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Wednesday, 04 January 2017 17:37

UPDATED: The Bits @ CES 2017: The Latest News on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

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All right, the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show is finally under way in Las Vegas today, with a number of the major CE manufacturers holding big press conferences to announce their product line-ups for the year. In fact, I’ve just now sat through Samsung’s big press event (more on that in a minute). I’ll check back in with more tomorrow, but for now let’s get to what news we have so far concerning 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray at the show...

In terms of new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player hardware, obviously Oppo Digital has just launched their debut player on the format, the UDP-203 (SRP $549). I’ve been testing this unit for about a week now and it’s just tremendous. For a first-generation player, it’s very solid, very fast, and it plays just about everything – Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, DVD-Audio, CD, and SACD, plus a wide variety of digital video and audio formats via network and USB. It’s compatible with HDR-10 right out of the box, and it’s also hardware compatible with Dolby Vision; a firmware update in the months ahead will add full Dolby Vision compatibility (keep in mind that no Dolby Vision UHD BD software is yet available, though software is forthcoming – again, more in a moment – and you can stream it now via Netflix and Vudu). Oppo is also working on an audiophile-upgraded version of this player, the UDP-205 (SRP around $1K), due for release later this year. [Read on here…]

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About a week ago, Samsung announced their second-generation 4K player due for release in early 2017, the UBD-M9500. SRP and street date are still TBA (as I said a moment ago, Samsung just held their big press conference but no additional details were offered), but the new player will have the ability to automatically adjust its A/V playback quality to match your display and audio system’s optimal capabilities. It will also feature a Private Cinema Mode that allows you use Bluetooth headphones for late night UHD Blu-ray viewing, and the unit will allow for movies to be streamed directly from the player to your mobile devices.

LG revealed during their CES press conference this morning that they have a new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc player coming sometime this year that will support Dolby Vision, though they offered no specific details on price, model number, specs, or street date.

UPDATE 8 PM PACIFIC: Okay, the LG player is the UP970, due in stores in March, which supports HDR10 right out of the box and will receive a firmware update to add Dolby Vision compatibility sometime in late Spring or early Summer, which is when we’re told to expect the first 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray titles with Dolby Vision (presumably from Universal, Warner, and Lionsgate).

Panasonic has also announced a trio of new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players, the DMP-UB300, DMP-UB310, and DMP-UB400. All will be Ultra HD Premium certified and have been developed with custom image processing features by Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory (via their Hollywood Cinema Experience (HCX) Processor). The UB400 will feature twin HDMI outputs (one meant for video and the other for audio). The UB400 also has additional audiophile processing modes that offer different kinds of sound profiles, including “warm analog vacuum tubes.” There are no details available yet on price or street date for these units, nor is there any indication so far that they’ll support Dolby Vision HDR.

UPDATE 5 PM PACIFIC: Per their own press conference just a short time ago, Sony has announced a mass market 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player, the UBP-X800. It’s very similar in look and profile to their already announced professional series player, the UBP-X1000ES, which is only available through custom installers. The mass market player supports 4K UHD BD, BD, BD3D, DVD, CD, and 4K streaming, all with HDR (Dolby Vision support is still TBA). It also has support for Bluetooth headphones. The UBP-X800 will be available this Spring for an SRP TBA.

Now, I’m not going to go into too much detail about 4K display news here. Suffice it to say that there are many new models of 4K Ultra HD display being announced at the show, including some that use OLED technology, some that support Dolby Vision (right now, TCL, LG, Vizio, and Philips, though Sony has also just announced a new OLED, the XBR-A1E, that supports Dolby Vision) and some that don’t (Samsung and Panasonic). Other new technologies being promoted for 4K displays include Samsung’s new line that takes advantage of “Quantum Dot” materials to improve color even beyond their already fine existing SUHD displays (including 104% of the DCI-P3 color space). A quick Google search will reveal all kinds of news and announcements on this front, and it will probably take a month or two to really get a sense of which will be the best and most affordable displays for 4K Ultra HD enthusiasts.

In terms of Dolby Vision, the format did get a boost today in an announcement from Warner, Universal, and Lionsgate, which all committed to adding Dolby Vision HDR to their forthcoming 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray titles. So that’s something. (They should start arriving in stores in late Spring or early Summer).

Interestingly, neither the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) or the UHD Alliance (UHDA) is holding an official press conference this year at CES (just private meetings), so it’s up in the air whether or not we’ll get a Disney 4K support announcement at the show. We do know that just over 2 million 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray movie discs were sold in 2016 (that’s tentative from the UHD Alliance – we expect specific numbers soon).

However, on the subject of Disney, our sources tell that the studio is tentatively planning to begin releasing titles on the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray format by the end of 2017, but they’re in no rush for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they’d like to see more Dolby Vision support across the CE industry. Walt Disney Studios and Dolby Laboratories have a close relationship and the studio has released a number of their big recent theatrical titles in Dolby Vision (including Doctor Strange, Moana, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). They have several more such films set for theatrical release this year (including Beauty and the Beast, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Cars 3).

