The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month was the showplace for the new Ultra HD 4K format for home entertainment. Ultra HD is based on the Rec 2020 standard, which provides for 4K resolution and a higher color gamut than found in home entertainment today. The new color gamut utilizes a full 10-bits, vs the 8-bits of color found in standard Blu-ray, and can carry the DCI P3 color space, a first for home entertainment. It can also deliver colors that go beyond P3. The new Ultra HD Premium logo indicates that the display will also support HDR peak brightness levels of either 540 nits or 1000 nits.
If all of this is beginning to sound overwhelming, then tighten your seat belt. To play Ultra HD 4K content requires both an appropriately equipped Blu-ray player or streaming player (such as Roku 4), and an appropriately equipped television set. Simply having an HDMI port on both player and TV is not enough. Both devices must support HDMI 2.0, which is backwards compatible with older versions of HDM, as well as HDCP 2.2 copy protection, which is not backwards compatible with earlier versions of HDCP. In short, if your TV doesn’t support HDCP 2.2, it won’t be able to display Ultra HD 4K content, regardless of what the salesman told you when selling you your early model 4K television. HDCP was introduced in high-end televisions in 2014, and is available on any television now labeled Ultra HD.
If planning on watching HDR content, the ride gets a bit wilder. It was already mentioned that HDR capability comes in two flavors of peak white level: 540 nits or 1000 nits. The two specs were introduced to accommodate the different display technologies that manufacturers want to introduce. What may not be intuitive is that the 540 nit specification has a wider dynamic range than the 1000 nit spec, due to a disproportionately deeper black level. Specsmanship aside, there are no standards in place for how to carry HDR over various mediums. HDR television is likely to be encoded in a different manner from HDR Blu-ray, for example. Simply buying an Ultra HD Premium television does not guarantee compatibility with the HDR technology that your choice of content provider prefers.
One can assume that the average consumer is unlikely to absorb the nuances of Ultra HD, and as a result, will likely be disappointed with the results. It is easy to imagine a consumer connecting an Ultra HD Blu-ray player to his or her existing television, only to see absolutely no improvement in image quality. Even if buying an Ultra HD Premium television 4K to enjoy the benefits of HDR, one is likely to learn that additional equipment or updates are needed.
While the complications of the technology pose barriers to adoption, the effect will be to slow the rate of adoption. As the story to consumers becomes more easily understood, and the replacement cycle for home entertainment systems drives new sales, Ultra HD will one day become commonplace. But that process could take 5 years or more to produce material results. Which confirms the speculation of this publication that audience appetite for Ultra HD and HDR, and next generation cinema technology, can nicely overlap if managed well.