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Ultra HD Blu-ray - Ready for Prime Time?

Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and the first player officially rolled out on March 1, 2015 (with actual availability a few days earlier in some cases).  This blog takes a look at both the good and the bad for these first generation discs and players.  

Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray Player

The Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player (pictured above) is the first such player to be offered for sale in the USA.  At an introductory price of $399 ($499 MSRP) it is about 40% more expensive (MSRP) than Samsung's current top-of-the-line 1080p player.  Panasonic is expected to introduce their first generation Ultra HD Blu-ray player, model DMP-UB900, during April (at least in Europe) and Philip's first player is expected to begin shipping in May.  The Panasonic player is expected to sell for 1.5 to 2 times the price of the other two players.

I evaluated the Samsung UBD-K8500 disc player primarily with a JVC DLA-RS600U projector and to a much lesser extend with a Vizio P70 UHD-TV.  The JVC projector supports both the Wide Color Gamut (WCG) and the High Dynamic Range (HDR) enhancements found on the first batch of disc releases and partially supports the higher resolution of these UHD discs (i.e., the JVC projector accepts the 4K/UHD signal input and using pixel shifting supports enhanced resolution that's better than 1080p but less than what's possible with a native 4K/UHD display).  My Vizio UHD-TV from late 2014 on the other hand supports the full 4K/UHD resolution but only supports standard Rec. 709 color gamut and lacks HDR support.

Since  the UBD-K8500 is a first generation Ultra HD Blu-ray player and the JVC DLA-RS600U is a first generation projector supporting full bandwidth HDMI 2.oa w/HDCP 2.2, HDR and WCG, I realized going into this evaluation that there was clearly a strong possibility for compatibility issues.  For my setup with the Samsung player and JVC projector, I also included a Denon AVR-X6200W A/V receiver in the signal path between the disc player and the projector.

All three of the devices support the new HDMI 2.0a standard along with HDCP 2.2 copy protection, so one would hope that the HDMI interfaces on these 3 devices would be compatible.

For my evaluation I purchased 7 movies recently released on 4K/Ultra HD Blu-ray discs.  These included releases from 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures, and Warner Brothers.

For this blog I'll first walk you through the observations/issues with the connection and setup of the Samsung player with the JVC projector, both with and without use of the Denon AVR in the signal path.  Then after that I'll discuss issues with getting the projector set up to display the 4K/UHD content from the Ultra HD discs and finally I'll very briefly discuss how the projected HDR image looks, but there will be more on that topic in a planned update to my review of the JVC DLA-RS600U.

Connecting the Samsung UHD Blu-ray Player to the JVC Projector

The Samsung UBD-K8500 has two HDMI outputs with one offering the full HDMI 2.0a support for both video and audio and the second HDMI output only carries audio.  Offering two HDMI outputs allows the user the option of connecting the player directly to a projector or UHD monitor/TV  for just the video  and also connecting the player to an older AVR (I.e., one that isn't equipped with the latest HDMI 2.0(a) with HDCP 2.2 inputs)  for just the audio.  In my case my Denon AVR-X6200W AVR does support the latest HDMI 2.0a inputs/outputs with HDCP 2.2.  Therefore, I had the option of running the player's HDMI #1 output to the AVR then the AVR's HDMI output to the JVC projector.

I did try connecting the UBD-K8500 directly to the projector as well as thru the AVR.  I used a 25 ft. long active HDMI cable, rated to support the full 18 Gbps data rate of HDMI 2.0,  to the ceiling mounted JVC projector.  With a direct connection from the player to the projector, I found the 4K/UHD signal to be unreliable with the projector reporting "no signal" in many cases.  When the player was connected with a 3 ft. passive high speed cable to the AVR then using the 25 ft. active HDMI cable from the AVR to the projector to the projector, the reliability of the connection improved dramatically.  However, it still was not perfect in that when the player was outputting UHD video in 2160p/60 format, there was still occasional signal loss,  On the other hand, when the video was in 2160p/24 format (e.g., when playing UHD Blu-ray movies) the connection was totally reliable.  The difference in reliability from a direct player-to-projector connection (i.e., unreliable) vs. player-to-AVR-to-projector connections (i.e., more reliable) lead me to conclude the Samsung player's HDMI output level is lower than ideal, while the AVR was outputting a  higher signal level that was better to able to overcome the cable loss.

However, it appears the situation is more complex than that.  In late March JVC released a firmware update for their projectors that was intended to improved the HDMI connection reliability with certain UHD sources (unofficially the Samsung player).   JVC has not said exactly what was changed, but it appears a change was made in the HDMI handshake as to what specific 4K/UHD formats the projector informs the source (i.e.., player) as being supported by the projector.   From my own experience and also reports from several other JVC projector owners it does appear that with the JVC firmware update installed the overall connection reliability has been improved, both in cases where passive or active  HDMI cables are being used.  I do feel the Samsung player is at least partially at fault here as they only offer the options of using 4:4:4 or RGB chroma formats and this needlessly increases the data rate that must be carried by the HDMI cable, as compared to using 4:2:2 or 4:2:0 chroma format for 60Hz UHD video.  Since the video is recorded in 4:2:0 format, there is no real benefit is having the player in converting this to 4:4:4 or RGB format before outputting via HDMI.

