Blu-ray Discs represented the pinnacle of home entertainment formats for many years, despite never saturating the market ala DVD. Full 1920 x 1080p video at 30ish Mbps -- compared to 5-15 for HD streaming -- coupled with LCPM, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD MA. Sadly, Blu-ray was also coupled with a muddying format war as well as initially expensive players that languished under BD-Java and slow loading time.
After a decade of upgrading to high definition, the home entertainment industrial complex has its eyes set on a 4K future, effectively matching the resolution of commercial cinema projection systems. 4K displays (3840 × 2160) have been out for a few years now, even before the industry had locked format specifications, while Ultra HD content debuted on streaming services such a MGO, VUDU, Amazon, and Netflix.
But there's a new physical media king in town.
UHD Blu-ray represents a new benchmark for home cinema enthusiasts. 4K content with High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut, all at a premium 100 Mbps thanks to HEVC H.265. Not just more pixels, but better pixels. Oh, and Dolby Atmos and DTS:X came along for the ride too.
The Samsung UBD-K8500 is the first Ultra HD Blu-ray Player to launch in North America. As I write this, it costs $399.99 (from a $499.99 MSRP) and will be available March 1, 2016, even though some were able to snag pre-order units early from Best Buy for a Hands On First Look and this full review.
Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, DVD, & CD Playback
Output Resolutions: 2160p, 1080i/p, 720p, 480p
HDR-10 & Wide Color Gamut (WCG)
HEVC / H.265
2 HDMI 2.0a Outputs (MAIN: DHCP 2.2 for 4K video/audio, SUB for audio)
USB Port (front)
Built-in Decoding for Dolby® Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS®, and DTS-HD Master Audio
Dolby Atmos and DTS:X via Bitsreaming
Samsung Smart Hub
Netflix, Hulu, VUDU, Amazon Video, Pandora, Facebook, YouTube, MGO, etc.
Anynet+ (for Samsung displays)
1.66 GB internal HDD for Apps
YCbCr 4:4:4 output
BD-Live & BonusView
Rip CDs to MP3
Locked to Region A for Blu-ray Discs; Region 1 for DVDs
Optical digital audio out
Ethernet port for wired network connection
Dimensions: 15-15/16" W x 1-3/4" H x 9-1/8" D
Media: UHD BD-ROM, BD-ROM, 3D-BD, BD-R, BD-RE, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW, CD-Audio, CD-R, CD-RW
Video: MPEG, MKV, WMV, AVI, AVCHD
Audio: MP3, WMA, AAC, AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, WAV, OGG
Photo: JPEG, PNG, BMP, MPO
Setting up the Samsung UBD-K8500 is simple and fast. Proverbially plug and play.
Have an HDCP 2.2 compliant sound system? Run one high speed HDMI cable from the MAIN HDMI out to your AVR, and a second to your 4K display. Have older audio gear? Run the MAIN HDMI out directly to your 4K display, and a second HDMI from the SUB output to your AVR.
The K8500 starts up quickly (less than eight seconds), upgrades its firmware, tells you to select TV aspect ratio and size, and guides you through signing into a Wi-Fi network for streaming. I don't think the process took more than five minutes total.
You're ready to play content now, but there are few more sections we should cover.
Access the easy-to-navigate Settings Menu via the player's Home Menu. If you're watching a movie and want to make a change, press the Home button first. At least stopping and resuming content is quite fast.
Inside Settings, you can update firmware, set TV aspect ratio, adjust 3D playback, and select an output resolution. Default is Auto, but you can specify 2160p, 1080p, 1080i, 720p, and 480p. There are also choices for HDMI Color Format (YCbCr 4:4:4, RGB Standard, RGB Enhanced -- I found YCbCr 4:4:4 to produce pleasing results), and HDMI Deep Color (Auto or Off). HDMI Deep Color hearkens back to Blu-ray and I'm not sure if any content actually uses it.
In Audio Settings, you can select the HDMI Audio output (I left mine to Auto for single and dual HDMI out usage), and Digital Audio Output. The player is set to PCM out by default; Dolby Atmos and DTS:X users need to select "Bitstream Unprocessed". Users can also select to re-encode audio to (lossy) Dolby Digital or DTS.
Oh, and don't forget Picture Mode. Tap the remote's Tools button during playback to select Dynamic, Standard, Movie, or User to customize sharpness, noise reduction, contrast, brightness, color, and tint settings. For me, I want the video to leave this player as pure as possible, so User mode with every setting zeroed out worked best (and reduced over-saturation when viewing HDR/WCG content).
