My Two Cents

Revelation, with a Side of Reservation: My Thoughts on Eight Weeks with the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Format

May 4, 2016 - 5:07 pm   |   by
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This has been an interesting couple of months for me, to say the least. As you may be aware, I’ve just spent the last eight weeks completely immersing myself in all the various ins, outs, and nuances of the new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray format. I’ve watched disc and after disc, and have reviewed nine of them so far (you can find them here, with more on the way). I’ve put the format’s first player, the Samsung UDB-K8500 (which I’ll review more fully soon, but about which I’ve got some key things to say below) through its paces. I’ve spoken with many of the leading studios, engineers, and content producers (who are really starting to work with the format) about the format. And I’ve come to a number of what I believe are well-informed conclusions about it, based on my nearly two decades of experience doing what I do. [Read on here…]

Now… we’ve talked often in the past here at The Bits about the idea that the “Golden Age of Special Editions on Disc” is over. This is absolutely true, sadly, and the trends show it. More and more, the major studios are putting less effort and money into their new and catalog releases, with less – and less substantial – content added to each disc, and more frequent double-dips (when the studios eventually realize there’s demand for a better version). As the industry sets its collective sights on the all-digital future, the studios are still releasing discs to be sure, but it almost seems as if their true customers are their retail partners – not the end users, be they serious film fans, casual users, or high-end A/V enthusiasts. Witness the persistent and fan-irritating trend toward giving each different retailer some kind of exclusive, often scattering much-desired content over many different SKUs or digital services, and then (by contract) failing to promote these exclusives thus making them difficult for consumers to even find out about. Make no mistake, this is driven by the retailers and the studio’s desire to appease them as sales partners. Sadly, it now appears that the Star Trek Into Darkness Blu-ray debacle was just an early symptom of a marketing practice that’s become standard throughout the industry.

The studios are doing fewer film restorations these days, they’re missing great opportunities to release deep catalog film titles on their anniversaries, they’re abandoning TV series releases in early seasons, and they’re licensing many titles out to third-party companies like Criterion, Shout! Factory, Twilight, Kino, and Olive Films. That last trend has actually been great for film enthusiasts, as it’s meant more good deep catalog special editions created by and for the people who actually appreciate them. But overall, it’s a symptom of an industry in decline – essentially, we’re back to the Laserdisc days. And even though many catalog films are still being given special treatment, others are languishing. Where’s the great Blu-ray special editions we all want of titles like The Rocketeer, The Abyss, Tombstone, the original War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide, True Lies, The Alamo, and The Black Hole? Where are the great TV titles that need Star Trek-style HD/CG-remastering, like From the Earth to the Moon, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Smallville, and Batman: The Animated Series? There are still lots of catalog opportunities out there on Blu-ray, but these aren’t blockbuster titles – they’re niche releases – and they’ll take a little more work and financial investment than other titles to do. Given that the industry trend on the theatrical side has moved towards spending $300 million-plus per film to make billions, rather than betting on more $1 million, $10 million, or $50 million films, it’s probably inevitable that this kind of thinking has infected the home video side of the industry too. The major studio home video operations just aren’t interested in playing small ball anymore, or targeting a niche audience. I’ll be honest: This is has me worried for the future of physical media… and the Ultra HD Blu-ray format.

And that’s a shame, because my experience of the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray format so far has been nothing short of a revelation. Watching these movies on disc (whether they’re 2K DI-upconverted or full native 4K), with the tremendous benefits of High Dynamic Range, has been thrilling. It’s so thrilling, in fact, that there’s a moment now, whenever I switch back to watching regular Blu-ray, that I keenly miss HDR. Of course, then I get engrossed in whatever I’m watching and it doesn’t matter. But I personally think that High Dynamic Range with 10-bit color is the best thing that’s happened in home video since the switch to 1080p. Don’t get me wrong: The new object-based audio formats, DTS:X and Dolby Atmos, are terrific too and certainly have their enthusiasts. But I suspect that adding the extra speakers to the ceiling is going to be a tall ask even for many home theater fans, especially when most of them are already enjoying lossless audio quality with regular DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. HDR, on the other hand, makes such a dramatic and immediate difference in the home video experience of a film that it’s obvious even to average consumers walking past the demo displays at Best Buy. Mark my words: It’s not the 4K resolution that people are reacting to when they see Ultra HD demos, it’s the HDR. [Click here for the Ultra HD demonstration page created to explain the format by the Ultra HD Alliance.]

