The End of the Early Adopter

Being first used to mean being special, with all the attendant risk. Now, everybody’s screwed.

A couple of things triggered my inner consumer advocate as we finished shipping our May print issue (now on newsstands). First was the letter from reader James Deas (scroll to the end of this page) in which he describes being trapped in the surprise sinkhole created by the TV industry’s choppy transition from HDCP 1.4 to HDCP 2.2. Remember a few years back? The manufacturers were selling cutting-edge Ultra HD televisions that had the requisite HDMI 1.4 or HDMI 2.0 interface for 4K signals, but mated with a soon to be outdated chip for copy-protection management. Didn’t really matter at first until—whammy!—Hollywood turned on the new encryption. If you have one of those early 4K sets and buy yourself a new 4K Roku or Ultra HD (UHD) Blu-ray player, you’ll be watching 4K content in 1080p, or else buying a converter that tricks your 4K source into thinking it’s attached to an HDCP 2.2 TV.

The HDCP transition affected AV receiver purchasers as well. We went for much of 2014 and into 2015 with most manufacturers touting AVRs with new HDMI 2.0 ports for 4K passthrough while remaining silent about the fact that they were using the old copy protection that would someday fail to pass the new 4K content. Even if you knew what was going on and wanted to confirm before you bought, most often you couldn’t even find the HDCP version listed in their specs. We had to pry the information out of them every time we did a review.

I can go on about other recent TV/video advances that came with little notice for shoppers and left many with sets absent some significant new tech shortly after purchase. Case in point: High dynamic range (HDR), the most visually powerful of all the new features in the UHD wheelhouse. If you’re an enthusiast, you might have caught wind that it was coming with the launch of UHD Blu-ray and streams from the major services. But if you were an everyday TV shopper, you probably didn’t have a clue that a feature worth waiting for was imminent. Or that you might be buying a set that could play one but not both of the competing HDR formats being proffered. Or that each model year would bring about (as it has so far) notable advances in how bright the sets can get when reproducing HDR highlights.

Unless we get a fall surprise, no sets sold this year will have this new HDMI 2.1 port, and it remains to be seen if any will be upgradeable with firmware.

And I haven’t even mentioned what’s in the pipeline. In “HDMI 2.1: What You need to Know,” HDMI Forum chairman Chris Pasqualino, discusses advances we might see with the just-announced HDMI 2.1 spec. For once, the spec is about as forward-thinking as they could make it, anticipating 4K video at 120 hertz or even 8K at 60 Hz, full immersive multichannel audio (i.e., Atmos and DTS:X) delivered from a TV streaming platform or connected disc player to a receiver or soundbar via Audio Return Channel—oh, and a new 48-gigabit-per-second cable to realize the full proposed capabilities, up from the 18-Gbps max that marks the current standard. Old cables will be compatible with the new ports...but may not deliver on all of HDMI 2.1’s promise. Unless we get a fall surprise, no sets sold this year will have this new HDMI 2.1 port, and it remains to be seen if any will be upgradeable with firmware. Manufacturers “would have to plan for upgradeability by designing and building it into their products,” Pasqualino says. “For some features, it may be difficult, and the best path will be to incorporate HDMI 2.1-enabled silicon.”

And how about HLG, or hybrid-log gamma, another HDR format set to join HDR10 and Dolby Vision. It’s targeted for future 4K broadcasts and streaming. But so far only Sony and LG have formally announced future firmware support for this year’s sets, at least here in the U.S. Of course, none of the sets sold today will be able to receive 4K broadcasts on their own anyway, because they won’t have the requisite ATSC 3.0 tuners. That final standard won’t even be released till later this year. So...cord-cutters beware.

Don’t get me wrong, folks. I’m as juiced as anybody about emerging technology that keeps making our experience better. From what I’ve seen, the best of this year’s TVs are going to look amazing. And I accept that new features and performance evolve all the time. As enthusiasts, we’ve always prided ourselves on being first on the block with new stuff, and we accept some risk of obsolescence. But this is different. With the speed things are moving today, no consumer is ever safe. If you wait till it settles out, you’ll never buy; if you buy, you may come to regret it. Truth is, there’s never been a better...or worse...time to buy a TV. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Not So Ultra After All
Regarding your review of the Roku Ultra: Having enjoyed a Roku 3 for three years, I made the jump to the Roku Ultra to enjoy 4K... and found I could not.

I am one of the tens of thousands of consumers who bought a UHDTV more than 18 months ago, only to learn that it is not HDCP 2.2 compliant. The Roku Ultra immediately recognized that and told me to stream in 1080p! I also could not stream Netflix and Amazon due to HDCP warnings.

Fortunately, after much research, I found that there exist HDCP-2.2-to-1.4 converters and connected one to my system. The Roku was connected to the converter, the converter to my Pioneer Elite receiver (also HDCP 1.4), and the receiver to my UHDTV. A $50 solution. I’m now happily streaming Roku UltraHD 4K from Netflix and Amazon. By the way, Samsung and other TV manufacturers won’t admit to the HDCP issue and spin you for hours on the telephone! A Samsung rep, after 3 hours (yes, I am stubborn), promised to call me back and give me an HDCP “evolution kit.” He never did call back.
James Deas
Via e-mail

Of course, this incompatibility is no fault of Roku, who is merely following the current mandatory copyright protection scheme to allow its device to interface freely with the 4K content services.

