HDR Format War on the Horizon?

It was believed that the release of CEA-approved HDR specs in late August would clear the field for all UHD, media source and receiver components to adopt and adhere to a single set of specs for HDR compliancy, including updated HDMI 2.0a connections.

This belief is wrong.

Dolby has thrown a monkey wrench into this leveling of the HDR playing field with Dolby Vision, which does not require HDMI 2.0a. According to Dolby, Dolby Vision doesn’t even require HDMI 2.0. In fact, its HDR format is backward compatible to HDMI 1.4.

Dolby Vision’s backward HDR compatibility could be a boon to consumers who now may not have to buy a new A/V receiver to complete a full HDR home theater system. But Dolby Vision’s backward compatibility could create an HDR format war that could slow the HDR adoption the CEA spec was designed to accelerate.

We discovered Dolby Vision’s backward HDMI compatibility when Vizio’s two new Reference Series models, the 65-inch RS65-B2 ($5,999.99) and the 120-inch RS120-B3 ($129,999.99), went on pre-sale on October 7. These two sets are each equipped with HDMI 2.0 jacks, not 2.0a.

So, we asked Dolby, how does Dolby Vision work without HDMI 2.0a?

“Dolby Vision supports in-band signaling between compatible source and sink devices connected via HDMI to announce Dolby Vision content that puts the sink device, i.e., [the] TV/display, in the right mode,” explains Dolby’s VP of consumer imaging. “This signaling is compatible with but not dependent on signaling mechanisms used within HDMI and is therefore compatible with HDMI 1.4 and above provided the device itself is Dolby Vision enabled.”

Okay, I’ll pretend I understand that. But why then do devices using the CEA HDR spec, which is based on Dolby HDR technology, require HDMI 2.0a jacks?

“It is correct that the current CEA HDR spec references SMPTE ST 2084 and ST 2086, which have been created with significant input from Dolby,” Dolby’s executive acknowledges. “This work is effectively standardizing key components of Dolby Vision.” But, “[a]s previously stated, Dolby Vision works today as an integrated system. The integration of the CEA spec into HDMI is an evolution that happens in parallel, so HDMI 2.0a happened to be the HDMI spec revision that added these components.”

What in the HDR Happens Next?

Vizio’s adoption of Dolby Vision, along with Warner Brothers and, according to Vizio, Sony Pictures, is significant, at least for the U.S. market. Vizio’s willingness to pay Dolby whatever license fee Dolby charges for Dolby Vision could influence other lesser U.S. TV makers to do the same just so they don’t get left behind.

From a market point of view, adopting Dolby Vision makes a world of sense for Vizio. It can advertise the ease of adding one of their Dolby Vision Reference sets into an existing home theater set-up without additional component rebuys.

Of course, none of the only 4K source devices extant – Roku 4, Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast – include any HDR, much less Dolby Vision, compatibility. And Dolby Vision is only an option for manufacturers to include on forthcoming UHD Blu-ray players, which are more likely to be equipped with HDMI 2.0a jacks and the CEA HDR spec.

But if any of the source device manufacturers want to add Dolby Vision, they also can competitively advertise that no new AVR is necessary.

The problem with Vizio’s HDMI 2.0 approach is if any source device maker includes an HDR format based on CEA’s HDR specs, Vizio Reference UHD owners will be out of luck, at least for the time being. All they’ll see is regular old UHD 4K video, not the contrast and color benefits of the “other” HDR format. Only Dolby Vision spoken here.

Vizio execs hinted/spoke around/fudged about potentially upgrading the HDMI jacks on its Reference sets to HDMI 2.0a…at some point, probably, maybe, at some point, so other content encoded with a CEA-based HDR can be enjoyed on the new Reference sets. The way Vizio execs answered the HDMI 2.0a upgrade question, however, gave me the distinct impression that allowing other HDR formats to be viewed on its Reference UHDs would be as welcome as a party crasher.

Perhaps – and this is pure speculation on my part based on absolutely nothing but my Spidey sense – Dolby told Vizio no HDMI 2.0a.

It’s simply not in Vizio’s or Dolby’s fiscal, marketing or competitive interest to host any other HDR content on its Dolby Vision-enabled UHDs, at least not at this early stage of Dolby Vision’s nascent commercial existence. That’d be akin to Apple selling Macs bundled with Parallel Windows 10 emulation software.

What You Gave a Format War and No One Came?

The way this all plays out could be identical to how all previous format wars have played out. Equipment manufacturers choose sides, but consumers don’t buy either for fear of investing in the losing side, all of which slows adoption. Then, whichever side has the most brand support and/or patience and/or marketing muscle and/or money, will end up winning. In the end, someone or someones suffer(s) a humiliating market defeat after several years of adoption stagnation and lost momentum – all of which is what the whole accelerated CEA effort to establish a baseline HDR standard was designed to avoid.

Which means the only way wide scale HDR adoption works is for UHD makers to remain neutral and include HDMI 2.0a jacks and add Dolby Vision compatibility. But if Vizio’s initial 2.0/Dolby Digital foray is any example, that ain’t gonna happen. I guess we’ll find out when Samsung and LG and Sony and Panasonic intro their own HDR-enabled UHDs at CES in January, and if/when Vizio unveils new Dolby Vision UHDs.

Since these Vizio’s are the first – and pretty expensive – Dolby Vision UHDs, we still have a ways to go before this Dolby Vision/HDMI 2.0 combo becomes an actual trend or is merely a market acceptance trial balloon.

Or, no one will care except geeks like me.

Fortunately for the industry, mainstream consumers have no idea what HDR is – they barely know what UHD means, much less that “4K” and “UHD” are essentially the same thing. And unless retailers do a bang-up job demo’ing HDR of any stripe, not exactly a historically reliable method of selling a new technology, consumers will have no idea what they’re being shown.

If past examples of the failures of secondary upgrades of new formats can be a guide (see S-VHS, SACD and DVD-A, for instance), the HDR format war won’t impact UHD sales at all. And that’d be the worst possible outcome since HDR technology is the best thing to happen to TVs since HD.