When technologies go through major upgrades, they are most often evaluated not on the technical merits of the upgrade but on how the market reacts overall to the technology. For me personally, the iPhone had a major impact and it was my first personal cell phone. Most everyone I know today was impacted by the iPhone. Even if you don’t have an iPhone today, you most likely have an Android, and even though Google was working on Android prior to the iPhone’s release, they ended up having to change their designs, once they saw iOS. In the world of home entertainment, the DVD player and HD television have had monumental impacts as well. In 2017, I looked at my home theater and decided it was time to move into the next big upgrade, namely 4K.
The three big components of home theater system is the television, the surround receiver, and a blu-ray player. Once you talk about speakers and sub-woofers, then you get into things that cannot be accurately described in reviews. Audio is something that is best experienced. Lets just say that I have 7 speakers and a sub-woofer, so it is a surround system.
My first component upgrade was the television. Our television was the first flat screen we ever bought. It is nice television for its time, but it certainly paled in comparison to today’s modern TVs. For some reason, in 2017, televisions are more than just screens. Once you decide on a screen size, you still have to decide what type of screen technology you can afford, if it comes with apps (similar to your phone), and even if you can talk to it. Showing my age, I chose a 55-inch Sony. My father’s generation had Zenith, my generation has Sony, and if you are younger than me, you probably have a Samsung or LG for your brand of choice. Sony makes nice televisions, but their price is higher than you would expect. The new Sony television annoyingly comes with Google Android. I say annoying because, I don’t want to talk to my TV, and I don’t want it to tell me what to watch. All I really want to to is turn it on, and then watch a movie or play a video game. Sony needlessly complicated their television and forces me to deal with an Android OS, its apps, and networking. Aside from this the screen is flat, appears bright, and is just awesome for watching movies.
4K is a technology upgrade that is in search of content. The problem is that DVD resolutions do not look very good on a 4K screen. I am a cable cord-cutter, so online content comes from Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime video. The Sony TV includes these apps, and these apps are also on my Apple TV, Playstation, and Blu-ray Player. Regardless, my connection to the internet at home is not capable of delivering 4K resolution streams, so streaming content is not really going to look all that great on the 4K screen. Slow and unreliable internet connections are a barrier to 4K. I will also mention that ISPs with data-caps are also a barrier to 4K adoption. If you do have the internet capacity to have 4k streaming, then Amazon Prime video is a good source for content. Netflix charges extra for 4K content, so you might need to spend a bit more on subscriptions. Content is also in a mix of formats at this time. This means that higher resolutions than 1080HD are available, but they will vary in resolution and HDR color and of course audio formats will vary. It is best to stick with the native apps on the television if your 4K television has HDR as well.
The Cord Problems
HDMI has both been a blessing and a curse for me. While having one cable for both audio and video makes connections easier and cleaner, the DRM protections included with the standard has meant having to upgrade cables, and unplug them multiple times! In the case of my previous Onkyo Receiver, it even meant having to ship the component for repair due to a malfunctioning HDMI board. Yes, HDMI is awesome when it works, but when it doesn’t it is the most frustrating part of any setup. For 4K, it means another round of replacing all your HDMI cables so they will support the 4K speeds and DRM standards. Don’t even think about using your current cables, just go to monoprice.com and buy new ones. Once you have them, set your HDMI connection to Enhanced (at least that is what Sony calls it if you want to view 4K content), and be prepared to spend 20 minutes trying to make sure the blu-ray player syncs up right. In the case of the Apple TV and my Denon receiver, well, just unplug everything, power it off and start plugging one device at a time! HDMI is suppose to be automatic, but it seems that this was more of a goal than an actual reality for some manufacturers. Yes, I am talking about you Apple! Getting any Apple TV to work with your receiver is the opposite of plug-and-play. Note that a lot of devices do not support 4K at this time.
Receiver 4K Support – Pass Through – Upscaling?
