Remember HD DVD and the format war between it and Sony-backed Blu-ray? Remember how awesome that was? Remember that feeling you got of not knowing which format would survive, thus making your HD buying decisions all the more stressful? Man, those were good times. Too bad Sony had to go and ruin everything by kicking HD DVD in the proverbial junk, thus ending the war and leaving us with only a single HD disc format to choose from. Those jerks.
I kid of course, for nobody likes a format war because they suck and yet they always seem to happen anytime there’s change in the air. Well, there’s change in the air and that change is 4K, and at the head of it all is – you guessed it – Sony. Sony recently unveiled their first true consumer grade 4K projector in the VPL-VW1000ES. Retailing for around $24,000 the VW10000ES is not what anyone would call cheap though it’s a far cry from what 4K projectors normally cost ($100,000 plus). Still, what the VW1000ES really signifies is the emergence of what is going to be the next “it” thing in home theater, 4K.
4K, for those of you who may not be familiar or aware, is a format or video standard that derives its name from the number of horizontal pixels displayed, which is stated to be 4,000 or more. 4K has been standardized by a group called DCi or Digital Cinema Initiatives LLC, which is nothing more than a name given to a joint venture started by all of the major motion picture studios in order to level the digital playing field. There’s more to digital cinema standards beyond mere 4K, a lot more, but one thing is very clear – according to DCi, 4K is defined as an image with a resolution of or greater than 4,096 by 2,160 pixels.
Why do I bring this up? Simple – Sony is one of the pioneers behind not only 4K but also DCi, so it makes sense that they would adhere to their own standards. However, there are companies out there, companies such as JVC and Onkyo/Integra, that are claiming to also have 4K-capable products, but at far more advantageous prices. Now, before I go any further, there is no viable consumer grade 4K format or source component available today, so please don’t think that you’re behind the times or missing something. I’m just trying to paint a picture of what’s to come if someone – ahem, Sony – doesn’t get their act together.
At this year’s CEDIA show, JVC and Onkyo/Integra were also brandishing 4K products: JVC in the form of two new D-ILA projectors and Onkyo/Integra in the form of AV preamps and receivers. Both companies’ 4K solutions were priced well below that of the Sony VPL-VW1000ES, which sounds like a good thing, until you realize they’re not 4K at all. You see, both JVC and Onkyo/Integra’s products are QFHD or Quad Full HD-capable. QFHD is actually a computer format; that is, as its name implies, quad or four times HD or 1080p. QFHD therefore has a stated resolution of 3,840 by 2,160 pixels. Why then are JVC and Onkyo/Integra claiming that their QFHD products are 4K when clearly they are not? Good question. I can only imagine it has something to do with the 35mm film aspect ratio 1.37:1, which does fall within the 4K standard of “Academy 4K” (3,656 x 2,664), even if the aspect ratio itself hasn’t been in use since 1953. The reason there is even an Academy 4K standard is for archival reasons and not because it’s a viable aspect ratio used in today’s modern cinema. This 4K sleight of hand, or as I like to call it “FauxK”, is no different than if someone were to tell you that 1080p is actually 2K. Which is kind of ironic because the 1080p/2K argument is precisely the one JVC uses to justify their move to 4- … I mean- FauxK.
The 1080p/2K argument goes something like this: the difference between what we know as 1080p and the cinema standard 2K is a difference of only seven percent. In other words, we stopped seven percent short of 2K, and thus created another format in 1080p. Why? It’s a hell of a question, one that I’ve asked many a manufacturer and industry professional ever since the words HD and/or Blu-ray were uttered. That being said, the “seven percent” argument for why we’re not already living in a 2K world is precisely the same argument that can be used against JVC and their QFHD projectors – for QFHD, while clearly better than HD, still stops short of 4K. How short? Six and a half percent short.
But none of this really matters, for both JVC and Onkyo/Integra have a big advantage over Sony in that both JVC and Onkyo/Integra’s products are more affordable. Because JVC will sell you a FauxK projector for as little as $8,000 they’re instantly more relevant, from a price standpoint, than Sony’s projector, for there are a lot more well-to-do enthusiasts capable of buying a front projector for $8,000 than there are ones at $24,000. Furthermore, what’s six and a half percent when you’ve spent a third as much and the box and the manufacturer both say it’s 4K? Well, just because someone said it, and just because someone wrote it down doesn’t make it true. In fact, it can make it worse. You see, JVC’s new projectors, beyond not possessing the ability to display true native 4K material, are not 4K projectors at all, but instead 1080p projectors with an internal scalar capable of upscaling to QFHD. That’s right, the new crop of JVC “FauxK” projectors couldn’t accept a 4K signal now or in the future if their lives depended on it. They are designed purely to enhance ones 1080p experience much in the same way that 1080p upscaling enhanced 480i content.
Truth be told, we’re already primed and ready for true 4K. Blu-ray discs are capable of holding and playing back 4K content, even if no such content or compression standards exist … yet. HDMI cables can pass the signal and the content coming out of the studios … well, that’s already 4K too. So what’s the problem? HD DVD and Blu-ray started off largely as a singular format, or should I say focus, that split into two warring factions, thanks to ego and poor planning, and I see nothing but potential for the same to occur here thanks to FauxK bowing with the bigger, initial splash, over Sony’s 4K projector. While Sony’s 4K projector seemed to get the lion’s share of coverage at CEDIA, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate into sales. The problem with FauxK is the number of products that appear to be available today or will be coming very, very soon, which to a potential retailer means more opportunity for sales today or very, very soon. It all has the potential to become HD DVD versus Blu-ray all over again, for both are claiming to be the same thing, 4K – yet they’re worlds apart.
There’s two possible fixes to this ridiculous situation. On the one hand Sony could reach deep into its pockets and once again buy their victory and “force” the DCi 4K standard upon us and our home theaters, much like they did with Blu-ray. This wouldn’t be difficult for Sony has the 4K cameras, both broadcast and cinema, as well as the workflow needed to adopt the content to the home markets. They even have the format in Blu-ray that with minor tweaking and firmware updates could be made 4K-ready. All they would need is for the studios to agree, which doesn’t seem far fetc
hed, given that they’re all behind DCi and adopting some form of the DCi standard for the home would only save the studios headaches and money down the road.
The other solution rests with JVC, for they too have true 4K technology. Hell – they were one of the first to come to market with a “consumer grade” 4K projector, although granted it cost six figures. All JVC needs to do is wake up and realize that instead of wasting money developing half-baked projectors (ones that will be obsolete when a 4K standard for the home is finally ratified) they should look at the technology they already have in-house and find a way to make it more affordable. As excited as I am by the possibility of having my Blu-ray library enhanced via some QFHD upscaling, I’m not sure how thrilled I would be knowing I essentially blew $8,000 or more on what I thought was a Sony 4K killer, only to learn that it wasn’t, well after it was too late.
While all signs may point to us finally having a home format that is equal to, or at least eerily similar to that of a professional cinematic format, there are no guarantees. Sony is cash strapped at the moment and who’s to say that the networks aren’t going to chime in with their two cents at some point? There’s no question that there is a great deal of education that needs to take place between now and 4K’s eventual release to the mainstream public, but the dialog is already cloudy, thanks to products and companies touting FauxK products as actual 4K solutions.
4K’s future is definitely bright and rife with promise but it still has some hurdles to clear before we’re all able to bask in its glory.