In the year 2000, we began ditching our VHS tapes for DVDs. In 2006, Blu-ray brought high-definition video to flat-screen TVs everywhere. Now we’re about to take another step forward with the arrival of Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players. That’s right: Come March there’s going to be a whole new format to embrace – for better or worse.
Though there will be no format war to stunt its growth (remember the whole Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD debacle?), Ultra HD Blu-ray adoption will be slow. Even as 4K TVs replace 1080P TVs on store shelves, Ultra HD Blu-ray will appeal to a relatively small audience – at least at first. But for anyone who wants the best possible picture and sound quality they can get, the arrival of this new format is exciting. And the best news is: It’s a pretty significant leap forward from 1080p HD.
Of course, with new technology like this comes a whole bunch of conditions and caveats. Will you need a new disc player? Will they be backward compatible? Will you need new cables, a new receiver, or any other new equipment? We grilled the Blu-ray disc association and have all the information you’ll need below, in plain English.
What’s so great about Ultra HD Blu-ray?
It’s true that streaming movies and TV shows from services like Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu is the future of TV, but until the Internet gets a serious bandwidth upgrade (don’t worry, it’s coming!) discs will always kill streaming when it comes to picture quality. Ever notice 1080p Blu-rays still look better than Netflix’s fancy Ultra HD streaming video? The reason they do comes down to one very simple, but important factor: bitrate.
Simply put, the more data you can deliver, the better the picture and sound quality is going to be, and Ultra HD Blu-ray is poised to deliver some seriously big-time data. So much, in fact, that not only will Ultra HD Blu-ray discs offer four times the resolution of 1080p HD, they’ll be able to deliver two new features recently standardized for premium 4K UHD TVs: High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Wide Color Gamut (WCG). The result will be an at-home experience that matches or beats what you get at the cinema, with more colors than ever, incredible contrast and brightness, and un-compromised sound quality.
To be fair Amazon is delivering a handful of 4K shows in HDR now, and Netflix isn’t far behind, but because of current Internet bandwidth restrictions, these streams will be heavily compressed, and that means more artifacts – or, noise — in the picture. You can see it especially well in dimly lit scenes, usually as big blocky anomalies.
Simply put: Ultra HD Blu-ray is going to offer significantly better picture and sound quality than any other format available, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Will I need a new Blu-ray player for Ultra HD Blu-ray discs?
Yes. You’ll need a new player. Sorry, but today’s Blu-ray disc players can’t handle the news discs. Fortunately, these new Ultra HD Blu-ray players will play just about any disc you throw at it, including all your existing DVDs and Blu-rays. Samsung’s UBD-K8500 player is available for pre-order right now, and Philips and Panasonic are expected to start selling the players they showed off at CES soon. In time, more manufacturers may jump into the game, likely depending on how well Ultra HD Blu-ray takes off in the short term.
If you want to enjoy Ultra-HD Blu-ray discs, you’ll need to buy a new Blu-ray disc player.
Samsung and Philips are pricing their players at $400 while the premium Panasonic model will likely go for a bit more. We also expect a killer Ultra HD Blu-ray disc player from Oppo later this year. Don’t be surprised if Oppo drops an Ultra HD Blu-ray bomb in the form of a category-killer player at a shockingly reasonable price — it’s kind of what they do.
If that all sounds a bit pricey, remember that the first Blu-ray players ran about $1,000 when they arrived in 2006, but now you can get a decent one with built-in Wi-Fi and streaming apps for about $100.
What kind of 4K UHD TV will work with Ultra HD Blu-ray?
Any and all 4K UHD TV will work with Ultra HD Blu-ray, including older models with HDMI 1.4 inputs. When connected to a TV via HDMI, an Ultra HD Blu-ray player is able to determine what that TV is capable of and act accordingly.
The catch is, the benefits to owners of older (even as recent as some of last year’s models) 4K UHD TVs will be limited to UHD resolution and that noise-free picture we talked about earlier. In order to get the HDR and WCG features we mentioned earlier, the TV has to be capable of producing the added colors, and process and produce High Dynamic Range content. With the exception of some Sony and Panasonic models from 2014, only top-tier 2015 4K Ultra HD TVs are capable of this. The good news is that, going forward, any TV with the 4K Ultra HD Premium logo issued by the CTA will be able to take full advantage of everything Ultra HD Blu-ray has to offer.
Will Ultra HD Blu-ray players be backward compatible?
Yes. Ultra HD-Blu-ray players will play Blu-ray discs, DVDs, SACDs, DVD-Audio, and Redbook CDs. Both standard 1080p Blu-ray discs and DVDs will be up-converted to UHD resolution for playback on 4K UHD TVs.
Related: HDR for TVs explained
In addition, Ultra HD Blu-ray players will downscale Ultra HD Blu-ray discs to work on 1080p HD TVs, so if you want to get a little ahead of the curve and purchase a new player and the latest discs, even before you get a 4K UHD TV, that’s just fine.
Will I need any other new equipment?