Similar to computer companies who put Intel Inside stickers on their laptops, it has also become fashionable for electronics to be adorned with stickers advertising features and technologies. In the case of my Denon receiver, there was some sticker on it that mentioned 4K. But what does that even mean? Unless your receiver was made in 2017 or is newer, it means almost nothing. The surround receiver, much like the Sony television has become more complicated as well. Modern receivers are slaves to the technologies that televisions and blu-ray players implement. This has meant HDMI boards to allow for multiple inputs and network capabilities. For HDMI specifically, this has meant that the receiver has to support the newer and faster speeds of the HDMI Specification, and at the same time come up with a way to not interfere with the DRM protections (HDCP) that are grounded between the television and the media device (Apple TV, Playstation, XBox, Blu-ray Player, etc). It is the DRM protection that is a problem for older receivers. Although my Denon receiver can pass through 4K resolutions and speeds, it does not know what to do with the newer DRM protection that 4K UHD requires. You will need to upgrade to a new receiver in order to get 4K to be passed through your receiver to your 4K television. Before you buy HDMI cables, a receiver or other component to add to your 4K setup, look for these specifications to be at least: HDCP 2.2 and HDMI 2.0.
UBP-X800 UHD Blu-ray
Given today’s economics, the magic price point for consumers is $300. This is the price range that you will see most companies try to hit when it comes to devices. It is a price that customers view as affordable for entry level tablets, to fancy thermostats and wireless routers. It is the same price range that Sony aimed for the UBP-X800 UHD Blu-ray player. At this price range, the UBP-X800 provides an overall good quality player with an assortment of streaming apps. Sony made some trade-offs in regards to physical outputs and front panel display in order to get to this price range. There are two HDMI outputs, however the second HDMI output is for audio only. This allowed me to keep my Denon receiver and have it process audio only, while connecting the UBP-X800 directly to my television via the first HDMI output. Overall the UBP-X800 is the most responsive disc player that I have ever bought. It beats the previous five Sony Blu-ray players that I have. Is it a perfect high-end player? No. There are $500+ players out there that have more features, but again those players are in a different price range.
Is Blu-ray Dead?
In 2017, there are multiple market realities that are going to hold back 4K adoption. You have the obvious factors such as price and for people who already have invested in 1080 flat televisions, the upgrade to 4K is not as compelling due to the limited internet connections. A more detrimental factor might rest not with consumers but with the media companies themselves. As services like Netflix and iTunes became more popular, physical media sales have been declining for multiple years now. The VHS and DVD formats were very profitable, but as the internet became a content delivery platform of choice, it has resulted in a declining Blu-ray format. A trip to your local BestBuy or Walmart shows that the space dedicated to Blu-ray media is shrinking with every store remodeling. Much like music CDs, the availability of Blu-ray movies is becoming more limited. The upsale to 3D Blu-ray was never more than a passing fad and today you won’t find a 3D Blu-ray section in most stores. The movie studios have begun to adjust to the market; the end result being that some films are no longer even being considered for a blu-ray release!
The market at this time has three different physical formats: DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K UHD Blu-ray. The DVD format is not going away. Internationally DVD is still a high end format. You will find in some international markets, people still renting VHS movies. Those markets will be adopting DVD for multiple years and the inexpensiveness of DVD discs will allow DVDs to remain popular. In the USA, step into any gas station and you will find cheap DVDs for sale.
This leaves us with Blu-ray and 4K UHD. At this time, 4K is not an option by itself. Instead you have to purchase a combo-package that contains usually at least a Blu-ray disc and a 4K UHD Blu-ray. These combo-packages are anywhere from $5-15 above the normal price of single Blu-ray or DVD disc. At this price range, the 4K format is being priced as the most expensive of all formats, including digital online delivery. This does not bode well for the future of 4K or Blu-ray in general. The movie studios should consider lowering the price of entry, because the movie industry has multiple problems.
There are younger generations of consumers who do not go to the movie theater and who do not consider spending two hours watching films to be a worthwhile experience. There is then the glaring issue with films not featuring female and minorities as leads. In my opinion these are bigger threats to the movie industry than pricing Blu-ray discs for profitability. These problems and others with the movie industry can only be ignored for so long.
With Blu-ray in decline and 4K discs being limited and expensive, 4K adoption will be slow and might have to be saved by consumers themselves. The mobile phone is for many consumers already a 4K camera with HDR capabilities. If Disney won’t release Empire on 4K, it may be that you can reach for your phone and make your own 4K content.
At the end of the day, I come home and sit down in front of my setup, throw in John Wick on the UBP-X800…
People keep asking if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer. But now, yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back.
And yes, it sounds and looks amazing!