HDR Explainer created by the Ultra HD Alliance

That said, for high-end enthusiasts, the added resolution makes a difference too. I know you’ve probably all heard people complaining about the Ultra HD Blu-ray format on the Internet (complaining seems to be the sole reason for the Internet’s existence these days, aside from selling things): “Blah… another 2K only DI – the studios are ripping us off!” or “Pfft! You can’t even tell the difference from regular Blu-ray!” Look… I get where the complainers are coming from. I get that many people just have no stomach right now for buying their favorite movies on yet another disc format. If that’s how you feel, I get it. I understand. I’ll come back to this issue in a moment. But let me tell you, because I’ve been looking at video professionally for nearly thirty years: You can absolutely tell the difference between native 4K titles (3840x2160), 2K (2048x1556, upconverted to 4K) and Blu-ray (1920x1080). Now, you personally may not care about such things, but don’t assume that others won’t. When you add High Dynamic Range to that 2K and 4K mix, the quality difference of Ultra HD Blu-ray becomes significant indeed. Yes, there are many early films that only have 2K DIs and have to be upconverted. They still look better than regular Blu-ray, regardless of how much you may hear the doubters complaining. And as we move forward, you’re going to see more and more new films finished to true 4K DIs, along with catalog film restorations that are scanned and finished in 4K or higher.

Some fans too are complaining that 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray doesn’t have a 3D option, irritated as they rightfully are by the fact that the studios seem to have backed away from regular Blu-ray 3D. But again, there are reasons for this. For one thing, there simply is no 4K 3D material – virtually everything you see projected theatrically in 3D (save for full-IMAX titles) is 2K. And from what I’ve been hearing, the industry pull-back from Blu-ray 3D isn’t being led by the studios, it’s being led by the manufacturers, who went all-in on home 3D for several years only to receive a pretty strong message from consumers at large that they aren’t interested in 3D so long as it requires wearing glasses.

I’ll never forget going to the AVN Expo in Las Vegas, a few years back, to ask the leading adult video companies what their plans were for Blu-ray 3D. As you older DVD fans will know, it’s long been the adult industry that’s most aggressively embraced new home video technologies. So I knew that their take on Blu-ray 3D was going to be indicative. And virtually every one of these companies said that while they were going to dabble in 3D, their fans mostly weren’t interested. The CEO of Vivid Entertainment’s response to the question, when I asked him about it, was telling (and pardon the blue language): “Look… nobody wants to jerk off wearing those ***damn glasses!” After sharing a laugh about this, I began to wonder if this larger consumer dislike of wearing the glasses at home wouldn’t prove an insurmountable problem for Blu-ray 3D in the long term. And, indeed, it did. Many consumers didn’t like wearing them, many more got headaches wearing them for extended periods of time, the glasses required frequent charging, and they were too easily broken by enthusiastic children.

Now… there is some good news on the home 3D front. For one thing, all of the early Ultra HD Blu-ray players thus far – including Samsung’s launch player, the UDB-K8500 – support regular Blu-ray 3D. What’s more, all of the display manufacturers tell me that while they’re pulling back from 3D on many of their models in the near term, they’re aggressively working on autostereoscopic 3D displays in their labs. When that technology is ready, they’re going to get back into home 3D in a big way. And since Blu-ray 3D is display format-agnostic, it’s quite possible that all of your existing Blu-ray 3D titles will work better than ever on those future glasses-free displays.

In any case, 3D aside, I tend to find that the people who complain most about the fact that some 4K Ultra HD titles are upconverted 2K DIs are a little younger – enough that they weren’t around for the debut of the DVD format in 1997, so they simply don’t know or remember that many early DVDs used old Laserdisc masters and weren’t anamorphic widescreen, nor did they include lossless audio or even regular DTS. Some may not even be aware that the Blu-ray format didn’t include 3D initially, and that early titles on that format had issues too. It is simply a basic truth that the early titles released on any new format aren’t going to be as good as titles released later, when that format is more mature. It was true of CD, DVD, Blu-ray – you name it. Virtually all technologies get better with time and experience, and home video formats are no exception. Complaining about it is kind of just stating the obvious.

