Should you be excited about Ultra HD Blu-ray? We answer the biggest questions about the new players, the movies you’ll be able to watch and the essential kit you’ll need to enjoy higher resolution movies .
Just when the tech world’s are rushing to declare physical media dead, movie studios and consumer tech brands are getting together to insist there really is a future in spinning discs for now.
The reason is 4K. We’ve seen dozens of 4K TVs now, but 4K content is precious and rare. Indeed, while streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are leading the charge to a degree, their 4K selections are still small and you need a fast enough internet connection to enjoy them.
Enter Ultra HD Blu-rays, an evolution of the existing format that should herald an explosion in 4K content to watch. Moreover, even if you do have a fast internet connection, there’s a good chance 4K Blu-ray players will still offer the best selection of content for the foreseeable future.
In short, if you own a 4K TV, you really should consider Ultra HD Blu-rays. Read on to find out why and to find
How will Ultra HD Blu-ray improve your viewing experience?
By using much higher capacity discs Ultra HD Blu-ray will be able to deliver your TV pictures containing an Ultra HD (also known as 4K) resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels, versus the 1,920 x 1,080 pixels delivered by most current Blu-ray discs.
This amounts to four times as much resolution and pixel density, giving an experience – when delivered well – that’s often described as feeling more like looking through a window than watching TV.
Does Ultra HD Blu-ray offer any other cool features beyond its superior picture quality?
One interesting feature is the Digital Bridge, which makes it possible to make an exact bit for bit copy of an Ultra HD Blu-ray on an authorised media drive, or transfer files to an authorised mobile device. Though Victor Matsuda, Chairman of the Blu-ray Disc Association Global Promotions Committee, has explained that the extent of support for this feature will be down to the individual UHD Blu-ray manufacturers.
It’s also possible — likely, even — that Ultra HD Blu-ray discs will continue to offer extra features like director’s commentaries and making of documentaries that you don’t get with any other format. This has not been confirmed, however, and will depend on whether there’s space for such things without compromising video quality. It seems to us, though, that anything that can help differentiate Ultra HD Blu-ray from other sources would be worth pursuing if physically possible.
Another aspect of Ultra HD Blu-ray’s picture specification that might boost picture quality is its support for frame rates up to 60fps. However, with most films still being shot at 24 frames per second, this feature may only really come into its own with Ultra HD Blu-ray sporting event releases.
Ultra HD Blu-ray isn’t just about giving you great pictures, either. They will also be capable of delivering the latest so-called ‘object based’ audio systems of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. To be clear, though, Ultra HD Blu-ray won’t actually offer any extra audio capability beyond what’s possible with current Blu-ray technology.
Related: What is HDR TV and should you care?
__Samsung’s SUHD TVs should support Ultra HD Blu-ray via its Evolution Kit
Is it only designed for big TVs?
Some say the extra resolution Ultra HD Blu-ray gives you is only relevant on a really big TV, but from our own experience we’d take issue with this. Sure, 4K’s impact — or at least, the difference it makes over HD — is more obvious on a big TV, but it can still improve things on a relatively small screen in areas like image depth and colour blends.
Perhaps worried by the ‘resolution isn’t everything’ snipers, though, the Blu-ray Disc Association took extra time in putting together its Ultra HD Blu-ray specification to ensure that it also implements the potential to improve the quality of all those extra pixels via High Dynamic Range (HDR) and wide colour gamut technologies.
These new picture technologies mean that Ultra HD Blu-ray can deliver images much richer in contrast and colour than those we’ve been used to for decades now — so long, that is, as your TV is capable of showing all this extra picture loveliness.
Can Ultra HD Blu-ray players play current Blu-ray discs?
Yes they can. All players will be backwards compatible. The only complication with this is that support for 3D Blu-rays is not mandatory; it’s up to each manufacturer to decide if they will support today’s 3D Blu-rays.