The more data, the better the picture and sound quality, and Ultra HD Blu-ray is poised to deliver big-time data.
That depends on your system. The good news is you won’t need any new HDMI cables. As for your A/V receiver? Think of it along the same lines as a 4K UHD TV. Older receivers with HDMI 1.4 will be able to support the higher resolution, but not HDR or WCG. If your receiver supports HDMI 2.0, there’s a chance it could be updated to support HDMI 2.0a later on when it’s needed. However, depending on how HDCP (High Definition Copy Protection) 2.2 gets implemented by movie studios, you may need to consider a brand new A/V receiver if you want one to remain the hub of your home theater for the long term.
There’s an audio processing component to think about here as well. New surround formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X will be available on Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, but to enjoy them, you’ll need a newer receiver with up-to-date processing built in.
Will there be many discs available when Ultra HD Blu-ray launches?
Apparently, movie studios are pretty excited about this move, as they have been actively re-mastering movies for the past year or so to make sure there are a decent number of quality titles ready to go when the new players launch. In short, yes, there will be plenty of titles, and you can see a list of many of them right here, highlighted by such hits as The Martian, and Mad Max: Fury Road.
Time for another caveat that videophiles would be quick to point out: Many of these titles aren’t true 4K Blu-rays. How can that be? Because they weren’t filmed in 4K in the first place. In order for a film to have a 4K native resolution, you have to use a 4K camera. Many of these titles were recorded at so-called 2K resolution, which is great, but then it has to be up-scaled to 4K, which means that not every pixel you see was captured by the camera when the flick was shot — some of it is digital guesswork.
Still, what you do get, even with a 2K transfer, is a better quality image than a standard Blu-ray player is capable of. High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut mean these new discs will look closer to what the director intended you to see, and believe us: You will see a big difference.
Will Ultra HD Blu-ray support digital transfers?
Yes. Just as UltraViolet has done for standard Blu-ray, Ultra HD Blu-ray discs will support digital copies, allowing users to access content “across the range of in-home mobile devices,” according to the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA). Information disclosed in an interview with BDA executive, Victor Matsuda, reveals how this will work: “There are two digital bridge features, copy and export,” Matsuda. “Copy permits a bit for bit copy to be stored on an authorized attached media drive. Export allows files to be transferred to an authorized mobile device.”
What’s in a name? Clearing confusion
If you’re confused about what all this new stuff is officially called, you’re not alone. It’s confusing. Here’s the deal: The disc players are called Ultra HD Blu-ray disc players — the term 4K is not involved officially. The discs themselves will have “4K Ultra HD” stamped on the top — they just do. And as for the TVs themselves, the CTA says, officially, they are 4K Ultra HD, but individual manufacturers sometimes do whatever they want — Samsung, for instance, pet-names it’s premium TVs “SUHD,” for example.
For you tech heads, here’s some interesting data:
Ultra HD Blu-ray will use primarily double-layer 66GB discs (though 100GB triple-layer discs are part of the spec) and will be capable of delivering up to 108Mbps of data. To put this in perspective, consider that Netflix’s 4K Ultra HD streams are delivered at about 16Mbps and represent an average of 14GB of total data for two hours of entertainment.
Ultra HD Blu-ray discs will be encoded using the relatively new HEVC (also known as H.265) codec.
Ultra HD Blu-ray will support several different types of HDR metadata, including Dolby Vision and HDR10, an open standard supported by the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE). However, HDR 10 is a requirement for Ultra HD Blu-ray authoring. The rest will be up to individual content creators, and require TV compatibility with a specific type of HDR Metadata. Vizio’s Reference Series TVs and LG’s new G6 OLED TV, for instance, will support Dolby’ Vision HDR in addition to the SMPTE standard.
As for Ultra HD Blu-ray player support for Dolby Vision: What we know now is that Dolby is opening up its licensing kits for Dolby Vision-enabled Blu-ray players in July 2016, so any players introduced before then (the aforementioned Samsung and Philips units, specifically) will not be compatible — at least not when introduced. Whether Panasonic’s forthcoming player will be remains to be seen, as no release date has been issued yet, and Panasonic will neither confirm nor deny compatibility. However, Dolby did point out to Digital Trends that Panasonic was the first to announce plans to produce a Dolby Vision-enabled player.
So there you have it: Everything we know about Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players so far. As we learn more from manufacturers and movie studios, we’ll be sure to update this article. In the meantime, you might want to start saving your pennies if you want a slice of the next biggest thing to hit home theater.
Update 8/6/2015 by Caleb Denison: The Blu-ray disc association confirmed it is prepared to issue licensing to manufacturers, and disclosed information regarding a new system that allows digital copies for home and mobile use.
Update 1/26/2016 by Caleb Denison: Added a list of anticipated Ultra Blu-ray disc titles, clarified new standards issued at CES 2016, specified Ultra HD Blu-ray players announced by Samsung, Philips, and Panasonic, and updated news on Dolby Vision compatibility.