Posted Fri Aug 16, 2019 at 03:16 PM PDT by Michael S. Palmer
Many folks obsess over whether or not they're buying "real" or "fake" 4K. Someone asks us about this almost every day. And we get it. We empathize with anyone who dislikes 4K as the nomenclature or branding term or who feels 4K misrepresents the final product.
The box says 4K, but it's a 2K upscale? It's a scam!
The truth is more complicated but, in my sincerest and humblest opinion, focusing solely on source resolution requires ignoring a host of 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray benefits. With this in mind, we thought we'd take a moment to give a little background about 4K, outlining how we got here and everything the format does well, in hopes of clarifying a few misconceptions.
Before we dive in, remember: if you're happy with Blu-ray and HDTV in general, great. Stick with what works for you and/or what fits your budget. However, after three years of testing and comparing, we are confident that 4K is currently the superlative way to enjoy two-dimensional content. Even if it's imperfect at times.
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia. Marked CC0.
4K actually covers two separate resolutions, which adds some confusion. 4K DCI refers to 4096 x 2160 resolution video. It's the standard for 4K cinema projectors and boasts a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. 4K UHD or Ultra HD refers to 3840 x 2160 resolution video. It's the standard for Ultra HD televisions and boasts a 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
Despite all of the 4K cinema projectors and booming 4K TV sales, many Hollywood productions are still finished at a 2K resolution (2048 x 858 for "Scope" & 1998 x 1080 for "Flat") and then upscaled to 4K Ultra HD for home entertainment purposes.
In 2015, the Blu-ray Alliance (now the Ultra HD Alliance) branded their new format -- Ultra HD Blu-ray -- around latest-gen Ultra HD TVs. Thanks to marketing, branding, and consumers embracing the language, 4K became the catch-all term for new TVs and physical media / streaming formats.
Speaking of formats, remember this: every home video format has a particular set of specifications and capabilities, but not every release lives up to this full potential. (Remember when Danny Boyle's SD-resolution 28 Days Later got a Blu-ray release?)
This gap between a specific movie and a format's capability is why High-Def Digest exists. We strive to let our readers know what movies and TV shows look and sound amazing so you can make informed purchases.
There are exceptions, naturally, but almost every single 4K Ultra Blu-ray outperforms its Blu-ray counterpart visually, especially on large displays. They are typically brighter with better contrast and colors and fewer encoding errors.
Why is this? 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray is superior to Blu-ray in several ways regardless of source-material resolution:
Is every 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray amazing and a perfect encapsulation of the format's true potential? Of course not. But when you compare the vast majority of 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray's to the same movie's best Blu-ray release, the 4K Blu almost always stands above. And the bigger and more capable you make your display, the more pronounced this visual upgrade becomes.
Yup. Outside of the specifics of max bitrates (4K streaming is around 15-20Mbps, not 100Mbps), everything we just covered applies to 4K versus HD streaming. You get a better codec, higher bit rates, HDR, 10bit/wider colors, and access to the latest transfers and source materials. Further, studios tie most Dolby Atmos mixes to 4K productions, 4K-level subscription plans, and/or 4K-capable equipment.
To be clear, where 4K Blu-rays almost always includes HDR, there is a fair amount of standard dynamic range 4K streaming content. Even without the improved colors and contrast, higher bitrates and an efficient codec produce noticeably improved video presentations. This week, for example, I watched AMC's The Terror: Infamy via a DirecTV VR as well as Amazon's The Boys via an Apple TV 4K. Both shows feature dark sequences with lavish production design. Both shows were projected on a 100" screen via the Epson 5050 UB 4K projector. But, where The Terror's HD broadcast was compressed and drowning in encoding errors, The Boys' 4K SDR presentation was crisp and clear and much more akin to watching physical media.
Once you upgrade to 4K streaming, it's hard to watch regular TV, to be honest.
Time and money. Please pardon the oversimplification, but most Hollywood studios could probably shoulder the cost of further upgrading their post-production pipelines. What they often can't do is give the filmmakers more time. Even with years make a giant production, movies race toward release dates and adding extra rendering time for 4K visual effects could delay productions by weeks or months. It just doesn't make sense. Yet.
And even when it does -- when a movie is finished in 4K -- it often includes 2K visual effects elements that are then upscaled to match the rest of the content.
We see this comment a lot, but it's just not true. Yes, most studio movies are still finished in 2K or include some 2K visual effects, but 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and 4K streaming offer tons of native and mixed 4K content.
In other words, while most features are still 2K upscales, there's a growing collection of native and mixed resolution 4K content you can enjoy right now.
You betcha. The 4K ecosystem is loads more complicated than the HD days, which leads to frustrations and headaches that aren't well suited for non-enthusiasts.
We get asked about real and fake 4K almost every single day here at High-Def Digest. And while we empathize with folks who demand a format live up to its promised specifications, the reality is more complicated than binary categories like real or fake. While it's easy to blame 2K resolution for rubbish 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays, we've seen native 4K Blu-rays that look mediocre thanks to flawed source materials, and we've seen upscaled 2K transfers that set benchmark reference-quality visuals.
The point is this: we measure 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and 4K streaming quality by the sum of their parts -- resolution, fidelity, color, contrast, black levels, specular highlights, shadow details, and so on -- not just one aspect. Again, this is why we're here. To help tell home theater enthusiasts discover the absolute best 4K content while avoiding the worst.
Cheers & thanks so much for reading.
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