even — God help us — HDMI cables all have a role on the HDR stage, but the performance we’re watching has more in common with improv than a slickly produced play.
In some ways, the HDR landscape is reminiscent of previous technological minefields that we, as hapless buyers, have had to contend with. Remember Beta versus VHS? What about HD-DVD versus Blu-ray? Or perhaps the Mexican standoff that was Memory Stick versus SD cards versus Compact Flash?
It has been said — possibly erroneously — that the porn industry settled history’s two big video format fights, but don’t count on the purveyors of prurience to pick a winner this time. Unlike these previous disputes, HDR is different in two key ways: First, none of this is Sony’s fault (this time). Second, despite the proliferation of HDR formats, it isn’t actually a one-way street where you must pick a dance partner and remain forever tied to that choice until such time as you sell off all your old gear and start again.
As comforting as that thought is, make no mistake: HDR is a rat’s nest and it’s high time the industry got its collective act together so that those of us at home can focus on what matters most: Getting the biggest bang for our entertainment bucks, with the fewest number of headaches.
Who needs to sort this out?
Allow us to introduce you to the players in the HDR ensemble cast.
Sony, LG, Samsung, Vizio, TCL, Hisense, Toshiba … and many more are the companies that make HDR-capable TVs. At this point in time, I’m hard-pressed to think of a company that doesn’t make an HDR-capable TV. TV makers occupy the top spot in the hierarchy of HDR responsibility because to a huge degree, the TV you buy determines your relationship to HDR.
Not only does your TV choice determine which of the competing five HDR formats you’ll be able to watch, but even more importantly, it determines how good those HDR formats will look. Oh, were you under the impression that all HDR TVs deliver the same HDR experience? I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but no, they do not. Not even close.
Streaming media device manufacturers
Unless your HDR TV is a smart TV with a comprehensive set of all of the streaming apps you will ever need, you’re probably going to want an external streaming media device. It’s bad enough when you have to worry about whether the device you pick will support 4K or Dolby Atmos, but you’re also going to have to look at which HDR formats it supports, too.
And just for good measure, we’re going to include Ultra HD Blu-ray players in this category too, as they aren’t immune from this disease.
TV and movie studios
There’s a strong argument to be made that if content creators circled all of their wagons around a single HDR format — as they eventually did with Blu-ray — all of our HDR troubles would go away. So why haven’t they done that?
The HDR formats themselves
The answer, in part, is too much choice. HDR10, HDR10+, Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG), Dolby Vision, and Advanced HDR by Technicolor. Yup, five versions of HDR, and they all require specific support from the players we’ve mentioned in order to work.
Is it too much to hope that a single format will emerge to rule them all? Probably. Even though the first three in the list, HDR10, HDR10+, and HLG are all open-source technologies — meaning there are no fees to use them — Dolby Vision and Advanced HDR by Technicolor are licensed formats, which makes them less of a slam-dunk in terms of adoption.
In fact, Samsung and Roku are two very big players that have thus far refused to license Dolby Vision for their products. And yet, both Dolby Vision and Advanced HDR by Technicolor possess unique strengths that keep them in the running.
Dolby Vision is beloved by creators, TV makers, and home viewers alike because of its impressive picture quality. As a so-called “dynamic” HDR format, it leaves HDR10 in the dust by offering more colors, more brightness, and the ability to respond to each individual scene’s specific composition of light and dark areas. When the Dolby Vision stars are aligned from content sourced through to a high-quality TV, nothing beats it.
Meanwhile, Advanced HDR by Technicolor hasn’t even left the starting gate. There’s no content that’s been made using it, no streaming services or physical media that offer it, and only a tiny fraction of HDR-capable TVs are compatible with it. But it also happens to be the dark horse in the HDR race thanks to its unique ability to merge three different kinds of HDR technologies — static (HDR10), dynamic (HDR10+), and broadcast-friendly (HLG) — into one seamless workflow for creators and broadcasters. Oh, and it also speaks SDR, so it’s 100% backward-compatible with almost every TV on the planet.
If you could sum up where streaming services like Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ all sit in this little doozie of a fight, it would be, “Hey guys, can’t we all just get along?”
Imagine: All these services want is to be massively popular with audiences (and their subscription dollars). It’s hard enough to do that when a new competitor seems to emerge out of nowhere every 60 days. But tack on to that mission the need to build apps that not only support as many smart TVs, smartphones, streaming devices, and tablets as possible but to also ensure that your titles are available in SD, HD, 4K, HDR10, Dolby Vision, stereo, 5.1 Dolby Digital, Dolby Atmos … yeah, we’re pretty sure these companies would prefer if there were just one HDR format, too.
Amazon Prime Video has done more than any other to play nice in the HDR world. It supports HDR10, HDR10+, HLG, and Dolby Vision for most of its HDR titles, and as much as we laud them for that work, in some ways, it just perpetuates the problem.
Wait, broadcasters? As in regular ol’ TV stations? You better believe it. With ATSC 3.0 (a.k.a NextGen TV) rapidly gaining steam in the U.S., we’re soon going to be able to enjoy broadcast TV in HDR. The only problem is that it will be in the HLG format, which means that within the next few years, there’s going to be a three-way tie between HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HLG for the title of most popular HDR format.
