Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray Player Review

PRICE $400

World’s first UHD Blu-ray player
Outstanding overall performance
Reasonable price (for a “first”)
No auto picture adjustments for HDR, non-HDR, and 1080p discs with current UHDTVs
Small, frustrating remote

As the first Ultra HD Blu-ray player, the Samsung UBD-K8500 provides exceptional performance with the right display and disc. But as with any new format, there are growing pains to be sorted out before we can toast to its complete success.

Editor's note: For our reviewers' impressions of some of the first UHD Blu-ray movie titles, see "Eye on UHD: 14 Ultra HD Blu-ray Movies Reviewed."

The video world, or at least the segment that still values packaged media, has been waiting impatiently for Ultra HD discs. Many of us still prefer to pay for our movies once and have them on the shelf. More important, we want their video and audio quality uncompromised by Internet bandwidth limitations.

It’s been a long wait indeed, but the time has finally come for Ultra HD Blu-ray, and while its first steps aren’t free of stumbles, I haven’t been this excited about a video development since the first standard Blu-ray Discs hit the market 10 years ago.

While nearly two-dozen Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs are available or imminent as I write this in late March, Samsung’s UHD Blu-ray player, the UBD-K8500, is alone in the market. Philips has a player scheduled for late spring, and Panasonic has one promised for sometime this year. But that’s all.

Apart from its curved front panel—likely intended to complement Samsung’s curved-screen TVs— the UBD-K8500’s physical design couldn’t be blander, nor more reminiscent of the typical under-$100 BD player. Nothing is illuminated on the front panel apart from an LED located next to tiny, nearly invisible controls on the upper right-hand corner. The LED is red when the power is off, turns green when it’s on, and flashes blue when the player is receiving firmware updates. Along with the loading drawer, the front face features a USB 3.0 input behind a small door. Given the lack of a display, information such as the chapter, elapsed time, etc., can be called up on your TV screen via the Samsung remote’s Info button.

Connections around back include two HDMI outputs (one for audio to accommodate AVRs and pre/pros that can’t pass UHD video), an Ethernet LAN connection (Wi-Fi is also built in), and an optical digital audio output. There are no analog connections of any kind.

The limited front-panel control means you won’t want to lose that remote. But it’s very small—so small that it immediately scampered to the shelter of my seat cushions before I retrieved it and gave it a good tongue-lashing. It paid me no mind and continued to retreat there almost daily. The buttons are also small and much too close together, the chapter skip controls have to double for fast-forward and reverse duty, and there’s no backlighting.

The player’s splash screen that you see upon turn-on offers access to the Settings and Samsung’s Smart Hub options, the latter including apps for Netflix, Vudu, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video, as well as Screen Mirroring (from your compatible device).

The Settings menu includes 3D options for 1080p Blu-ray 3D discs (though 3D isn’t part of the UHD specs) and a resolution option that can be set to upconvert all non-UHD material to 3840 x 2160. (Incidentally, if you plan to add a Samsung UHD BD player in advance of a UHD display, I confirmed that the player mated with my Panasonic 1080p plasma display and showed a normal image with 1080p Blu-rays provided the player’s resolution control is set to something less than 2160p. Furthermore, the Panasonic could display UHD Blu-rays downconverted by the player to 1080p, though it required resetting the set’s panel brightness and gamma settings to optimize the image and provided no detectable HDR benefits inherent in the content.)

The remote’s Tools button, which operates only when a disc is playing, offers the usual disc controls plus a Picture Mode with four choices: Dynamic, Standard, Movie, and User. The User setting offers picture adjustments, but I chose Standard most of the time.

There are two prominent (but not identical) high dynamic range formats now used commercially, Dolby Vision and HDR10. The Samsung player supports only HDR10, the format used in all of the first HDR-enhanced UHD discs. The UBD-K8500 will also play standard Blu-rays, DVDs, and CDs.

The control settings used for the HDR UHD discs viewed in this report were arrived at subjectively. We don’t yet have the HDR test patterns (for HDR10) needed to ensure that the players, discs, and displays are handling HDR correctly (or, for that matter, to allow us to perform proper HDR UHD color calibrations).

Watching HDR UHD—At Last
My first experience with Samsung’s UBD-K8500 was on our sample of LG’s 65-inch 65EF9500 OLED Ultra HDTV, which I still had on hand for a weekend before it shipped back to the manufacturer. I connected the player’s main output directly to the TV with a 10-foot high-speed HDMI cable, and the other (marked Audio Only) to my pre/pro. The connections worked fine, with no fuss, though issues might occur with a non-high-speed HDMI cable or any HDMI cable that’s too long.

I initially popped in a known 1080p Blu-ray, Thor, to get familiar with the player’s operation. Its upscaling to UHD’s 3840 x 2160 was clearly excellent; this and other well-produced 1080p discs looked and sounded as impressive as I’ve come to expect from Blu-ray. Discs loaded quickly, with none of the delays experienced in the early days of Blu-ray, though the player does take a few seconds more than usual to eject discs from play mode.

It didn’t take me long to move on to some Ultra HD Blu-rays. The Martian, in particular, looked spectacular. Resolution was exceptional—though I wasn’t looking specifically for that, since I know that under optimum home conditions, this will be the least obvious feature of the UHD Blu-ray experience. Theory suggests that, using a 65-inch set (and all of my observations here were performed with 65-inch sets), you’ll have to sit uncomfortably close—perhaps as little as 6 feet away—to see any significant improvement in resolution over 1080p. I was initially at least 10 feet away, which I consider closer to the average distance that most consumers will sit from such a set.

