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

If you have a 4K TV, make the jump to Ultra HD Blu-ray

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 streaming from sites like Netflix, VUDU, and Amazon. At the same time, more movie titles are being released on 4k Ultra HD discs. However, to play them, you have to invest in an Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc player.

How 4K Ultra HD Disc Players are Different

Don't 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 and Blu-ray disc players can both play 1080p Blu-ray Discs, DVDs, CDs, USB media, and upscaling for older content, as well as internet connectivity and network streaming, there are differences between to two types of players.

While Blu-ray Discs can be played on Ultra HD Blu-ray players, 4K Blu-ray Discs won't play on standard Blu-ray Disc players.

HDR

In addition to playback of 4K resolution discs, Ultra HD Blu-ray players offer HDR (High Dynamic Range) capability. This provides viewers with a greater range of colors and more picture information, making for a much better picture.

To take advantage of this feature, your TV has to be able to display HDR content. Most TVs made prior to 2016 likely will not support HDR. Check the specs of your 4K TV model for this capability.

All Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc players support HDR10 playback, but some support additional formats such as HDR10+ and/or Dolby Vision. Discs that feature Dolby Vision or HDR10+, also include HDR10.

If you have an HDR-compatible TV that supports HDR10 and Dolby Vision, the player will default to Dolby Vision for playback. If the player detects 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 choose the HDR playback options.

HDMI Connection Requirements

To take advantage of everything 4K Blu-ray has to offer, a TV needs to have at least one HDMI 2.0a-enabled input. If you bought your 4K TV in late 2015 going forward, it most likely has this connection option. However, check your TV specs and manual to make sure before buying a 4K Blu-ray Disc player.

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.

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

Ultra HD Blu-ray discs 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.

Sony and Fox Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc Covers
Hancock cover provided by Sony - 20th Century Fox Covers provided by 20th Century Fox

4K Ultra HD Discs usually come packaged with standard Blu-ray and digital copies as well.

4K Mastered vs Native 4K Discs

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 tricks, such as maximizing the data transfer rate capability of the Blu-ray disc format and throwing in additional enhancement algorithms. This means 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. Sony's claim is that these discs look their best on their 4K UltraHD TVs that incorporate 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).

Sony Mastered in 4K Blu-ray Disc
Image provided by Sony

Why Another Disc Format When We Have Streaming?

Although internet streaming is very poplular, it's not always the best option.

In order to stream 4K content, you need a broadband speed of at least 15-25 Mbps (a Netflix recommendation) and, frankly, a lot of broadband subscribers don't have access to such speeds. Broadband speeds vary widely around the U.S. from as low as 1.5Mbps to as high as 1Gbs. This means that will a growing number of consumers are enjoying the ability to access 4K streaming, some consumers don't have the speed to stream 1080p content, let alone 4K.

Along with access to high broadband 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. 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 incorporate internet streaming, upgrading to a 4K Blu-ray Disc player provides access to just about all available disc formats (4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, CD) and, in most cases, internet streaming. Select players also include MHL and/or Miracast for direct connection or streaming from compatible smartphones and tablets.

There are a select number of high-end Ultra HD Blu-ray disc players that don't have built-in internet streaming, taking the approach that the availability of Smart TVs and external media streamers make this feature redundant. If you desire a player that also incorporates internet streaming, check for this feature before you buy