But here’s the larger issue by far, and those of you who were there for the Golden Age of DVD will recognize the truth of this: If we stop buying discs, the studios are going to stop giving them to us. It’s that simple. Now, you might say, “But I’m tired of half-assed special editions! But I’m tired of discs that have a mistake in the audio mix, or a film remastering error! But I’m tired of re-buying the same films on disc again and again! But I’m tired of double-dips! But the studios are screwing us!” All of those complaints are perfectly valid and understandable. But let me tell you, the major studios stopped listening to such complains about five or six years ago. There was once a time when senior studio home video personnel would participate in thoughtful discussions with home video fans online, not only building an enthusiast audience but actively listening to what that audience wanted and catering to it. Those days are gone. Smaller companies like Criterion, Twilight, and Shout! still do this quite well, but most of the people at the major studios who did this (and who in large part were responsible for the Golden Age of DVD) have either retired or been replaced, and the people in charge now have no interest in engaging with what they consider to be a niche audience. Period. They’re all looking ahead to digital. And you can rant and rave about this, and make all the contrary arguments you want (and I absolutely understand the desire to do so), but I’m telling you that the industry calculation these days is terribly simple: If there’s good money to be made in releasing discs, the studios will chase it. But if sales dwindle, they won’t. And eventually, all you’ll get are digital releases. In that world, the value of special edition content to the studios is nearly zero, apart from its use in enticing retail partners. So you home video enthusiasts have to make a decision: Either grin and bear it with regard to all your complaints, valid though they may be, and keep buying discs… or not. And if not is your decision, the result is that the kind of great, hand-crafted special edition discs you’ve grown to love are going to become more and more rare – the exception and not the rule. Eventually, they may disappear altogether. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s where we are.

All of which gets me back to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. I’ll admit it: In the months leading up to the format’s debut, I wasn’t all that excited… and for many of the same reasons you guys have communicated (and to which I’ve listened) and I’ve listed in the paragraph above. Then I actually saw the format – not just for a few minutes at my local Best Buy (while some teenaged idiot tried to sell me a $100 cable) but actually lived with it first hand, in my own home theater, for going on eight weeks now. I’ve viewed more than twenty-five titles on the format, from all of the participating studios. And let me tell you, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray has gotten me truly excited about the whole notion of watching movies on disc again in a way I haven’t been in years. It’s reminded me why I started The Digital Bits back in 1997, and why I’ve fought so hard all these years to help make sure you guys enjoyed the best experience of DVD and eventually Blu-ray in your own homes. If someone had told me back in early 1997, when I first started writing my thoughts about DVD on The Bits, that I would one day be experiencing films in this kind of quality at home, I’d have said “not in my lifetime.” Yet here I am, genuinely excited about the possibilities that 4K Ultra HD makes available, hoping against hope that the industry will truly get behind this format and that consumers will give it a chance.

Ultra HD Blu-ray isn’t perfect but, as I’ve mentioned, no new home video format is nor ever has been. For one thing, not all of the studios support it yet. Fox, Warner, Sony, Lionsgate, and Shout! Factory are in – Fox in particular is really killing it so far on the format – while Universal has said they’re jumping on board later this year, Paramount has announced its first two test titles, and Disney, Weinstein, and the other indies remain on the sidelines. Of all the titles released thus far, most are new or recent releases and, as some have noted, many of these are 2K upconverts. The launch titles have been a mixed bag, not so much in their technical quality but simply in the titles selected – for example, beyond Chappie and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony’s first wave selections have been truly puzzling. (Do they really think anyone wants to see Pineapple Express in 4K with HDR?!) Thankfully, Sony has also been the first studio to really start getting aggressive with deeper catalog titles, like Ghostbusters and Labyrinth. Yes, it’s true that not all of the studios have supported DTS:X and Dolby Atmos right out of the gate, but that’s starting to change too. Some of the reluctance has been the simple desire to test everything on different models of consumer gear, which is only now really becoming available in quantity. Plus, as many of you know, there’s been some confusion about which early 4K displays are compatible with the format’s HDR10/Rec.2020 High Dynamic Range spec – some are and some aren’t. The good news on that front is that the Ultra HD Alliance has worked very hard to create their new “Ultra HD Premium” certification for displays, players, and titles going forward, thus ensuring that this early confusion should quickly pass and will be largely resolved once more consumers start jumping into the format. And again, a bit of early confusion is always inevitable with new formats. That’s why we have early adopters – to sort that stuff out for everyone else.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (4K Ultra HD Blu-ray)    Ghostbusters (4K Ultra HD Blu-ray)    Independence Day: 20th Anniversary Edition (4K Ultra HD Blu-ray)

