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Dolby Vision, HDR10, Technicolor and HLG: HDR formats explained

Yep, there are lots of ways to get HDR on TV. We'll break 'em down.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Don't call it a format war. 

Dolby, Technicolor, Samsung, Philips and others have different ways to create the beautiful high dynamic rage (HDR) images that make your new TV look its best. In theory, they can all coexist inside your TV, and streaming and Blu-ray can also support multiple formats. That's why it's not the kind of winner-take-all "war" the tech world fought over Blu-ray and HD-DVD or VHS vs. Betamax.

That said, every HDR format is a bit different, and they're still competing against one another, especially for support from different companies.

How does the competition affect you? Just about every HDR-capable TV supports the most popular format, HDR10 or "generic HDR." Many also support Dolby Vision and HLG, while other formats, namely Samsung's HDR10+ and Technicolor's Advanced HDR, are just getting started. 

In CNET's tests, both the capabilities of the TV itself and the way HDR is used in the movie or TV show have a greater impact on image quality than the actual HDR format. But knowing your way around the different formats is still worthwhile. Here's a tour of the HDR landscape as it stands today.

The basics

Most new TVs have the ability to display HDR content, which has more detail in the bright and dark areas of the image, for a greater "dynamic range" compared to non-HDR content (i.e. pretty much everything you've ever watched). Older content is now referred to as "SDR," or standard dynamic range. HDR content on an HDR TV can look far more punchy and vibrant than traditional content.

For a more detailed look at HDR, check out How HDR works.

aja-sdr-hdr-chart

The dynamic range of what's captured by the camera (left) and what's possible on SDR and HDR displays. 

AJA

The "content" part is key. Without HDR content, your HDR TV doesn't really know what to do with itself. Sure, it will look good, and maybe even artificially expand SDR content for perhaps a slight improvement. But to get the most out of your HDR TV, you need real HDR content.

HDR10

HDR10 is as close to a standard as we've got. It's free to use for manufactures, so it's available everywhere. Every HDR TV can decode it, every HDR streamer can stream it. Pretty much all HDR content has an HDR10 version, in some cases along with a more "advanced" HDR format like Dolby Vision, which we'll discuss in a moment.

HDR10's issue, if you can call it that, is that it has "static" metadata. This means that there's one HDR "look" for the entire movie or show. This is certainly better than SDR content, but it doesn't allow for, say, a really bright scene to look its absolute best, nor a dark scene its best, within the same movie. This one-size-fits-all aspect of static metadata is fine, but doesn't let the content nor the TV live up to its full potential. You need dynamic metadata for that, which most of the other formats have.

HDR10 isn't backward-compatible with SDR TVs, so it's no good for broadcast. You'll find it available with streaming content and on Ultra HD Blu-ray.

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HDR10+

As you probably figured from the name, HDR10+ is like HDR10… but plus. The plus in this case is dynamic metadata, improving on HDR10's static. This means that on a per-scene -- or even per-image -- basis, the content can provide the TV with all the information it needs to look its absolute best.

The catch is… this is a Samsung format. They're pushing it hard, and despite promising no licensing fees (so anyone can use it basically for free), this is a bit of a stumbling block. Hard to imagine a world where LG willingly supports a fledgling format backed by Samsung. Other TV companies are likely hesitant to back it for the same reason. Yes, consumer electronics is as petty as junior high.

hdr10-via-samsung

It's a little hard to tell from this graphic, but notice that the frames on the right show different levels of brightness in the sky. This is just an example, using a standard dynamic range image on your standard dynamic range screen. The idea with HDR10+'s dynamic metadata is that a filmmaker can determine how to best show each shot or scene. With HDR10's static metadata, a single setting is used, a compromise that has to cover the darkest and brightest scenes. 

Samsung

Right now, beyond Samsung, Panasonic is the only hardware manufacturer supporting the format, with an Ultra HD Blu-ray player. On the software side, there's Amazon, Warner and Fox. It's probably a bit of a longshot to say this will become the accepted dynamic metadata format, but it's possible.

For more details, check out What is HDR10+.

Dolby Vision

Dolby Vision has made a big push for HDR. Like HDR10+ it can have dynamic metadata. Streaming services like NetflixVudu and Apple's iTunes support it, and you can find it on some Ultra HD Blu-rays. Aspects of Dolby Vision, like how it handles dynamic metadata and color, are optional for HDR formatting in the upcoming ATSC 3.0. 

