Dolby Vision: Is it worth paying extra for the premium HDR format?

Given Dolby’s long and proud heritage of pushing the boundaries of sound and picture quality, it was no surprise to find it working right at the forefront of the latest high dynamic range (HDR) picture quality revolution. In fact, Dolby played a key role in the development of the so-called ‘HDR10’ industry standard.

It didn’t stop there, though. For alongside HDR10 Dolby developed a ‘premium’ Dolby Vision HDR format, and it’s this that we’re checking out here. 

While there are a number of technical improvements behind Dolby Vision, the main one from an end-user’s perspective is that it places an additional layer of information on top of a core HDR10 video signal which contains scene-by-scene information which Dolby Vision-capable TVs can use to improve the way they present their pictures.

We’ve seen Dolby Vision already in the UK on a handful of Netflix and Amazon video streams, and it’s also available via VUDU in the US. The ‘big one’ for many AV fans, though, has been Ultra HD Blu-ray. Dolby Vision is included as an option on the UHD BD specification sheet, and AV fans have been desperate to see how much of a difference Dolby’s system might make to the picture quality of the AV world’s best-quality source. 

And now, at long last – more than a year after the first 4K Blu-rays went on sale – the first Dolby Vision 4K Blu-rays are here in the shape of Universal’s first two Despicable Me movies. And it’s fair to say their DV images look nothing short of amazing – provided you’ve got the hardware to watch them.

What you'll need to watch in DV

For the avoidance of doubt, Dolby Vision is a licensed video platform that requires all the links in the video chain to support it. So buying the Despicable Me 4K Blu-ray discs won’t be enough in itself – you’ll also need a TV capable of receiving Dolby Vision, and a 4K Blu-ray player capable of playing Dolby Vision. 

All LG’s 2016 and 2017 OLED TVs are DV-capable, as are its high-end 2017 LCD TVs. Sony TVs with X1 Extreme chips (the ZD9s, A1 OLEDs, XE93s and XE94s) will handle DV too after a firmware update later this year, as can some Vizio and TCL TVs in the US. 

The only 4K Blu-ray players currently supporting Dolby Vision are the Oppo UDP-203, Oppo 205, and LG’s UP970.

If you’re lucky enough to already own a suitable combination of kit, though, trust us: you’ll want to buy both Despicable Me 4K Blu-rays as a matter of urgency. The impact of Dolby Vision on the visuals of both movies has to be seen to be believed.

A new world of color

Take color, for instance. With our Oppo 203 and LG OLED55C7 combination, the Dolby Vision Despicable Me movies display an unprecedented array of tones and tonal subtleties. Everything from the animated skin tones to background walls and locations contains subtle variations and accuracies of color you just don’t get in HDR10 – a comparison verified by playing the discs’ HDR10 ‘core’ video through the Panasonic UB900 Ultra HD Blu-ray player onto the OLED55C7.

This helps pictures instantly look more detailed and refined, despite the fact that Dolby Vision isn’t capable of actually adding more pixels to the 4K source pictures.

The Dolby Vision transfer doesn’t just portray more subtle colors than the HDR10 transfer either. Some colors also look slightly different in hue and tone; and invariably our impression was that the DV versions were the definitive, accurate ones.

The Oppo 203 is one of just three 4K Blu-ray players that currently supports Dolby Vision

Startling in its brilliance, too, is Dolby Vision’s mastery of light. Somehow the technology seems to deliver purer, brighter highlights than we've ever seen from the LG OLED before, while simultaneously delivering dark scenes with more richness and subtle light detailing. 

Actually there seems to be more definition between subtle light differences in every part of the Dolby Vision image, giving it a more stable, rich, deep, solid appearance that looks almost three-dimensional versus the flatter, less precise HDR10 picture.

As if this wasn’t all stunning enough, the settings Dolby has designed for the OLED55C7 seem to handle motion more cleanly and effectively than LG’s own processing with HDR10 does.

Add all the Dolby Vision/Despicable Me benefits together and you’ve got an image the likes of which we haven’t seen before on a domestic television, despite the fact that we’re only talking about a pair of ageing animated titles. Having seen the cinematic version of Dolby Vision at work on Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 recently, we can only imagine how spectacular Dolby Vision at home could look with more visually sophisticated titles than Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2.

Rival technologies

It’s worth remembering at this point that AV brands not signed up with Dolby for Dolby Vision – including Samsung and Panasonic – tend to suggest they can deliver equivalent results to DV by just applying their own processing power to HDR10. Having played the Despicable Me discs in HDR10 into a reference Samsung UE65KS9500, though, while that set delivered brighter light peaks than the Dolby Vision picture on the LG OLED, it couldn’t match Dolby Vision for light and color subtleties.

It’s telling, perhaps, that Samsung recently announced a royalty-free alternative to Dolby Vision that also applies a layer of so-called ‘dynamic metadata’ (scene-by-scene instructions) to an HDR10 stream. While Amazon is promising support for this new ‘HDR10+’ system, though, other TV hardware brands beyond Samsung have yet to commit to it, and it’s not included in the existing Ultra HD Blu-ray specifications.

All recent LG OLED TVs, including the LG OLED55C7, are DV-capable

We're not necessarily saying here that your next TV and 4K Blu-ray player absolutely definitely must have Dolby Vision support. The format still, after all, has to work within the brightness and color limitations of any TV it’s applied to, and there are non-Dolby Vision TVs out there which are either (in Samsung’s case in particular) capable of delivering color and brightness levels beyond those possible from any current Dolby Vision TV; or which use HDR10 processing systems created in conjunction with Hollywood itself (in Panasonic’s case). 

It’s also the case that Dolby Vision Ultra HD Blu-rays are still not looking set to be particularly numerous, despite the format’s ‘official’ launch. 

What certainly does no longer seem in doubt from having seen Dolby Vision in action from a 4K Blu-ray, though, is that it does an incredible job of getting the absolute best out of any screen it comes into contact with. And with a technology as confusing and frankly error-strewn as HDR is right now, that’s a pretty big deal.

  • Want a concise rundown of the differences between HDR10 and Dolby Vision? Here's our complete guide on HDR10 vs Dolby Vision

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