As a home theater enthusiast, you're probably asked about technology all the time. I'll bet one of the most common questions is, "What HDTV should I buy?" Of course, there's no stock answer, as the right TV for one person may be the wrong choice for another, considering issues like desired screen size, the room's ambient light, and your technology/feature preferences. The question I'm starting to get a lot from my buddies is, "Should I wait to buy an HDTV that has 4K or Ultra HD?" Unless you have a solid eight-figure net worth and the desperate need to be the first on your block to own the next new thing in video, my short answer is ... not yet. The first group of 84-inch Ultra HD TVs is priced from $17,000 to $40,000. Even if you have the wherewithal to make the investment, there's no disc or broadcast format for Ultra HD at this point in time. Simply put, it's just a little too early for most consumers to make the move to Ultra HD, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep an eye on this eye-popping format.
Right now, the best 1080p flat panels have a lot going for them. This year's new plasma HDTVs from Panasonic and Samsung may be the best performers we've seen yet. Panasonic's upcoming ZT60 Series represents many levels of technological development beyond the lauded Pioneer KURO plasmas from years ago. The new sets use less power, have a more desirable form factor, and are loaded with cool features. We'll soon find out if they offer better all-around performance, but early demos look very promising. These TVs aren't cheap, but they kick serious butt.
Vizio will launch its first Ultra HD TVs later this year as part of the top-line XVT Series, but the company's new M-Series models are hitting store shelves now and will offer many of the same features and core technologies in a 1080p package, with a much lower price tag. Frankly, there's a bevy of new HDTVs coming to market that can serve up an image that will floor you, your friends or anyone who comes over to watch a movie, take in a sporting event, or play video games.
Ultra HD offers four times the resolution of 1080p, which is pretty cool. However, resolution isn't the only potential advantage of Ultra HD. The recently announced Rec 2020 standard for Ultra HD includes a wider color gamut and increased bit depth for drastically improved color. Critics may argue that you can't really see the resolution improvement of Ultra HD on smaller TVs - say, 60 inches and under. Perhaps they are right, but the color improvement is ultimately where Ultra HD could be worth its weight in gold. Once again, though, the new standard hasn't been implemented yet and isn't supported on these first-generation Ultra HD TVs.
As for Ultra HD sources, Sony plans to release its $699 FMP-X1 Ultra HD player this summer, so that early adopters will be able to watch some native Ultra HD content (the TV will up-convert all other HD and SD sources to Ultra HD). The player will come loaded with 10 movies on its hard drive; then, in the fall, Sony plans to launch a download subscription service to add new movies to the player. That's a start, but it will likely be a year or so before we have an Ultra HD standard for Blu-ray, says a source close to the development team working on the standard. The idea that Ultra HD is only going to be available in a streaming format is, respectfully, just wishful thinking. At some point our media will be completely disc-less, but discs and drives will be around for a little while longer.
The last and arguably most important issue with Ultra HD is the price. The first sets, which use panels made by LG and are sold by a variety of companies in all sorts of form factors and bundles, are more of a technological statement than a meaningful offering to mainstream consumers. In my sphere of influence, I know through one degree of separation a person who bought the $25,000 Sony Ultra HD set - and that person is an international tech leader with a net worth of over $6,000,000,000. He can afford to be first. Soon the rest of us will be able to jump in the game, too. The big Asian companies are announcing pricing on smaller Ultra HD sets that is at least closer to the high-end 1080p displays. Inevitably, the prices will come down on these higher-end sets, thus making Ultra HD more of a feature for the masses.
If you need an HDTV now, by no means should you hold out for Ultra HD. I am not one of these "I hate the high end" or "I fight all new technology" critics, but most home theater enthusiasts need to be careful with investments that are in the four- to five-figure range. Ultra HD represents a meaningful upgrade in video performance, but we need to get the standards in place to secure our investments. Those standards are absolutely coming, but for now there are plenty of 1080p HDTVs that are nothing short of amazing. Buy with confidence today, but also be excited about what the future of video will bring. Things are only going to get better and better in the coming years.