At the last few Consumer Electronics Shows, almost everything shown in Ultra HD was being fed into the latest and greatest displays from mystery (mostly computer-based) source devices. We were treated to some great-looking streamed content to "ooh and aah" over...and ooh and aah we did. Too bad when it comes time to make these whiz-bang tricks work in our homes, consumer reality kicks in. It's one thing to pull off a techo-feat in a closed-network CES booth and a whole other thing for Mr. and Mrs. Joe Consumer to repeat this at home with real-world Internet, less-than-enterprise-class networks, and ongoing HDMI updates that make you want to pull your hair out.
It's no secret that, in the long term, we are all going disc-less, and a lot of progress has been made. On the video side, Netflix and Amazon do stream UHD content and are adding HDR support on top of it, but it takes a ton of compression to make it work. You also need pretty fast Internet (20 to 30 Mbps) for a reliable connection. On the audio side, Tidal pretty much makes the argument that Compact Discs can now be replaced with streaming at the same quality level--and some big-name titles that were missing from the streaming channels, like the Beatles catalog, have now arrived. The iTunes Store and many similar options from the various music/movie/TV studios add to the volume of the content that you can get in a disc-less world, which has fueled the "cord cutter" movement. Still, if you are seeking the highest-quality content, get ready to invest in one more disc format: Ultra HD Blu-ray.
Ultra HD Blu-ray is coming, and it's coming soon ... and it will be worth the cost of upgrading, as Ultra HD Blu-ray will offer literally the best that a movie studio can produce on one simple disc. That means 4K content with high dynamic range, 10-bit color, and a wider color gamut, alongside 3D audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X and lots of supplemental material--all without the heavy compression that comes via Internet streaming. You won't have to deal with buffering issues, and you'll still be able to enjoy your high-quality content even your network is acting up or has crashed completely. Plus, there's no need for cloud storage and digital lockers that must then be accessed via secondary network players, computers, etc.
Probably the biggest concern amongst industry insiders who are developing Ultra HD Blu-ray devices and content isn't consumer demand but cost. The first players from the likes of Samsung and Philips are expected to cost a few hundred dollars more than today's very affordable Blu-ray machines, but at least they won't be priced in the four-figure range, as first-gen Blu-ray and HD-DVD players were when they arrived on the scene. The question is always whether there will be large enough audience of early adopters to push the format forward. The opening salvo of UHD Blu-ray titles is okay, but I don't think it has a ton of wow factor. Studios have more than enough content to make the launch of a new AV format like Ultra HD Blu-ray highly tempting for consumers, and they've had more than a year to put together a compelling arsenal of excellent films, old and new, to roll out this new format--but they've mostly played it safe with a few recent hit releases. Early reports suggest that the titles won't carry much of a premium over Blu-ray discs, and that's a positive.
In the long term, there will be disc-less solutions that don't involve streaming. Satellite providers likely will be able to transmit 4K content in ways that don't drain your Internet bandwidth. Kalidescape has a new player coming later in 2016 for about $4,000 that will allow you to download movies in Ultra HD; because it's a download service, it won't be as immediate as streaming, but it allows for more reliable, higher-quality playback. Compression will get better and better for video just as it did with audio, and that will help better get large files through today's Internet pipeline. And going forward, you can expect to see better Internet service for more and more people.
For now, though, it's time to get a little excited about Ultra HD Blu-ray...and the premium TVs that can deliver it, like LG's new 4K OLED TVs that are designed to woo consumers to shop for performance, not just price. Ultra HD Blu-ray will offer a super-high-performance way to feed these 4K televisions the best content the studios can offer. 3D Audio, while new to many consumers and requiring new electronics and a lot of speakers, is nothing short of sonically mind-blowing. There's a lot to be excited about in high-performance audio and video going into 2016, so much so that we might have to put off being fully disc-less for another few years. That's okay; the rewards are going to be well worth it.
• Apple Rumored to Be Launching 24/96 Streaming in 2016 at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Five Questions to Consider Before Cutting the Cord at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Six AV Trends We're Thankful For at HomeTheaterReview.com.