The Samsung UBD-K8500 is the world's first 4K Blu-ray player, delivering the best picture quality yet available for the home. But you'll need an expensive TV to appreciate its advantages -- and a whole new disc collection.
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 $250, AU$315, or £200 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 -- 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, May 23, 2017: The Samsung UBD-K8500 is now available in the US for $249 or less (down from $400) and as a result its Value score has increased by one point to 9. Also, in light of a faster operating speed than the new Sony UBD-X800, we have increased the Samsung's Performance to 8.
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.
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.
The takeaway is that, at least until these companies update their software to enable the HDMI UHD Color settings to engage automatically, getting the best image out of the K8500 requires an extra bit of adjustment on the TV, and some extra knowledge from the viewer.
We've re-watched a lot of the sections we wrote about originally and updated the observations below.
(By the way, if you're wondering what happened to the half-black screen we complained about a couple days ago, it was fixed by updating the TV to the latest software version.)
If you're excited by the news that 4K Blu-ray discs are available to buy right now, you might want to cool your jets a little. Most of the titles available at this time are drawn from 2K masters which were then upscaled to 4K, even if they were originally shot on 4K cameras. What does this mean? Simply that these discs won't show the maximum resolution the format is capable of.
Regardless of the pixel count of the master material, what quickly became obvious during our testing is that any improvement in resolution is almost impossible to discern -- not a surprise given our years of experience with 4K. It's HDR and color that are the main benefits of 4K Blu-ray.
We began with "The Martian," probably the highest profile of the initial slate of releases. It immediately showed the benefits of a wide color gamut in the red sands of the outdoor scenes, and eye-popping HDR effects. On the other hand it also suffered a few artifacts that weren't as visible on the 1080p version, even with the HDMI UHD Color settings engaged.
As a whole "The Martian" is a great showcase for what HDR can deliver. At the 11:33 mark, lone astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is performing surgery on himself in a small white room. He has (naturally) taken off his shirt and HDR makes his glistening sweat pop like stars in a planetarium. The boosted contrast makes Watney and the operating table three-dimensional in a way the 1080p Blu-ray copy simply couldn't match. It finally delivers on the promise of better-than-Blu-ray quality.
Now, about those artifacts. Skip forward to 21:56 and you'll see what we mean. While the scene looks eye-poppingly cool with its glinting HDR sunlight, it's not quite the perfection we expected. In this scene, Watney is erecting some solar panels. On the 1080p Blu-ray you see all of the individual cells of the panel as it glints from the distant sun, while on the 4K HDR version more of the cells are obscured. The effect may be intentional, and the difference subtle, but the end result is less detail on the 4K version.
With the HDMI UHD Color settings turned off we noticed significant banding and solarization, particularly in the skies, on the 4K version. With it turned on they largely disappeared, but when we looked closely the 4K version's skies still betrayed some of those issues. During the sequence beginning at 44:29, where Watney salvages the older probe, faint bands of color were still visible in some of the sky shots, while the 1080p version looked smoother. Overall we'd still take the 4K HDR version in a heartbeat, but its imperfections were still disappointing.
We also watched the 4K Blu-ray of "The Martian" on our non-HDR test TV, the Vizio M65-C1. Compared to the HDR-capable TVs, the image generally looked dull and washed out, and no better than the 1080p version. Unless your 4K TV can recognize HDR sources, don't expect much benefit from 4K Blu-ray. Some models may show some benefits from wider color gamut, but we don't expect the impact to be as dramatic as it would be with full HDR compatibility.
The next disc we tried was the semi-4K mastered "The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials" and again it was the HDR effects that made the images pop. At 33:20 you see the "runners" investigate a room with a flashlight and a gas lamp. The images dazzled thanks to the ultra-bright effects of HDR -- we measured the lamp as 6 times brighter on the Samsung JS9500 than on the Vizio TV -- but again there were some downsides.
An obvious one appeared in the cloudy desert sky at 46:12. Yes the HDR clouds showed more definition overall, but one was rendered as a bit white blotch, complete with a defined edge that looked wholly unnatural compared to the 1080p version. At times like this it seems the producers were going to too powerful of an HDR effect.
For a change of pace away from blockbusters we also checked out "Wild," the Reese Witherspoon hiking odyssey, and again we liked the HDR better version overall. The outdoor scenes in particular showed better pop, although in this case the color differences between the 4K and standard Blu-rays were more subtle.