Getting the Projector and Player Configured for UHD, HDR and WGC

The UHD Blu-ray discs (i.e., movies) released so far all include support for High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Wide Color Gamut (WCG).  While all 4K/UHD displays may support the increased resolution offered by the UHD Blu-ray discs, only a few of the latest models support HDR and also many do not support WCG.   The Samsung player and the JVC DLA-RS600U support both of these enhancements, at least to some extend.  I'll deal with HDR and WCG separately.


HDR - JVC has included some support for HDR, but the Blu-ray version of HDR is clearly tailored for ultra-bright flat panel displays where the brightest highlights in the image may appear 10 times brighter than the normal white reference level.  Projectors in general will not have the peak brightness levels that are possible with HDR enabled flat panel UHD TVs.  The JVC DLA-RS600U has a maximum calibrated light output of about 1700 lumens, at short throw distance, lamp on high and lens iris fully open.   With my 120" 16x9 screen with a gain of 1.1, this works out to about 43 foot lamberts.  Since many home theater owners prefer to have the reference white level, for standard dynamic range video, at about 16 to 18 foot lamberts, this means that the maximum brightness available for the peak HDR highlights will be approx. 2.5 times as bright as the reference white level.   HDR requires a special gamma curve to be used by the display and JVC included one preset gamma curve (i.e., Gamma 'D') for this purpose.  However, JVC designed these projectors before that had access to a UHD player or discs.  As a result this factory default gamma curve was not ideal for displaying HDR content from UHD Blu-ray discs.

When the Samsung player is outputting HDR content the JVC projector automatically switches to Gamma 'D' setting, engages high lamp mode, disables the automatic iris and locks the manual iris at the fully open setting (to give maximum image brightness).  The only issue I have here is by disengaging the auto iris the dynamic range of the image is more limited and the black level on fades-to-black is higher.

JVC has recently issued, via their web site, a set of suggested values that can be entered on the gamma submenu to modify the factory preset for gamma curve 'D' for HDR.  I found that using the JVC suggested values (more or less) along with setting the Samsung player to output in the "RGB Limited" format and setting the projector's HDMI input level to "Super White" resulted in reasonably good HDR performance.  On certain discs, such as Mad Max: Fury Road, there are a number of scenes with explosions or other bright highlights were the HDR capabilities of the projector are obvious.   Certainly not to the extent these same HDR highlights would appear on a brighter HDR enabled flat panel UHD TV, but my conclusion is there are HDR benefits to be had with these JVC projectors.  This conclusion should also apply to the Sony HDR capable native 4K projectors since they offer similar maximum brightness levels.

So what happens when you connect a UHD Blu-ray player up to a display, such as my Vizio P70 UHD TV, that does not support HDR and then play a HDR encoded UHD Blu-ray disc.  In that case the player is forced to convert the HDR into Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) video.  While the Samsung player does this, I found that the conversion is not very good (at least on some movie titles).  Perhaps this is something that can be improved via a future firmware update from Samsung.


WCG - Support for Wide Color Gamut is another aspect of UHD Blu-ray discs that was not well understood until recently.  Both Sony and JVC offer a factory setting on certain of their projectors that is said to support the DCI-P3 color gamut (color space).  However, the UHD Blu-ray disc standard uses the wider ITU Rec. BT.2020 color gamut as the "container" to convey any color gamut wider than standard HDTV Rec. 709.  To address this JVC in late March released software, via their web site, that allows the owner to upload a new "BT2020 Color Profile" into the projector.  The widest color gamut the DLA-RS600U can actually display is still limited to less than the full BT2020 color gamut, but that's OK for now since the movies being released on UHD Blu-ray also use more limited color space.

The Bottom Line

At this point in time there is  only one brand/model of Ultra HD Blu-ray player is on the market and the only projectors (also applies to most 4K/UHD TVs) supporting both HDR and WGC are generally first generation products, as far of these features are concerned.  As a result, we are not at the point of 'plug and play' for getting optimum, or in some cases even acceptable, results.  Even with the updates I mention above for the JVC projector (Samsung also provided a firmware update to their player a few weeks ago), the user must go into the menus, for at least the projector,  and select a different custom picture mode that has been set up by the user specifically for  displaying Ultra HD Blu-ray discs with HDR and WCG.  A different custom picture mode will need to be created and used for viewing UHD content without HDR but with WCG, such as from a streaming video service (yes the Samsung UBD-K8500 player offers support for most of the popular streaming services).  A third custom picture mode will be needed for viewing 1080p content or 4K/UHD content that does use either WCG or HDR.

The bottom line is many technically inclined hobbyists can probably live with the limitations of these first generation products.  However, the less technically inclined consumers that just want to insert a disc or pick a streaming program and have it displayed with a good picture, may need to wait for 2nd (or 3rd) generation disc players and UHD displays to bring better integration of the associated functions.

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