Remember when the first Blu-ray players arrived on the market? If not, let me take you on a walk down memory lane. They were big, agonizingly slow, and unable to take advantage of all of the format's promised features. Oh, and they cost over a grand. Still, HT enthusiasts rejoiced at having an official high-definition disc format to mate with our new HDTVs. Actually, we had two competing formats, but Blu-ray ultimately won out, despite those initial drawbacks.
Now, it's time for Ultra HD Blu-ray to move into the spotlight. The first player has arrived on the market, courtesy of Samsung, and a solid assortment of discs is already available. For this review, I ordered a couple via Amazon, but I also took a trip down to my local Best Buy to see what discs they had in stock. I was pleased to discover a nice little kiosk highlighting the Ultra HD Blu-ray format, right there in the middle of the ever-shrinking disc department. There were about 25 titles from which to choose.
At this moment, the only U.S. player on which to view these new titles is the Samsung UBD-K8500. Unlike those first Blu-ray players, the UBD-K8500 can deliver all of the major features promised by Ultra HD Blu-ray: a 4K resolution, High Dynamic Range (HDR), 12-bit color, and a Wide Color Gamut.
The player is also backwards-compatible with the Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, and CD formats, and it's a smart player loaded with all of the major streaming video services, including the UHD versions of Netflix, Amazon Video, YouTube, and M-GO.
Best of all, the UBD-K8500 carries an asking price of just $399. Sure, that's quite a bit higher than the going rate for a standard 1080p Blu-ray player, which is now around $75. But I think it's an attainable price that allows enthusiasts to embrace the latest technologies without totally breaking the bank.
The UBD-K8500 has an unobtrusive form factor, measuring 16 inches wide by 1.8 high by 9.1 deep and weighing 4.2 pounds. The chassis has a slightly curved design (for mating with Samsung's curved TVs, naturally) with a brushed-black finish. The front panel features a slide-out disc tray to the left, a USB 3.0 port near the center (hidden behind a plastic pop-out door), and buttons for eject, stop, play/pause, and power to the right. There's no display of any kind.
Around back, Samsung has wisely included two HDMI outputs. The primary output is HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2 copy protection, to send the 4K video signal (and accompanying audio) to your UHD-capable display or AV receiver. The second output is for audio only, allowing you to mate this player with an older audio processor that lacks support for 4K, HDR, HDCP 2.2, etc. An optical digital audio output is also available for that purpose. The only other back-panel port is a LAN port for a wired network connection, or you can use the built-in 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
For my review, I began by connecting the UBD-K8500's main HDMI output directly to the HDR-capable LG 65EF9500 OLED 4K TV and running the audio-only signal to the Onkyo TX-RZ900 AV receiver. Later in the process, I tried routing both video and audio through the Onkyo's HDMI board, and it worked just fine, passing 4K and HDR with no handshake issues.
The UBD-K8500 has built-in decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. It's set by default to use its internal decoders and send PCM to your AV receiver, but you can easily change this setting to bitstream output if you want your receiver to handle the decoding. If you've got a Dolby Atmos setup, you need to set the player for bitstream audio output and let your AV receiver handle the Atmos decoding.
On the video side, the player is set by default to an "Auto" output resolution to adjust the resolution to whatever display you mate with it--although I can't imagine why you'd buy this player and not mate it with a 4K display. Also enabled by default is the 24p mode that will output UHD Blu-ray and 1080p Blu-ray films at 24 frames per second, but you can also turn this off if you want this content output at 60fps instead.
There is also a setting called "Deep Color" that is off by default. The Off setting sends 8- and 10-bit content as is to your display, while changing to the "Auto" option outputs the signal as 12-bit.
A quick heads up: With many new 10-bit TVs, you have to enable Deep Color in the TV setup menu. For instance, on the LG 65EF9500, in the Picture menu is a setting called HDMI Ultra HD Deep Color that must be enabled per input--meaning you should turn it on for the HDMI input to which the UBD-K8500 is connected. Then you have to restart the TV to initiate it. I know that Samsung UHD TVs require a similar step.
The UBD-K8500 comes with a small IR remote that measures about 5.25 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. The remote has a simple, minimalist button layout (a little too minimalist, but we'll get to that). It lacks backlighting, but some of the buttons (play/pause, stop, eject, forward, and reverse are differentiated by shape. Physical buttons are available for both disc menu and title/pop-up menu, which is always appreciated, and the Tools button brings up a handy onscreen toolbar during disc playback, through which you can check/change AV options and more. The remote can also be programmed to control your TV, with buttons for power, source, and volume.
Configuring the UBD-K8500 was as simple as powering it up, selecting a language, setting up a wired or wireless network connection (I used a wired connection), agreeing to terms and conditions, selecting an aspect ratio, and checking for firmware updates. In my case, an update was available, so I waited a few minutes while that took place. And that was it. I was ready to dig in to the Ultra HD Blu-ray experience.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...