We also compared the 4K Blu-ray of "Exodus" on disc versus its M-Go download counterpart, and found the disc was actually slightly better despite both being HDR-compatible. During an early fight scene, Ramses (Joel Edgerton) is shown overseeing his warriors while wearing golden plate mail. The disc version showed more of the highlights as the sun caught his armor and later, as the army trashed a village, the flames were a more brilliant red on the player than the download was able to portray. While it was a close-fought battle, the disc won.
None of the four 4K Blu-rays we had on-hand have a direct 4K streaming counterpart, as far as we know, but even if they did we would expect the HDR-ified discs to deliver the same kind of improvement we saw over the 1080p Blu-rays. It will be very interesting to see how streaming HDR compares with its disc-based counterpart, but the content isn't available yet.
Next we checked out some standard discs, as well as the player's file playback and streaming performance.
Most Blu-ray players take about 15 seconds to start up Netflix, but the K8500 took about half that, which puts it in line with dedicated streaming players like the Roku. Meanwhile, loading times of our test Blu-ray, "Mission Impossible III," weren't up to par of the company's own, cheaper Samsung BD-J5900. This is likely because the K8500 doesn't have a Quick Start mode. Otherwise, it was still level with our favorite basic Blu-ray player, the Sony BDP-S5500, at being able to load from being off in 13.58 seconds -- a decent result.
We used the player to stream "Narcos" in 4K to an an LG 4K OLED TV, and compared it side by side against the 1080p version on an LG 1080p OLED. Despite some minor differences, due to the panels themselves, the streams looked largely identical. In other words, as we've seen in previous tests, 4K streaming (sans HDR) doesn't provide a major boost in image quality compared with 1080p streaming.
More impressive was the player's rendering of some 4K HDR files (provided by TV manufacturers) played via an attached USB hard drive. On a clip from "A Million Ways to Die in the West," the images popped in a way that a standard-dynamic-range Blu-ray simply can't. For example, in the jail scene in which Charlize Theron talks to an incarcerated man, you could see details in highlights and an overall impact that would escape standard-dynamic-range material. As the man stands in the cell you could see deep black in his cowboy hat and also make out images outside the windows.
While standard disc playback was mostly excellent, there were still some traces of video errors in our synthetic Blu-ray and DVD tests -- a little moire left over in our 2:2 pulldown test or incomplete jaggies compensation -- but nothing worth worrying about, and certainly not enough to be noticeable in most program material.
One unusual test result was found in playback of the Nine Inch Nails concert disc "Live: Beside You In Time," a 1080p Blu-ray. At the 15:15 mark the stage and the musicians turn a brilliant red, and the Samsung chose to render the band as psychedelic smears as they moved around against the backdrop. This is nothing we've seen on other players and it looked like the results of over-enthusiastic noise reduction. Sadly there is no control to limit or boost the amount of noise reduction in the Samsung's menu.
Do you really want to spend $400 on getting into a new, relatively untested format? The outlook for 4K Blu-ray is uncertain at this stage. Only three players are confirmed for 2016 -- the Samsung reviewed here, plus one each from Panasonic and Philips. Sony's own player may not come until early 2017, despite Sony Pictures being among the first studios to release 4K Blu-rays.
With DVDs still outselling Blu-rays -- "Minions" on DVD outsold Blu-ray seven copies to five in the last week of 2015, for example -- it's likely that 4K Blu-ray will sit at a distant third for a long time to come. There are two reasons for this: 4K streaming is already here and very convenient; and you need a high-end 4K TV to receive the benefits of the format. Most people still own 1080p televisions, or even older 720p models, and are perfectly happy with the video quality of HD streaming.
Then there's the fact that HDR streaming, from sources such as Netflix and Vudu, is coming soon -- and it's available now from Amazon. We're guessing streaming HDR quality will eventually (maybe even this year) come "close enough" to the video quality of 4K HDR Blu-ray discs to satisfy persnickety viewers, as long as they have a fast enough Internet connection.
Nonetheless, we're excited this new disc format has finally arrived, if only to show what state-of-the-art audio and HDR video can look and sound like in the home. We look forward to testing more discs as they become available, and plan to use the UDB-K8500 as a source device in our TV reviews going forward. We're also confident that some of the issues we noted can be addressed with software updates to the player and TVs.
If you own a high-end HDR-capable TV and want to see it look its best -- and don't mind paying $250, AU$315 or £200, and buying a bunch of new discs -- the UDB-K8500 is your best option. For everyone else, even owners of 4K TVs that aren't quite bleeding-edge, it's not yet worth the investment over regular Blu-ray. If that changes once more discs (and HDR TVs) hit the market, we'll let you know.