UHD Blu-ray Is Finally Here — Consider Us Wowed

In June 2006, when the first Blu-ray player was released by Samsung, I was the executive editor of Sound & Vision—the same magazine you’re reading today, albeit under the aegis of a different publisher.

Readers who go back those ten years should remember the high-def disc format war, which raged on for about a year and a half following that introduction and pitted Blu-ray, developed largely by Sony, against Toshiba’s HD DVD. In the spring before Blu-ray arrived, I had written our extensive review of the first Toshiba player, the HD-XA1. It was a kludgy computer dressed up like a video component. But despite its quirky and slow performance, it delivered, with the first batch of Warner and Universal discs (including Phantom of the Opera and Apollo 13 ), an incredible high-def viewing experience on our Hewlett Packard 1080p DLP rear projector, and some then-amazing Dolby Digital Plus sound on our Revel Concerta 5.1-channel speaker system. Coming off of 480i DVDs with lower-bitrate Dolby Digital soundtracks, HD DVD was an exciting leap for home theater enthusiasts.

Fast-forward a couple months, and Al Griffin (yes, that Al Griffin) and I found ourselves huddled in S&V’s NYC test studio with the Samsung BD-P1000 and a handful of the first Blu-ray Discs, mostly from Sony Pictures. It didn’t take long for disappointment to set in. Almost universally, the movies, which included the videophile classic The Fifth Element among others, looked soft and noisy.

We came to understand that two things were at play. First, and perhaps most critically, Sony had badly mastered the first batch of discs, drawing on poor assets in some cases and generally not worrying about how their procedure was capturing and enhancing film grain. (The first HD DVDs, by comparison, had a deliciously smooth but film-like quality.) Beyond this, Samsung’s engineers, presumably using Sony’s crummy transfers to optimize the player’s default settings, had concluded that every unit should be sent out from the factory with an internal noise reduction circuit switched on. This circuit noticeably softened the picture, and there was no way to deactivate it in the menu.

UHD Blu-ray is indeed an important step forward. The combination of enhanced resolution, a wider range of colors, and brighter highlights and better blacks provide a noticeably better viewing experience over traditional Blu-ray.

Eventually, we got a firmware update that turned off the noise reduction and modestly improved the video from our small library of titles, though not by much. Of course, we all know how things eventually turned out for Blu-ray. But it was a classic example of how not to launch a product, especially one that’s engaged in a vicious format war.

In a moment reminiscent of those days, our extensive first look at Blu-ray’s successor, Ultra HD Blu-ray, in the guise of the Samsung UBD-K8500 player. And while, as reviewer Tom Norton found, it’s not the same giant leap for videophiles that the first high-def discs were, and not without its glitches, we can at least report that UHD Blu-ray is indeed an important step forward, and in no way disappointing.

Critically, given the broad mix of titles available at launch (we looked at more than a dozen among two reviewers), we’ve confirmed that the enhanced resolution, wider range of colors, and brighter highlights and better blacks attendant to high dynamic range (HDR) content all combine to provide a noticeably better viewing experience over traditional Blu-ray. We’ve certainly got a ways to go, particularly in seeing how Hollywood’s mastering technicians adapt to the new capabilities and how the competing LCD and OLED display technologies improve their delivery of HDR, the most obvious of the enhancements. But it’s probably fair to say that UHD Blu-ray has now given us the best reason yet to chuck our old 1080p sets and join the UHD revolution.

To which I say, amen—because if past history is any indicator, these things really can go either way.

Tangential's picture

Blu Ray has hardly taken off with the streaming services that are available I can't see UHD-Blu Ray taking off.

hbomb7's picture

The worst thing about UHD is that you would have to replace your A/V Receiver, Blu-ray player and TV. Blu-ray still kicks ass, I will wait until the prices come down significantly.

greenbergmethew's picture

After having been on sale for weeks in the North American market, the 4K ultra HD Blu-ray format has finally migrated across the Atlantic pond.
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