Let's talk a bit about the current state of the Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray disc formats. As most of you are probably aware, digital video downloads and streaming service subscriptions are on the rise. Subsequently, it should come as no surprise to hear that disc sales are on the decline. With that said, physical disc formats still account for more than four billion dollars in sales each year, with Ultra HD Blu-ray making up a larger percentage of these sales every year. So, don't panic just yet; when there's still this much money to be made, Blu-ray isn't going anywhere. But considering the convenience and abundance of these digital download and streaming services, what are the aspects of physical discs that still make them worth your money?
The obvious answer most people think of first is video quality. Generally speaking, UHD Blu-ray discs are encoded at a much higher bitrate than streaming and download services. This higher bitrate allows for more information found on the master source to make its way onto the disc. With streamed and downloaded content, you'll often see artifacts such as banding, posterization, black crush, and noise. Depending on the size of your television or projection screen, and how closely you sit to it, these artifacts can be plainly obvious. Newer, highly efficient video encoders such as HEVC are helping to remove some of these artifacts caused by low bitrate encoding, but they can't perform miracles.
This is why display manufacturers are implementing high-quality video processing to help tidy up or correct these issues, but they can't perform miracles either. Artifacts routinely slip through and information found in the source is lost. So, if the utmost in picture fidelity in important to you, UHD Blu-ray is a safer choice, with such artifacts rarely making an appearance.
What's more, many people lack the internet speeds necessary to access streaming video at the highest possible quality. Downloaded content from iTunes and other similar providers could be a good alternative, getting even closer to Blu-ray quality, but those with slow internet speeds are forced into long wait times to view the content as it downloads. It may take less time to drive to and from your local Best Buy or Redbox to pick up a disc.
Another aspect is audio quality. As many of you will probably know, UHD Blu-ray gets both lossless and object-based audio formats on the disc, when available. This is a huge plus for those of us with dedicated spaces filled with high-performance surround sound systems. Download and streaming services are limited to lesser-quality, lossy surround sound and object-based mixes. This, in and of itself, isn't a big deal to most consumers who are listening with their television's built-in speakers, but for those of us who want the best audio experience, UHD Blu-ray is still the way to go.
Another, lesser-known problem with some of these lossy audio tracks is dynamic range compression. Below, I've included a waveform analysis from the movie Avengers: Endgame. This image compares the downloadable version on iTunes against the audio track found on the UHD Blu-ray disc. It's plain as day that the iTunes audio track suffers from dynamic range compression. When DRC like this occurs, bass in particular takes a noticeable hit, removing the sense of impact you're supposed to be getting. While DRC doesn't occur on all streamed and downloaded content, it does happen on occasion and is something you're rolling the dice with when opting to use these services. UHD Blu-ray, again, is the safer choice if audio quality is something important to you.
Ownership of the content is another plus for Blu-ray. Streamed content is like leasing a car, due to licensing agreements, you have access to it for a limited period of time, then you don't. Even downloadable content isn't immune. Owners of Kaleidescape movie servers were given a scare in 2016 when the company abruptly announced it was closing up shop. Would content previously purchased but not currently housed on local servers be available for download again? It was a legitimate worry. Luckily, Kaleidescape was able to find a way to stay in business. Having a tangible disc lets you view it whenever you'd like, even if the movie studio or disc-player manufacturer goes out of business.
Another appealing factor for many is the collectability of discs. With streamed and downloaded video, there's nothing tangible to collect. Having a collection allows owners a way to show off their enthusiasm for home theater and their taste in film. Being a collector can offer you a sense of community, too. There are countless websites and forums where like-minded enthusiasts can become friends and share their collections online, just like you see with other hobbies.
Despite all of this, I understand why disc sales are on the decline. As we saw in the music industry, consumers are choosing convenience over quality. This same trend with video was inevitable, it's just that it's taken nearly two decades longer for the infrastructure and technology to develop the change in the way we consume video. Internet connectivity has become exponentially faster and cheaper, with the hardware needed for these streaming and download services to function following the same trend. With that said, I'm rooting for UHD Blu-ray because it still offers consumers access to the highest quality audio and video. Enthusiasts understand this and will continue to support this format until something objectively better comes along. Ironically, that will probably be a new standardized format you download or stream from the internet.
With that said, we're currently in a weird time for dedicated disc players. The exit of Oppo from the marketplace, seen by some as the death knell for discs, has been an opportunity for other players to rise to dominance in the marketplace.
Over the past several months, I've evaluated and reviewed a wide range of Ultra HD Blu-ray players currently on the market and found that there's still a large selection of high-quality Ultra HD Blu-ray players out there at different price points, all seemingly catered to different audiences based on their included features. What follows is a rundown of the best of the bunch.
Best Budget Player ($300 and under): Sony UBP-X700 ($199)
Sony's UBP-X700 packs a whole lotta punch for its relatively modest price tag. Not only is this the cheapest player on the market that supports Dolby Vision; it also has an impressive number of built-in streaming apps, including Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Hulu, Spotify, Crackle, Pandora, Slacker Radio, Fox News, and SiriusXM. The X700 also features a nearly universal list of compatible disc and digital file-type formats for playback. Disc support includes CD, SACD, DVD, Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, and Ultra HD Blu-ray. It also supports playback of MPEG2, H264, and H265 video files in commonly used containers.
