Did you treat yourself to a new 4K UHD HDR television set over the Christmas period? Or are you planning to do so with the after-Christmas/New Year sales that usually appear?
If you do, there is one further step in your path to splendid video quality that you should consider taking. Getting a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disk player.
With your 4K television, the chances are you’re planning to enjoy matching 4K video that is slowly becoming more prevalent on streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, and probably others, too. Certainly, if you do so, you’ll get much more vivid imagery and a better-than-1080P picture overall. You’ll be pleased.
But, just as streaming HDR 4K video is an obvious improvement over 1080P video, there’s a further step that brings yet another obvious improvement. Changing from streaming to playing a 4K Blu-ray disk directly into your television.
The reason for this is easy to appreciate. The video streams you get over the internet have been extraordinarily compressed so as to be able to stream smoothly over moderate speed internet connections. A typical compressed 4K video stream requires about 15 – 25 Mbps of bandwidth. An uncompressed 4K signal, with 10 bits of data per pixel, requires over 300 Mbps (if 30 frames/sec) and over 600 Mbps for 60 fps (or 240 Mbps for 24 fps, the most common refresh rate on movies).
So you’re only getting about 1/20th of the complete picture (and audio) data in an internet stream. For sure, the compression is extremely clever, and there is not a lot of picture quality loss, but there is most definitely some. That’s where a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disk comes in – it provides about a 100 Mbps data stream, so anywhere from four to seven times as much data as via an internet stream. What that means, in simple terms, is you will see a better picture from a 4K Blu-ray disk than you can off an internet stream.
There are many “high end” features in video, and even more in audio, where you find yourself paying thousands of dollars for something extra and the resulting “improvement”, in truth, is something you can neither see nor hear. Or, even worse, it is a change that you’re not sure you even prefer. I’m thinking of a friend who spent $3,500 on one single microphone recently. Yes, it does sound different to my $35, 20-year-old, Radio Shack microphone, but is it a “better” sound, or just a “different” sound? That’s a point of awkward uncertainty for him, and quiet amusement for me.
Happily, choosing to get a 4K Blu-ray player is most definitely not going to cost you thousands of dollars, and equally definitely, it absolutely will give you a difference in picture quality that you will be able to see on your screen.
Now for the important thing. Which 4K Blu-ray player should you buy? You can find ones for as little as $150, or as much as, well, I’d rather not go there!
There are two things to consider.
The first is, make sure it is a true 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player. Some Blu-ray players have descriptions that sound like they can play 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disks, but they actually can’t. You don’t want a regular Blu-ray player that can “upscale” to 4K. Upscaling is a meaningless and totally unnecessary feature (because probably all 4K television sets include an upscaling engine already). Make sure it is a player that will be able to read and play a 4K UHD Blu-ray.
The second point is, exactly the same as for choosing a television (see our two part series on choosing a 4K television, starting here) you should get a player that not only manages “ordinary” 4K disks, but which will decode all three HDR formats too – HDR10 (this is very common), plus also Dolby Vision and HDR10+.
Sadly, there is no clear “winner” in this format battle between HDR10+ on one side and Dolby Vision on the other side, and because both are so very much better than plain ordinary 4K, you have no choice but to either get one player that supports all three formats, or to get two players which between them have the three formats covered.
As I explain in the choosing a television articles, and also in this earlier two part introductory piece on the evolution of new at-home video standards, the most noticeable improvement in a 4K picture compared to a 1080P picture is the better image quality, not the better image sharpness. You can see more colors, and more contrast between the whitest whites and the blackest blacks, with the High Dynamic Range capabilities of 4K video, assuming the video you are watching has this extra capability included.
I am only aware of two players that can handle all three types of HDR encoding, both from Panasonic. The Panasonic DP-UB820-K (or sometimes other final letters, makes no relevant difference that I can tell) is the more moderately priced of the two, and currently priced at $400 on Amazon. The older and more expensive Panasonic DP-UB9000 is priced at $1179 on Amazon at present.
There seems to be no clear benefit in terms of picture or sound quality in the nearly three times more expensive DP-UB9000. Indeed, one analysis I read suggested that the internal circuitry had been copied over identically from the expensive unit to the less expensive unit, and I suspect that the reviews lauding the superiority of the more expensive unit are in part from “suggestible” people who have been influenced by the greater cost into believing they’re therefore getting something better.
