Here at CES 2015, movie fans finally got the announcement they've been waiting for almost since the first UHD TV arrived: 4K Blu-ray players, now officially called UHD Blu-ray players, will hit the market later this year.
During a UHD TV panel that I moderated this morning, Blu-ray Disc Association spokesperson Dan Schinasi said that the new Blu-ray specification for 4K is now nearly complete. It's expected to be locked down this spring so that licensing and manufacturing could start in the summer. The first UHD Blu-ray players and discs could arrive by the holiday season—though we still don't have any idea how much they'll cost.
The other big question, of course, given the growing popularity of streaming, is whether people will still want to buy or rent discs, even if the discs are capable of delivering better picture and audio quality.
One reason the specification took so long is that UHD Blu-ray isn't just about more resolution; it also includes a wider color gamut, high dynamic range, and higher frame rates. It's no coincidence that TV manufacturers at CES this year focused more on color and dynamic range enhancements—which can help LCD-based UHD TVs improve contrast and brightness—than they did on higher-resolution screens.
The good news for those with extensive Blu-ray libraries is that the Ultra HD Blu-ray players will be backward compatible with regular Blu-ray discs. The bad news: You'll need to buy a new players to enjoy the higher-quality Blu-ray UHD discs. Pricing hasn't been announced. But if the industry wants consumers to embrace the technology, you'd think the new players and discs wouldn't be priced prohibitively, given the alternative of relatively low-cost streaming options.
Looking for a new UHD TV? Check out our TV buying guide and Ratings.
We were able to learn a few technical details about the new players and discs.
One is that they'll use the HEVC codec, sometimes called H.265. This is the same codec (compression scheme) used by Netflix and many of the other streaming services, so almost all UHD TVs introduced within the last year support it.
HEVC is a more efficient way of delivering high-bandwidth video, such as 4K. But UHD Blu-ray will reportedly have transfer rates up to 100Mbps, which is super fast, especially compared with streaming. That should produce better-looking images.
In addition to higher 4K resolution, UHD Blu-ray will be able to support better color, both a wider color gamut and 10-bit up to 16-bit color, which allows for smoother transitions between colors, without banding.
It will also include support for high dynamic range, which is the difference between the brightest and darkest images. There's also built-in optional support for 3D, should a manufacturer want to include this.
To fit the extra detail and improvements, new dual- (66GB) and triple-layer (100GB) discs are being developed. That's why older Blu-ray players won't be able to play the new UHD discs.
Some form of "digital copy" will allow you to watch movies and TV shows you purchase on Blu-ray on other devices, including phones and tablets.
Of course UHD Blu-ray will require Hollywood support. But based on the conversations I had with movie studio executives during a Digital Entertainment Group event the other night, Hollywood seems to be on board with the new format, and content should be available since many studios are already mastering their releases in 4K.
One thing I'm still trying to learn more about is whether there will be any audio enhancements, such as Dolby Atmos, included in UHD Blu-ray, beyond the lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD-Master Audio found on current Blu-ray discs.
Since I'm one of those people who still prefer to watch Blu-ray discs in my own dedicated home theater, I'm excited that the wait for Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players looks like it's almost over.
Given that you'll need to buy both a new Ultra HD TV and a new UHD Blu-ray player, there will likely be a fairly significant investment needed to step up to a complete UHD system, at least in the near term.
And given that we're already seeing more 4K content being delivered via streaming, it will be interesting to see how many of us remain interested in a disc-based format, even if it's capable of providing a better-quality experience.
—James K. Willcox