How bad is it? Seriously?
Let’s put it this way. Right now, if you want to future-proof yourself when buying a new TV, you’re out of luck. As far as we know, there are no TV makers selling HDR models in this country that support all five flavors of HDR.
LG comes closest, with support for every format but HDR10+ (not the worst format to ditch if you have to ditch one of them), but as much as we love LG’s TVs — especially its OLED TVs — we should all have way more choice when it comes to the TVs we buy.
If you end up needing the one HDR format (or two, or three) that your chosen TV doesn’t support, it’s not like you can add it on later. Given how far TV content has come in the last 10 years, are you prepared to make a bet today on which HDR format will end up dominant down the road?
Even if we restrict ourselves to the present, things are far from ideal. If you’ve decided you want to see all of the HDR glory that is Dolby Vision, and you’ve expressly bought a TV that can handle this format, your work is not done: You will then have to find a source of Dolby Vision content. If it turns out the TV’s preinstalled apps give you access to a streaming service that includes Dolby Vision titles, you’re good to go. Well, that is, until you decide you want to switch to a service that doesn’t have an app for your TV.
If that happens, then you’re looking at external streaming devices. But be careful: Roku, which has more streaming apps than any other platform, doesn’t make a Dolby Vision-compatible device. Now you’re down to Apple’s Apple TV 4K (a great but pricey box), Nvidia’s Shield TV (also pricey, and uses Android TV, which has fewer apps), or Amazon Fire TV which has plenty of apps, but not everyone is delighted with its user interface.
Oh, and after you’ve made that decision, your Dolby Vision-capable box had better be connected via a proper premium high-speed HDMI cable, or you will likely see a black flashing screen (Dolby Vision is very picky about cables).
And lest you think that Dolby Vision is simply too much trouble and you’ll just stick to HDR10, thank you very much, be prepared to be locked out of some HDR content: Some studios only release UHD Blu-rays in one format. There is the odd title that comes in multiple formats — Universal’s 1917 comes to mind — but these are still rarities.
Likewise, some titles on streaming services can be Dolby Vision-only. Remember, if a studio doesn’t produce a movie in a specific HDR format, there’s nothing that Netflix or anyone else can do about it.
What’s the solution?
For now, there isn’t one. If you’re wondering how to navigate the HDR minefield successfully, we humbly offer our suggestions on how to get great HDR on your TV. Think of it as more of an HDR survival guide than a fix.
In the longer term, we see a few possibilities.
The obvious answer is that all TV makers are just going to have to bite the bullet and support all HDR formats. After all, why should buyers have to wade through a series of deeply hidden specs? HDR should just work.
The next obvious answer is that all movie studios and TV production houses must make room for all of the HDR formats in their workflows. Just like record labels create studio masters and then export songs in a variety of formats like MP3, AAC, FLAC, etc., video creators must likewise adapt to a multiformat HDR world.
If these parties put up a fuss over this notion, Netflix could choose to play the role of sheriff. It has (for the moment) kingmaker status in the streaming world. If it mandated that all HDR content must be delivered to its servers in all five HDR flavors, it’s hard to see many studios refusing. Given Amazon’s leadership in this area, there’s certainly a precedent for it.
The less appealing answer is to push the production community to adopt a single HDR format as the standard. Which format should that be? If it’s HDR10 or HLG, creators and movie fans will both see red at being denied the higher quality associated with Dolby Vision or HDR10+.
If it’s Dolby Vision, HDR10, or HDR10+, the content will be incompatible with the new broadcast standard, HLG.
The Apple gambit
I haven’t mentioned Apple yet, because until recently, there wasn’t much to say. Some of Apple’s products, like the iPhone X and recent Mac laptops, have HDR-capable displays but the company hadn’t planted its flag on the HDR battlefield by formally backing one HDR format. Until now.
As of the iPhone 12 Pro, Apple now makes a product that can shoot and display HDR video in Dolby Vision. But curiously, its Dolby Vision support is backed up with HLG. Shooting HDR on the iPhone 12 Pro creates a file with two sets of HDR metadata, one for Dolby Vision and one for HLG. If your TV or phone can’t display Dolby Vision, it gets the HLG version. If it can’t do HDR at all, it gets SDR.
“Not very long from now,” Jon McCormack, Apple vice president of camera software Engineering, told PetaPixel, “this weirdly cluttered space will get uncluttered.”
Will Apple’s HDR gambit effectively force a new, two-format standard upon the industry? It’s certainly got the clout to do so. But given that most HDR footage shot on iPhones will be shared via YouTube, Google would need to start supporting Dolby Vision (or at least HLG) across its huge array of YouTube apps — something it has yet to do — in order to really turbocharge Apple’s strategy.
If these options prove anything, it’s that HDR — as we established at the outset — is a hot mess. And for the foreseeable future, it’s a mess that we, as content viewers and technology buyers, are being left to clean up on our own.
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