Ultra HD TVs: Best picture yet

10 things you need to know before you spend a bundle on one

Published: July 2014
The Sony Bravia XBR-65X950B (left) and Samsung UN65HU9000 are new Ultra HD sets.

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Now that you’ve finally outfitted almost every room in your house with a flat-panel HDTV, there’s a new technology being touted as the next big thing: ultra high-definition, or UHD, TV. It sounds impressive, with super-detailed pictures that have four times as many pixels as a 1080p HD set.

And UHD isn’t just a concept that will take years to materialize. It’s here. At press time, there were a few dozen major-brand UHD TVs, all LCD/LED models, with screens from 49 inches up to 85 inches, and prices from about $1,500 to $10,000. (We’re testing several of the newest UHD sets in our labs.)

So are 1080p TVs past their prime? Not by a long shot. This isn’t like the move from standard definition to high def, which was a huge jump in quality. With 1080p and UHD, the difference can be difficult to detect. It’s more of a baby step, and one you don’t have to take immediately—unless you’re ready for a new TV, you want the state of the art, and you’re willing to pay for it. We’ll start with the basics, then help you decide what the UHD transition means to you.

1. What is ultra HD?

Despite the fanfare, UHD TVs aren’t a new kind of TV. UHD is simply higher-than-high-def resolution. The first UHD sets are all LCD models with LED backlighting. A 1080p TV has 1,920 pixels horizontally by 1,080 vertically, which is about 2 million pixels. A UHD TV has a screen resolution of 3840x2160, or more than 8 million pixels. With all of those extra pixels, even the smallest details stand out—the finest strands of hair and the subtle texture of a cotton shirt, for example. (The 3840 number is close to 4,000, which is why UHD TVs are also known as “4K” sets.)

2. So the more pixels, the better the picture?

If it were that simple, all UHD TVs would look great—but that’s not the case. We’ve seen some that had only middling picture quality despite having extra detail. Top picture quality also requires rich, accurate colors, high-contrast images, deep blacks that render shadow detail even in very dark scenes, and sufficient brightness. Like top-scoring HDTVs, the best new UHD TVs have all of that, plus amazing detail, and the resulting picture quality is stunning.

3. Are you saying that one of these new sets can blow away my current TV?

Not really. It depends on a few factors. In our labs, experts scrutinizing 1080p and 4K versions of the same movies on HD and UHD sets sitting side by side could see noticeable differences, including finer texture, sharper type, and smoother edges on the UHD set. But when they stepped back to a normal viewing distance, the differences were hard to ­detect—in fact, a casual viewer would have trouble telling the HD and UHD sets apart. On a very large screen, say, 84 inches and up, you can really appreciate UHD. But with a 65-inch screen like the ones we tested, most viewers would probably think that the HDTV looked just as good.

Find the best flat-panel TV for your needs and budget with our TV buying guide and Ratings.

4. What is there to watch on a UHD set?

Sony FMP-X1 4K Ultra HD media player

There’s a limited amount of 4K content available now. Netflix is streaming a few programs such as “House of Cards” in 4K, and Amazon and M-Go should have offerings later this year. The Sony FMP-X1 4K Ultra HD media player, $500, comes with 50 free titles and pay-per-view downloads. Samsung offers a hard drive, $300, loaded with a handful of titles. Both work only with the same brand of TV. DirecTV plans to offer 4K programming within the next year, and Comcast has announced plans to stream 4K video on demand. You can also play your own high-resolution digital photos and home videos from a 4K camcorder. But it will take a while until we have Blu-ray discs, and even longer for 4K broadcasts. Until then, you’d be watching a lot of high-def programs on your UHD set.

5. Hmm. How is that going to look?

You might be pleasantly surprised. We found that Blu-ray movies actually looked a bit better on a UHD TV than on an HD set. That’s because 1080p content is upconverted to the ultra HD TV’s higher resolution, and the greater pixel density of the 4K screen enhances the detail. (Note that the quality of upconverted HD will vary depending on how well a particular model handles the video processing.)

6. Do you need special cables so that everything works properly?

No. Current high-speed HDMI cables will work fine with an ultra HD TV, despite what you might be told in a store. We’ve been testing UHD TVs in our labs using the same high-speed HDMI cables we use to test 1080p TVs, and they’re absolutely fine. So don’t let someone tell you that you need a new, more expensive “Ultra HD” HDMI cable. They’re just looking to sell you a high-margin accessory.