Fortunately, Monoprice sells an HDCP- 2.2-to-HDCP-1.4 box like the one you described called the Blackbird 4K Pro HDCP converter that solves this problem for $30. But I’ve complained in the past about how the early adopters got shafted with the rollout of UHDTV, and they’re still getting it today. You can read more on this subject in my editorial.—RS

WDZTony's picture

I think every AV-enthusiast is sooner or later confronted with the issues addressed in the article. I can only imagine the frustration of early 4K adopters when HDR came around.

While it is probably true that at no point in time you can be fully future-proofed with your equipment, it is crucial to be aware of what advancements are in the pipeline. When buying a TV set you will at least make a conscious regarding what you are giving up.

For instance, this year I decided to upgrade from 2011 Sony HX909 to LG OLED C6. My main goal was to upgrade to 4K but still be 3D-compatible (I have quite nice collection of 3D blurays). And I am from Eastern Europe, where the investment in high-end TV was quite substantial compared to salaries. Anyway, when I was buying the TV I was perfectly aware that that my set won't be compatible with HDMI 2.1 and HLG (though I still hope LG will add HLG through the firmware update to 2016 models) and probably with a bunch of other future features that are not yet marketed. But that's OK. I just had to accept that in few years the C6 will belong to museum and for now focus on enjoying the perfectly nice telly I have.

prerich45's picture

Nuff said, Spot on....excellent article.

germay0653's picture

Unfortunately, whether the problems caused were intended or not, until companies feel the consumers pain in their bottom line, nothing will change. Early adopters are a small percentage of all consumers so the bottom line will not be significantly effected enough to affect change. It's a risk early adopters should be aware of if they've been through process several times.

Billy's picture

If us early adopters bow out, how will the associated development costs get paid? Does that mean the end of innovation? Was the cost ever that great anyhow, or were the companies just sticking it to us eager beaver types while the production runs were just getting going and there was an artificial scarcity? Any old thing for a buck, ya know. Apparently its the American Way.

hk2000's picture

Couldn't care less. After seeing it on my "flagship" Sony TV, I now firmly believe HDR is a gimmick intended to generate sales of new sets- even 4K on the 65" screen don't really look any better than 1080P (Not by much anyway), so as long as the broadcast or whatever form the content comes in is backward compatible, I won't be bothering with any upgrades- quality of programming trumps the format in which it's delivered every time. I'd rather watch a great classic B&W movie in 480P over any of today's Hollywood crap(sometimes literally)in 8K ultra extreme UHD HDR++ and HDMI10.0, or however many versions it will go. And don't get me started on DTS Aero(?) and Dolby ATMOS- speakers in the front, back, sides and ceiling?!!! what's next speakers in the floor for when the scene involves the camera being up high and there are sounds coming from below? What the hell happened to leaving something to the imagination? Don't those Hollywood geniuses know that the more details the less realistic and the uglier people and things actually look and sound?

denslayer's picture

HDMI is supposed to stop pirating , but it just confuses consumers and makes equipment obsolete.

Billy's picture

Oh so true! I have lamented here recently about how horrible HDMI in general is. Love the single wire concept, hate the "handshake" nightmare. Maybe we should all go back to 30 year old 27 inch Sharp TVs with attached (to channel 3!) VCRs like my 85 year old daddy swears by. His TV set up ALWAYS works flawlessly. I have multiple 4K TVs and half a dozen other HD ones, plus a dedicated 1080P oprojector in the theater, and way more than I would like, my wife is upset and frustrated because of no picture and invariably it needs a plug/unplug of and HDMI. It should not be so. As well noted above, pirates have NOOOO trouble copying digital content, heck I rip my own Blu rays for my KODI system, not too difficult. (Note, I own all my media, I was raised right, or so my Mamma thinks) Why not tell Hollywood is grow up, and accept the fact that a small percentage will be lost to pilfering and get over it? Let honest consumers like us enjoy our legally bought goods. Stop considering us guilty until proven innocent. Give us good stuff at a great price, and the profits will expand well from the sheer volume. Everyone happy.

Deus02's picture

It is important to know that the 1.4 . 2.2 encryption is just that, encryption, moving back and forth between the two doesn't affect the quality of the signal. I have a 2.0 Yamaha Pre-Pro and a 2.2 LG 4k set and when I was confronted with the inability to transmit the native 4K signal from my cable box through my pre-pro, I was stunned, however, problem solved.

Although somewhat more expensive than others the HD Fury "Integral" solved the problem for me in which I plug my cable box and UHD player into the Integral out to my Pre-Pro and then into my monitor. Of course, it does switch the encryption from 2.2 to 1.4, however, it does not affect the quality of signal and I can continue to use my Pre-Pro as the focal point of my A/V system.

For those that might be concerned, don't worry, they are perfectly legal.

trashmanssd7's picture

Trying to figure out all the copy protection and HDMI standards and what works with what and the consistent rushing new unproven tech to the market has really dampened my love for this hobby for me. I am down to just replacing stuff when it breaks and living with what I have even if it is not the latest or greatest. I am learning to just enjoy the content and worry less if its a perfect representation of that content.

HMB's picture

Looking at the speed requirements of HDMI2.1 - 48GSPS, I think that the HDMI forum has bit off more than they can chew. To implement this standard- to decode a signal this fast will require complex encoding (multilevel QPSK, or similar). Not only does the hardware of the receivers go up, the requirements of the transmission channels gets much more difficult. Digital noise levels will need to be greater because of the phase and amplitude requirements. The entire supply chain will have there costs go up. The consumer will not be happy with their cable or internet bills doubling to handle this complexity - for a very small number of people who will actually try to take advantage if the "enhancements" - which are really all hype.