The last portion of setup is the Samsung Smart Hub, home to the K8500's video, audio, and gaming apps. It's divided into two sections -- Recommended Apps, and My Apps. Recommended Apps are set by Samsung and their content partners. There are about 10 of these, and they are locked in position. My Apps is completely customizable, both in which ones you use and how you arrange them.
Overall the K8500 is very easy to use. It starts fast, player and remote buttons are responsive, and in an era where player differences are measured less by video quality than by form and function, this is a very capable machine. Especially for a first gen device.
But I have a few nitpicks.
The remote control is quite slick and fits nicely into my hand, but after hours of playback and tweaking, my hands started to cramp. It's probably too compact for me. Also, back-lighting would have been helpful for darker rooms; it's all too easy to hit Back when reaching for Play/Pause.
Also -- like most Blu-ray players before it -- Player Settings are not adjustable during playback outside of Picture Mode. Even though discs stop and resume quite quickly, it can be a hassle when troubleshooting and/or tweaking. And I'm not a huge fan of Recommended Apps being restricted to what Samsung recommends, especially when there are only six available app slots on the Home Menu.
Otherwise, the K8500 was easy to use and navigate, while in-app functionality was strong as well (more on this in a moment, but many of my older Blu-ray players were terrible streaming hubs because the apps ran too slowly -- not the case here). And, if you happen to own a Samsung display, this player features Anynet+ and will automatically turn on your TV as well as change HDMI inputs when the player is powered.
Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, DVD, and CD. I tried 'em all and all worked as promised. DVD and CD loading times have always been relatively quick, but Blu-ray debuted with such abysmally slow loading times in comparison. Fears of a similar backwards evolution were unfounded, however. The K8500 loads Ultra HD Blu-rays and Blu-rays as quickly as the best Blu-ray players available.
Next, let's talk about the Ultra HD Blu-rays themselves. So far I'm impressed and can't wait to see where the format goes, but much like Blu-rays, strengths and weaknesses rest on the shoulders of individual titles. IE, did we judge the Blu-ray format on the original 'Fifth Element' pressing, or on resplendent CGI animated fair from Pixar Studios? I suspect Ultra HD Blu-ray will be the same. Some poor, many good, and some excellent titles.
Pickins have been slim thus far. Only a handful of 20th Century Fox titles are out -- each one graded for HDR and wide color space -- created from a combination of original digital assets (4K resolution or higher) and assets locked at 2K (visual effects, etc.). The results, while imperfect, are indeed promising.
An example. Dolby recently screened 'The Martian' in 3D Dolby Vision at their prototype Dolby Cinema lab in Los Angeles. With that screening as my baseline, 'The Martian' on Ultra HD Blu-ray produces wonderfully similar results, despite utilizing a different implementation of HDR. Deep black levels with excellent shadow details, more luminous bright areas with added highlight details, and a more sumptuous color palette. I found some flaws as well -- more visual noise compared to the Blu-ray -- but again this is really going to be a title-by-title issue. 'Kingsman: The Secret Service' is another excellent Ultra HD Blu-ray that looks good on Blu-ray, but its dimensionality is positively flat by comparison.
The most significant hurdle facing Ultra HD Blu-ray seems to be display variances.
Setting aside the fact that most 4K displays produced through 2015 don't have HDR capability, even HDR-enabled sets are producing dramatically different results depending on material. In my case, a Samsung JS8500 Series banded heavily along gradients until I turned on a TV HDMI setting called UHD HDMI Color. I've read countless frustrations of others across other brands as well.
These are new waters. A learning curve is to be expected, nor do I blame the K8500 (outside of toning down Picture Mode). And, after forum consulting, along with a fair bit od calibration and tweaking to personal taste, I found the format produced gorgeous eye-catching results. I'm eager to see more titles from Sony, Lionsgate, Fox, and Warner Bros. Titles like 'Life of PI', 'Mad Max Fury Road', 'The LEGO Movie', and 'Sicario' should be glorious.
In terms of sound, Ultra HD Blu-ray offers the same codec capabilities as Blu-ray. The K8500 played, decoded, and/or bitstreamed all forms of LPCM, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD Master Audio without issue.
The K8500 will also, eagerly so, convert all content to 2160p. I found its processor produced highly resolute 4K imagery, and to be of better quality than the one built into the Samsung JS8500 Series. Also, while I haven't tested this personally, HDD Forum member Hatoraid was kind enough to share his thoughts, and he personally feels the K8500 upscales as well as the much-lauded Oppo 103D.
