4k Blu-Ray Ultimate Guide – Everything You Need to Know: Discs, HDR, Movies, Player & more
We’ve been waiting a long time for the arrival of 4K UHD Blu-ray discs and they’re now finally here and already establishing themselves well as a part of the next-generation digital entertainment content landscape. That said, as a result of their growing popularity and the expanding selection of movie titles coming out in this new format, there’s also plenty of curiosity about exactly what the discs have to offer, how good their digital video deliver really is and how they can be played to deliver their best possible video quality.
Well, all of these questions and others are what we’re going to cover in the following sections, starting with a full description of this new 4K content format and moving on to answers for all the key questions you probably have.
What is 4K ultra HD Blu-ray
The most basic question of the bunch can also be a bit confusing if you’re new to the world of 4K UHD entertainment. 4K Blu-ray discs are the successors to the HD Blu-ray format that has available on the consumer market since mid-2006. However, the term successor doesn’t entirely fit either since 4K Blu-ray’s are being manufactured and sold right alongside the continuing manufacture and sale of HD Blu-ray disc media. In fact, the HD versions still vastly outnumber and outsell their new 4K counterparts, at least for now.
In any case, 4K Blu-ray media have been under development since at least late 2014 and after months of anticipation and speculation about their eventual release date, finally went on sale in the first quarter of 2016. In contrast to HD BD discs, their 4K cousins offer content, mainly in the form of movies, in 4K ultra HD resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels and in addition to this, they include other display and audio technologies for a superior, more advanced display experience. These other developments include high dynamic range (HDR) formatting for special audio technologies like so-called ‘object based’ audio systems of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Furthermore, 4K Blu-ray content can be played back from these discs at a higher frame rate of 60 frames per second, which is quite impressive considering the resolution involved.
More specifically, The new 4K UHD Blu-ray format supports high dynamic range in one of two ways, either through the Blu-ray Disc-approved “BD HDR” specs of the new technology, which are based on the HDR10 spec used in 4K HDR TVs approved by the UHD Alliance as “Ultra HD Premium” models or by the HDR format known as Dolby Vision, which comes from Dolby Labs and is also found in a number of 4K HDR TVs today such as those from Vizio and LG. In either case, the 4K video encoded in the new 4K Blu-ray discs is compressed through the HEVC (H.265) UHD video compression codec and also comes with 10-bit color depth along with nearly complete DCI-P3 color space coverage.
The new 4K Blu-ray discs also come in three main storage sizes, with a 50GB version at an 82Mbps read rate, a 66GB version at 108Mbps and a 100GB version at 128Mbps.
In essence, 4K UHD Blu-ray discs are like HD Blu-ray discs but with superior resolution, color, playback and dynamic range capacities as well as (obviously) much larger storage capacity.
What about 4K ultra HD Blu-ray Audio
As we mentioned above, the 4K Blu-ray spec also includes some serious object-based immersive sound capacity and this consists mainly of Dolby Atmos sound and the DTS:X format. These audio formats are also supported by some HD Blu-ray discs but the quality and prevalence of both high quality audio formats is much greater in the new 4K BD discs. Thus, many of the new movies that have gone from theater screens to 4K Blu-ray now definitely include Dolby Atmos soundtracks or DTS:X. Examples of these Include films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie.
The bottom line here is that if you have a 4K HDR TV which offers optimal support for the new 4K HDR Blu-ray format, you’ll also want an Atmos or DTS-X sound system to go along with the TV and your 4K Blu-ray player if you want to really enjoy the full power of the sound support these discs are designed to offer.
What do I need to play 4K Blu-ray discs?
Unfortunately, normal HD Blu-ray players simply won’t play a 4K UHD Blu-ray disc. Fundamentally, 4K UHD Blu-ray is a separate media from normal HD Blu-ray and the method by which these new discs execute in a compatible media player is unworkable in any ordinary HD BD player you’ll likely see. The massive storage needs and transfer speeds of 4K discs are beyond the practical abilities of HD players so having one of the new 4K Blu-ray players on the market is an absolute must.
However, just having a 4K Blu-ray player isn’t enough either for obvious reasons. While yes, 4K Blu-ray players and discs can be connected to an HD TV and will simply scale down their 4K resolution to fit that TV’s 1080p display, the benefits of HDR and ultra HD clarity will completely be lost, thus negating the whole point of spending money on a 4K BD media player. Thus, aside from needing a 4K Blu-ray player, you’ll also need to have a compatible 4K UHD TV and if you want the absolute best that the new Blu-ray format has to offer, your 4K TV should ideally be a model with the latest in high dynamic range display capability.