As I used the X700, I was continually impressed with its snappiness. It boots quickly, both discs and apps load quickly, and when you're inside apps, they feel extremely responsive. Keeping the price of this player in context, I wasn't expecting this. It seemed every bit as responsive as players I've had here costing up to five times as much.
Picture quality is astonishingly good considering the price. HDR10 and Dolby Vision support isn't just limited to disc playback, but also from local media or any of the streaming options, if available.
The only hitch is, you need to manually enable Dolby Vision and disable it again any time you want to play a disc that only supports HDR10, or the player incorrectly stays in Dolby Vision mode. I'd consider this annoyance well worth living with considering the strong value proposition this player offers.
The X700 is the perfect fit for someone looking for a more basic Ultra HD Blu-ray player. It's a good choice for someone who doesn't need extraneous video processing features such as high quality HDR tone mapping, smart sharpening tools, or if the only HDR content you plan on watching is HDR10 and Dolby Vision. If your goal is to simply play Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and stream content, the X700 might be all you need. If you need analog audio outputs, HDR10+ support, or extra video processing features, you'll need to step up to a more expensive player.
High End (Best Video Performance): Panasonic DP-UB9000 ($999)
Build quality alone could almost justify the asking price, but the Panasonic DP-UB9000 uses high-quality components throughout to help strengthen the value proposition of this player. Panasonic is using a robust internal power supply, which gives both the digital processing portion of the player and the analog audio outputs a clean, low-noise source of power. Additionally, the disc drive is internally braced on its own raised steel shelf to help reduce vibrations that might cause read errors. It even uses an OLED information screen to help reduce noise that might feedback into the player. Considerable time and money were put in to develop a high-quality digital-to-analog output for this player. You can expect excellent sound quality no matter the audio format being decoded. Audio quality, especially from the UB9000's balanced XLR outputs, is very good for a player at this price point.
The UB9000 is compatible with CD, DVD, DVD-Audio, Blu-ray, and Ultra HD Blu-ray. The only notable omission is SACD support. This lack of support may be a deal-breaker for some. You'll need to look elsewhere if that's what you're after.
Where the DP-UB9000 really shines, however, is with HDR. It's currently one of only a handful of players that supports all four major HDR formats: HDR10, HDR10+, HLG, and Dolby Vision. The UB9000 has Panasonic's latest HCX video processor built-in, which allows the player to offer excellent scaling, rendering, and post processing features. Of note, the UB9000's HDR Optimizer tool is a feature that sets itself apart from competing brands. This software has built-in tone mapping algorithms created to be used with a variety of HDR capable display types, such as front projectors, OLED, and LCD televisions to help maximize the HDR10 experience on each of these types of displays. The tone mapping algorithms available for each display type were created around these displays' real-world performance, which means the player takes into consideration the typical peak brightness of these displays to tone map the content appropriately. These tone map algorithms make a noticeable difference with HDR10 content, especially on lower-brightness HDR displays, such as OLED televisions and projectors, by bringing back image detail in high-nit areas of the image that would have otherwise been lost to clipping if the tone map wasn't applied. Those looking for the best video quality for HDR content should look no further than the UB9000.
The UB9000 is for the discerning videophile looking for the best HDR experience currently available from an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, especially if you own a projector or OLED television. It's HDR Optimizer tool elevates HDR10 content to a new level on these types of displays. Audio quality is a strong suit as well, as long as you're okay with the lack of SACD compatibility.
High End (Best Audio Performance): Pioneer Elite UDP-LX500 ($1,099)
If you look at Pioneer's marketing for this player, you almost get the impression that video playback is an ancillary feature. Pioneer wants you to know, right up front, that the UDP-LX500 was designed and built from the ground up to sound great. In other words, Pioneer seems to be aiming to fill an Oppo-shaped hole in the marketplace.
Without even looking at the specs, build quality alone tells you the LX500 means business. Thick, anodized aluminum is used throughout, as well as extra-large feet to help ensure issues from vibration, heat, and electrical noise that might otherwise taint the performance of the player are kept at a minimum. While Panasonic's attention to detail for its DAC and analog output section for the UB9000 deserves praise, Pioneer deserves more for the LX500. Everything about it is a step above.
Not only has Pioneer put a tremendous effort in the digital and analog output section of this player; it's the only currently available Ultra HD Blu-ray player out there that supports SACD with a competent DAC and analog audio output section. Sure, Sony's much cheaper Ultra HD Blu-ray players offer SACD support, but none of them have the type of robust power supply and audio circuit design that the LX500 has.
