The future of Ultra HD Blu-ray
The best technology for experiencing 4K content lies in the microscopic divots of Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. That’s not to say you won’t find excellent content on streaming sites such as VUDU and YouTube, but they can’t match the fidelity offered on disc.
Since the format was introduced, only a handful of players made it to market in 2016. The first and most popular was the Samsung UBD-K8500 player. Other models from Panasonic, Philips and Oppo shipped as the year went on, bolstering the strength of the format. Perhaps most significant was Microsoft’s release of the Xbox One S, an updated game console that supports the format, as it brings Ultra HD Blu-ray drives into millions of homes in much the same way as PlayStation 2 did with DVD and PlayStation 3 with Blu-ray.
While the hardware support for the format moved slowly, especially compared to the release of standard Blu-ray or DVD before it, the software sold extremely well. Ultra HD Blu-ray disc sales have outpaced both in each format’s first year.
Such strong sales seem to have prompted hardware manufacturers to introduce a slew of new Ultra HD Blu-ray players. During CES 2017, nearly every major company announced at least one new model, showing that while streaming continues to gain popularity, physical media is far from dead.
Samsung has introduced a pair of new Ultra HD Blu-ray players: a replacement for last year’s K8500 and a step-up model, the M9500. The latter boasts some high-end features such as dual HDMI outputs, Bluetooth headphone support and the ability to watch Blu-ray content on a mobile device. The M9500 automatically detects your display’s optimal settings and makes adjustments to achieve the best picture and sound. Overall, these two players will likely continue to command a large portion of the market.
Sony announced its first consumer Ultra HD Blu-ray model at this year’s CES show (a professional version for A/V installers was introduced last year). The UBP-X800 packs in most of the latest technology to take advantage of your 4K setup. The universal player will handle nearly every disc format, including DVD Audio, CD, Super Audio CD and BD ROM. It lets users plug in a USB drive to play HD Audio in WAV format, files in 192kHz/24-bit and DSD 11.2MHz. The player can stream content from the most popular digital services.
Panasonic introduced two high-end players in 2016 and, for 2017, decided to fill out its offerings with three lower-end options. The UB400 still sports dual HDMI outputs compared to the UB310’s one, and the no-frills UB300 is available for entertainment lovers who don’t need build in Wi-Fi. Though they represent a wide range of prices, none of these players can be called cheap. They all have Hollywood Laboratory’s video processor that stunned consumers in the flagship UB900 model. Also, they all support 4K streaming and external media via USB thumb or hard drive, as well as most high-res audio formats. Bringing its total line to five players, Panasonic seems dedicated to making sure it has an Ultra HD Blu-ray player for every consumer.
It’s no surprise the company that produces some of the finest UHD TVs would decide to jump into the Ultra HD Blu-ray market. After all, there’s nothing better to show off one of those beautiful OLED screens than a 4K disc such as Mad Max: Fury Road (set your subwoofer to 11 and let all the neighbors know you mean business). The basic specs aren’t all that different from others announced at the show, but there is one significant difference: the LG UP970 will support Dolby Vision with a firmware upgrade in the near future. Discs with Dolby Vision are expected to arrive mid-year, but only a few manufacturers have announced their support of the standard. It makes sense that LG would be one of the first, since all its 2016 and 2017 4K TVs support Dolby Vision as well.
Let’s not forget about Philips. The company might sport a lower profile than some of its some of its competitors, but its first-generation Ultra HD Blu-ray was a quality player at a reasonable price. Its sophomore efforts, the BDP7502 and BDP5502, seek to strengthen, rather than redefine, the company’s position in the market. The higher-end BDP7502 comes with dual HDMI outputs as well as Dolby Vision and 4K streaming support to keep pace with other players in its class.
Many of these players boast similar features, giving consumers a variety of choices when they go to purchase an Ultra HD Blu-ray player. The competition also shows a confidence in the consumer electronics industry and in Hollywood’s continued support of the format. This year promises to be great for the 4K market. Whether you choose one of these new players or manage to get a great deal on a 2016 model, there’s no better time to jump into this awesome format.