Are U Ready For 4K?

UHD Blu-ray and HDR on the Horizon

As I reflect back on our annual pilgrimage to CES last month in LasVegas, the most exciting news for home theater buffs was around Ultra HD (UHD), both the launch of the first HDR (high dynamic range) UHD televisions and the announcement of details on forthcoming UHD Blu-ray Discs.

In “HDR: The Other LED”, we explained HDR, but when it was published we assumed Dolby Vision would be the widely adopted solution for bringing HDR’s uber-highlights to sets and that it would take a while before we saw affordable TVs that could achieve HDR-like peak brightness. Nor did we expect the required HDR-encoded content to be coming anytime soon.

But nearly all the TV makers showed prototypes or introduced models with HDR technologies. Samsung will introduce sets later this year that, to my eye, provided among the most impressive of all the HDR demos. Perhaps more critically, a new partnership among movie studios (Disney, Warner, Fox), post-production firms (Dolby, Technicolor), content distributors (DirecTV, Netflix), and TV manufacturers (Samsung, LG, Sony, Sharp), called the UHD Alliance, was also announced to ensure that Ultra HD content can take advantage of the wider color gamut and higher brightness that the UHD standard and new HDR sets can deliver.

Notably, “premium” UHD content will offer the DCI-P3 color gamut currently being used for digital cinema distribution—a logical approach since studios are already creating content for it, and it’s a good interim solution until both programming and displays can evolve to the even wider Rec. 2020 gamut built into the UHD standard. As a side note, Netflix announced at CES that it would start streaming HDR content later this year for viewing on the new Samsung sets as well as Sony’s new HDR-capable models.

Meanwhile, the Blu-ray Disc Association offered reporters an early peek at the recently settled specs for the new 4K Blu-ray format, which will officially be called Ultra HD Blu-ray.

Here are the basics:

  • Images will have up to 3840x2160 pixels (UHD resolution), at up to 60 frames per second, with the content carried on either 66-gigabyte dual-layer discs or 100-GB triple-layer discs. (The discs have multiple layers of data that the laser transitions among seamlessly.) A “digital bridge” option for UHD disc content would allow it to be viewed on a portable device or moved to a hard drive video server at the content owner’s discretion.
  • Players must support color gamut up to Rec. 2020 limits, which theoretically futureproofs them for the day that both content and affordable displays can achieve that, and they must support 10-bit color depth. Players must also provide backward compatibility with all regular 1080p Blu-ray Discs. DVD and CD playback support is optional.
  • Players must be able to support the SMPTE 2084 criteria for brightness and contrast defining a high dynamic range (HDR) display.
  • Players must provide HEVC (H.265) decoding of compressed content. The spec includes the latest HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 digital interface, as well as HDMI 1.4, but doesn’t mandate either in lieu of new developments in digital interface technology that will surely crop up over the life of the standard.
Will UHD Blu-ray offer a premium in image quality over streaming? Well, let’s put it this way: Netflix is currently said to be streaming HEVC-compressed UHD content at bitrates around 15 megabits per second. By comparison, dual-layer UHD discs can hit up to 108 mbps, while triple-layer discs will do 128 mbps. What do you think?

mwelters's picture

I am a huge fan of Blu-ray. However, I am finding the switch to streaming is upon us, at least up here in Canada. Except for the latest and hottest releases, purchases of blu-ray are pretty much limited to on-line through Amazon. And there is nowhere to rent blu-rays (or even DVDs): (a netflix-like mail-order rental scheme) has shut down, Redbox has withdrawn from Canada, and there are no more brick-and-mortar rental stores (at least within a 10 mi radius of where I live). Although Ultra HD Blu-ray excites me for the picture quality (for qualities other resolution) and audio quality, I doubt Ultra HD will be anything other than niche.

Based on prior generations of optical disc technology, the players are likely to be expensive at first. While I am likely to buy one, by the time they enter into the mass market range, most potential buyers will have already made the switch to streaming. If there is only a small market, releases may be limited to new movies and some older ones that already have 4K scans standing by. Ultra HD Blu-ray could very well be DOA.

rhirschey's picture

I agree that it is dead on arrival. Not only is streaming where it is going...keep in mind that when BluRay and HD_DVD launched it had been several years into the mass adoption of HD TV. The "year of 1080P" was AFTER BluRay launched as a format. You could argue BluRay maybe helped justify that, but I think this time around there will not be enough adoption/penetration of UHD to justify folks spending money on another disc spinner all while streaming continues to gain ground. If not NetFlix, other outfits like VUDU will be working hard to pipe buffered/high-quality UHD that 90% of UHD adopters find more than adequate. 3D BluRay is dead and 3D TV is dead (e.g., ESPN 3D)...I think we are officially now into gimmickry at this time for video. It'll take more than ultra-hi-res images to make TV/video manufacturing profitable for most of the players. Most are losing money left and right and at some point they're going to call it quits on this and be forced to rethink.

dnoonie's picture

...if streaming providers will support heavy buffering by giving me the option to wait it could be the same. I'm willing to wait an hour or two for a movie to "buffer" if they won't let me download it at least let me have the option to "buffer" it, it's not an option now.