7. OK, so how much will one of these TVs set me back?

They’re not cheap. Generally speaking, the latest UHD sets cost $2,000 and up—way up—depending on screen size. Expect to pay anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 for a 55-inch set from a major brand, and in the neighborhood of $3,500 to $6,000 or so for a 65-inch set. Prices range from $6,000 to $10,000 once you get into the 70- to 85-inch range (and bigger sets are coming). That’s a lot more than you’d pay for a first-class HD set. For example, several highly rated 55-inch 1080p sets in our Ratings sell for less than $1,500. But expect UHD prices to come down big-time later this year. A few words of caution for bargain-­hunters: You might be tempted to buy a leftover 2013 UHD set at a discount. We advise against that. Those sets lack the latest features (for you techie types, a built-in HEVC decoder for streaming 4K video, and HDMI 2.0 inputs), which you’ll need to get the most out of 4K. And we’d pass on low-priced UHD sets from lesser-known brands. Those we’ve tested haven’t done as well as big brands.

8. Even bigger sets are coming? How big, and why?

105-inch LG UHD TV
Photo: LG

Hold on to your recliner. We’ve seen prototypes of TVs with 105-inch and 120-inch screens from companies such as LG, Samsung, and Vizio. The companies didn’t say exactly when the jumbo sets would arrive or how much they would cost, but we imagine they will be budget busters. There’s a reason to go big with UHD. The larger the screen, the better you can see and appreciate the detail. In fact, you might not notice it much on a screen smaller than 70 inches or so if you sit about 8 feet from it, a typical distance in many homes.

9. Should I buy now or wait?

We’d advise most consumers to wait. (Even our TV experts are holding off!) Prices will come down, and there will be more 4K content to watch—possibly even 4K Blu-ray movies—in a year or two. Also, new features, such as high dynamic range for improved contrast and an expanded range of colors, could be incorporated into ultra HD TVs during that time. If you need a new TV now, stick with a top-rated 1080p set—unless you’re a well-heeled early adopter who wants to experience the current state of the art in TVs. Then consider an ultra HD set, the biggest you can afford, to get the best experience.

10. How long before an ultra HD TV is outdated?

You haven’t even bought a UHD set yet and you’re already worried about obsolescence? As long as a UHD TV has HEVC and HDMI 2.0, it won’t be outmoded for years. That’s not to say newer models won’t have added features (such as high dynamic range, more realistic colors, and even faster frame rates for improved motion resolution), but they’ll be incremental improvements, not must-haves. The next big thing could well be OLED (organic LED) TVs, which combine the best of LCD and plasma technology. There are a few pricey 1080p OLEDs for sale now, and an even more expensive ultra HD model is expected later this year. It’s likely to take a few years for OLED to become mainstream. So if you’ve decided to buy a UHD set now, enjoy it and stop worrying about what comes next.

Curved screens: Style over substance

Photo: Samsung

After years of pushing ever-flatter, thinner TVs, manufacturers are throwing buyers a curve—literally. LG, Samsung, and Sony now offer TVs with curved screens. The design is eye-catching, but the curve doesn’t add much to the viewing experience.

With a 100-inch screen, we found that the curve added an immersive, cinematic aspect, but that wasn’t the case on smaller TVs. And there’s a downside to the design. The curve can make for uneven brightness and a reduced viewing angle on the sides of the screen. Keep in mind that it won’t be flush against the wall if wall-mounted. So is it worth it? It’s more of a design choice, and it depends on whether you like the look.

Testing an Aquos Quattron Plus TV in our lab.

Sharp's quasi-Ultra HD offers more detail, but . . .

Sharp claims that its new Aquos Quattron Plus (Q+) TVs go beyond regular high-def resolution to approach Ultra HD in picture quality, thanks to its pixel technology. All Aquos Quattron sets add a yellow sub-pixel to the usual red-green-blue mix; Q+ models subdivide each pixel to create more detail on a 1080p screen. We put three Q+ sets--the 60-inch LC-60TQ15U, $1,800; 60-inch LC-60UQ17U, $2,000; and 70-inch LC-70SQ15U, $2,400--through a slew of tests and found that the picture did look a bit more detailed with UHD content. But with 1080p programs, we saw some jaggies along the edges and a smearing of detail on dark images. In addition, the TVs lack HEVC decoding and HDMI 2.0 inputs, two features on all 2014 UHD TVs. Given the limits of Q+ technology and the comparatively high prices, it would make more sense to buy a top-performing 1080p TV or a true Ultra HD TV, especially when prices drop.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the September 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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