Want to play media from a thumb drive or external hard drive? There's a USB port on the K8500's front panel. And, while it can also be used to rip CD audio, I primarily watched 4K HDR WCG clips and test patterns. For the most part, playback worked as intended. However, I did get random "file not supported" errors even though I was able to still play the clips. I'm not sure what's behind this, or how frustrating it would be to connect a large video server to the player.
One interesting anecdote. Apparently this USB port can act as a shortcut for those who want to purchase the Samsung UHD Pack to use with a non-Samsung display. Thanks to forum member bobdole for the hat tip.
Lastly, as someone with an Apple ecosystem, I don't use DLNA, but I know it's important for anyone with an HTPC and/or media server. Thanks again to Hatoraid's detailed comments, he reported significant playback issues with his MKVs, a combination of "this file type is not CURRENTLY supported" error messages as well as lossless HD audio tracks defaulting to lossy cores. I'm not sure if the player, or if Samsung AllShare or Link need firmware updates, or what exactly is happening, but if DLNA is important to you, you may want to wait for a few more firmware upgrades to see if this situation improves. If it does, we'll make sure to update the review.
Samsung Smart Hub hosts dozens and dozens of apps for streaming video and audio, playing games and checking the weather, and even updating your Facebook page.
Results in this department are a little more hit and miss. I love the variety and breadth of available apps, and app performance is speedy enough, but -- like anything -- visuals vary from app to app. For example, while Netflix and Amazon are already rocking UHD content, the VUDU app doesn't yet work at all, and Sony's Crackle looked pretty mediocre.
Then there's the lack of HDR. The players' streaming apps can do 4K, but even though there is UHD HDR content on Amazon, the K8500 doesn't engage my display's HDR mode (while its internal app does). Netflix is also doing HDR, but I believe it's still only Dolby Vision (neither the player or TV app triggered HDR).
Much like the DLNA issue, I hope firmware updates resolve any gripes. Because it's odd to sell an HDR capable device -- proclaimed thusly on a big sticker atop each player -- that doesn't always do HDR. But, keeping in mind that we're still technically pre-release, it's fair to give Samsung the benefit of the doubt, and more time, to get everything running properly.
As noted in Set Up, the K8500 can output various resolutions from 2160p all the way down to 480p. After testing Ultra HD (2160p), I hooked the K8500 to my Panasonic VT50 Series 1080p plasma -- one of the best-reviewed televisions of its model year.
UPDATED: In comparing Ultra HD Blu-ray in 1080p to Blu-ray in 1080p, results vary by title, but the overall takeaway is this -- outside of exclusive Dolby Atmos & DTS:X soundtracks, you don't get any improvement in picture quality from Ultra HD Blu-rays on 1080p displays. Worst of all, there's a significant chance the contrast is going to be so messed up (crushed black levels and/or washed out whites), the final results will actually look WORSE than watching the Blu-ray. For a full rundown of this experience (using a different brand's player), check out 4K Ultra HD on a 1080p Display over at the Bonus View. In other words, if you're considering a 4K Blu-ray player, make sure to get a 4K display with HDR capabilities.
Gone are the days of three channels and a handful of TV brands. Instead we live in a world of infinite media choices to be had on dozens of devices at varying levels of quality. The future of Ultra HD Blu-ray is unknown, though I suspect it will be aimed more at cinephiles than mass consumers.
All the same, Ultra HD Blu-ray offers the best performance specifications of any home video format in the history of home entertainment. The first few titles aren't perfect, but demonstrate benefits their Blu-ray counterparts do not. And, as filmmakers and studios and consumers embrace HDR and wider color spaces, we should expect jaw dropping results (much like the evolution of object-based surround sound). Seriously, I've seen a few 'Life of Pi' clips and it's ridiculous.
The Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player, in my humblest opinion, is one of the finest first gen media players I've ever seen. Sure, it needs firmware updates to get apps / DLNA streaming to their fullest potential, and lacks Dolby Vision, but it loads and plays physical media quickly, upscales content to 4K as well as any, plays many types of files via USB, and boasts a glut of apps. I was nervous this player would hearken back to the first days of Blu-ray -- bulky and slow and under-powered -- but the K8500 surpassed many of my expectations.
If you own a 4K display with HDR-10 and WCG capabilities, the Samsung UBD-K8500 is Recommended. If the apps and DLNA issues are fixed, or if the price falls significantly, consider it bumped up to Highly Recommended.
If you own a non-HDR 4K display, I would suggest demoing this unit with a similar display to see if 4K-alone is enough for you. To me, HDR and WCG are more important and impressive than pixel count. And if you've yet to dip your toes in the 4K waters, I don't see a real advantage to upgrading (which, I suppose, should go without saying) unless your player has died and you plan to upgrade soon.