More specifically, in order to play 4K ultra HD Blu-ray discs, you’ll need (as of this writing in May of 2016) one of Samsung’s UBD-K8500 4K Blu-ray players, One of Panasonic’s DMP-UB900 players or a Philips BDP7501/ BDP7301 4K BD player (the different model numbers represent different superficial design details, nothing else). All three of these media players are now on sale and the Philips and Samsung models retail for just under $400, while the Panasonic model sells for over $500. All however offer full HDR compatibility, their own smart platforms and the ability to play assorted other disc types and even streaming media, aside from their 4K Blu-ray playback.
There are also wide expectations that a Sony PlayStation 4K gaming console with 4K Blu-ray playback capacity will emerge in late 2016 for a price similar to those of these three players above.
Also, for the absolute best 4K Blu-ray playback experience possible, your media player should be hooked up to a 4K TV with high dynamic range. As we’d said, these players can be used on conventional SDR 4K TVs and even with HDTVs but they will automatically downscale the HDR 4K content of all 4K BD discs to 1080p resolution and no high dynamic range.
What benefits do 4K Blu-ray discs/media players give me?
First and foremost, the biggest benefit of 4K Blu-ray is the sheer beauty of how it displays 4K content. Currently, nothing else quite matches the caliber of UHD HDR content from 4K Blu-ray discs when played back on a fully HDR-capable 4K TV. It truly is impressive to behold and not even streaming 4K HDR movies from a source like Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant video match its scope. The bottom line here is that the pixels on a 4K HDR TV offer a far more varied range of color and luminance capacities when they’re introduced to the content of a 4K UHD HDR Blue-ray disc movie. This is the single biggest benefit of the new 4K BD format and the media players which support it.
Bit going beyond substantial increases in resolution and dynamic range, The new disc format can simply store a far greater quantity of data on the whole. This means a much denser audio experience in the form of Dolby Atmos and DTS-X surround sound formats. Both of these add richer layers of sound in the form of overhead audio as well as the more standard left, right, center, rear and surround channels of conventional sound encoding. This in turn means a much more immersive, richer sound quality as long as the TV on which you watch 4K BD discs is equipped with the audio systems needed for handling Dolby Atmos and DTS-X. More specifically, we’re talking about a 5.1 or 7.1-channel surround sound system and special Atmos/DTS-X speakers to boot for the maximal audio experience that 4K Blu-ray is capable of.
Furthermore, if you buy a 4K Blu-ray media player, you can also use it for all your other major disc media needs, since all three of the players currently on sale can also play back HD Blu-ray discs, DVDs and Digital HD media formats. Additionally, all three players come with their own streaming content apps options and the capacity for playback of content from external USB-connected sources like hard drives, PCs, smartphones and so forth.
A look at the 4K blu-ray media players
As we’d said already, the three media players for 4K Blu-ray discs that are currently on offer consist of the Samsung UBD-K8500, the Panasonic DMP-UB900 and most recently, the Philips BDP7501/ BDP7301. All of these players offer the same core essentials. These consist of full HDR support for both Dolby Vision and Ultra HD Premium, full connectivity features that include HDMI 2.0a and USB, smart streaming interfaces with access to core 4K content apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Vudu and YouTube and the ability to offer playback of all major non-4K BD disc media formats including DVDs and USB media from external hard drives.
Among the three current 4K Blu-ray players, the Panasonic DMP-UB900 is the priciest at over $500 and th only model among the three which also comes with THX certification for 4K content quality that’s “guaranteed” to match that of THX cinematic viewing of movies. On the other hand, the Samsung and Philips models come out to the same retail price of about $399. Each offers maximal compatibility with 4K HDR TVs from the same brand as the media player but all three 4K disc players are compatible with 4K TVs from all major brands as long as they have the right connectivity specs (HDMI and internet connectivity).
What 4K Blu-ray content can I watch and from who?
Several different studios are now regularly releasing 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc media titles of both new release movies that have just emerged from theaters and older titles which have been remastered to 4K resolution. In all cases, the 4K discs come with HDR and Dolby Atmos/DTS-X sound integrated into them. The studios that are now releasing movies and other content in 4K Blu-ray consist of 20th Century Fox, Sony, Lionsgate, Universal Studios and Warner Bros. We’re expecting more studios to start releasing their own titles later in 2016 and into 2017.
