4K streaming is leaving Blu-ray in the dirt

May on 4K
Is there hope yet for a physical 4K format?

Is there a future for 4K on Blu-ray?

The format's governing body isn't inspiring confidence: nearly a year after talking up a 4K extension to the Blu-ray standard, and two years after launching a Format Extension Task Force to define a specification, the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) has yet to make any formal announcement of a system upgrade for the UHD generation.

At IFA 2013, I spoke to BDA promotions committee VP Marty Gordon about BD 4K. "We think Blu-ray is the perfect format for 4K," he enthused at the time, but ambitions went even further than that.

"The next step in Blu-ray will be more than just 4K. If you're going to enhance the format, then really enhance the format. So we're considering a lot of other things, from dynamic range to bitrate and sound-quality."

Understandably given the complexity of the task, he was a little coy about a launch: "We need to get it right. That means getting feedback from many different stakeholders, studios, the hardware companies, the technology suppliers. These people are all part of the discussion."

However his parting quip was: "We expect to have an announcement soon."

4K streaming is leaving Blu-ray in the dirt

Sony's Mastered in 4K range isn't about bit-rate optimisation

Of course that hasn't happened, and ever since I've heard mumbles of discontent around the industry. At the London Pinewood Studio launch of their 2014 4K TV fleet, Sony executives flat-out refused to be drawn on any aspect of a potential disc update. Instead, they stressed the quality of their Mastered in 4K 1080p Blu-ray line (word for word repeating the message delivered a year ago at a similar event in LA).

Only now Sony's Mastered in 4K shill isn't about bit-rate optimisation – the new Captain Philips Blu-ray release (presented as part of the studio's 15-strong Mastered in 4K line-up) squanders disc space with 58 minutes of featurettes.

Instead, any potential benefit hangs on the extended colour space offered by xvYCC mastering, which Sony's new 4K screens can display when set to their True Cinema 2 preset.

The cloud is coming

Significantly, Sony also used the Pinewood event to unveil an HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) media player for its older 2012/2013 4K screens, effectively updating screens shipped before the HEVC codec was ready for primetime.

At first glance, the 399 euro FMP-X5 looks like the world's most expensive Netflix 4K box, but there's undoubtedly more to it than that. I suspect Sony is now very close to rolling out its Video Unlimited 4K movie service, and that it will use compatible HEVC encoding.

Video Unlimited 4K will be cloud based (the media player has no internal hard drive, although there are USB ports on the rear).

I asked TV product marketing manager Chris Trewhitt about this, and he would only comment: "There are still issues regarding streaming and downloading for the European market to be resolved, but it would be a nice idea wouldn't it?"

4K streaming is leaving Blu-ray in the dirt

Sony's HEVC player is a key part of 4K streaming

Netflix has already famously declared 4K to be "the TV format for the internet." Not only can the streaming colossus deliver 2,160p resolution (if you have a fast enough broadband connection), but its service supports 10-bit colour depth and high frame rates up to 60fps.

Paul Woodmansey, PR manager for rival Amazon Prime Instant Video, recently told me his service was similarly gearing up for UHD. "We're filming all our studio content now in 4K," he said. When it deems the time is right, Amazon will be able to deliver 4K streams to all relevant territories from a shared global back-end.

Too late for Blu-ray?

So has Blu-ray missed the 4K boat?

The answer, despite everything above, is no. Streaming video services, even without the bandwidth baggage that 4K brings, have a limited global reach. And the world's biggest movie studios remain emphatically committed to selling physical media.

Eddie Cunningham, President Worldwide Home Entertainment at Universal Pictures, was unequivocal when he told industry peers at last week's British Video Association Awards: "Digital is coming at us really fast, but our view is that physical media will be the lion's share of the business for many years to come."

And what the Blu-ray Disc Association needs above all else before it can launch a 4K disc format is a decent population of compatible UHD screens in the wild.

2015, then, is shaping up to have a nice ring to it. Of course, if 4K BD is still AWOL 12 months from now, I reserve the right to change my tune and renew my Netflix subscription.

Steve May
Home entertainment AV specialist

Steve has been writing about AV and home cinema since the dawn of time, or more accurately, since the glory days of VHS and Betamax. He has strong opinions on the latest TV technology, Hi-Fi and Blu-ray/media players, and likes nothing better than to crank up his ludicrously powerful home theatre system to binge-watch TV shows.