Later, from 7 feet, I thought I spied a little more resolution from this and other UHD discs, but not enough to make up for that impractical and uncomfortable (for me, anyway) viewing distance. And since most material you’ll be watching for the foreseeable future will be 1080p at best, the shorter distance for UHD will be too close. You’d have to move your seats whenever you switched between HD and UHD. Ain’t gonna happen!

Seen from either distance, however, there was definitely something happening on the LG’s screen that was more than just increased resolution. The HDR on this and the other UHD Blu-rays was likely a big factor. The use of HDR on The Martian grabbed me in ways I’ve rarely experienced before in a home video presentation—and in some respects, more so than even theatrical Dolby Cinema. (Projection is still incapable of the peak white levels a flat-screen TV offers.) The HDR here made the most of the outside scenes and the Martian landscape, the reflections from the metal on spacesuits and other gear, and the searing but tolerably bright orb of the sun in a stunning pan shot at the beginning of chapter 21.

Perhaps more impressive, though, were the subtle benefits of HDR. It offered an enhanced sense of detail and depth even in this strictly 2D format (and more so than even UHD without HDR may be capable of). Bright highlights, such as the lighting inside the habitat and in the scenes at NASA on Earth, also made their mark but never screamed, “Look at me, I’m HDR!” I was also impressed by how HDR handled fine gradations of brightness in dim and dark scenes. In either case—overt or restrained—the HDR looked supremely natural throughout the film.

The other two discs I tried on the LG weren’t nearly as impressive at first glance, but one of them excelled in its own way. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials may be a dud of a movie, but it’s beautifully photographed. The HDR here, while not always obvious, did stand out in the movie’s many dark scenes illuminated only by flashlights, bright flashes of lightning in a storm sequence, and burning fires and explosions in a night battle. Even in the darkest scenes, nearly every important detail was easy to follow, which I attributed as much to the HDR on the disc as to the OLED display’s unsurpassed black-level performance.

One issue of concern was setting up the various controls that affect the luminance of the HDR image at both the darkest and brightest limits. As noted, we still have no HDR test patterns to help with this. But the LG set takes most of the choice out of your hands. The OLED Light, Contrast, and Gamma controls are fixed and inaccessible when the set senses an HDR source. That leaves Brightness as the only control for the average user to alter the picture’s luminance without resorting to a different Picture Mode (I used Movie exclusively for this review).

While I felt no unrequited need to change any of these inaccessible adjustments on either of the titles discussed above, Exodus: Gods and Kings was a different story. Its shadow detail was crushed. It looked fine in other ways, particularly in the realistic golden glint that HDR added to the Egyptian costumes. But while the resolution was superb, there were too many sequences where dark detail was buried. I suspect the problem here is the disc transfer, perhaps a gamma error at the bottom end of the brightness scale. It didn’t appear to be a player or display problem, as this wasn’t a consistent failing on the other discs.

Exodus, as it turned out, also looked wrong in the same way on another set, Samsung’s UN65JS9500FXZA LCD Ultra HDTV. And while I was able to spend only three days with the LG, I had three weeks with the Samsung player together with the Samsung set and additional discs.

Settings and Oddities
The Samsung player’s settings include a BD Wise control, also found on Samsung 1080p BD players, that is said to provide optimum picture quality on the company’s compatible sets. On the 65JS9500, BD Wise produced a tolerable picture, but it employed several controls that I’d normally prefer to leave off, including Dynamic Contrast, Black Tone, and Auto Motion Plus (motion interpolation). You can manually alter most if not all of these, and Samsung engineers explained as we were going to press that BD Wise settings are stored to memory in the television and can be recalled by manually switching the BD Wise function on or off in the player’s menu. Ultimately, I turned it off and left it there.

Unlike the LG, all of the video controls on the Samsung UHD display are adjustable with an HDR source. But if you reset Backlight and Contrast to something less than their default maximum settings (20 and 100, respectively) when the TV senses non-HDR material (which can actually happen in the menus and studio logos that precede the feature on many discs—not all of those promo images are HDR), the set will automatically and immediately switch back to 20 and 100, without telling you, when an HDR image reappears. So you’ll have to reset them again. Once the movie itself starts, however, your preferred Backlight and Contrast settings won’t change.

And while the other picture settings remain the same with either HDR or non-HDR sources once you’ve set them, the optimum positions for some of these controls, particularly Brightness (sometimes) and Gamma (always) were different for standard Blu-rays and HDR-enhanced UHD discs. So I had to reset them manually every time I switched back and forth between HDR and non-HDR material.

WildGuy's picture

Really good information here. i thoroughly enjoy reading it. Speaking about Samsung 65JS9500 uhdtv, since its a last year's model, i think it probably display less than 90% of DCI-P3 color gamut. Maybe that's why the difference between Rec.709 and wider color gamut such as DCI-P3 and REC.2020 isn't that big.

newer samsung uhdtv models which i think its about to come out soon or just recently come out this year possibly support color gamut higher than 90% of DCI-P3 which should make the differences between Rec.709 and DCI-P3 or Rec.2020 bigger.

prerich45's picture

Great review Mr. Norton! Very honest.

dougspeterson's picture

I grabbed one of those prerelease units and have, been enjoying it's 4k, not just the new UHD disks but the apps that were missing from my 2014 Sony 4k 65" flatscreen. The upraded res over 1080p is obvious to me.

However it apparently does not do the hires DVD based audio formats, which are likely to be replaced by Atmos etc in any case. Does it actually do the 192/24 spec'd? There is a rumor the bit depth is truncated.