Currently, 4K Blu-ray discs are on sale worldwide from all major regional electronics retailers. They’re also available online from most major brick & mortar stores and online retailers. Thus, in the North American market, sellers of 4K Blu-ray movie titles include Amazon.com, Best Buy, Walmart, Target and other retailers like Future Shop in Canada.
As for the media players, they too are on sale in all major electronics retailers and online from websites like Best Buy and Amazon.com.
In terms of 4K Blu-ray disc content, the selection of available titles is growing almost on a monthly basis and at least as far as current forecasts and public declarations from the studios that are releasing movies in the new format go, we can expect at least 100 different movie titles to emerge by the end of 2016. However these are just current estimates and there are already signs of expanding 4K Blu-ray disc popularity, which will lead to even more movie and content releases than those originally predicted at the beginning of 2016.
For now, the following titles are some of those available from the major studios involved in 4K Blu-ray movie releases:
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment: Jason Bourne, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Warcraft, Everest, Lucy, and Lone Survivor.
Sony Pictures: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Hancock, Chappie, The Smurfs 2, and Pineapple Express
Twentieth Century Fox: Kingsman: The Secret Service, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Life of Pi, and Fantastic Four
Warner Brothers: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Lego Movie, Pan, and San Andreas. We should also note that Warner Bros is planning on releasing a total of at least 35 titles for 2016, so these are just a small sample of what’s going to be available in 4K Blu-ray.
As we said, Paramount and Lionsgate are also releasing their own titles and at least in Paramount’s case, those currently consist of Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, the two latest Star Trek movies for the 21st century.
Again, all of the above titles are just a sample selection of what’s available or on the way from the major participating 4K Blu-ray studios. We will see many more releases in 2016 and 2017 and there are also old classic movies being released even now. A couple of notable examples of this trend include the Peter O’Toole classic 1960’s movie Lawrence of Arabia and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.
On a final content note for 4K Blu-ray movies, we have to mention the best single detail about these new discs. Namely that they’re not region-specific. Pressure from international disc movie fans has finally resulted in this newest and best hard disc media format for movies at least being free of region-specific viewing blockages. Thus, if you buy a 4K Blu-ray disc from anywhere in the world, you can watch it on any 4K Blu-ray media player anywhere else in the world. Your only technical problems might lie with menu language and subtitling issues. This is one more point in 4K Blu-ray’s favor.
How much does it all cost
Setting your home entertainment system up so that you can enjoy 4K UHD Blu-ray discs at their full potential can without a doubt be expensive. However, the final price depends on whether you already have a 4K HDR TV or not and is in any case balanced out somewhat by the fact that buying a 4K TV to really enjoy this format means having one of the latest, best and most standardized models for also enjoying the growing worldwide selection of other HDR 4K content choices which is now developing on the consumer market. Furthermore, the 4K Blu-ray media players on sale are all fully capable of replacing any older DVD, HD Blu-ray and other disc media players you might have lying around. These are all benefits to keep in mind when you’re looking at prices.
That said, expensive applies here, especially if you don’t yet have a 4K TV or a 4K HDR TV in your home either. Thus, if you lack even these gadgets, you’ll have to fist spend at least $1000 on a full HDR 4K TV for 2016. The cheapest among these are Vzio’s P-Series models which offer Dolby Vision HDR and start at just over $1000 for the 50 inch model. From there you can go up in price and quality to any top shelf 2016 4K TV like LG’s G6 OLED models, which cost nearly $8000 and offer both Ultra HD Premium HDR and Dolby Vision. All of the 2016 SUHD TVs from Samsung and Sony’s major 2016 Bravia 4K TVs are all also fully HDR compatible and excellent for watching 4K Blu-ray discs. These other major HDR television models can range in price from at least $1500 to as much as $10,000 for the very biggest and best flagship 4K TVs.
Of course, you can also hook a 4K Blu-ray player up to an SDR 4K TV or even an HDTV but of these two options the first only allows for superbly mastered 4K content without the beauty of HDR formatting and the second HDTV option makes even owning a 4K Blu-ray player completely pointless anyhow since neither its discs’ HDR or 4K resolution will display on your TV. On the other hand, if you have a 4K HDR TV, you don’t need a big screen to rally enjoy 4K Blu-ray. Yes, the bigger the display, the more a 4K BD movie will impress but 4K HDR Blu-ray content on any HDR 4K TV will deliver notably superior display quality to regular 4K resolution video on even the largest SDR 4K TVs.