Will Ultra HD Blu-ray players deliver Ultra HD 3D?
No they won’t. Perhaps surprisingly, no Ultra HD 3D provision is included in the Ultra HD Blu-ray specification. Victor Matsuda, Chairman of the Blu-ray Disc Association Global Promotions Committee, has repeatedly stated quite emphatically that there are no plans for 3D support to be added at a later date.
What happens if I play an Ultra HD Blu-ray on an HD TV?
The Ultra HD Blu-ray player will detect that you’re only using an HD television, and scale the UHD picture down to HD. Obviously this means you’re not getting any advantage from your UHD Blu-ray player, though.
Samsung’s first UHD Blu-ray player announced at IFA 2015
What kit will I need to experience Ultra HD Blu-ray?
There are three fundamental components to a true Ultra HD Blu-ray experience: an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc, and an Ultra HD TV. The first two of these don’t exist yet, while the third is a bit, well, complicated.
The problem where TVs are concerned is that all Ultra HD TVs aren’t (currently) equal. For instance, you won’t be able to enjoy Ultra HD Blu-rays with frame rates higher than 30fps if you don’t have a TV with HDMI’s built to the v2.0 specification. This means that most of the first generation of UHD TVs from a couple of years back will be limited to 30fps, along with a number of relatively budget models from 2014.
Though if you have a first-gen Samsung UHD TV you could upgrade it with one of Samsung’s Evolution Kits, while Sony also offers an on-site hardware upgrade to its original X9005A 4K TVs.
The other issue that’s complicated matters from a TV perspective is the addition of HDR to the Ultra HD Blu-ray specification. For as well as needing yet another HDMI upgrade — to 2.0a — to support HDR from Ultra HD Blu-ray players, a TV should also be able to deliver more brightness and colour range than typical LCDs can.
Many UHD TV manufacturers are claiming that they can upgrade the HDMI 2.0 ports of their 2015 TVs to 2.0a via simple firmware updates. When it comes to delivering screens with the necessary picture capabilities, though, only a handful of models currently make the grade — and alarmingly there are currently some quite big differences between the capabilities of these first HDR-capable sets.
What about audio?
One last point to raise here is that if you want to experience the audio potential of Ultra HD Blu-ray as well, you’re going to need a Dolby Atmos/DTS:X-capable amplifier/receiver, and a suitable speaker system. Though as noted before, Ultra HD Blu-ray don’t actually offer anything extra sonically over current Blu-rays.
Who’s making Ultra HD Blu-ray players, when will they appear, and how much will they cost?
Thanks to the IFA 2015 technology show in Berlin, we finally got our first glimpse at an Ultra HD Blu-ray player albeit it wasn’t the glut of hardware we had anticipated. During Samsung’s press conference, the Korean company introduced the UBD-8500. Offering Ultra HD 4K content support at up to 60fps, the 8500 is also capable of upscaling and will support Samsung’s smart hub and multi-room link hardware.
We expect to see and heat much more about these players, and those from other brands, at CES 2016. It’s taken a little while to happen, but 2016 will finally be the year that Ultra HD Blu-rays — and in 4K in general — gets serious.
As for cost, not surprisingly the likely Ultra HD Blu-ray manufacturers are being extremely tight lipped at present about how much their debut players might cost. Really the only hint from any reliable source came in June from Ron Martin again. He suggested that Ultra HD Blu-ray players would likely cost two or three times as much as current Blu-ray players. This is a pretty vague suggestion when you consider that current Blu-ray players vary in price from as little as £40 to as much as £1,200.
But Martin did add that he didn’t expect the first Ultra HD Blu-ray players to cost as much as the first Blu-ray players did. And if you couple this suggestion with the likelihood that he was thinking of fairly mainstream Blu-ray models with his price multiplier, we’re thinking of a figure somewhere between £350 and £500. But we can’t stress enough that right now this is merely our best guess!