The issue with DV is that companies have to pay Dolby to use it. On the plus side to that, Dolby will then show them how to make their TVs look best when showing DV content. So for some companies, this is an easy way to get their TVs to look better than perhaps they would on their own. For larger companies (like certain Korean companies that begin with S), they don't need such assistance and would rather dump money into their own HDR format, thank you very much.

Dolby_Vision.jpg

It's impossible to show you want an HDR image looks like on your current device, since it's SDR. This is an approximation, using 2 SDR images, of what you'd see if you placed an SDR and HDR TV side-by-side.

Dolby

After HDR10, this is the most popular HDR format, but that doesn't mean it's universal. If you see a company listed in one of the other sections here, that probably means they don't support DV; Samsung, Philips and Panasonic, for example. Content-wise, there's support from Sony, Universal, Paramount, Lionsgate, and the Swiss of every format war, Warner, plus others.  

Generally speaking, when it comes to a format war, even when it's #notaformatwar, the format with the most content is going to win. We'll see, though.

HLG

Hybrid Log Gamma was created by Britain's BBC and Japan's NHK. Unlike the formats we've discussed so far, it's actually backward-compatible with SDR TVs. One signal that works on both older TVs and newer is a huge deal for broadcasters. Though as you can imagine, it's not without drawbacks. Mainly, that's in terms of picture quality. Like HDR10, HLG is likely better than SDR, but perhaps not quite the picture quality of the other HDR formats. It's part of the upcoming ATSC 3.0 standard.

hybrid-log-gamma

A graphical representation of an SDR and HLG signal. The vertical axis is the signal, from broadcast, cable or satellite for example. "0" is black, "1" is bright white. The horizontal axis is the physical brightness coming out of your television. An SDR TV would see the HLG signal and think it was "normal," showing an image that had, perhaps better highlight detail. An HDR TV that's HLG-compatible would understand what to do with the HLG signal and show that brighter information as a physically brighter part of the image (i.e. how HDR normally works). 

Public Domain/Creative Commons

There's already wide TV support. Content is still in the early stages. In some areas and on some TVs, you might be able to find the 2018 World Cup in HLG HDR. For example, BBC's HDR content is HLG, but not all TVs that can get BBC in 4K can get HDR

For more info, and why it's so different from other methods, check out All about hybrid log gamma.

Advanced HDR by Technicolor (SL-HDR1, 2 and 3)

Technicolor's Advanced HDR comes in multiple flavors: SL-HDR1 is similar to HLG, in that it's fully backward-compatible with SDR TVs, allowing for one signal to rule them all; SL-HDR2 has dynamic metadata like HDR10+ and Dolby Vision; SL-HDR3 uses HLG as a base, but adds dynamic metadata.

technicolor-hdr-path

The path to SDR and HDR in one SL-HDR1 signal. The top is the content creation, the bottom is what your TV will do with it. The SDR content is automatically created from the HDR signal.

Technicolor

There's no content available for general viewing at the moment, but its inclusion in the upcoming ATSC 3.0 standard could mean we'll see some soon. As of this writing, LG is the only manufacturer with compatible TVs available, but they're pretty much all 2017 and 2018 models. We'll likely see more TVs with decoding built in within the next year.

For more info on this, check out What is Advanced HDR by Technicolor?.

There can be only one. Or three. Or maybe five

A few things here are pretty easy to guess. HDR10 is the de-facto base format. Nothing is likely to change that. Dolby Vision, with its wide industry support, especially on the content side, is likely to remain the "step-up" format. HDR10+ and SL-HDR2 could remain or gain in acceptance, especially since DV costs money to implement, but they're both long shots.

The wild card is broadcast, which is going to be an important factor in getting HDR content to a broader audience. HLG and SL-HDR1 (and maybe SL-HDR3) both offer the backward-compatibility required by broadcasters. Which will gain traction remains to be seen.

And in reality, the long-term outlook is, ideally, one of universal playback and irrelevant content format. Do you care if your TV is showing Dolby Vision or HDR10+, as long as it looks as good as possible and just like the other format? Since a TV's HDR performance is almost entirely based on its physical hardware, as long as the content looks good and can be shown properly, its specific language doesn't matter. Well, doesn't matter as long as your TV can speak it, of course. 


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the sameTV resolutions explainedLED LCD vs. OLED and more.

Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff, then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel