"Mastered in 4K" and the Road to Ultra HD

Posted Fri May 17, 2013 at 02:00 PM PDT by

by Steven Cohen

This week saw the release of Sony's new "Mastered in 4K" line of Blu-rays, and with them has come plenty of speculation, a bit of controversy, and quite a few questions. Questions like, "Are these discs actually in 4K?" and if not, "What benefits do they offer?" Also, "What do these have to do with Ultra HD?" and even more importantly, "What is Ultra HD?"

Well, those are all great questions, and great questions of course deserve answers! We'll break down all this recent 4K hoopla step by step, detailing exactly what these "Mastered in 4K" discs are and what they aren't. We'll also discuss how they relate to real Ultra HD and highlight what's currently available and on the horizon for the burgeoning Ultra HD format.

"Mastered in 4K"

Before going any further, I think it's important to immediately make this one point very clear: These new discs from Sony are not actual 4K Blu-rays. I repeat, the films on these discs are still presented in 1080p resolution not 2160p, and they will play on all standard Blu-ray players. So, with that out of the way, let's now address what this new line of releases actually offers.

Though the series doesn't present any of its films in 4K resolution, the video presentations are all sourced from 4K masters. They were then downconverted to 1080p. In addition, due to the lack of special features on these releases, the entire discs are being dedicated to the films' technical presentations allowing for higher video bitrates. In theory, this should all provide the best possible picture quality for the movies in question.

That might all sound fancy on paper, but in practice all this really amounts to is something very similar to the studio's previous "Superbit" line of high bitrate DVDs from back in the standard definition days. While these releases all provide great picture quality, there really isn't a whole lot that truly separates them from other "non-mastered in 4K releases." In fact, many existing releases from the studio (and other studios) have already been sourced from 4K masters (including several that are now being rereleased under this new label), making the distinction here even more irrelevant. Furthermore, there is some debate about whether 4K versus 2K mastering for 1080p transfers really makes much of a difference to begin with.

With all that said, there are still some subtle distinctions about these discs that are worth noting. First, these releases are all "optimized" for 4K upscaling and there are some claims that they even contain special upconversion protocols that will work in conjunction with Sony's new line of 4K Ultra HD displays. This proprietary algorithm will ostensibly provide the best possible upconverted picture. Of course, you need to have a Sony 4K display to take advantage of this and, for the time being, few of us are quite so lucky. For those with regular 1080p TVs, the higher bitrate video could still conceivably improve stability in fast moving scenes, especially on large projector screens. Lastly, the "Mastered in 4K" line is also said to feature an expanded color gamut that is designed to improve color reproduction. The packaging indicates that the expanded colors can be enabled through any xvYCC-compatible TV and Blu-ray player, but my testing with this feature yielded rather underwhelming results.

Using a Samsung LN46a650 TV, and both a Sony Playstation 3 and Sony BDP-S570 (all said to support the xvYCC color gamut) with the appropriate settings activated, the colors on screen became ever so slightly subdued rather than expanded. I'm not sure if this mode was being engaged properly or not, but if that's the intended result, then I don't really see a benefit to this feature. Though the packaging doesn't specify this, there is some speculation that in order for this feature to work correctly viewers actually need a Sony TV and Blu-ray player that support the company's proprietary Triluminos technology. Those with that capability might find better results with the disc's claims of "expanded color," but based on my experience with my equipment, it seems like this feature is a bit of a waste.

This initial wave of 'Mastered in 4K" titles includes ten films: 'Ghostbusters,' 'Spider-Man,' The Amazing Spider-Man,' 'Total Recall (2012),' 'Angels & Demons,' 'Battle: Los Angeles,' 'Glory,' 'The Karate Kid (2010)' 'The Other Guys,' and 'Taxi Driver.' Based on the discs we've covered so far, despite the flashy new branding, several of these movies appear to feature nearly identical transfers as their previous releases. 'Ghostbusters' and 'Spider-man,' however, have been given more apparent upgrades, and the results are certainly an improvement, though it's not really clear if these benefits are actually an outcome of the 4K mastering itself. For all intents and purposes, the improvements offered to their picture quality simply represent the type of transfers they should have received in their original Blu-ray releases.

As we continue to review some of the remaining titles, we'll point out any other minor or major improvements we come across, so be sure to check out the individual reviews for more updates.

All things considered, this new "Mastered in 4K" branding appears to be little more than a marketing tool aimed at promoting Sony's new 4K TVs -- but the discs themselves are still high quality and technically offer the best video transfers available for the titles included. Few will likely see much (if any) difference on the more recent films, but those with 4K displays or large projector screens might find some value in the increased bitrates and supposed upscaling benefits.

Ultra HD

These new discs might not offer true 4K content, but their release does coincide with the introduction of genuine 4K displays, also called Ultra HD. At 3840 × 2160 pixels (four times the resolution of standard 1080p), Ultra HD 4K displays can produce a much more detailed image than traditional HDTVs. With that said, screen size and viewing distance also play a large factor in how discernible these differences between resolutions really are. I haven't seen an actual 4K display in person yet (HDD's Michael S. Palmer had a chance to check them out last October), but it's likely that one would need a screen larger than 80 inches to gain the full benefits of Ultra HD from a reasonable viewing distance. Improvements will be readily apparent up close, of course.

As far as 4K displays go, Sony's XBR-65X900A 65-Inch 4K Ultra HD television is set for release on May 19 at a MSRP of about $7,000. The display is also available in a smaller 55-inch model ($5,000) and a much larger 84-inch variant (for a whopping $25,000) which should more readily show off the improvements in resolution. LG also has their own 84-inch 84LM9600 up for purchase ($20,000) and Seiki Digital has a very affordable SE50UY04 50-inch 4K set ($1,500) available as well. The Samsung S9 85-inch Ultra HDTV ($40,000) is also an option for those with an exorbitant amount of cash to spend. But again, despite the obvious increase in resolution, even this 85-inch set will likely only offer marginal improvements over 1080p at normal viewing distances, and all of these displays are still based on tried-and-true LCD technology which will probably suffer from the same old weaknesses of that format (most notably less than stellar black levels, uniformity, and viewing angles).

Much more enticing, however, is the prospect of true 4K projectors. Currently, Sony offers the VPL-VW1000ES which features a native 4K resolution. While it costs about $25,000, if you're going to actually invest in Ultra HD, projectors are likely the best route to go since they will allow for the largest screen size and thus show off the most improvement in visual quality.

It should also be noted that while Ultra HD displays are currently available, there is still no official standard for the technology with regard to color gamuts, frame rates, compression, and support for future HDMI revisions, which means that current displays might not actually be compatible with final specifications. This makes early adoption a bit risky.

4K Content

Unfortunately, when it comes to genuine 4K content, things get a little tricky. No specific Ultra HD disc medium currently exists, but the Blu-ray Disc Association is considering extending the Blu-ray format to include support for 4K video. A decision will likely be made later this year. Outside of discs, downloadable or streaming digital files are also a viable content delivery system (YouTube has actually had support for 4K video clips for several years now), though they usually lead to much more apparent compression issues and connection speeds will obviously be a factor. Regardless, Sony is releasing the puck-shaped FMP-X1 4K media player for $699 to support its new Ultra HD displays. The media player comes preloaded with ten films from the studio in true 4K resolution. A pay service for more downloadable 4K Sony movies using the media player is also scheduled to launch in the fall.

Though decisions regarding how we'll receive genuine 4K content are still being made (further complicating the current release of 4K displays) many feature length movies shot on film should benefit nicely from 4K transfers when they do eventually hit the market. Sadly, there is one notable snag when it comes to 4K and some specific film-based/digital movies. Over the past decade or so, digital intermediates have become the standard for post production work on all major releases. In several cases, only 2K scans of the original film elements have been used to complete many movies. Likewise, some digitally shot movies are only captured in 2K resolution to begin with. In these instances, the finished products are all limited to 2K. This means that any potential 4K releases of such titles will simply be upconverts. Thankfully, some contemporary films are now using 4K digital intermediates and several digital movies are now being shot natively in 4K (or even 5K), which will make their future transition to Ultra HD very smooth.

There are several kinks that need to be worked out when it comes to content and displays, and a true standard still hasn't been decided upon, but manufacturers are actively pushing for Ultra HDTVs to catch on with consumers. Hopefully true 4K media will become more readily available as the year goes on to give early adopters something to properly show off their expensive new gear. As always, we'll be sure to cover the latest developments and keep you posted on all HD and Ultra HD related news and products.

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Tags: Mastered in 4K, Industry Trends, High-Def Retailing, 4K, UHDTV, Ultra HD (all tags)