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.
External Optical Drives: Burning Faster
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.
SMART MOVES. If you just want to stream or watch 1080p video, the least expensive Blu-ray player that allows both still costs $90—the same as it did 2 years ago. However, a Blu-ray player that has built-in Wi-Fi connectivity now costs as little as $100, compared with $120 before.
The End of Analog Blu-ray
LG, Panasonic and Samsung now make a total of 11 streaming models (starting at $120) that allow you to buy and download apps from an online store, just like you would with a computer, an HDTV or a mobile device. In 2012, no models had this feature. These 11 Blu-ray players also make recommendations that are based on the programs that you watch. If you recently watched a comedy that stars Will Ferrell, for instance, the Blu-ray player will recommend other comedies and other Will Ferrell movies.
Unfortunately, we found that most Blu-ray players are slow to load and prone to buffering problems when you browse online content, such as the movie library that’s in a streaming app. Two models, Samsung’s BD-F7500 ($280) and Sony’s BDP-S6200 ($180), now include a dual-core processor for faster menu navigation. We tried these models, and we found that the extra processing speed makes the Blu-ray players more responsive and the process of finding a movie less frustrating.
Speaking of the latest wireless technologies, we found 13 models (starting at $120) that now include wireless Miracast technology. This technology allows you to stream audio, images and video to a Blu-ray player, so you can display on your HDTV whatever content that you play on your computer, smartphone or tablet computer without connecting the devices to a Wi-Fi network. Miracast creates a connection between two devices just like Bluetooth does but with more bandwidth to accommodate larger files.
In addition to Miracast, near-field communication (NFC) technology also is included in five new models (starting at $130). NFC technology uses short-range signals to transfer data between devices. If you have an NFC-equipped Blu-ray player and an NFC-equipped smartphone or tablet, you simply swipe the phone or tablet in front of the model’s front panel to transmit an image or a video, which then will be displayed on the screen of your HDTV.
LISTEN UP. Two years ago, we predicted that by 2014 Blu-ray players would be able to transmit 1080p video to an HDTV without the use of an HDMI cable. Guess what? We saw one in January 2014 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES): Sharp’s SD-WH1000U ($4,000).
Sharp’s Blu-ray player also is the only one that’s compatible with the latest Wireless Speaker & Audio (WiSA) Association standard for transmitting audio wirelessly. This compatibility means that the Blu-ray player sends clear digital audio wirelessly on a 5-gigahertz band, and the signal won’t be subject to interference from other devices.
We heard a demonstration at CES, and the sound was just as clear and crisp as what we would expect from an ultrapremium wired system. We found that that clarity is particularly noticeable in battle scenes and crowd scenes in that you can hear details, such as clinking swords and voices, more distinctly. Silva agrees.
No other company sells a Blu-ray player that transmits audio wirelessly, but 29 companies have signed on to develop WiSA products, and the association hopes that less expensive (read: $2,000 and less) products will be available in the next 2 years.
Another new wireless audio feature that’s in Blu-ray players at a far more reasonable price is the capability to stream audio from the Blu-ray player via Bluetooth directly to a set of headphones. At press time, two LG models (starting at $130) had such wireless audio streaming for viewers who don’t want to disturb others when they watch the latest blockbuster. It’s almost like having your own private theater.
Al Griffin is a former editor of Home Theater and writes for HDGuru.com and Sound & Vision magazine.