In terms of new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray title announcements… well, strangely, there haven’t been any. This reflects what we’ve believed all along, which is that the push for 4K Ultra HD in general (and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray in particular) is being driven by the CE industry… not the Hollywood studios.

In terms of currently announced titles, here’s what we know is coming…

1/10 – Deepwater Horizon (Lionsgate), The Accountant (Warner)

1/17 – The Girl on the Train (Universal), Keeping Up with the Joneses (Fox), Battleship (Universal)

1/21 – Hacksaw Ridge (Lionsgate)

1/24 – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Sony), Inferno (Sony)

1/31 – Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Paramount)

3/20 (in the U.K.) – Fast and the Furious 6 (Universal), Fast and the Furious 7 (Universal)

Street Date TBA – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Warner), Arrival (Paramount), Passengers (Sony), Sing (Universal), Trolls (Fox), Allied (Paramount), Assassin’s Creed (Fox), Underworld: Bloodwars (Sony), Planet Earth 2 (BBC)

So those are the titles we know are coming in 2017 with some assurance, either because they’ve been announced already or they’re up for pre-order via online retailers. But what might we see on the format in 2017?

Given Warner’s support for the format, it seems very likely we’ll see The LEGO Batman Movie, Kong: Skull Island, King Arthur, Wonder Woman, Dunkirk, and Blade Runner 2049 on 4K UHD BD before the end of the year… and given Blade Runner 2049, I would strongly suspect the original Blade Runner: The Final Cut will be released as well for the film’s 35th anniversary (and before you start asking, yes… The Final Cut was finished in 4K).

Looking at Universal, one would suspect that The Fate of the Furious, Despicable Me 3, and The Mummy (2017) are all on the docket (which could see the release of related catalog titles too).

Paramount has xXx: The Return of Xander, Ghost in the Shell (2017), and Transformers: The Last Night on the way to theaters, all of which are likely to arrive on 4K UHD BD as well.

Sony is poised to deliver Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Patient Zero, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Dark Tower, and Smurfs: The Lost Village to theaters, among other titles, all of which are likely to hit 4K UHD BD. Sony has also been fairly aggressive in terms of releasing catalog titles in 4K UHD BD, and they’ve got many of their best catalog titles already prepared for the format. Our sources have told us recently that they’re currently working on a new 4K master of The Bridge on the River Kwai, as 2017 is the film’s 60th anniversary, so I would bet there’s a good chance of seeing that on the format too.

Lionsgate is a little harder to predict, but I would be surprised if John Wick: Chapter Two wasn’t released on the format, as well as possibly Power Rangers (2017).

20th Century Fox may be the most interesting studio this year: Their tentpole titles for 2017 include Logan, Alien: Covenant, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle. There’s no way Alien: Covenant isn’t going to be released on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and I would be surprised if Fox didn’t also strongly consider making Alien, Aliens, and Prometheus available on the format as well. The previous Apes films are obvious catalog choices too, and we know that Fox has been working on a new 4K master of James Cameron’s The Abyss. It’s due for Blu-ray release later this year and, like last year’s Independence Day, we’d be surprised if it wasn’t released in 4K as well.

Then there’s Disney. Right now, I wouldn’t count on anything coming to the format from them in 2017. But… if the studio does decide to enter the 4K UHD BD fray this year (as they seem to be considering internally), there are many possibilities, including Beauty and the Beast (2017), Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Cars 3, and Thor: Ragnarok, not to mention the recent Doctor Strange, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Now, I’m not sure I would bet on Disney to commit to releasing Star Wars or Marvel franchise titles on 4K right out of the gate, however… we do know that Disney and Lucasfilm have created a new 4K master of the original Star Wars (1977 – don’t ask us which version, though we strongly suspect they have 4K presentations of both the original and George Lucas’ preferred version). It’s worth noting that 2017 is the film’s 40th anniversary, though any release of Star Wars would have to be a joint effort with Fox. In any case, whether it hits 4K UHD BD or not, you can probably reasonably expect the film to reappear in theaters this year in celebration of the anniversary. Again, though, let me be perfectly clear: Until Disney makes any kind of official announcement, don’t expect any 4K UHD BDs from them this year.

Finally today, the HDMI Forum has just announced the official HDMI 2.1 spec, which offers data rates up to 48 Gbps, support for higher video resolutions and refresh rates (including 8K/60Hz, 4K/120Hz, and Dynamic HDR), eARC support for object-based audio and device auto-detect, and a Game Mode VRR variable refresh rate (for 3D gaming with better rendering).

All right, that’s all the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray-related news and updates available from CES 2017 in Las Vegas so far. For now, stay tuned…

- Bill Hunt (@BillHuntBits)


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