The trials and triumphs of a new 4K / HDR Home Theater set-up
4K ULTRA HD FORMAT REVIEW
LOOK OUT – here comes a new advance in the ultimate home theater experience.
For 15 years, high-definition video (1920x1080 pixels) was the best. Then two years ago, 4K Ultra-HD TVs (3840x2160) with four-times the resolution began popping up at Best Buy, Target, Costco and even Wal-Mart. The only problem was there was little to no 4K content, and it was limited to online downloading and streaming.
All that has now changed.
Without much fanfare, four Hollywood studios – Fox, Sony, Warner Bros. and Lionsgate – partnered with Samsung to unveil the first batch of 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray movies. "Mad Max: Fury Road," "The Martian," "Sicario," "X-Men: Days of Future Past," "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and "The Peanuts Movie" are in the vanguard. Scheduled for same day-and-date with Blu-ray and DVD are "Concussion" (March 29), Fox's "The Revenant" (April 19) and "Joy" (May 3). Each 4K disc set will also include a Blu-ray and Digital HD copy ($29.99).
UPDATE: Paramount Studios just announced its first 4K discs - J.J. Abrams' two Star Trek films (June 14).
So – yes – another physical format? Plain and simple, the new five-inch discs unleash the best industry-reference 4K Ultra HD content at the highest video transfer rates with uncompressed audio. Online content cannot replicate audio and video levels like this.
More importantly, the 4K discs have the new high-tech HDR (High Dynamic Range) technology embedded creating more brilliant highlights, deeper blacks with added detail in the shadows, and a wider color spectrum for the most life-like visual experience ever. Old school HD only presented about 35 percent of the colors the human eye can perceive; the new 4K discs with HDR produce 75 percent of the color spectrum, brightness and contrast.
NEW EQUIPMENT: You'll need it and it's going to cost. First to get will be a 4K Ultra-HD TV or 4K front projector with HDR. Most of the 2015 and earlier 4K Ultra TV models were not HDR ready. This year's 4K HDR lineup has already pushed past 30 models and six projectors. TV prices start at $599, zooming past $3,000; it's higher for projectors. More than 6 million 4K TVs has been sold in the U.S. so far, and a Strategy Analytics report predicts 10 percent penetration by end of the year, with 50 percent predicted by 2020.
THE KEY: Size is everything if you're looking for maximum on-screen pop. Sixty-five inches or larger is ideal. Be sure to move your La-Z-Boy or couch about six-feet away and prepare to be wowed by the visual power that comes with the added HDR detail and 4K sharpness.
Next, you'll need a new 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray player. The Samsung UBD-K8500 ($399) is now available, with more models to arrive later in the year. Prices are bound to drop during the holiday season. The Samsung player reads the 4K and HDR content and is backward compatible with 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD and CDs. It also up-converts existing Blu-rays to 4K, and the result is surprisingly good. The player features dozens of apps including Amazon, Netflix and YouTube. Old Blu-ray players will not play the 4K discs.
To get the latest and greatest audio formats with the complete immersive soundtracks – Dolby's Atmos and DTS:X featured on majority of the 4K discs – you'll need one of the new audio/video receivers. Most of the 2016 models are also installed with HDMI 2.0a and 2.2 HDCP copy protection inputs that pass-through the 4K video up to 60Hz.
SETTING UP: I started to assemble mine in January, with a mid-priced AV receiver with all of the bells and whistles. It handled the new audio formats without a hitch. Next came the least expensive 4K ready projector with HDR mounted to the ceiling. The Samsung 4K player arrived two weeks later from Best Buy. One problem: The 4K discs weren't available until March 1. In the meantime, the new equipment played Blu-rays flawlessly with its 4K up-conversion. I also purchased a new 40-foot HDMI cable to handle the 4K 60Hz signal. I also ran a shorter (three-foot) HDMI cable from the player to the AV receiver and the 40-foot HDMI cable from the receiver to the projector.
BUMPY TEST DRIVE: The 4K discs finally arrived and "The Martian" had to be the first watch. I hit the play button, the tray closed and … nothing. No picture. I heard the opening music and that was it. I was stumped.
Checked my favorite online AV site – avsforum.com, a great resource for audiophiles and videophiles with tips, workarounds, and valuable setup numbers. I quickly discovered my Denon AV receiver needed a firmware upgrade to unlock the 4K video using the 2.2 copy protection HDMI input. Five weeks later, I'm still waiting; Denon has only forwarded the firmware to their top-of-line models.
I also discovered a 4K/HDR signal from a HDMI cable longer than 30-feet is not reliable. I'm now on my fourth cable, and it's still not perfect. The best results came from a 24-foot Rocketfish cable from Best Buy, but it was an eyesore, running across the middle of the floor and up between my theater seats to the projector. It was returned. Now I'm using a slim, fiber optic HDMI cable, without copper, from Monoprice.com made for longer runs. It fits nicely inside a wire channel along the ceiling and baseboard.
My workaround – I've by-passed the receiver to send the 4K signal straight from the Samsung player to the projector. A second HDMI output on the Samsung designated for audio sends the uncompressed audio straight to the receiver. Not the perfect setup set, but workable.
4K/HDR PICTURE: After re-starting "The Martian," an image from the disc menu screen appeared 30 seconds later. Everything was super dark. Another speed bump.
The 4K projector's gamma levels needed to be readjusted for HDR. Okay. Checked the manual, and on page 36, set at level D, and adjusted the gamma picture tone, dark level and bright level as needed. All three were pushed to the maximum. The Samsung player also required some retooling with its brightness and contrast levels for HDR.
I re-started the disc again. The music came up, and finally the first 4K/HDR imagery from the red planet pops onto my new nine-foot wide screen.
Nothing before had been this true. Not even from the movie theaters. The expanded brightness and contrast and colors that match the billions of different flesh tones that makes up humanity. The spectrum of colors of the multi-cultural cast and their varying skin tones were so real.
Fox's HDR gurus processed "The Martian" using raw 2K assets up-converted to 4K, plus director Ridley Scott's imagery from the 5K Red Dragon digital camera. Then they made frame-by-frame adjustments on a 4K monitor, which give visuals the full range of seeing every tweak done within the HDR domain.
HDR maybe the greatest leap in television technology.
"Mad Max: Fury Road" Six Oscars – all deserved. I was a huge fan of the 3D Blu-ray, but once I strapped myself in for the 4K disc, I was in the race! The picture was much richer and deeper; detail is up a couple clicks from the Blu-ray.
"The Martian" HDR gives the space odyssey a noticeable leap in visual contrast and clarity, with super wide-angle views of Mars' vistas. Plus the HDR color accuracy is more expansive – as seen especially in the Ares III spacesuits and NASA gear.
"Sicario" The mind-bending thriller has exceptional 4K digital visuals and mastering showcasing Roger Deakins' Oscar nominated photography. He captures the clarity from 3,000 feet over the Southwest desert to the sweat on Emily Blunt's brow. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack drives composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's haunting score.
"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" This is one of the few movies in the first batch that was actually mastered in 4K from the start. Captured on 35mm film, it's a one-to-one scan from each film grain to each digital pixel. HDR delivers color subtleties radiantly.
Every time we think we've achieved the penultimate home theater, something new pops up. And we level-up with it. The industry clearly needs to standardize HDR levels and provide test discs or test levels. It's a common tool in the HD world to ensure everyone is getting the right values from player to player.
Until then, early adapters are the guinea pigs in the 4K/HDR revolution – and it is still changing. There have already been three firmware upgrades since my working set-up… just keeping us on our toes.
Bill Kelley III, High-def Watch producer