With every advancement in TV resolution--from 480 to 1080 and now to 4K--comes the inevitable question, "Where's the content to go with it?" Given that many TV manufacturers are already on their third generation of 4K Ultra HD TVs and 4K content options are still pretty light, it's fair to say that the Ultra HD rollout has hardly been a revolution.
Yes, some 4K content is available through streaming/download services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and M-Go, but the catalogs aren't extensive, nor do they include big-ticket new film releases. These streams are highly compressed, and the quality is highly dependent on your broadband service. The best news is that Blu-Ray Disc Association recently completed the Ultra HD Blu-ray spec and is making it available to manufacturers this summer, so we might actually see Ultra HD Blu-ray players on the market by the holiday season. Of course, we have no idea yet how much those players will cost.
In the meantime, there's Sony FMP-X10 4K media server ($699.99). The FMP-X10 has actually been on the market for some time, but it was originally locked down to only work with Sony's 4K TVs. Now Sony has opened up the platform to be compatible with any 4K TV or projector that has HDMI 2.0 inputs with HDCP 2.2 copy protection, making it a more viable option for a wider array of shoppers.
The FMP-X10 has a 1TB hard drive, to which you can directly download 4K movies and TV shows from Sony's Video Unlimited 4K store, as well as import personal video and music files (including hi-res WAV and FLAC files). The benefit of the download approach for 4K, as opposed to streaming, is that the file doesn't have to be compressed as much, which should allow for better picture quality. Did that prove to be the case? Let's find out.
The FMP-X10 has a fairly small form factor, measuring about 10 by 10 by 2 inches. It's bigger than the typical streaming media player from Apple or Roku, but smaller than your average Blu-ray player. The cabinet has a two-toned finish, with the bottom being a basic matte black and the top being glossy black. The front panel shows only a Sony logo and a glowing white power light in the center; a flip down panel along the bottom reveals, to the left, the power button and, to the right, a reset button and one of the device's two USB 2.0 inputs--this one is specifically for accessing video and music files via a USB thumb drive.
The back panel features two HDMI outputs: one is an HDMI 2.0 port with HDCP 2.2 copy protection to pass video and audio to a compatible TV, AV receiver, or other switching device. The second one is actually crucial in these early days of the Ultra HD transition; it's an audio-only HDMI 2.0 port. If you own an older AV preamp or receiver that lacks HDCP 2.2 support, you can use this HDMI output to send audio to your electronics while using the main HDMI AV port to send video to your HDCP 2.2 display. This is exactly how manufacturers handled 3D support in its earliest days, and I suspect we'll see much the same solution in the first crop of Ultra HD Blu-ray players to ensure compatibility with the widest range of AV receivers and preamps.
The back panel also has an Ethernet port for a wired network connection, or you can use the built-in dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi. I went the wired route, since my router sits just below my gear rack. Around back you'll also find the second USB 2.0 port, which allows for the connection of a USB hard drive; you can use this port to expand the internal hard drive's storage and actually transfer downloaded, copy-protected content to be stored on your secondary drive. (The front USB port only allows for playback and transfer of non-copy-protected files.)
The FMP-X10 lacks RS-232 and IR ports for integration into a more advanced control system, but it does support IP control.
The supplied remote is a petite little number that measures about six by two inches and has a simple, intuitive button layout. Unfortunately, the remote lacks backlighting, but the simplicity of the design and the limited number of buttons makes it easier to use in the dark. The remote has TV volume, input, and power buttons to control your Sony TV but cannot be programmed to control TVs from other manufacturers.
I tested the FMP-X10 with two different display devices: first, with the Sony VPL-HW350ES 4K projector and then with the Samsung UN65HU8550 UHD TV. If you try connecting the FMP-X10 to an HDMI input that lacks HDCP 2.2 copy protection, you will see an onscreen error message that says, "The TV's HDMI port is not compatible with your 4K Media Player. Please make sure the player is connected to an HDCP 2.2 compatible HDMI port." It's nice that Sony gives you an explanatory message as opposed to just getting no picture at all. In trying to connect the X10 to my displays, I learned that only the VPL-HW350ES's HDMI 2 port has HDCP 2.2. On the Samsung TV, only the HDMI 3 port has it.
I connected the player's HDMI 2 output to my Harman Kardon AVR 3700 receiver to pass multichannel audio; the FMP-X10 supports output of Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, and multichannel PCM. For this type of setup, you have to designate in the Settings menu that you want audio to go out through HDMI 2. You can also choose whether the audio is output as bitstream (to be decoded by your receiver) or as PCM (internally decoded by the player), with options to downmix multichannel tracks to stereo and adjust the AV lip sync.
