Commentary: Is this the beginning of the end for Blu-ray?
Samsung announced last week that it was no longer producing new 1080p or 4K Blu-ray players . If you're looking for the canary in the video-disc coal mine, it doesn't get any bigger than this.
Whether it's the latest artist or the hip new show on Netflix, streaming media is the norm today, and owning a streaming movie is more convenient than ever, thanks to digital copies and services like Movies Anywhere. One result is that the popularity of cheap media streamers like Roku and Amazon Fire TV are on the rise, while Blu-ray player sales are declining.
But people still continue to buy disc players, and 4K Blu-ray delivers best audio and video quality you can buy in home video -- without the need for a fast Internet connection. Samsung made the first 4K Blu-ray player, the UDB-K8500, and still makes plenty of high-end TVs, so as a Blu-ray player reviewer, its exit came as a surprise to me. Some experts say that Samsung's new partnership with Apple had an influence on the decision. But I can't help but wonder how long the Blu-ray format can survive without the Big S.
"Samsung will no longer introduce new (1080p) Blu-ray or 4K Blu-ray player models in the US market," a Samsung spokesperson told me last week. When I inquired further as to why, the only response was: "We will continue to sell through existing inventory."
Samsung's move comes almost 12 months after Oppo discontinued its entire AV line, including its well-received Blu-ray players. While Oppo was a relatively niche brand, Samsung has been the leader in Blu-ray player sales for the past three years. Last year, Samsung had 37 percent of units sold, followed by Sony at 31 percent and LG at 13 percent, according to data from market research firm NPD Group.
In addition, Samsung has four of Amazon's 10 best-selling Blu-ray players including an unnamed refurbished model as number one, with the other slots filled by Sony players. LG doesn't appear until no. 12.
It will surprise nobody that overall sales of Blu-ray players are on the decline (see the chart below, per NPD). In 2018 there were almost 1.5 million fewer Blu-ray players sold than the two years before.
In comparison, the number of streaming media players in people's homes has grown significantly. NPD doesn't capture unit sales of all streaming players, but it did give us the total installed base of streamers for the last four years, based on customer survey data. The number of players doubled from 33.3 million in November 2015 to 67.8 million in November 2018.
Margins are typically low in a Blu-ray player, and they involve more moving parts than a streamer, as well as costing significantly more. The least-expensive 4K Blu-ray players cost around $100, while Rokus start at $30. Then, of course, there's the ubiquity and ease of streaming movies and TV shows instead of dealing with discs.
"Samsung's exit is likely a combination of all (these) things....declining sales with little outlook for ASP (average selling price) increases, leading to lower margins," said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD Group. "The market's increase in streaming and (Samsung's) imminent integration of both AirPlay and iTunes into its TV streaming platform directly mitigates the need for a player."
At CES 2019, Apple announced a partnership with Samsung allowing users to access the iTunes store on the company's televisions . It's the first non-Apple device, apart from a PC, that will do this. Rivals Sony, LG and Vizio will also allow Apple users to broadcast from iPhones to TVs using AirPlay 2, but only Samsung TVs get access to an actual iTunes app.
Samsung and other Blu-ray players have apps for Netflix, Hulu and other major steaming services, but a dedicated Roku or Amazon Fire Stick is more frequently updated and can access many, many more apps. Most of the big traditional electronics brands rely on their smart TVs to deliver onboard streaming services.
"Samsung's brand imperative to offer all the devices in the Home Theater stack is just declining for them as their TV, which is really their strength, becomes more capable," Baker said.
From 1080p to 8K, from HDR10 to HLG, video standards are constantly evolving, and it's the televisions themselves that are leading the charge. Set-top hardware can get stuck in the past, and Samsung's last 4K Blu-ray player (released in 2018) doesn't support Dolby Vision. Reflecting this combination of constant flux and competition from streaming, only two companies announced new Blu-ray players at CES 2019 -- Panasonic and Sony.
It's arguable that 4K Blu-ray came in two years too late. The enthusiast-friendly benefits of the format -- 4K resolution, HDR (and Samsung's variant HDR10+) and Dolby Atmos audio -- are now available on streaming platforms. Yes, Blu-ray's higher video bit-rate distinguishes it from streaming content, but with many titles it's tough to see the benefit, and 4K HDR streaming can look spectacular. And of course, most people are happy to sacrifice the utmost video quality for convenience and the breadth of content.
As the most popular manufacturer of both televisions and Blu-ray players when Samsung makes a move like this the industry takes notice. For example, Samsung was the first company to discontinue 3D televisions, and its competitors followed in quick succession. But Blu-ray isn't necessarily finished yet, as Samsung's exit from Blu-ray will likely be a boon for the company's competitors.
"There are just a couple of brands left, and I suspect they will benefit in the short term from Samsung's decision and then reevaluate the value of the market for them longer-term," Baker said.
Like Samsung, Sony hasn't had a new 1080p player for since 2017, but the company is hopeful about the X800M2 4K player it announced at CES 2019.
"Sony Electronics continues to see very solid demand for our 4K Blu-ray player lineup from customers that feel this format delivers the best 4K home-theater viewing experience", a Sony Electronics spokesperson told CNET.
However, the company understands that customers want the convenience of streaming and will continue to evaluate the market.
"Consumers want options when it comes to enjoying video content, whether it's sourced from recorded media, video-on-demand services, or broadcast television. And as our customer's needs evolve, Sony will continue to provide them the flexibility to enjoy high-quality video content", he said.
LG, which didn't announce any new Blu-ray players at CES, did not respond to CNET's request for comment.
When was the last time you watched a Blu-ray or a DVD? While I use them for testing AV products I haven't watched a physical disc at home in at least a year. There's always that buzzy streaming show that I want to see instead. Yet I still have all my discs at home, both Blu-ray and CDs, and they aren't going anywhere.
Comebacks are not unheard of, as vinyl records and even cassettes have famously enjoyed a resurgence in the past few years. Vinyl didn't go away though -- in that 30-year period after the introduction of digital discs, vinyl continued to be sold, even if it was niche. Even now, vinyl is still outsold by CDs.
In the same way it's unlikely that physical video media will go away immediately. Videophiles looking for the best possible picture quality will probably continue to favor 4K Blu-ray. However, Samsung leaving the market illustrates that -- like vinyl -- the days of Blu-ray being a mainstream format are likely done. Streaming is too pervasive, affordable and convenient.