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.
The UBD-K8500's Home menu is similar in basic layout to the menu system in recent Samsung Blu-ray players like the BD-J5900 I reviewed). However, it's a little cleaner and less cluttered, which is a good thing. The main part of the menu features large icons for Play Disc, Multimedia (for playing personal media files via USB or DLNA), and Samsung Apps (to enter the apps store and customize your lineup of streaming services). When you insert an official studio release in the disc drive, the title's name and cover art will appear in Play Disc window, which is handy if you're prone to leaving discs in the tray, as I am.
Below the big three is a smaller row of Recommended Apps (Netflix, YouTube, and Pandora), My Apps (Plex, Web Browser, Crackle), Screen Mirroring (if you want to mirror content from a compatible tablet or phone), and Settings. In the top right corner are three small icons for Help, Search, and Sign In (to your Samsung account, if you plan to buy apps). The Search tool appears to only show results from YouTube; it does not perform a cross-platform search they way a Roku or Apple streaming player can.
Overall, the Home menu is easy to navigate, and the player responds quickly and reliably to remote commands. It also powers up and loads disc in a speedy fashion, and the disc drive is not overly loud during operation.
With those basic performance observations out of the way, let's dive in to the good stuff: Ultra HD content. Admittedly, some of the observations I'm about to make refer more to the quality of the UHD format as a whole and to the first discs specifically, but such is a nature of reviewing a new technology.
I purchased three UHD Blu-ray discs for this review: The Revenant, Sicario, and Kingsman: The Secret Service. Chris Heinonen over at Reference Home Theater has put together an excellent Ultra HD Blu-ray Guide that tells you how the original source was shot and whether the disc was mastered at 4K or 2K (and thus being upconverted to 4K). It's a great tool to help pick out the discs that should make best use of the new format.
I started with Kingsman: The Secret Service, which was mastered in 2K. When disc playback began, the LG TV immediately switched into its HDR mode. To perform side-by-side comparisons, I popped the 1080p Blu-ray version of the film (all three movies I purchased include a 1080p Blu-ray disc) in my Oppo BDP-103 disc player and fed it into the older, non-HDR-capable Samsung UN65HU8550 UHD TV.
Obviously, comparing content on two different displays adds other variables to the equation. While both the LG and Samsung TVs were calibrated to current HD standards, the LG OLED TV inherently has better contrast than the Samsung edge-lit LED/LCD, with a much better black level. With regular HD signals, the LG's strengths are most obvious with darker film scenes, while brighter scenes can look quite similar between the two TVs. HDR content changes that dynamic, so to speak--allowing the OLED to distinguish itself in both bright and dark scenes. The LG continued to render its lusciously deep black level while also producing the very bright elements for which HDR is known. The resulting contrast really helps the image to jump out and grab you in a more compelling way. Since this particular film is mastered in 2K, I didn't see much difference in detail between the 1080p and UHD Blu-ray discs on the two 65-inch TVs.
Next, I cued up Sicario, which is mastered in 4K. Even on 65-inch displays from a viewing distance of about 10 feet away, I could see some detail improvements in the UHD version. Everything just looked a little bit sharper and crisper, and the finest details--the flora of the desert landscapes, the line definition between bricks in a brick wall, and the fibers of a coat jacket--all had a little more texture to them. Is it a dramatic improvement, like the move from DVD to Blu-ray? No, it isn't, but it was a visible improvement that was more evident than what I've seen when comparing streamed Ultra HD content to 1080p Blu-ray.
Sicario's HDR video is gorgeous. HDR isn't about making the entire scene brighter. It's about doing a better job of reproducing the images on the screen in the way our eyes actually see light. This film has a lot of beautiful shots of desert expanses, with the sun forcing its way through cloudy skies. We've all seen this in the real world. Our brains know what it looks like when the sun pushes through the clouds--how the brightness of that moment should look--and the HDR version of the film simply did a better job of re-creating that. Sure, you could crank up the light output on your non-HDR TV to increase overall brightness, but then you'd lose the precision in the dark portions of the image. With an HDR film on the OLED TV, both were preserved very well.
Another thing that stood out to me with this particular film were the color differences between the 1080p and UHD versions. The 1080p version had a greenish/bluish skew. To confirm these differences, I fed both the 1080p and UHD discs into the LG and took some photos. Indeed, even through the same TV and the same HDMI input, the overall color balance of the film looked more natural and neutral on the UHD disc. In those desert landscapes I mentioned, the fine nuances between red, brown, and green shades were more defined.
Finally, I popped in The Revenant, another 4K master with a whole lot of eye candy--at least in its landscapes. (If you like blood and violence, there's a lot of that, too.) The level of detail was very good, but again I didn't see a huge difference between the 1080p and UHD versions. There were certainly moments when I could appreciate the finer detail in background trees, rocky cliffs, and textured coats. But the real difference was in the contrast. In scene after scene, the complex interplay between light and shadow was gorgeous. Especially effective on the LG OLED were nighttime scenes where the moon shines brightly against a dark sky or a fire crackles brilliantly against a dark landscape.