Once you've made the necessary physical connections, it's time to set up the player via the onscreen menu. Initial setup is quick and easy; however, before you can browse and buy/rent any content from Sony's store, you must head over to your computer or mobile device and create an online account for the Sony Entertainment Network. Here you will input a credit card and designate a PIN that you must enter each time you order a title. Then you come back to the FMP-X10, enter your user name and password, and you're all set.
The FMP-X10 has a clean, attractive Home page with big, colorful icons for Recommended content. Whenever a new title is added to Sony's 4K catalog, it will usually show up here to get your attention. In the top right corner are icons for Settings, Help, and Network Status. Along the button of the screen are icons for Video Unlimited 4K (the store), My 4K Videos (anything you've purchased from the store), Video Player (to access video files via USB), Music Player (to access music files via USB), and Netflix.
Did I forget to mention that the FMP-X10 has the Netflix app built in...and, since the box has HEVC decoding, it's the Ultra HD version? So, if you're paying for the $11.99-per-month subscription plan that includes Ultra HD, when you sign in to your account via the FMP-X10, you will be taken the Netflix Ultra HD home page and get unlimited access to that content at no additional charge.
Unlike Netflix's streaming service, Sony's Video Unlimited 4K service is a download, pay-per-use service. When you enter the 4K store, you'll find options along the left side to browse "New & Popular Films," "All Feature Films," "New & Popular TV," "All TV Shows," and other choices like Free, Sports, and Music. The rest of the page is filled with colorful icons for the available titles, with the release date, genre, pricing, and length.
With theatrical film releases, some titles are available for purchase only, usually for $29.99. Others are available for rent, generally at $7.99 for a 24-hour rental that, strangely, begins when you order it, not when you start watching it. Most VOD rental services don't start the clock until you start the movie.
On the day I write this in late May, the store offers 90 titles in the Feature Film category, many of which are theatrical film releases, but you'll also find some short- and long-form documentaries that cost less (often $3.99 or $4.99) to purchase. The newest theatrical films in the library were "The Wedding Ringer" and "Scarlet's Witch," both of which came out in January. Compare that to a 1080p download service like iTunes, which is currently offering blockbuster titles like American Sniper, Interstellar, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Selma. None of those titles are available through the Sony 4K store. The TV Show category, meanwhile, had just six titles, including Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and The Blacklist.
I will say that, compared with the Amazon Ultra HD Instant Video streaming service I recently reviewed, the Sony store had many of the same titles available for rent or purchase, whereas Amazon just had them available for purchase. So, you have a little more flexibility to rent content.
During my review time with the FMP-X10, I rented The Amazing Spider-man and purchased Captain Philips, among other titles. The FMP-X10 is set by default to "auto download" certain recommended titles, which allows playback to begin right when you order the title. Both of these films fell into that category, so I did not have to wait for the download process to finish. With other titles, you will have to wait, and that wait time will vary depending on the file size and speed of your broadband service. I could find nowhere in the menu that indicated the file size of various titles.
I discussed picture quality in my review of the Sony VPL-HW350ES projector, where I did a direct comparison of The Amazing Spider-man in 4K versus Blu-ray (which was being upconverted to 4K by the projector). The verdict was that, upon close inspection, I could see improvements in fine detail in the native 4K version, but it wasn't a blatant HD-vs.-SD improvement, even on a 100-inch projection screen. The quality was better than what I saw from the streaming 4K services from Netflix and Amazon, where I saw no real improvement in detail at all. The picture was clean and detailed, and I saw no meaningful compression artifacts. The soundtracks were delivered in multichannel PCM. (I also confirmed that Netflix's Dolby Digital Plus feeds passed just fine as bitstream to my receiver.)
I also purchased the Official 2014 FIFA World Cup 4K film, which is presented in a 3,840 by 2,160 resolution at 60 frames per second (the theatrical films are offered at 3,840 by 2,160 at 24fps if you enable 24p playback during setup). This content did look gorgeous, with exceptional detail and smooth, fluid motion.
Beyond just being a 4K video player, the FMP-X10 can also act as a general movie and music server/player, provided you can add content via a USB drive--since there's no disc drive and no DLNA streaming. You have the option to read content directly off the USB drive or to import it to the Sony hard drive. With a USB drive connected, every time you navigate to the Video or Music Player pages, the player will ask you if you want to import the contents of that drive to the Sony hard drive (it would be nice if you could turn this message off, as it got kind of annoying).
