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Jason Bovberg: To Infinity and Beyond

What’s Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray?

Sadly, this will be my final column for Residential AV Presents: Connected Home, though it will continue on with new voices. I’ve had an excellent time talking about home theater, high-definition music, home office, and the digital revolution (and my occasional reluctance to accept it). The world of media and entertainment is exploding with possibilities, and new formats are coming and going with such rapidity that it’s bewildering. To name one example, home video has—in my adult life—moved from pan-and-scan VHS to widescreen VHS to laser disc to DVD enhanced-for-widescreen-TVs DVD to Superbit DVD to Blu-ray and, now, to the forthcoming Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray disc. And I can’t think of a better discussion on which to end this column.

What’s Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray, you ask? It’s a new format of high-definition video disc due later this year. It will receive the usual gradual introduction into the market: You’ll see a few popular titles on an end-cap at Best Buy, and you might see a couple initial players at obscenely high prices. (You remember, of course, how DVD players and Blu-ray players debuted at prices reaching into the thousands of dollars. Now you can find them for a tenth that price.) But the potential of the format will be enough to convince some consumers—especially excitable early adopters like me—to take the plunge early.

It’s a disc that boasts much higher capacity (66GB dual-layer, 100GB triple-layer Blu-ray, more than doubling the size of the Blu-ray capacity), and its video will enable High Dynamic Range, which along with a higher 10-bit depth (HD is currently 8-bit) will bring greater detail into frames (especially the dark ones) and introduce greater resolution overall. The color palette is expanded, and frame rate is increased (4K at 60Hz) for those consumers who actually enjoyed the HFR Hobbit presentation. (See my article “The Hobbit, 48fps, and the Pernicious Broadening of the Soap Opera Effect” for my take on that.) As for audio, lossless formats will still reign supreme, from Dolby TrueHD to DTS HD-MA, but will we see Dolby Atmos? Probably.

So what we have here is yet another video format that offers a step up in quality and that—yes—will require an all-new player. New Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray players will no doubt play previous-generation Blu-ray and DVD formats, but those older players won’t play the new format. Neither will your current TV probably work with the new format (unless you just bought it).

That’s a lot to ask of the Netflix generation. This is an audience that craves convenience over quality, for the most part, so the notion of a new disc platform that offers incremental improvements over Blu-ray might fall into the “who cares?” category for most. After all, Netflix is now offering 4K streaming. Blu-ray discs are already suffering greatly in the market because of admittedly vast improvements in streaming services. The fact that compressed 4K streaming still comes across as low resolution compared with a 4K Blu-ray disc, however, is lost on consumers who place a much higher value on the ability to access a title instantly, as part of a service.

And although part of me understands it, that’s a sad reality. Movies, like music, are taking the convenience-over-quality path, upon which purists have to go to extra effort and expense to attain high resolution. The hope is that streaming services eventually get to a point at which they can boast presentation quality that’s equal to that of the already archaic disc.

And let’s face it, the notion of a disc is archaic! I have a rather large DVD collection in my theater that I hardly touch anymore, and even my Blu-ray collection is feeling old-fashioned. Just the fact that it’s just sitting there on the shelf, in all those dusty cases, makes me feel as if I’m behind the curve. I’m not immune to the power of convenience, so even I’ve been known to dabble in streaming media. I feel the tug of the future. But every time I watch a supposed HD presentation on Netflix, there are video compromises being made. There’s no denying that physical media has the resolution edge—and will for quite some time, at least until data pipes get a whole lot bigger and we don’t have to worry about compression.

That being said, who is actually watching media on disc anymore? It’s rapidly becoming a dead medium. People don’t want to deal with the laborious process of locating (or heaven forbid, renting) a disc, releasing it from its case, powering up the player, loading the disc onto the tray, and pressing play. They just want to touch a tablet or click a remote and be done with it.

And it’s into that market environment that this new Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray is being introduced. It’s going to be a tough sell—even for someone like me! A picture-quality purist, I’ve been invested in physical media for years, as evidenced in this article’s first paragraph. My VHS collection ended up in garage sales, my DVD collection collects dust, and my Blu-ray collection—still in progress—is obsolescence in waiting. Part of me can’t wait to enjoy the resolution/color/audio improvements inherent in this new disc format, but I’ve come to the point in my life when frustration has set in. I’m not going to replace my collection again.

We’re at a turning point in the evolution of video entertainment, and I guess this is as appropriate a time as ever to end this column. Behind us are the unwieldy, space-hogging physical media of the past, and ahead of us are the streaming-content innovations that will make discs truly a part of history. As I wave goodbye, I urge you to not forget the importance of resolution and quality and purity in your constant quest for convenience. Demand not only great selection and instant gratification, but also the high-end sound and imagery—and even special features—that we’ve come to expect on disc.

Don’t let the streaming era of video return us to the low-rez, “that’ll do” mind set of the VHS days. We’ve come too far for that.

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