In my opinion, the biggest drawback to the LX500 is the lack of balanced XLR audio outputs, something most two-channel audio enthusiasts will want to have. With as much effort as Pioneer put into the analog audio output section of this player, it's a shame only unbalanced RCA outputs are available. It also surprised me to see the lack of 7.1 unbalanced RCA outputs, something the UB9000 has. This means that, for surround sound playback, you're forced to use the HDMI output, or downmix to stereo. That's not a deal breaker for most people, but I know many considering this player would have liked the inclusion of multichannel analog audio outputs as well. Those looking for some of the best two-channel audio for around $1,000, though, should give the LX500 serious consideration.
What about the LX500's video performance? Fear not: even with the large emphasis on audio quality, Pioneer hasn't forgotten about the picture. Disc playback is universal, and for HDR the LX500 supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. It may not be as competitive with the number of HDR formats it supports compared to Panasonic's Ultra HD Blu-ray players, but the ones it does support are the two most popular HDR formats, by far. So, it'll be able to playback the majority of HDR content out there without issue.
Like the UB9000, the LX500 offers excellent scaling quality and fairly good tonemapping performance. The tonemapping options aren't as granular as the ones you get on the UB9000, though. The LX500 also tends to clip more high-nit specular highlights compared to Panasonic's HDR Optimizer. With that said, I still think all but the pickiest videophiles should be happy with the LX500's video performance.
The LX500 is for the discerning audiophile looking for the best two-channel sound quality from a universal disc player near its price point. Build quality is also topnotch, unrivaled for a player near its price. Video quality is commendable too, as long as you don't need the best tone mapping performance or universal HDR format support.
Jack of All Trades: Panasonic DP-UB820 ($499)
Panasonic's DP-UB820 is the most well-balanced player of those we've tested in terms of performance and feature-set. In many ways, it's the same player as Panasonic's DP-UB9000, but at half the cost. The UB820 uses the same HCX video processing solution and almost all of the same video processing features that the UB9000 has, with one minor exception: it lacks a secondary tone map option for projectors. The same video scaling, chroma upscaling, and granular picture controls you get on the UB9000 for these video processing features are ported over too. It offers the same streaming service apps built in, the same network and local media playback capabilities, as well as the same disc playback support. And, like the UB9000, it supports all four major HDR standards.
To offer a similar player at half the price of the UB9000, Panasonic needed to cut costs somewhere, and they did that by removing the high-quality power supply, DAC, and analog audio output section of the UB9000, so it won't sound quite as good if you plan on using the included 7.1 RCA analog outputs. It also goes without saying the UB820 lacks the stellar build quality the UB9000 possesses. But, if you aren't looking to use analog audio outputs, and are okay with the step down in build quality, the UB820 is easy to recommend.
All in all, the UB820 is a very compelling value for the discerning HDR videophile on a budget. Importantly, you're getting almost every HDR video processing features the step up UB9000 model offers, but at half the price. It's also the cheapest player currently available that supports all four major HDR formats, and while it doesn't share the same build quality or high-end analog audio circuitry that its bigger brother has, you still get decent sounding 7.1 surround sound outputs if that's what your setup requires.
Honorable Mention: Oppo UDP-203 & Oppo UDP-205 ($A Lot)
I know these seem like an odd choice for this list, but hear me out. With the lack of SACD-compatible players that have a decent DAC and analog output section, it only seems appropriate to add the Oppo UDP-203 and 205 to this list, despite them being discontinued. You can still find these players gently used on various reseller marketplaces. Yes, there's going to be a premium past MSRP associated with your purchase, but let's face it: owning an Oppo grants you entry into an exclusive club many enthusiasts want to join. The public perception among enthusiasts is still that Oppo is a luxury electronics brand, and that sentiment may never perish. In fact, you could look at purchasing one of these as an investment. These players are the stuff of legend and could end up selling for quite a bit more than what they're currently worth in a few years from now.
Both the 203 and 205 are also popular models in the custom modification community, which can raise the level of audio quality another step past what the stock components offer. You can find hardware such as custom power supplies and add-on boards for custom processing and inputs and outputs, which can elevate the performance and features of these players ever further. This isn't something you typically see from competing players. Audio quality from these players will be hard to beat, especially when you add some custom hardware.
With that said, it's my personal opinion that Panasonic's higher-end offerings have better video quality overall, especially with HDR10 content. But I don't think audiophiles will care about this too much, especially those who are looking for SACD support. In reality, video quality is only a small step down from what the Panasonic models offer, so it shouldn't be a deal breaker for most.
It's also worth noting the 203 and 205 support the two most popular HDR formats: HDR10 and Dolby Vision. This means they're still very much relevant as far as HDR playback is concerned. The included DLNA network media player is also the only one I know of that will playback 4K HDR content with the movie's lossless audio track. File playback support even includes Dolby Vision titles. For those who like to run a NAS filled with their ripped UHD Blu-ray discs, this is a great feature to have.
Oppo's UDP-203 and UPD-205 could be a good choice for an audiophile looking for a high-end disc spinner, especially if SACD support is required. The stock audio performance is quite good, but can be elevated even further through the custom hardware market. With so few SACD playback options out there, these players are still a great choice, despite the hefty premium in cost you're likely to pay. For video, they still support the two most popular 4K HDR formats, and handle them well.
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