In the end it will end up being what content providers make available. I want the quality of UHD BD but if I can get that as a download at a better price I'll download, my internet connection doesn't support 1080p BD quality now so I watch most movies and TV shows via Netflix BD rentals.

What will be the UHD BD rental market?:

I'm sure my local Scarecrow video will be renting UHD BDs but they are a specialty shop.
The 3 or 4 small mom and pop video rental shops within 30 miles of my house will also likely carry UHD BD. There's very few remaining but they're still around and these were the folks that rented DVDs first and 1080 BDs first.
Will UHD BD spark a renaissance of the mom and pop video rental store?
Will Netflix rent UHD BDs? (I'd call then but I think it's premature at this point)
Will Redbox rent UHD BDs? (I'm sorry Redbox pulled out of Canada. Can you get BDs from Netflix there?)

There are way to many unanswered questions to kill UHD BD now. A lot can happen and what the studios are willing to offer will make the biggest difference. I want UHD BD quality to be a success, I'd prefer disks but downloads are an option, current (un-buffered) streaming methods are not an option for me.

TiltedWorld's picture

If I'm doing the math correctly, 2 hours of streaming at the NetFlix bitrate would be 13.5GB. Watch 10 movies a month plus normal usage for a family of 4 and you might be hitting 160 - 170 GB total usage/month. My Comcast account has a surcharge for usage over 200 GB/month although I'm not sure about other providers. I wouldn't be surprised to see this cap drop if more people are bumping up against it. In addition, during peak hours I can rarely stream NetFlix HD without experiencing dropouts or terrible picture quality for minutes at a time. Also, the NetFlix and Amazon catalogs are far from comprehensive which forces me to pay an additional amount to watch most new releases. Combine that with sketchy picture quality and a possible surcharge on bandwidth usage and a 2-3 dollar Redbox rental starts looking pretty attractive.

mwelters's picture

I love redbox rentals. But they've pulled out of Canada. How long will they thrive in the US?

We are extensive users of netflix because of the kids, yet we only average about 140GB of our monthly 400GB cap.

Because I can no longer rent Blu-rays (netflix does not do mail-order rentals in Canada, and neither does anyone else) I have to stream. I like netflix for the Dolby Digital +. However, the Netflix selection in Canada means that most movies I want to see I have to find from another source, and now it is itunes streaming 1080p (the only other legal option appears to be using a Roku box to stream from Cineplex Store; Vudu and other US streaming sites are not available in Canada). Interestingly, from analysis I've found on-line, the vast majority of viewers are unlikely to notice the difference between itunes 1080p and Blu-ray (for those of us on this website, different story): for example, see

dnoonie's picture

So for Canada and other places UHD-BD is very likely too little too late.

Wow, I'm spoiled by easy high quality Blu-ray rentals (unless it's a Lionsgate release in which case the rental audio and video on the BD might only be SD DVD quality).

What is the plan of the studios? What do they want? Do they want to push everyone into physical theater? I don't go to the local theater because the price is too high for the quality, I have better audio and video quality in my little HT room, and if there's a problem I can fix it.

Do they want people to stream? Why? I don't like streaming quality! Why do studios go to the trouble to make a high quality product just to stream it?

Why do studios go to the trouble to make a high quality product just to show it in a broken theater?

Why can't physical media rental places make better deals with the studios? Everyone should be able to make profit not just the studio.

Why can't streaming "buffer" enough to give me Blu-ray or UHD Blu-ray quality?

The current business model looks broken to me.

Audio_Geek_00's picture

I know I am in the minority but for the investment I have put into my AV I'm not willing to settle for streaming compressed content. When I found out that rental Blu-ray discs had down converted audio tracks I made the decision to buy Blu-rays instead of renting from NF. I did a A/B comparison of How To Train Your Dragon 2 on streaming a supposedly 1080p signal to my Blu-ray copy and the difference is worth it to me to own the disc with native content. I get the convenience factor of streaming but don't tell me that streaming is as good as the native content. I stream movies that I have a general interest in but if it is something that really intrigues me I'll own it. I do other things on my network besides streaming movies and whenever someone in the house is watching Netflix then everything else suffers. What will that be like with larger files? Streaming is perfect for the business, and convenient and a performance downgrade for the consumer. I am glad the industry will at least provide me the opportunity to get my content that I can own and know it is a better quality product and it is not bogging down my network bandwidth.