With all three of these UHD Blu-ray discs, the Samsung player had no issue communicating properly with the LG TV to enable its HDR mode. To check this function on a different display, I connected the player to the JVC DLA-X750 projector, which also supports HDR playback. Whenever this projector received an HDR signal from the Samsung player, it appropriately switched into the correct "gamma" option for HDR. Unfortunately, that gamma option didn't look right and required a lot of adjustment, but that's a topic for my review of the projector (coming soon). The Samsung seemed to hold up its end of the deal.
I also tested an assortment of Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, DVD, CD, and CD-R discs to check the UBD-K8500's format support, and I did not encounter any compatibility issues, freezes, or other problems. The player skipped a bit with The Revenant UHD disc, but a quick wipe down of the disc's backside solved that problem.
I put the player through my standard arsenal of processing tests to see how it handles the deinterlacing of 480i DVDs and 1080i Blu-ray discs. It passed all of my 480i test discs and real-world demo scenes, but it failed all of my 1080i tests. That means, when playing DVDs, the Samsung should offer generally clean performance with no major jaggie or moire problems. Poor 1080i deinterlacing is less of a concern in a Blu-ray player, since most movies will be 1080p/24; however, some concert films are offered in 1080i, and these may contain artifacts.
As for the player's smart TV capabilities, playback of UHD Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Video content worked well, as did streaming personal files from USB and DLNA. The USB 3.0 port passed the full resolution of test patterns from my Video Essentials UHD thumb drive, and it supported playback of HEVC/H.264 UHD video.
Although the UBD-K8500 supports the UHD versions of Netflix and Amazon Video, it did not initiate HDR playback for those titles that offer it--such as Amazon's Mozart in the Jungle and Netflix's Marco Polo. Samsung says that a firmware update is coming in July to add HDR playback from the streaming providers.
The Samsung UBD-K8500 only supports the mandated HDR10 format for High Dynamic Range. It does not support the optional Dolby Vision HDR format, so owners of Dolby Vision-enabled UHD TVs have to keep waiting for a compatible UHD disc player (and discs to go with it). You can get more details on this topic here.
The remote control is unintuitive to use, especially because chapter skip and fast-forward/reverse are combined on the same buttons. A single button press skips chapters, while press-and-hold initiates fast-forward or reverse. To speed up the FF/REW, you must keeping holding the button. Numerous times, I missed my desired FF/REW mark or accidentally skipped back to the beginning of a chapter when I wanted to rewind. Plus, I found the button layout to be a bit cramped, and overall the remote is difficult to use in the dark.
Comparison & Competition
At this moment, there is no competition for the UBD-K8500 in the Ultra HD Blu-ray category. Philips and Panasonic both showed UHD players at CES, but neither has been released yet. There are plenty of 4K-capable streaming media players on the market, such as Roku, the Amazon Fire TV, and the NVIDIA SHIELD, and Kaleidescape's new 4K-friendly movie servers and players allow you to download 4K content, with full-resolution soundtracks, via the Kaleidescape Store. That system doesn't currently support Ultra HD Blu-ray disc playback, though, and it carries a much higher price tag than this $399 player.
If you've recently purchased or plan to purchase an HDR-capable UHD TV, I can see no reason why you wouldn't purchase a new Ultra HD player like the Samsung UBD-K8500 to go along with it. It delivers a superior UHD/HDR picture over what the streaming providers are currently offering, along with full-resolution audio soundtracks, including Dolby Atmos. And hey, for those times when you'd prefer to stream, the UBD-K8500 is also loaded with the most desirable UHD streaming video services, as well as DLNA/USB support for your personal media collection. Then there's the fact that its $399 asking price is on par with current HT enthusiast faves like the Oppo BDP-103 upconverting Blu-ray player.
Admittedly, how much your system will benefit from a player like the UBD-K8500 is largely dictated by the quality of your UHD TV. If your TV lacks HDR support or it's one of the more entry-level HDR-capable TVs that will hit the market this year--for instance, an LED/LCD model that lacks a Wide Color Gamut and has mediocre dimming capabilities and thus mediocre contrast--then you won't be able to appreciate everything the UBD-K8500 has to offer. I'm glad I was able to audition the player with one of the best TVs I've reviewed to date, the LG 65EF9500 OLED (which isn't even one of LG's newest, brightest OLED models), to see how a truly high-performance UHD TV brings out the best in this new, emerging technology.
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• Samsung Shows Off New Flagship KS9800 SUHD TV at Spring Line Show at HomeTheaterReview.com.