Related: Netflix 4K Ultra HD review
Who’s making Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, when will we see them, and how much will they cost?
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that answering this question, too, is dependent on educated guesswork.
Again, the list of Blu-ray Association members gives us a good initial clue, for it includes 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, and Warner Bros. Entertainment. Sony, of course, also has a movie business.
Of these, the most vocal in its support is Fox. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment President Mike Dunn has said this of the Ultra HD Blu-ray player: “It’s an entertainment hub that bridges consumer behaviour into the future. There are 101 million households in America already with a DVD or Blu-ray player under their TVs, giving [such physical media] virtually 100% penetration. It is one of the most important pieces of real estate there is.”
It’s impossible to say with any accuracy how many titles Fox and the other likely supportive studios will have ready for Ultra HD Blu-ray’s launch, but there’s no doubt that there will be at least a few titles available to partner the launch of the hardware. Which, as stated earlier, could well happen before Christmas.
Twentieth Century Fox revealed at IFA that Kingsman will be one of the first films to get the 4K Blu-ray treatment. Like the Samsung hardware, it’s likely it won’t be available to purchase until 2016.
So far as likely launch titles are concerned, again it’s impossible to know for sure at this stage. But we could hazard a guess at a few. For instance, Fox has already shown HDR and UHD clips of Life of Pi and Exodus: Gods And Kings on Samsung’s SUHD TVs, so it seems reasonable to expect that there are Ultra HD Blu-ray friendly masters of these movie already in existence.
Fox also recently released a My Passport Cinema hard drive UHD movie pack in America that contains The Maze Runner in HDR UHD, and it’s making Kingsman: The Secret Service available in HDR UHD via the US M-Go website.
While we’ve focussed on titles we know are already available with HDR attached, there also seems a good chance that many of the titles already available just in 4K might have suitable transfers available for Ultra HD Blu-ray transfer. Maybe even also titles from Sony that have made their way onto first Sony’s Mastered in 4K Blu-rays, and more recently its Supreme Cinema Blu-ray Series (the latter of which also add Dolby Atmos sound mixes to the remastered visuals as well as, promisingly, a strong selection of extra features).
One last thorny issue around Ultra HD Blu-ray discs is how much they might cost. Not surprisingly, once again nobody is willing to confirm anything yet. But with 4K HDR streams/4K HDD ‘unlocks’ typically costing between $22 and $30, it’s hard to imagine Ultra HD Blu-rays costing any less, and quite possibly a bit more, at least initially.
Will Ultra HD Blu-ray be worth it?
Looked at from the perspective of people innately interested in technology, Ultra HD Blu-ray has the potential to be a really key moment in AV history. From the evidence we’ve witnessed so far its combination of 4x HD detail levels, HDR and wide colour gamut capabilities revolutionises picture quality to an extent that feels even greater in magnitude than the insanely popular step up from VHS to DVD.
The question is, will even that level of progression be enough? Do people really care about picture quality any more, or is the relatively affordability and convenience of streaming all that matters these days?
The evidence from the music world isn’t entirely promising, and even some knowledgable parts of the disc production world are sounding a word of caution, suggesting that Ultra HD Blu-ray needs to be treated by the film studios not as a mass market technology but a niche, enthusiasts-only one.
Robert Meyer Burnett, producer of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Blu-rays, had this to say on the subject at this year’s Comic-Con International:
“You have to have a decent home theater system to really appreciate the Blu-ray format. And most people really don’t get it. You have to really be a discerning viewer to get something out of Blu-ray. My mother couldn’t care less, and my mother is the general population. She just wants to put something on and be able to see it. If we talk about the nuances of the transfer my mother doesn’t even know what I’m talking about. So to go to Ultra 4K? Who’s going to care about that?”
Personally, though, we’re a bit more optimistic. We don’t think you need to be a particularly discerning viewer at all to get a wow from a gorgeous, low-compression UHD HDR transfer and we can’t wait to see more of it.