4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Players and Discs - What You Need To Know

The 4K Ultra HD Disc Format Is Here

Official Ultra HD Blu-ray Logo and Samsung Player
Official Ultra HD Blu-ray Logo and Samsung Player. Logo provided by Blu-ray Disc Association - Player image courtesy of Amazon

If you've purchased a 4K Ultra HD TV, you also want some 4K content to watch on it. More content is being offered, including some streaming from sites like Netflix, VUDU, and Amazon. At the same time, more and more titles are being released on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs. But to play 4K Blu-ray Discs, you'll have to invest in a 4K Blu-ray Disc player.

Things to Consider for 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Do not confuse a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc player with a Blu-ray Disc player that provides 4K upscaling. Although Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc players still handle media we have become accustomed to, such as 1080p 2D (and 3D) Blu-ray Discs, DVDs, CDs, USB media, and upscaling for older content, as well as internet connectivity and network streaming, there is a significant difference between to two types of players.

While older Blu-ray Discs can be played on 4K Blu-ray players, the reverse is not the case; 4K Blu-ray Discs cannot be read by older standard Blu-ray Disc players.

4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players offer HDR (High Dynamic Range) capability with a greater range of colors and more picture information, making for a much better picture.

HDR is amazing, but to take advantage of this feature, your TV has to be able to display HDR content, and most TVs produced prior to 2016 likely will not support HDR. You'll want to check the specs of your 4K TV model to make sure it supports HDR. It is also important to point out that all Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc players support HDR10 playback, but some support both HDR10 and Dolby Vision playback. Discs that feature Dolby Vision, also include HDR10.

If you have an HDR compatible TV that is both HDR10 and Dolby Vision-enabled, the player will default to Dolby Vision for playback. If the player detects that your TV is not Dolby Vision compatible the player will default to HDR10. Depending on the brand/model of the player, you may be able to manually chose your HDR playback options.

To take full advantage of everything 4K Blu-ray has to offer, a TV needs to have at least one HDMI 2.0a-enabled inputs. If you bought your 4K TV recently, your set probably has this connection option. However, check your TV specs and manual to make sure it has HDMI 2.0a before you go out and get 4K Blu-ray Disc player. If your TV is from 2014 or earlier, the chances that your HDMI is 2.0a compliant drops. Again, check your TV specs.

Differences Between Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs

On the disc side of the equation, 4K Blu-rays look like the 5-inch (12cm) 50GB dual layer physical discs used in the Blu-ray disc format, but the 4K Blu-ray Disc format has a dual layer capacity of 66GB and triple layer 100GB capacity. 4K video signals are encoded and stored on the discs in the H.265/HEVC format, which can compress 4K video data into the space that is available on the discs.

4K Mastered vs Native 4K Discs

It is important to point out that in 2013/14 Sony released a series of Blu-ray Discs that were labeled as "Mastered In 4K". However, these discs are not native 4K Blu-ray Discs. Although the discs were encoded using a 4K source, they are scaled down to 1080p so that they could be played on a standard Blu-ray Disc player.

What Sony did was employ a few added tricks, such as taking advantage of the maximizing data transfer rate capability of the Blu-ray disc format and throwing in a few additional enhancement algorithms, so that the disc contains more precise video information in terms of color, edge detail, and contrast, than a traditional high-quality Blu-ray Disc release.

Sony marketed these releases with the claim that they provide the best possible 1080p playback, but that they look even better upscaled to 4K on an UltraHD TV than a traditional (or previously released) Blu-ray disc version of the same film might look. Of course, Sony's claim is that these discs look their best on their 4K UltraHD TVs, that incorporate their 4K X-Reality Pro video processing. The discs have a "Mastered In 4K" banner across the top of the disc case. Some titles include Angels and Demons, Battle Los Angeles, Ghostbusters, The Amazing Spiderman, and Total Recall (2012).

Copy Protection

Copy protection algorithms for 4K Blu-ray Discs are updated to prevent illegal copying, adhering to the HDCP 2.2 copy-protection standard.

Why Another Disc Format When We Have Streaming?

Although internet streaming has grown by leaps-and-bounds, it is still not always the best option. For example, in order to stream 4K content, you need a broadband speed of at least 15Mbps (a Netflix recommendation) and, frankly, a lot of broadband subscribers don't have access to such speeds. In fact, broadband speeds vary widely around the U.S. from as low as 1.5Mbps to as high as 100Mbps, which means that many consumers don't even have the speed to stream 1080p content, let alone 4K. Of course, along with access to high speeds, comes higher subscription prices.

Another factor to keep in mind is that although accessing content on the internet is "on-demand," there is no guarantee that your desired content will always be there. For example, Netflix constantly purges older and less viewed content from its online catalog, so if you don't have a physical copy of that favorite movie or TV show, you may someday be out of luck.

Since most Blu-ray Disc players now incorporate internet streaming, upgrading to a 4K Blu-ray Disc player will provide consumers with a platform to access just about all available disc formats (4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, CD) and internet streaming, although there are a select number of high-end Ultra HD Blu-ray disc players that do not have built-in internet streaming, taking the marketing approach that the availability Smart TVs and external media streamers make this feature redundant. If you desire a player that also incorporates internet streaming capability, check for this feature before you buy.

On the other hand, some players also include MHL and/or Miracast for direct connection or streaming from compatible smartphones and tablets.

The Bottom Line

If you have a 4K Ultra HD TV, adding an Ultra HD Blu-ray provides the best possible viewing experience for movies, and other video content, even when having access to internet streaming sources. This is not only due to higher data transfer rates, more soundtrack options, special features, and more, available via 4K physical disc playback, but with inconsistent broadband speeds based on a consumer's location, there is no guarantee that 4K streams will be accessible, and not all streaming services offer a 4K option, or may have varying degrees of 4K offerings. In addition, as mentioned previously, streaming services cycle content titles in and out on a periodic basis, so your desired title may not always be available.

Check out our periodically updated selection of Best Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc players.