Everything you need to know about Ultra HD Blu-ray

Samsung’s UBD-K8500 player

Samsung reveals their UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player at CES 2016

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’ve taken another step forward with the arrival of Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players. Unlike its predecessor, Blu-ray, there is no competing disc format and thus, no format war. Instead, Ultra HD Blu-ray has to take on another solution entirely: 4K streaming.

Similar to previous new formats, Ultra HD Blu-ray adoption has been relatively slow. Even with 4K TVs quickly replacing 1080P TVs on store shelves, Ultra HD Blu-ray still appeals to a relatively small audience – at least for now. But for anyone who wants the best possible picture and sound quality they can get, this new format is exciting. And the best news is: It’s a pretty significant leap forward from 1080p HD, especially when you throw HDR (High Dynamic Range) and WCG (Wide Color Gamut) into the mix, resulting in increased contrast and greater color volume.

Of course, with new technology like this comes a whole bunch of conditions and caveats. Do you need a new disc player? Will it be backward compatible? Do you need new cables, a new receiver, or any other new equipment? For the answers to those questions and more can be found, read on.

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.

If you want to enjoy Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, you’ll need to buy a new Ultra HD Blu-ray disc player.

Simply put, the more data you can deliver, the better the picture and sound quality is going to be, and Ultra HD Blu-ray can deliver a lot of data. Even with relatively fast connections, we’ve noticed artifacts and other issues with streaming 4K content, and this can get even worse when you’re trying to stream HDR content. In bright, outdoor scenes, streaming might be relatively comparable to Ultra HD Blu-ray, but in dimly lit scenes, the differences between the two become very clear.

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 seen before.

Do I need a new Blu-ray player for Ultra HD Blu-ray discs?

Yes, you need a new player. Sorry, but standard Blu-ray disc players can’t handle the new 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. For the time being, the bad news is that these players are quite a bit more expensive than standard Blu-ray players. The good news is that while only a few different models are available, they’re all quite good, so you don’t need to worry about buying a bum model.

Samsung’s UBD-K8500 was one of the first Ultra HD Blu-ray players announced, and it was also the first model to go on sale in the U.S. The player lists for $500, but can already be found discounted to just over $300, even on the company’s own website. Similarly, the Philips BDP7501 has a list price of $400, but has now been marked down on the company’s website to a slightly more wallet-friendly $350. Panasonic’s first Ultra HD Blu-ray player, the UB900, takes a more premium approach, and sells for $700.

When it comes to players that haven’t been released yet, Oppo’s UDP-203 looks very promising, and the company’s website says the player will launch by the end of 2016. No official pricing is available so far, but the UDP-203 is expected to be priced in the neighborhood of $500. Early in 2016, Sony said it was going to take its time with its own player, but in September, the company finally announced its UBP-X1000ES reference standard 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player. No price has been announced, but Sony’s Yukio Ishikawa said that the player was “specifically designed to deliver the highest quality video and audio possible and will excite the most demanding A/V enthusiasts,” so we’re not expecting it to be cheap.

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 TVs will work with Ultra HD Blu-ray, including older models with HDMI 1.4 inputs, though there are a few caveats. 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 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. These features also require an HDMI 2.0a connection, but fortunately, many TV models will be able to add this via a firmware update, assuming no HDMI 2.0a port is already available.

panasonic dx900

Panasonic DX900 Ultra HD Premium LED TV

Even a year ago, this was a relatively tall order, but TV manufacturers are quickly catching up. Any Ultra HD Premium-certified 4K UHD TV will include support for HDR, with even cheaper models adding HDR and WCG at a fairly good clip. The Ultra HD Premium standard requires a number of features including HDR and a minimum 10-bit color depth, so as long as a TV features this logo, it’s guaranteed to support everything Ultra HD Blu-ray players have to offer.

Are Ultra HD Blu-ray players 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.

In addition, Ultra HD Blu-ray players can downscale Ultra HD Blu-ray discs to work on 1080p HD TVs, so if  an overeager family member gifts you a new player and few discs — even though you don’t yet own a 4K UHD TV — that’s just fine.

Will I need any other new equipment?

That depends on your system. You may need new HDMI cables if the cables you own don’t support the fastest data transfer. That whole “an HDMI cable is an HDMI cable” adage is no longer true. In the world of Ultra HD Blu-ray, some cheaper cables can’t handle the data throughput. Try the cables you’ve got, and if you run into trouble, plan to buy some new ones. We like these HDMI cables from Monoprice.

The more data, the better the picture and sound quality, and Ultra HD Blu-ray is poised to deliver big-time data.

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,  HDCP (High Definition Copy Protection) 2.2 requires updated hardware — it can’t be fixed with a simple firmware update — so if your A/V receiver lacks this, you’ll need to upgrade.

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.

Okay, so what is there to watch?

Movie studios wanted to hit the ground running, so they began actively re-mastering movies more than a year before the first Ultra HD Blu-ray players hit. Some of the first titles available were The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Since then, most new releases have been made available in Ultra HD Blu-ray format. A number of older films like Salem’s Lot, An American Werewolf in London, and His Girl Friday have also seen re-releases in the format. Here’s a full list of Ultra HD Blu-ray titles available now.

There is one caveat here 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.

samsung ultra hd blu-ray ces 2016
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

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.

Does Ultra HD Blu-ray support digital transfers?

Yes. Just as UltraViolet did for standard Blu-ray, Ultra HD Blu-ray discs 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 works: “There are two digital bridge features, copy and export,” said 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. Even so, the discs themselves 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.

Tech specs

For you tech heads, here’s some interesting data:

Ultra HD Blu-ray primarily uses double-layer 66GB discs (though 100GB triple-layer discs are part of the spec) and is 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 are encoded using the relatively new HEVC (also known as H.265) codec.

The Lego Movie

Ultra HD Blu-ray can 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. Certain TVs from Vizio and LG support both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, but other TVs currently support only one format, generally HDR10.

Dolby opened up its licensing kits for Dolby Vision-enabled Ultra HD Blu-ray players in July 2016, so any players introduced before then aren’t compatible — at least not yet. Dolby pointed out to Digital Trends that Panasonic was the first to announce plans to produce a Dolby Vision-enabled player, but the model the company is currently selling, the UB900, only supports HDR10. So far, Dolby Vision is not available in any Ultra HD Blu-ray player on the market. Don’t worry though: once Dolby Vision begins arriving on Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, any player will still be able to play them, it just won’t be able to access Dolby Vision-specific features unless it supports the format.

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 10/18/2016 by Kris Wouk: Updated information on player availability and the number of Ultra HD Blu-ray discs currently available.

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.