The of course you’ll also need one of the 4K Blu-ray media players themselves as well. These cost between $400 and $600 dollars and while their prices will probably drop we approach 2017, for now they’re pretty static.
Finally, there are 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs themselves and they retail for prices that range from as little as $27.99 to as much as $39.99 depending on source and included bonus features and content.
So overall, if you already have a 4K HDR TV, or an SDR 4K TV but don’t care too much about seeing HDR video in the flesh, you can just spend $400 to $600 on one of the 4K Blu-ray players and you’re good to go. If on the other hand you also want an HDR TV to accompany your new 4K Blu-ray player, you’re going to spend a minimum of $1000 to $1200 for the most affordable 4K TV on the market.
Best TVs for 4K Blu-ray media
In simple terms, the best 4K TVs for Blu-ray media are the fully DOLBY Vision or Ultra HD Premium certified ultra HD models that have emerged in 2016. The HDR 4K TVs of 2015 also have plenty of value to offer for owners of 4K Blu-ray media players and their new HDR BD discs but nothing beats watching these content sources of a 4K TV which offers the full range of this year’s premium high dynamic range specs, wide color gamut, Dolby Atmos or DTS-X sound compatibility and if possible, a larger screen of at least 50 inches.
4K TVs with both Dolby Vision and Ultra HD Premium HDR standards certification are for now probably the best models on the market for absolutely optimal appreciation of 4K Blu-ray content but so far at least, the models that have both standards covered consist only of LG’s OLED 4K TVs for 2016 and they are definitely on the highly expensive side of the price scale even if they deliver some of the best 4K HDR picture quality you’ll find in any 4K UHD TVs currently on sale.
The OLEDs aside, All the major HDR 4K LCD TVs of 2016 for the North American market, such as Samsung’s SUHD models, Vizio’s P-Series TVs and Sony’s X850D, X900D and X930/X940D models are perfect contenders for enjoying the 4K resolution and superb HDR encoding of any 4K Blu-ray discs.
You can also of course watch 4K Blu-ray discs and connect their media players to any modern 4K TV from any year since 2014 but have to first make sure that the TV in question offers HDMI 2.0 connectivity, HDCP 2.2 content copy protection and HEVC 4K content compression built into its HDMI ports and as part of its specs. The 2015 HDR TVs like Sony’s XBR-C Bravia models and Samsung’s 2015 SUHD TVs will all also come with HDMI 2.0a for HDR content and all of the other above-mentioned 4K Blu-ray player compatibility specs. They’ll let you enjoy the HDR of these BD discs but not to the same degree of quality as what you’d get if you watched them on the more standardized 2016 HDR TVs.
Is 4K Blu-ray worth it?
We’d have to say that Blu-ray is absolutely worth it from a purely picture quality-oriented perspective. Having seen 4K HDR Blu-ray discs played on 4K HDR TVs, we can’t think of any other media type for 4K content that delivers results this good. Even streamed 4K HDR content doesn’t match the quality of disc media 4K HDR video from the new BD format. Furthermore, even 4K discs played on SDR 4K TVs offer up a quality of 4K resolution formatting and compression that at least for now leaves streamed SDR ultra HD content in the dust in terms of quality, and none of this is to say anything of comparisons between any HD content source and 4K Blu-ray. Those two can’t even be compared fairly.
Yes, 4K UHD Blu-ray is expensive if you don’t yet even own a 4K HDR TV but if your chief criteria is top-shelf picture quality, this new format cannot be beaten by anything else that exists on the consumer market to-date.
On the other hand, we can be virtually certain that the 4K Blu-ray market will heat up and expand even further, with competition spurring on the release of more 4K Blu-ray titles, development of cheaper media players and this working in tandem with the late 2016 and 2017 releases of even better, more powerful HDR 4K TVs. Thus, if you’re still happy with the 4K home entertainment experience you have with your existing HDR-free ultra HD TV and get by fine with upscaled HD video or streamed 4K content, 4K Blu-ray can be made to wait a little while longer for the evolution of an even better, more affordable viewing experience. The technology isn’t going anywhere any time soon from what we’re seeing.