Deadpool (4K Ultra HD Blu-ray)    Labyrinth (4K Ultra HD Blu-ray)    Star Trek (4K Ultra HD Blu-ray)

But here’s the thing about Ultra HD Blu-ray… it just works. Remember how many of the early DVD players had clunky DVD-ROM, and choked on multi-layer discs, and couldn’t play advanced audio? Remember how bad Blu-ray’s BD-Java was early on, how terribly long the disc load times were, and that you didn’t have 3D or streaming service options until much later? Remember all the frustrations of Region Coding? All of this is gone with Ultra HD – and the lack of Region Coding on the format in particular is good reason to be excited.

Let me now say a few words about Samsung’s Ultra HD Blu-ray launch player, the UDB-K8500 (and I’ll have a more complete review of the player soon). I’ve now been witness to the debut of five home video formats – seven if you count the two that failed along the way (Divx and HD-DVD) – and I’ve been a professional witness to every new video and audio format launched since 1996. (I’ve been doing what I do on The Bits for so long that, way back in 1997, Warner’s Warren Lieberfarb actually kicked Variety out of a private meeting on the DVD format’s launch strategy at CES to let me in, because I’d been reporting on the format longer than they had.) I’ve owned and used the first-available set-top players for DVD, for Divx, for Blu-ray, for SACD and DVD-Audio, and for HD-DVD. Let me tell you: Samsung’s UDB-K8500 is the most affordable, most capable, and most stable entry-level player for any new format I’ve seen yet. It’s not perfect – no entry level player is. I’ve no doubt there are or will be bugs – every player has them, though it should be noted that Samsung is now on its second firmware update. (It’s unclear what the updates have addressed so far, but the functionality remains strong.) The player’s remote is flat-out terrible, easy to use only if you have hands the size of a five-year-old. But I’ve never seen a debut player that offered so many features, with such ease of use, for so little money. The UDB-K8500 has played every disc I’ve put into it thus far without a hitch, all with blazing fast load times. This unit seamlessly plays 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs as well as regular Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, CD, and many digital file formats, plus it wirelessly streams Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube, and is compatible with lossless audio as well as the new object-based audio formats. And it does this all for just $399. Are you kidding me!? Let me remind you all of something you may have forgotten: The first DVD players back in 1997 (including the Toshiba SD-2006 and Sony DVP-S7000) sold for between $600 and $1,000. The first Blu-ray players in 2006 (Samsung’s BDP-1000 and Sony’s BDP-S1) were $1,000 each. At a $399 entry-level price point, Samsung’s UDB-K8500 is a steal. And Samsung should be damn proud of it. [You can find it here on Amazon.com.]