All the other units I’ve looked at seem to have either Dolby Vision or HDR10+, but not both. There was a rumor of an expensive Pioneer unit getting a future software update to add the missing capability to the unit. I think this is the UDP-LX500, but with their last software update being released in December 2019, I’m very doubtful if this will ever happen, and am not even sure if the model is still sold.
It seems strange to end up with only one unit that meets these parameters and requirements, and it hints at the general lack of interest in the 4K Blu-ray format by manufacturers – a surprising lack of interest due to there being very few other exciting new areas to develop into at present.
But, while it is awkward to choose “the only game in town”, the reality is the Panasonic unit is an excellent high-quality unit with all the high-end features you’d want, and nothing missed out – leastways, nothing that I’ve noticed in the six months I’ve owned my UB820.
A technical note – a 4K Blu-ray player will also play regular Blu-ray disks, and DVDs too, and probably also CDs. It seems that 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray movies are not regionally encoded (unlike regular Blu-ray and DVD disks), so any player should play any 4K disk.
Another Reason to Sometimes Choose Disks Instead of Streaming
Some years ago I switched from being an inveterate collector of movies on disk, and instead, focused on streaming movies. Over the years since then, I’d almost forgotten about one of the wonderful things about buying a disk – the extra features that many disks include – out-takes, deleted scenes, commentaries, interviews with people involved in the movie, and so on.
Coming back to disks after getting my 4K Blu-ray player had me rediscover the panoply of riches that many disks include. It is not uncommon to find a disk that has more hours of “extra features” than it has of the feature movie itself. I’m loving a return to all these extra supplemental features.
4K Blu-ray Disk Availability
There are not gazillions of titles available in the 4K Ultra HD format. Those that are available are sometimes more expensive than “regular” Blu-ray disks, which in turn are often more expensive than DVDs. But sometimes the pricing differential is minimal ($3 or so extra), and if you’re keen to make your dollars go further, always check to see if there is a less expensive second-hand copy of a movie also for sale. The price savings is seldom great, alas, presumably because there’s a keen market for them, and be careful to understand the shipping policies and therefore the total cost of a used disk purchase.
To give fair credit to Amazon, it is very fair at showing the availability of second hand disks on its listing pages, and making sure the total cost including shipping is understood.
Amazon offers the ability to look only for 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disks, and the first page of that search category suggests over 1,000 disks are currently available. Best Buy lists 1155 on their page. (As an aside, I find myself liking Best Buy more and more – they’ve several times been able to ship me product of all types (or have it in a local store) much faster than Amazon.
Interestingly, sometimes the 4K Blu-ray cost is less than buying a “virtual” streamed copy of the same movie. That surely makes it a “slam dunk” decision.
I notice that disk prices tend to trend downwards after their initial release. I’ve many times seen disks drop appreciably in price three or six months after first release – plus, of course, the second hand copies start to appear about then, too.
There is a nice feature offered with many of the 4K disks. They include also a regular Blu-ray version of the disk, so you’re getting two copies of the movie for little more than the price of one.
You’ll also note the ability to save when buying collections – the three Back to the Future movies, plus a huge amount of extra material, for $34, for example; the first eight of the Fast & Furious movies for $55; the eight Harry Potters for $109; the four Indiana Jones movies for $62, and so on.
Sometimes you’ll see movies for little more than $10, and only rarely do they go over $25.
Even old favorites, such as The Wizard of Oz, are sometimes offered, and if you’re lucky, the studio will have done a careful rescan from high quality original materials (as is the case for the very reasonably priced Wizard of Oz). You’ll be stunned at how wonderful some of even the oldest movies can appear – particularly if they were filmed in glorious Technicolor.
If you’re feeling picky, check to see if the movies are “just” regular HD or if they are in HDR10+ or Dolby Vision. Some are just regular HD, others are in one of the two enhanced formats. If you’re choosing movies to impress your friends with, be sure to choose a Dolby Vision or HDR10+ encoded movie. Some of the movies are very subtle about mentioning this, but often you’ll see in the fine print on the back a Dolby Vision label if in Dolby Vision and perhaps a reference to HDR10+ if in the other format.
To get the best use and best picture from your new 4K television, you really should consider investing in a 4K Blu-ray player and building up a collection of 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disks. The quality they add is breath-taking.