What is Dolby Vision? The dynamic HDR format fully explained

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Of all the new TV technologies to emerge over the last few years, it’s arguable that none has had as big an impact on overall picture quality as High Dynamic Range, or HDR. When properly implemented, HDR makes a bigger difference to most people than the move from Full HD (1080p) to 4K Ultra HD resolution, even though the latter tech (and its higher-resolution sibling, 8K) tends to be what most manufacturers like to highlight when marketing their various TV models.

But here’s the catch: HDR isn’t just one format, it’s a catch-all name for multiple different formats, each with its own unique qualities. One of the most widely discussed HDR formats is Dolby Labs’ Dolby Vision. So what exactly is Dolby Vision? How is it different than other HDR formats? And most importantly, how can you get it at home? We have all the answers right here.

What is HDR?

Before we get into Dolby Vision specifically, let’s quickly recap HDR in general. High Dynamic Range is a technology that lets filmmakers and content creators produce videos with increased brightness, greater color accuracy, and better contrast than what was previously possible. While HDR is often utilized in high-quality theaters, it’s also become increasingly popular for home viewing. When HDR content is viewed on a quality HDR-compatible TV, you can tell right away — the increase in overall picture quality is dramatic, offering a touch of cinematic quality on the small screen.

There are five major HDR formats to discuss for home use: Two static formats and three dynamic ones. The two static formats are HDR10, the version that every HDR-capable TV supports, and HLG a version designed for broadcast applications. Static in this case means that the data required to show HDR content is determined once based on the entire movie or TV show. Once the video starts to play, that information doesn’t change.

The three dynamic formats include Advanced HDR by Technicolor, and two much more commonly known formats for the home: HDR10+, a license-free format developed in part by Samsung, and Dolby Vision. Unlike static formats, dynamic formats can adapt as you watch, boosting or reducing HDR elements based on each scene, down to a frame-by-frame level of detail. It takes way more data to do HDR this way, but experts agree: Being able to fine-tune color, contrast, and brightness for each scene can have a big impact on HDR quality.

So what’s so special about Dolby Vision?

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As touched on above, Dolby Vision is a proprietary, dynamic HDR format developed by Dolby Labs. By adjusting the picture on a scene-by-scene (and even frame-by-frame) basis, it lets you see more detail, with better color accuracy. It is constantly making adjustments so that each image on the screen is optimized. But there’s more to it than that.

In addition to the ability for content creators to tweak picture settings at a highly granular level, Dolby Vision supports a much wider range of possible settings than the more conventional (and static) HDR10. For instance, HDR10 supports a maximum picture brightness of 1,000 nits for TVs. Dolby Vision can go much brighter — up to 10,000 nits.

The same is true for color accuracy. HDR10 lets content creators specify color using 10 bits of data, whereas Dolby Vision supports up to 12 bits. That spec might not seem like a big deal — after all, that’s only a difference of 2 bits — but it makes a huge difference. With 10 bits, you can pick from amongst 1,024 shades of each primary color, which gives you over a billion total possible colors. Again, that sounds huge until you realize that 12 bits give you 4,096 shades and a total of over 68 billion colors.

If that sounds like overkill, when it comes to your TV, it is. For the moment, there are no TVs you can buy that are capable of displaying 10,000 nits of brightness or the 64 billion colors that Dolby Vision provides. Even the brightest TVs on the market tend to max out at 2,000 nits of brightness, and not even LG’s OLED E-series offers better than 10-bit color support. That said, TV technology is advancing very rapidly so Dolby Vision’s current above-and-beyond specs may seem perfectly reasonable in another five years.

What about HDR10+?

The Samsung-backed HDR10+ format is similar to Dolby Vision in that it’s also a dynamic format that can optimize on-screen images on a scene-by-scene basis. It has support for higher brightness and color-depth than the HDR10, but it doesn’t quite go as far as Dolby Vision in its specifications. In theory, this means that you’ll get better results with Dolby Vision, but for now, the biggest difference between the two standards is availability.

Few devices currently support HDR10+ and even fewer sources of content are available in HDR10+, though this is beginning to change. In time, thanks to the free licensing of the HDR10+ standard, we could see the tables turn. If you’re wondering about future support for these competing formats, here’s something to keep in mind: Any device that currently supports Dolby Vision ought to be able to support HDR10+ too, via a firmware upgrade. Moreover, there would be little cost to manufacturers that chose to do this. The same is not true for Dolby Vision, which adds a licensing cost in addition to the cost of developing the firmware itself.

Which TVs support Dolby Vision?

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While Dolby Vision is more prominent than HDR10+, not all new TVs are Dolby Vision-compatible. One prominent brand that does not support it is Samsung, which is all in on HDR10+.

Major brands that offer Dolby Vision include LG, TCL, Vizio, and Sony, but Dolby Vision support can vary from model to model. Before you buy, make sure to read the full specs for the model you’re considering. If it works with Dolby Vision it will likely say so and usually quite prominently.

What else do I need for Dolby Vision?

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In addition to having a Dolby Vision-compatible TV (or other devices — some smartphones and tablets are now Dolby Vision-compatible), you’ll need a source of Dolby Vision video. Lots of 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays support Dolby Vision, and video streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video offer a good selection of both Hollywood movies and original series in the format.

Upcoming streaming services Disney+ and Apple TV+ have both committed to supporting Dolby Vision to some degree, and Dolby Atmos — the company’s popular surround-sound audio format. Where you won’t find Dolby Vision is broadcast TV. For the moment, HDR content from over-the-air channels is rare, and when it’s available it uses either HDR10 or HLG due to the lower bandwidth requirements of these HDR formats.

Amazon Fire TV Streaming Stick 4K
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

If you use a set-top box, game console, or Blu-ray player for your streaming video content, it also needs to be Dolby Vision-compatible — not all of them are. Roku streaming devices like the Roku Streaming Stick+, for instance, only support HDR10. By contrast, some Roku TVs, like those made by TCL, do support Dolby Vision. The Apple TV 4K supports Dolby Vision, but the Apple TV HD doesn’t. Amazon’s 4K Fire TV Stick is one of the few devices that supports all four of the top HDR formats: HDR10, HLG, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision. Microsoft’s Xbox One S and One X have supported Dolby Vision since 2018, but you won’t find it on the basic Xbox One. Sony’s PlayStations do not support Dolby Vision. Again, it pays to do your research.

Finally, if your chosen Dolby Vision device requires an HDMI cable (instead of the dongle-style that plugs directly into a TV) make sure you buy an HDMI cable that is guaranteed to be compatible with Dolby Vision. Any cable that bears the “HDMI Premium Certified” label is ideal. Cables that are rated for lesser speeds may work, but be prepared in the event that they don’t. The good news is that you can buy Premium Certified HDMI cables for less than the price of an IMAX movie ticket.

So there you have it — Dolby Vision fully explained. As the HDR landscape shifts over time, we’ll be updating this article to reflect the latest changes, equipment, and support.

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