samsung udbk8500 large

The initial set-up for Ultra HD Blu-ray can be a little bit of a challenge. I’ve had no problems connecting the UDB-K8500 to my display. I’ve heard reports that some enthusiasts have had a bit of difficulty connecting the player to other manufacturers’ 4K displays, but Samsung was kind enough to provide me with their flagship 4K display from last year to review (the UN65JS9500, which is fully compliant with the Ultra HD Premium spec) and so I’ve had no problems whatsoever. Calibration for Ultra HD is still a process of semi-guesswork – using regular Blu-ray test discs and best practices gets you about 80% of the way to where you want to be, but you’ll be initially puzzled by the fact that UHD playback tends to reset your carefully-calibrated backlight and contrast settings to their maximum position – puzzled, that is, until you realize that’s exactly what the display has to do in order to show you the full High Dynamic Range in the video signal. (Nevertheless, you can still calibrate the player/display setting for regular Blu-ray viewing.) One thing I discovered early on was that it’s important to set the UDB-K8500’s HDMI Color Format to YCbCr(4:4:4) and to make sure that HDMI Deep Color is set to Off. That’s easy to overlook during set-up, because you think “Deep Color? Of course I want Deep Color!” and leave this setting on. But HDMI Deep Color is a legacy Blu-ray feature (not an Ultra HD feature) that was meant to allow regular Blu-ray Discs to display 12-bit color (it’s normally 8-bit). But nobody ever really took advantage of 12-bit color on the format. Ultra HD Blu-ray employs 10-bit color HDR, so if you accidentally set HDMI Deep Color to on, the player upconverts the 10-bit signal to 12-bit instead, which the display then has to convert back to 10-bit… resulting in terrible color banding. This is why a lot of people were complaining about excessive color banding (on titles like The Martian) in that first week after the format started arriving in stores. But once you get this setting right, you’re fine. (I should note that you will still see a little bit of color banding on Ultra HD titles if you look hard enough for it, simply because the source DIs use higher color spaces of up to 16-bits – down-converting that will inevitably result in a little bit of banding. But it’s very minor. This is visible on regular BD as well, by the way, it’s just that Blu-ray has other picture defects you tend to notice first – not so with Ultra HD.) Getting the audio connections correct on Ultra HD Blu-ray has been a bit of a challenge too, depending on whether or not you’re using the object-based options (if they’re available) and what your A/V receiver is capable of decoding. (Again, these issues will sort themselves out with time.) All that said, once you get past this initial calibration and set-up stage, the format really starts to shine. And when this format is hitting on all cylinders, as I said above, it’s just a revelation. I dare any serious and experienced home theater enthusiast to watch Fox’s The Revenant on Ultra HD and not be blown away by it.

So if you’re now wondering “Should I upgrade to Ultra HD Blu-ray or not?” and you’re asking my advice, I would say it depends. What kind of home video consumer are you? Are you someone who’s largely stopped buying Blu-rays and DVDs, and instead have a large collection of ripped/torrent-ed movie files that you watch instead? Then no, Ultra HD isn’t for you. Are you a cord cutter or do you tend to watch most of your movies casually, via Netflix or other streaming, even on a mobile device? Then no. Ultra HD Blu-ray is not, nor was it really meant to be, nor is it ever likely to be, a broad mass-market product. (That’s not to say that the industry isn’t hoping it will take off with average consumers, but the reality is that this is absolutely a high-end enthusiast product.) It’s meant for those of you who were part of the Golden Age of DVD, who were the early adopters of Blu-ray, and who have built high-quality home theater systems and watch lots of discs on them. It’s for those of you who probably also love lossless audio music, those of you addicted to 180-gram vinyl LPs or lossless digital files, those of you with 7.1 speaker systems, and those of you with carefully calibrated flat-panels or video projectors – in short, those of you obsessed with getting the very best audio and video quality experience at home. If you are that high-end home theater enthusiast consumer, then I think upgrading to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray is a no-brainer. The quality is jaw-dropping, the entry price point is amazing, and the software and hardware options are coming. There are more players becoming available, and by the end of the year there should be a good hundred titles or more on the format, including some nice deep catalog offerings. (I also suspect that Disney will announce support for the format later this year or early next.)

For the rest of you guys, the good news is that 4K Ultra HD streaming (with HDR!) is already starting to become available via Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu – even YouTube – and all of the leading display manufactures tell me that in a few years, they’re going to stop making regular HD sets. So the question of whether or not you should upgrade to 4K will be moot – the next time you go to buy a new TV, you’ll just get one that does 4K with HDR (along with HD and everything else).

Ultra HD Blu-ray logo

In the end, I really only have two questions with regard to the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray format: 1) Is the high-end enthusiast audience this format was intended for still interested in buying discs and supporting physical media in general, and 2) Is that audience big enough to sustain the studios’ interest in supporting this format long term. As someone that’s come to love 4K Ultra HD after my first eight weeks with the format, I dearly hope the answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes!” The realist in me, on the other hand – the jaded industry observer with two decades of experience dealing directly with both the major studios and an enthusiast base that seems to have grown ever more picky, contentious, and difficult-to-please – isn’t quite so sure.

Either way, I’m in. I love 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. I hope others do too – and that there are enough of them to really ensure that the format will stick around for at least the next decade or so. Because this could very well be the last physical media format for watching movies at home that we’re likely to see.

Fingers crossed…

- Bill Hunt (@BillHuntBits)

 

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