The first Blu-ray player, Samsung's BD-P1000, launched in 2006 for the price of $1,000.
Nearly 10 years later, the first 4K Blu-ray player is finally available, and it's a Samsung too. At just $400, AU$599, or £430 in the UK, the UBD-K8500 costs much less than its predecessor, but its format faces a much less certain future. In 2006 the big enemy of Blu-ray was another disc format, called HD DVD. Today it's an entire Internet's worth of streaming video from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and YouTube, to name just a few.
Yes, 4K Blu-ray offers four times the resolution of the "standard HD" Blu-ray discs we've seen so far -- 3,820x2,160 pixels for 4K resolution versus 1,920x1,080 for regular Blu-ray. But the better upgrade on the new players and discs is high dynamic range (HDR), which is capable of delivering better contrast and color than we've seen from any video source to date.
After testing the K8500 with a few of the initial 4K Blu-ray discs, all of which offer HDR, one thing is clear. If you want to extract the maximum benefit out of this player, you need a high-end HDR-capable TV. When viewed on standard, non-HDR 4K TVs, the discs we tested don't offer any substantial picture quality improvements over standard 1080p Blu-ray discs.
But not every HDR TV is created equal. Our viewing sessions with some of the best sets available today -- LG's 65EF9500 and Samsung's UN65JS9500, both exceedingly expensive -- showed the full impact and realism of HDR, leaving standard Blu-ray in the dust and leaving us hungry for more.
On the other hand, cheaper HDR-capable TVs -- such as myriad midrange models due later this year -- probably won't show as much of an advantage. We weren't able to test any such sets directly with 4K Blu-ray yet, but our previous tests with models such as Samsung's JS8500, one of the cheapest current HDR TVs, aren't encouraging. Then again, maybe with some discs and newer HDR-capable TVs there will be a substantial improvement. We'll have to wait to test the 2016 crop of HDR TVs to know for sure.
The result is that 4K Blu-ray, and players like the UBD-K8500, are currently even more niche than you might expect. If you've paid thousands for one of the best HDR-capable TVs on the market, buying a player like the UBD-K8500 today is very appealing. Despite some issues we saw in these early discs, and the fact that you have to manually engage a certain picture setting, it will still deliver the best overall home video quality ever.
For everyone else, there's no rush to get into 4K Blu-ray now.
Update March 3, 2016: This review has been updated to reflect subsequent testing using different picture settings on the Samsung and LG TVs. As a result, for HDR TVs we highly recommend turning on the "HDMI UHD Color" setting on Samsung TVs and "HDMI Ultra HD Deep Color" on LG TVs. See the "HDMI UHD Color setting" and "4K picture quality" sections for details. We haven't yet tested any other HDR TVs.
Look and feel
The UBD-K8500 is nice-looking for a disc player, with a brushed finish and a curved design that will mesh well with any AV system -- and particularly well, of course, with the curved TVs Samsung insists on continuing to make.
Controls on the player itself are minimal and, surprisingly for a high-end unit, there's no display. In one strike against it, the front-panel USB port is covered by a cheap-feeling rubber plug.
The small remote gets the job done, and the buttons are generally well chosen, but we were disappointed in the lack of dedicated fast-forward and rewind buttons. To do that you have to long-press on the skip forward and back keys and it's easy to accidentally skip instead of fast-forward.
The back panel is sparse, but we appreciate the dual HDMI outputs. If your receiver doesn't support 4K signals, hook it up to the second HDMI port to get audio while the first sends video to your 4K TV. As expected, the main video output supports HDMI 2.0a for HDR, and requires an HDCP 2.2 connection to deliver copy-protected content (which is just about everything you'd want to watch).
That front USB port can play files from USB sticks and hard drives, such as that 4K copy of "TimeScapes" you bought in 2012. The only other connections are optical digital audio and a wired Ethernet port. Like most modern video players, the Samsung lacks analog video outputs. That's fine; they'd be useless here anyway.
And, for the record, the Samsung UBD-K8500 is compatible with most the old discs in your house, too: It plays DVDs, regular Blu-rays and even CDs (remember those?). Your massive collection of SACD and DVD-Audio discs, sadly, is not supported.
Features of the new Blu-ray format include 4K resolution, which is four times that of 1080p, better contrast through HDR and better colors than standard Blu-ray discs. As we mentioned above, we're much more excited by the latter two than by the mere bump in resolution, and happily most of the first discs announced do offer HDR and wide color. 4K Blu-ray also supports next-generation audio formats, namely Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
Of course all of these features are optional and will vary from disc to disc. Some may support Dolby Vision's HDR format, for example, although none of the initial titles do. 4K Blu-ray discs cost around $30 and include titles such as "The Martian" and "Sicario." Here's the full rundown.
The complement of streaming services is comprehensive for a Blu-ray player, but falls short of what you get from most 4K TVs (including Samsung's own) or a Roku 4.
You can use the K8500 to get 4K streams from Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Video and M-Go. On the other hand, its Vudu app lacks 4K support (currently exclusive to the Roku 4), there's no UltraFlix app (Samsung's 4K TVs have one) and the M-Go app didn't recognize the hard drive full of downloaded 4K/HDR movies we attached. That's too bad, because that function would allow owners of non-Samsung TVs to enjoy M-Go's 4K/HDR movies.
And although the player supports HDR content from 4K Blu-ray discs, its Amazon Video app doesn't have HDR support (yet). Here's where we mention again that the apps built into your 4K TV are likely redundant with those built into the UBD-K8500, and that if you have an HDR-compatible TV, it likely has an Amazon app that does handle HDR.
Of course, nobody is buying this player simply for streaming support. What you care about is 4K Blu-ray disc playback.
We used three separate TVs to test 4K Blu-ray playback, two HDR-capable -- the Samsung JS9500 and the LG 65EF9500 -- and one "standard" 4K, the Vizio M series. We set each television to its default Movie, Cinema or Calibrated Dark picture mode respectively, to reduce variables introduced by different calibrations, and because we didn't calibrate for HDR (frankly, we have no idea how to do that yet). We tweaked a few settings away from the defaults, for example to equalize backlight settings between modes, remove soap opera effect or set TVs into their wide color space settings for HDR.
Fellow CNET editor David Katzmaier and I watched each TV individually. One HDMI input was connected to the Samsung K8500 playing the 4K Blu-ray disc, while a second HDMI input was connected to the Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player playing the 1080p Blu-ray disc from the same package (all 4K Blu-ray discs we've purchased so far contain both versions). For our comparisons we switched back and forth between inputs and noted differences.
UHD Color setting: Manual override required
Here's where things get even more technical and average-user-unfriendly. After this review published, we were told by readers to check out a TV picture setting we hadn't tried before, called "HDMI UHD Color" on the Samsung TV and "HDMI Ultra HD Deep Color" on the LG.
Engaging it improved the image significantly on both eliminating most of the banding and solarization artifacts we complained about initially, although some issues still remained. The big problem is that this setting is not turned on automatically. You'll have to go into the menu and select it manually for the input your player is connected to. Samsung's K8500 manual doesn't mention the need to do so, and the only way we--seasoned reviewers, for what it's worth--knew to engage it was because of reader feedback.
The setting worked fine on the Samsung TV, but the LG's HDMI Ultra HD Deep Color setting caused the image to show the same kind of elevated black levels we complained about with Amazon HDR content on that TV. We have a query in to LG to see what the issue is, and will update this section if it changes. In the meantime, reducing the brightness control slightly (from the default 50 to 45) offered a temporary fix.