On the video side, the only supported file formats are MP4 (H.265 HEVC and H.264 AVC) and XAVC S. Playback of my personal movie files was smooth and looked quite good when upconverted to 3,840 by 2,160. I had a few M4V files stored on my USB thumb drive, and I liked that the Sony player didn't show them in the menu at all, as opposed to clicking on a file and getting a "file not supported" error.
On the music side, supported file formats are WAV, FLAC, MP3, and AAC, with the ability to play back WAV and FLAC files up to a 24/192 resolution. AIFF and DSD are not supported, though. The menu navigation for both movies and music is clean and simple: you can choose between list and folder views, as well various screen saver options. It's not exactly a Kaleidescape- or Sooloos-esque presentation, but it gets the job done.
"Where's the content to go with it?" That was the question posed in the first paragraph of this review, and frankly I'm not sure the Sony Video Unlimited 4K store has enough compelling content right now to justify the FMP-X10's expense. Yes, it has more titles than Netflix or Amazon Instant Video, but there just weren't that many exciting, new titles that I wanted to see.
Perhaps the bigger problem is that the FMP-X10 does not include access to Sony's broader, non-4K Video Unlimited service or a similar 1080p download service. Netflix is nice, but subscription services don't get the best new home-video titles as quickly as download services do. Maybe Sony felt it would cause confusion to mix 4K and non-4K content, but access to a 1080p VOD download service would greatly expand the end user's rental/purchase options and make them feel like they are getting more value for their $700. Right now, all you get is the limited 4K library, access to Netflix (which you're paying for separately), and access to your own library of films. Partnering with a download VOD service like VUDU would be an easy solution.
The lack of DLNA support to stream video and music files wirelessly from a NAS drive or mobile device is another noteworthy omission. Wired USB is the only way to add your personal file collection, which isn't the most convenient option for everyone.
Right now, you don't get higher-quality audio to go with that higher-quality video on the film side. The movies I downloaded were delivered in basic 5.1-channel PCM, not Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD MA as you get on the Blu-ray discs.
Speaking of audio, it's nice that the FMP-X10 can also function as a hi-res music server, but its functionality is very basic in this respect. File support is solid but not as robust as Sony's dedicated (and, admittedly, more expensive) music servers like the HAP-S1 we reviewed. Plus, the player doesn't offer gapless playback, and you have far less flexibility in how you organize and view content stored on the internal hard drive. Even though my music was organized by artist folder on my USB thumb drive, when I imported it to the Sony hard drive, the folders were removed, and I just got a long list of music tracks, with no way to search by name, artist, or album. And, just like with movies, I think users would feel like they were getting more value if there were a few integrated music streaming services, like Pandora, Spotify, or especially Tidal.
Comparison & Competition
There are a few other options in 4K playback devices, although none quite delivers what the Sony FMP-X10 offers. Samsung's UHD Video Pack ($399) comes preloaded with 10 feature films and a bunch of documentaries on a USB drive that only works with Samsung UHD TVs, and you can add download more content to the device through the M-GO UHD download service.
the Nuvola NP-1 by Nanotech Entertainment ($299) is a 4K streaming media player that includes access to the UltraFlix 4K streaming service, as well as lots of other streaming apps (including Netflix, M-Go, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Pandora, I Heart Radio, Rhapsody, and more). However, it lacks a hard drive to store downloaded files. The NP-1 is still available on Nanotech's website, but it is currently not available through Amazon.
The much hyped $1,500 RedRay 4K video server/player is still posted on the company's website, but it doesn't appear to be available for purchase anymore. It has a 1TB hard drive but no major content deals.
the Zappiti 4K Player is another player that supports a lot of streaming apps and 3D playback, and you can attach an external hard drive to store content. However, it's not currently available in the U.S.
Kaleidescape is really THE name in video servers, but the company's product lineup is a lot pricier than the FMP-X10 and doesn't currently support 4K or hi-res audio.
The biggest competition will (hopefully) arrive later this year when Ultra HD Blu-ray players hit the market, and again we don't know what pricing will look like yet.
What to conclude about the Sony FMP-X10 4K media player? On the one hand, it's pretty much the only game in town if you want a standalone 4K media server with direct access to 4K theatrical film downloads. The product is easy to set up and use, and the video performance was better than the 4K streaming services I've tested thus far. Still, at the end of the day, when I sit down in front of this player, I'm just not very excited by the content I see or the features it offers for the price. Yes, it has more content than the streaming services are offering right now, but is that alone enough to justify spending $700. Sony is slowly building up its 4K content library; but, in the meantime, the company needs to get more apps on this thing to up the value quotient.
• Check out our Media Servers category page for similar reviews.
• Amazon Ultra HD Instant Video Service Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• How Well Does Ultra HD Work on Netflix at HomeTheaterReview.com.