It may seem a tad hyperbolic to say this, but 4K Blu-ray could very well be the holy grail of home theater technology. Finally, a disc that makes movies look almost as good as they do in theaters, where many films are projected digitally in 4K. It crams in four times the resolution of existing Blu-rays — over 8 million pixels, versus 2 million — and it brings along some new technologies like high-dynamic range (HDR), which dramatically increases color range, brightness and overall picture depth. When 4K Blu-ray discs start shipping in a few months, they'll be everything we've ever wanted in a home video format. And yet, it'll likely be ignored by most consumers.
In the end, who besides hard-core cinephiles will pay $400 or more for a new player and discs when you can already stream movies in 4K? Instead of being a wildly successful mainstream format like DVD, 4K Blu-ray will likely go the way of LaserDisc: incredible for its time but too much trouble for most.
But it's not as if we didn't see this coming. In 2015, Blu-ray and DVD sales fell 12 percent while digital-media sales jumped 16 percent, following years of similar trajectories for both categories, according to figures from the Digital Media Group. In fact, digital sales also surpassed physical-media purchases last year, clocking in at $8.9 billion compared with $8 billion. And let's not forget about streaming subscriptions, which jumped 20 percent to reach $5.7 billion. In other words, 4K Blu-ray is launching at the worst time for disc-based media since the advent of DVDs.
Meanwhile streaming movies and TV shows has practically become second nature for most of us. Netflix's mountains of content and ease of use have made "binge-watching" a household term, and renting a movie on iTunes and Vudu couldn't be much easier. Streaming media caters to our increasing desire for on-demand content. It doesn't matter so much that the quality of a 1080p stream doesn't look as good as a 1080p Blu-ray, which offers higher bitrates and less compression. If anything, the big problem with streaming now is that we have too much content. We need better search and recommendation tools to make sense of all of our options.
It says a lot that 4K streaming appeared years before 4K Blu-ray (starting with Netflix in April 2014). It's far easier to prepare 4K video files for streaming and to coordinate with companies for new hardware than it is to come up with an entirely new Blu-ray specification, get all of the format's partners and studios on board, and convince people to buy new (and potentially more expensive) discs. At this point, we've only heard from a handful of studios about their 4K Blu-ray plans.
Sure, Netflix started out by offering 4K on a handful of TV sets, but now there are inexpensive, 4K-ready set-top boxes like the Roku 4 ($130) and new Fire TV ($100). Also important: You don't need to do much to actually see 4K content if you already have a 4K TV with apps (or a new set-top box). If you're subscribing to Netflix and Amazon Prime, you already have a wealth of high-resolution content ahead of you. If you're looking for more recent films, Vudu has you covered. And while the revamped Apple TV doesn't support 4K yet, you can bet that Apple will include it in this year's model, along with an elaborate 4K strategy for iTunes.
The big problem with 4K streaming? You need a solid internet connection (between 11Mbps and 15Mbps) to enjoy it today. If you're already having issues loading HD streams, you're definitely not prepared for significantly more massive files coming down your pipes. And if you're one of the unlucky few with bandwidth caps, streaming 4K files will be impossible. Finally, no matter how good a 4K stream looks, it'll never hold up to the enormously high bitrates of a 4K Blu-ray. But just like with today's HD streams, that's something most people won't even notice.
Despite the need for fast internet (something that will also improve over time), dealing with 4K streaming is still cheaper and more convenient than dealing with 4K Blu-ray. For the latter, you'll need to plunk down $400 for Samsung's new 4K Blu-ray player and acquire new 4K Blu-ray discs. At this point, only a few 4K Blu-rays are up for preorder -- including The Martian, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Kingsman -- listed between $30 and $38 on Amazon.
"I agree that more people are looking at streaming services for 4K UHD video viewing, but UHD [4K] Blu-ray will have a solid niche in providing owners with the absolute best picture and sound quality," said home theater expert Robert Heron of Heron Fidelity. He points out that it'll remain a good option for homes without decent internet connections, and it's still your best choice if you want to enjoy fully uncompressed audio.
As an unabashed cinephile and home theater geek, I'm fully prepared to jump aboard the 4K Blu-ray bandwagon. But it's easy to see that it doesn't hold much mainstream appeal. For the most part, convenience always wins over quality when it comes to media formats. VHS beat out both Betamax and LaserDisc, and compressed audio files ended up killing the CD. The unfortunate thing about 4K Blu-ray is that it lost the fight to streaming before it even arrived.