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MacBook Pro 2021 HDR and Spatial Audio Playback use Apple TV and IINA for now

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Well, all this technology is so new, it’s not surprising how hard it is to make it all work, but with HDR and multichannel audio to work properly is actually pretty hard. We’ve already talked about the first level which is getting the base MacOS to push out 120fps UHD HDR with full 4:4:4 chroma and Atmos multichannel audio (whew that’s a mouthful, but it basically means getting all the resolution and color out that is today possible, which at least for me today is 60 fps at 4:2:2).

So the next step is the applications layer which takes videos that are streamed or on your disk and puts it on the screen. It turns out that this is also complicated to get right. There are very few websites or applications that do this today.

What devices support displays that can show off HDR 10-bit?

OK, there is a very list of Macs that work with HDR which give you incredible colors but they are basically limited on external displays:

  • MacBook Pro 2018 or later. The MacBook Pro 2021 has its own HDR internal display
  • MacBook Air 2018 or later
  • iMac 2020 or later
  • iMac Pro
  • Mac mini 2018 or later
  • Mac Pro 2019

Then there is a longer list of iPads and iPhone that support HDR, although really it is the mini-LED iPad Pro 2020 that is the gold standard here but only a few of these use OLED in what they call. Super Retina or Super Retina XDR so these are the models where you really want to get HDR out:

  • iPhone X, XS has Super Retina so OLED
  • iPhone 11, 12, and 13 have Super Retina XDR so you definitely want a good player for these.
  • iPad Pro 12.9 2nd generation and later, but only the 2020 or 5th generation has the so called LIquid Retina with mini LED

These support HDR playback but you won’t see much difference as they don’t have HDR displays:

  • iPhone 8 and later but you will just see regular SDR as they don’t have the fancy displays
  • iPad Pro 11 and 10.5
  • iPad Air 3rd generation and later
  • iPad Mini 5th generation and later

Which applications or players will show HDR content?

Ok, so if you are lucky enough to have one of these devices that either have an integrated display (like a MacBook, iPhone or iPad) or that can use an external monitor, then you have to find websites and applications that can actually send HDR content (and ideally spatial audio content out). Here the list gets pretty small.

For the Mac:

  1. Apple TV. Not surprising that’s the case right?
  2. Netflix on Safari with Big Sur. With the Big Sur release, you can now use Dolby Vision and Atmos. However as an aside, if you want to stream to a television, you probably want to use the embedded Netflix player, they stream at higher resolution there (because they limit bandwidth on less copy protected PCs). Note that Netflix requires a full 4K display at 60 Hertz, so you cannot see this content even on your shiny new MacBook Pro 2021. And it won’t even show Dolby Vision (even the the display can show it.

There there are players for downloaded content:

  1. Quicktime. You have to recode your conent to MP4 (if they are in MKV), but it is supposed to work
  2. IINA with HDR fixes. IINA is a cool-kid version of video playback.
  3. Infuse Pro. Is an option but they charge annually for the player
  4. Optimus player. This does support HDR and costs $5 so pretty nominal. It is realy ffmpeg undernath
  5. VLC. This is my go to, but although they claim they have HDR support at least on the MacBook pro XDR dispaly I don’t see it. IINA with the fixes are way brighter

On your iPad or iPhone, it depends on the application you are using:

  1. iPad or iPhone with Netflix will show you Dolby Vision content (unlike the MacOS stuff), but will only go to HD since the displays are not full HD. Technically speaking what is happening here is that the iPad Pro 2020 in both sizes suppors Widevine L1 which does decryption completely in a Trusted Execution Environment, so Netflix allows HD and HDR content. For tech nerds, Widevine is owned by Google and has three levels of certification, so the highest level is L1 and it gives you whatever the max resolution the device supports, L2 is 720p and L3 is 580p maximum (and is the default for every device) and this is the same technology uses on Laptops.

What applications support Spatial Audio?

This is the technology that Apple has which converts multichannel audio like Dolby Pro Logic 5.1 or Atmos into something that a two-channel system can interpret called Spatial Audio. With the latest AirPods or MacBook Pro 2021, this is available, but it turns out that very few applications actually do this correct

But the obvious ones are and it’s a pretty decent list on iOS, I have not checked if they work on the MacBook

  • Apple’s TV app of course
  • Netflix and this works in iOS apps and also in the browser
  • Disney+ and this works in MacOS Safari as well
  • HBO Max and this works in the MacOS Safari browser
  • Peacock and this works in Safari on MacOS
  • Discovery+ and this work on MacOS safari
  • Paramount+
  • Hulu

Then there are some which are more niche:

  • Air Video HD (Turn on Surround in Audio settings). This is IOS only
  • FE File Explorer (DTS 5.1 unsupported) so not that great and its a file explorer
  • Foxtel Go (Australia) 
  • Plex (Enable old video player in Settings) which I couild not figure out how to do.
  • Vudu
  • Some TIDAL songs

What’s sadder are the list of applications that don’t support it:

  • IINA doe not although there is an open issue for it and they are waiting for the unerlying mpv palyuerto do it.
  • Infuse. But they say they are working on it.
  • YouTube
  • Vimeo
  • VLC
  • Amazon Prime Video

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