Has the quest for video and audio perfection in our home theatres reached its zenith with the arrival of 4K Ultra High Definition discs? For now, it appears so. Until we begin interacting with movies in a Star Trek holodeck kind of way, 4K Ultra HD represents the pinnacle of home entertainment formats. It’s as much a quantum leap upwards in quality from Blu-ray as HD discs were from DVD.
So how much better can 4K Ultra HD actually look, given Blu-ray provides reference quality transfers of film and television content? The answer lies in the 4 and the K.
It’s all about the number of pixels, those tiny dots that make up the image you’re seeing, and 4K offers 3840 of them for horizontal resolution and 2160 for the vertical on an Ultra HD TV. By comparison, Full HD 1080p (the resolution standard for Blu-ray) is 1920 x 1080, so the image quality is four times greater. Moreover, the digital cinema standard is 2K, so with a disc mastered at the full 4K resolution you’re effectively getting a better image at home than at the movies, and the savings on overpriced candy bar items can now be invested into 4K discs!
4K Ultra HD also offers HDR (High Dynamic Range), combining three images to deliver better contrast, deeper blacks and brighter whites. It’s this function that truly brings the 4K experience to vivid life. You’ll immediately notice the upgrade in black levels, colour saturation and sharpness, providing greater detail and the depth of a 3D image without the glasses.
We originally road tested Mad Max: Fury Road, Deadpool and The LEGO Movie in 4K with HDR and the difference was immediately apparent from the opening frames. The high pixel density means you can now sit closer to a large screen TV and the image will remain just as sharp as when viewed from two or three metres away. So if you’re the type who wants an all-enveloping IMAX-like experience at home, you can comfortably move the couch in a little closer. We’ll leave the finer technical details and terminology for another time and outline in layman’s terms how to get the most from your 4K discs, and what’s on offer for your viewing pleasure.
WHAT WILL I NEED?
• An Ultra HD TV that supports HDR
4K is designed for big screens and Ultra HD TVs start from 50-inches upwards. Size does matter if you want to duplicate the cinema experience at home, which of course you do, so the bigger the panel, the better. Older models prior to 2016 may not support HDR – 4K discs will still look great, but they’ll look even more incredibly detailed and colourful with this function.
• A 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player
4K Ultra HD discs won’t play on a standard Blu-ray player – the transfers require more disc space than a BD. But Blu-ray discs and DVDs will play on a 4K UHD Blu-ray player, and what’s more, they’ll look even better when you take advantage of the upscaling function, which brings the image quality closer to a 4K disc.
If you’re going the 4K route, you want the full experience with a dedicated 4K player that supports HDR. Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and LG all have options currently, which give you everything that you need. LG’s UP970 even has Dolby Vision support, which is an advanced version of HDR that’s starting to show up on some 4K releases, such as the first two Despicable Me flicks. Alternatively, Microsoft’s Xbox One S console supports 4K and HDR for both video and gaming, so it will eagerly play your 4K Ultra HD discs.
• A 4K Ultra HD disc (see below)
WHAT CAN I WATCH?
The good news is that major studios are all now throwing their weight behind the 4K format, launching ranges that showcase the enhanced resolution of Ultra HD and include new release and, from some distributors, back catalogue titles. Just like the combo packs featuring both a Blu-ray and DVD edition of a film, 4K discs include a Blu-ray copy, so if you haven’t upgraded your hardware to Ultra HD as yet, your software is future-proofed for when you do.
It’s a difficult decision, but we recommend Deadpool as the ultimate demo disc, simply because the film was shot, edited and mastered in 4K and will give you the full “wow” factor of the format. Plane crash drama Sully and Luc Besson’s Lucy are two other stunning examples of the full 4K effect. Of course, this isn’t to say that movies that weren’t digitally shot using 4K are anything less than reference quality – Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, The Martian, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and John Wick: Chapter 2, should also be considered. Animation also shines in 4K, with Illumination’s Sing in particular looking stunning.
With new 4K transfers being made from the negatives of several classic films, it’s an exciting prospect to see old favourites looking better than ever. The original Ghostbusters is wild, and it would be easy to argue that the recent and totally stunning 4K release of Blade Runner is the new demo disc for Ultra HD. But until they’re more prevalent, the significant boost in resolution provided by the 4K upscaling feature will have you revisiting titles in your existing Blu-ray library just to see how amazing they can now look. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Toy Story and Suspiria in 4K Ultra HD? Yes please!