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Ultra HD Blu-ray: The official specs, when to expect it and who it benefits

05.13.2015

The jump from VHS to DVD was a no-brainer and a long time coming. Consumers could see the difference in quality right off the bat. The ease-of-use, as well as the space saved, were apparent just by looking at those beautiful little versatile discs in action. Blu-ray was a bit of a tougher sell, especially when it started out competing against HD-DVD (remember those days?). Hell, there's still plenty of folks out there who haven't jumped on the Blu-ray bandwagon, but for those of us who have, DVD is a bit of a muddy and dull mess in comparison. Blu-ray hasn't exactly toppled the market like DVD did, but it wasn't LaserDisc either. And seriously, if you own an HD TV (1080p) and don't own a Blu-ray player, what are you waiting for? I digress...

You may have heard some talk about Ultra HD Blu-ray, especially in the past few days. The Blu-ray Disc Association has just made an announcement regarding the follow-up to Blu-ray, as well as an official logo and some specifications.

Here's the official statement:

The Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) today announced completion of the Ultra HD Blu-ray™ specification and released the new logo that will delineate Ultra HD Blu-ray products. The Ultra HD Blu-ray specification, which represents the work of global leaders from the consumer electronics, IT and content creation industries, will enable delivery of Ultra HD content via Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc to the rapidly growing number of UHD TV households.

“For years, Blu-ray Disc™ has set the standard for high definition picture and audio quality in the home. Ultra HD Blu-ray will do the same for UHD home entertainment," said Victor Matsuda, chair, BDA Promotions Committee. “The technical capabilities of Blu-ray Disc, in particular its significant storage capacity and high data transfer rates, will enable the delivery of an unparalleled, consistent and repeatable UHD experience."

The completed Ultra HD Blu-ray specification addresses a range of factors, beyond simply increasing resolution, that will significantly enhance the home entertainment experience for consumers. In addition to delivering content in up-to 3840x2160 resolution, the Ultra HD Blu-ray format enables delivery of a significantly expanded color range and allows for the delivery of high dynamic range (HDR) and high frame rate content. Next-generation immersive, object-based sound formats will also be delivered via the Ultra HD Blu-ray specification. Additionally, with the optional digital bridge feature, the specification enhances the value of content ownership by embracing the notion that a content purchase can enable the consumer to view their content across the range of in-home and mobile devices.

The specification also mandates all new Ultra HD Blu-ray players be capable of playing back current Blu-ray Discs, giving consumers access to the vast library of more than 10,000 titles currently available on Blu-ray Disc.

Licensing of Ultra HD Blu-ray is scheduled to begin this Summer. The BDA is working closely with industry leaders in the authoring, testing, certification and replication industries to develop the tools and process needed to ensure interoperability between players and software and to facilitate the development of a robust ecosystem to support the hardware and title launch of Ultra HD Blu-ray.

Okay, so how does Ultra HD measure up to Blu-ray? Well, the big difference that most are likely to point out between Blu-ray and Ultra HD is the resolution. Blu-ray can output 1920x1080 pixels, while Ultra HD can do 3840x2160 (also known as 4K). It's worth nothing that the 4K you see in theaters is more likely to be 4096 x 2160, which is slightly greater than Ultra HD. With that said, you'll obviously need a 4K television in order to take advantage of Ultra HD, much like a person without an HDTV wouldn't be able to see the real differences between a DVD and a Blu-ray.

There's another argument brewing with 4K televisions and that's how close you actually have to sit to the TV in order to see the resolution difference. There are lots of charts floating around online and while they all vary, I've included the one above just for reference. As you can see, it appears that in order to really take advantage of 4K resolution, you'd either have to have a ridiculously large TV or sit ridiculously close. This brings us to our next spec on Ultra HD, which is color reproduction.

As you can imagine, the High Dynamic Range (HDR) of Ultra HD will to handle better contrast and color reproduction than Blu-ray. In order to illustrate this point more eloquently, I've pulled a quote from Bill Hunt from his website, The Digital Bits. The man has had plenty of eyes-on experience in the matter and also addresses the resolution argument.

Bill Hunt on High Dynamic Range:

Now, a lot of people have said that average consumers would have trouble distinguishing 4K from regular 1080p content at average home viewing distances. This is true. HOWEVER... the addition of High Dynamic Range as a key part of this spec changes that equation dramatically. Thanks to our friends at 20th Century Fox, I’ve personally seen a side by side demonstration of the same content playing in 1080p and 4K with HDR. Let me tell you, the difference is night and day clear, and EVERYONE (up to and including your Grandma Betty) will be able to see that difference and appreciate it. HDR greatly broadens the visible range of contrast in the image, so you get bright areas that look realistic and also truly dark blacks. But broadening that range also greatly broadens the color gamut, which means far more realistic color reproduction. Video images in properly-mastered 4K HDR have greatly increased depth and look almost photo real.

As you can see, even if the resolution isn't AS noticeable (depending on where you're sitting), the HDR will more than make up for it. You couple that with higher bit rates (82-128 megabits per second versus the 40 mbps of Blu-ray) and more immersive sound (like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X), and you have what's as much of an upgrade from Blu-ray as Blu-ray was from DVD.

We realistically can't expect to see Ultra HD on shelves until the first quarter of 2016 (MAYBE the holidays of this year), but whether or not this remains a niche format is hard to tell. Studios haven't exactly embraced Blu-ray as well as they should have, and with digital streaming and downloading becoming more popular, I'll be curious to see if Ultra HD even ends up on a blip on the layman's radar. Those of you who already own 4K TV or plan to pick one up in the next year may want to keep an eye out for the format, but I have a feeling a lot of us will be waiting to see how it all goes.

Do you have any interest in adopting Ultra HD Blu-ray when it streets?

Tags: blu-ray, DVD, Ultra HD

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