by Steven Cohen
With the new year just getting started, and a whole slew of new products and tech set to be revealed next week at CES, we here at High-Def Digest thought it might be fun to give a rundown of our top hopes and predictions for HD gear in 2014. From cheaper 4K sets to continued plasma support, these are our wishes for the home theater industry. Some are already in the works, while others might forever remain unrealistic fantasies, but you can't blame us for dreaming!
2013 saw the arrival of Ultra HD and OLED, the end of Panasonic plasma production, and the continued dominance of LCD panels. But what will 2014 have to offer? Without further ado, here's our list of our top HD Gear expectations and wishes for 2014…
More Affordable 4K Sets
To their credit, almost all of the major players, including Sony, Samsung, and LG have offered solid price cuts to their initial lineup of Ultra HD televisions since they first launched. With that said, considering how high they were priced to begin with, this still makes 4K adoption a rather pricey endeavor. $3000 for a 55-inch LCD isn't exactly affordable, and if these manufacturers really want to see Ultra HD become mainstream, then they are going to have to find a way to appeal to the average consumer.
There are several budget 4K sets currently available, however, most notably from Seiki Digital (and Polaroid just announced their own $1000 model), but their picture quality likely won't be able to compete with the big name brands. Hopefully, this year, Sony and company will take notice of these cheaper alternatives and offer their own more affordable 4K models.
4K Models with Better Tech
If more inexpensive 4K TVs are out of the question, then Ultra HD displays should at least have the panel technology to back up their high price tags. Unfortunately, all of the Ultra HD TVs currently on the market use regular old LED/LCD panels, and while there are some benefits to that display technology (most notably brightness), LCDs are still susceptible to several key drawbacks -- namely poor viewing angles, lackluster black levels, and inferior uniformity. Some of the models available from the bigger companies do use edge-lit local dimming, but very few utilize full-array local dimming (Samsung's UN85S9 being the primary exception) which would substantially improve black levels. High resolutions are only one part of picture quality, and all the pixels in the world don't mean much if it all turns into washed-out mush when the lights are off. If manufacturers want to stick with LCD for their Ultra HD offerings, hopefully they will start developing more full-array local dimming options.
Of course, an even more desirable tactic would be to expand beyond LCDs altogether. Though plasma support seems to be dwindling, PDP technology provides superior black levels and contrast which would be a perfect fit for Ultra HD's superior resolution. Unfortunately, there have reportedly been substantial cost and development issues related to manufacturing 4K plasmas, which is one of the reasons that the tech is being phased out to begin with. Still, this does leave one viable contender for the future of Ultra HD TVs: OLED. OLED panels feature several of the benefits of LCD and plasma displays without suffering from many of their weaknesses. For now, the technology is still very expensive, but LG will be showing off a 77-inch 4K OLED TV at CES. It will likely cost more than my car (or maybe even a house!), if it ever gets a retail release at all, but hey, it's still a step in the right direction.
More OLED Models and Cheaper Price Tags
Speaking of OLED technology, though initial impressions of the current offerings from Samsung and LG have been very positive, their price tags are still incredibly high and they remain the only two options available to US consumers. Likewise, both models feature curved-screen designs, which might not appeal to many potential buyers. The recent news that Sony and Panasonic have ended their OLED development partnership doesn't bode well for future OLED models in 2014, but at least for now, LG has reiterated its commitment to the technology and will be demoing several new sets at CES, including a flat screen 55-inch TV that will hopefully make its way to the US. Now if only they can get those prices down.
More 4K Content
Electronics manufacturers' recent push for Ultra HD is all good and well, but without actual 4K content to display on their expensive TVs, there really isn't much reason to buy them. Currently, the only way to get substantial Ultra HD content is to buy a Sony 4K TV with the Sony FMP-X1 4K Ultra HD Media Player, which puts many early 4K adopters without a Sony set in a pretty bad spot. Thankfully, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube have started to pledge support for Ultra HD content, and through the use of new codes like VP9 and H.265, we could begin seeing 4K streams very soon.
Still, streaming technology has clear limitations, and though these new codecs will certainly help, internet speeds and bandwidth issues will no doubt limit quality and lead to compression artifacts -- and who wants that? The solution? A true 4K disc medium. Rumors have been swirling about an official announcement regarding 4K Blu-ray from the BDA for quite some time, and hopefully the association will have something concrete to report this year. Pretty please?
Better Quality HD Streams
Though 4K might be all the rage right now, good old fashioned HD material still has a lot of room for improvement, especially when it comes to streaming services. Thankfully, the new VP9 and H.265 codecs won't just be useful for Ultra HD content. Instead, their advanced compression methods enable high quality video with limited bitrates, which might finally offer true Blu-ray quality HD streams to your living room. But video is only part of the equation, and when it comes to streaming services, audio is often neglected. One of our main wishes for 2014 is for Netflix and other streaming services to start offering higher quality audio options. Lossless mixes would be ideal, but internet speed limitations might be a preventing factor.
Advanced display technologies and higher resolutions are all very exciting, but more than thinner bezels and more pixels, I would love for manufacturers to start providing more pre-calibrated display options. The THX mode offered on several current TVs is a big step in the right direction, but the accuracy of that preset isn't always up to par. I'm a stickler for wanting to see a movie exactly how the filmmakers intended, and is it too much to ask for my TV to come calibrated to the industry standards? As of now, I guess so, but maybe that will change. Sure, consumers can pay for ISF calibration after the fact, but wouldn't it be great if all TVs simply came with the proper color, brightness, and grayscale adjustments to begin with? Sadly, considering the quality control necessary to truly pull off such a feat, and factoring in how much manufacturers love to market their TVs in their blinding "Torch Mode," I have to assume that this wish will remain a pipe dream for now.
Panasonic Decides to Return to Plasmas!
OK, so this one really is ridiculous, but it truly is one of my main hopes for the year. They may have just recently announced the end of their plasma development, but Panasonic couldn't really mean it, could they? I mean, their PDP TVs are widely regarded as some of the best displays on the market -- they can't really be pulling the plug! Tell me it's all just a bad dream. It's just a really early April Fool's joke, right? No? Fine, but if you don't mind, I'm just going to continue living in denial. After all, as far as I'm concerned, Pioneer is just taking a "break" too, and both companies will miraculously decide to reenter the plasma market this year to create the ultimate TV!
If I'm forced to face reality, however, here's hoping that Samsung and LG still stay invested in the technology. Come on guys, don't disappoint me!
Sometimes the most exciting technological advances are the ones you don't see coming at all. 2014 already seems to be starting off well in this regard, with the recent announcement of Dolby's High Dynamic Range Imaging Technology. The company's push toward better, brighter, and more accurate pixels and color reproduction could prove to be revelatory, and the manner in which they are planning to integrate the tech into the actual film and television production workflow could help bring a director's true vision to the screen in ways that current standards simply can't. Hopefully, 2014 will bring more innovative tech and gear concepts like this, helping to push the boundaries of the home theater experience.
For now, we'll simply have to wait and see how the year shapes up. Perhaps some of these wishes will come true, while others might be disappointingly dashed. Either way, we are sure to get a much better sense for the general direction of the industry next week at CES in Las Vegas, so be sure to stay tuned to High-Def Digest for all the latest HD Gear and Home Theater related news.