Feature Attractions: Blu-ray Disc Players

Blu-ray Disc Association hasn’t finalized a standard for ultrahigh-definition Blu-ray, so it will be 2015 before you can watch a movie in that format on your TV through your Blu-ray player. However, if you’re content to watch high-definition Blu-ray video, you’ll find that Blu-ray players that have built-in Wi-Fi now cost as little as $100.

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The latest ultrahigh-definition (UHD), or 4K, TVs now cost as little as $1,000. Amazon, M-Go, Netflix and YouTube plan to provide 4K streaming video in 2014. So how do Blu-ray Disc players fit into the 4K picture in 2014?

They don’t, unless you count 4K upconversion, in which a Blu-ray player’s processor rescales 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixel) video to make it look like 4K (3840 x 2160 pixel) video. Spoiler alert: We viewed the upconverted video, and it isn’t as crisp as true 4K is.

STILL WAITING. Ever since the introduction of the first 4K UHDTVs in 2012, we’ve awaited the day when we could buy or rent 4K Blu-ray Discs. At press time, it looks as though we’ll be waiting until 2015.

Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) includes nine companies that market Blu-ray players and develops Blu-ray Disc standards. BDA hopes to finalize a standard format for 4K Blu-ray by the end of 2014, but it wouldn’t give us a time frame for when the format would be ready.

“The guiding philosophy of the effort is that 4K on Blu-ray needs to do more than just put four times the pixels of 1080 HD on the screen,” says Andy Parsons, who is a BDA spokesperson. Parsons says the new standard also should improve color range and contrast.

A standard format is necessary to ensure that all 4K discs are compatible with any 4K Blu-ray player. Manufacturers can’t make 4K Blu-ray players until they know the specifications of the format. In other words, if the format isn’t announced until the end of 2014, which seems likely, we won’t see a 4K-compatible Blu-ray player until 2015. Chris De Maria of Panasonic tells us that the price of those future 4K Blu-ray players is difficult to predict, but he believes that the first 4K models will cost no more than $225.

Today’s Blu-ray players also can’t stream 4K content. So 4K streaming content that’s coming in 2014 from Amazon, M-Go, Netflix and YouTube will be available only through applications that are included in compatible 2014 UHDTVs and two 2013 UHDTVs that are made by LG (the LA9650 and the LA9700). Believe it or not, all other UHDTVs, like all Blu-ray players, lack the proper video decoding capability (the technical term is H.265) to stream the latest 4K video.

Sony’s FMP-X1 ($700) is called a 4K media player, but it doesn’t play discs and is compatible only with Sony UHDTVs. The FMP-X1 is a hub that allows you to buy (starting at $30) or rent (starting at $7.99 for 24 hours) videos that have been mastered in 4K from the online Sony Pictures library. At press time, 100 titles were available.

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You now can find Blu-ray players for as little as $180 that upconvert video from 1080p resolution to 4K resolution. In general, the upconverted video doesn’t have the same level of detail that you’d see in a true 4K picture. However, some Blu-ray players do a better job of upconverting video than do others. Although we believe that the average viewer would notice the difference between true 4K and the upconverted 4K video that most Blu-ray players deliver, only a videophile could tell the difference from models that are made by Oppo. That’s because Oppo models, unlike others, include advanced built-in video processing. Robert Silva, who is a home-theater expert for About.com, agrees with us. Nonetheless, Silva believes that the differences between true 4K video and upconverted 4K video on all Blu-ray players are noticeable only when you watch on a UHDTV that’s 70 inches or larger.

You also have to have a UHDTV to see upconverted 4K video. Fortunately, connecting a 4K-upconverting Blu-ray player to a UHDTV doesn’t require a new HDMI cable; any HDMI cable that’s rated for high-speed performance will suffice. These cables are sold for as little as $6.

Oppo models even include additional HDMI ports, so you can upconvert video that’s from your cable TV box or digital video recorder. From our observations, this upconverted video isn’t as sharp as is the upconverted video that’s from a Blu-ray Disc, but the average viewer would notice that the upconverted video that’s from a cable TV box or a DVR is crisper and free of distortion.

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