UHD Blu-ray Players Arrive, But Are They Too Late?

The first Ultra Hi-Def players are finally at retail, but discs remain in decline

March has been a great month for Jim Kiczek and Samsung. The first Ultra Hi-Def (UHD) Blu-ray Disc players (Samsung’s UBD-K8500 model) are finally hitting stores, and “the reaction from consumers has been overwhelmingly positive,” said the VP of Samsung Electronics’ America Audio Group.

“[It’s] performing better than we projected and we’re thrilled at its reception,” Kiczek said. “The UBD-K8500 has performed very well, that includes online and brick-and-mortar shops. We are getting reports of retailers having trouble keeping it in stock.”

It’s a good out-of-the-gate start for what could be Hollywood’s last physical home entertainment gasp. DVD and Blu-ray Disc sales continue to decline as home entertainment consumers turn to streaming services and electronic sell-through. In 2015, consumers spent almost $1 billion less on discs than in 2014 ($6.01 billion compared to $6.9 billion), according to data from DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, while total spending on digital rose more than 16% to $8.9 billion.

But eyeing consumer demand for 4K TVs—and avoiding any format war nonsense-like the HD DVD vs. Blu-ray fiasco—studios and consumer electronics companies have been on the same page since day 1 with the launch of UHD Blu-ray, giving Hollywood another shot at keeping discs relevant.

“Much like Blu-ray provided the highest-fidelity delivery format for the top display technology of the day [1080p], UHD BD occupies the same role for 4K/UHD,” said Paul Erickson, senior analyst for connected home products for research firm IHS Technology. “For purists, enthusiasts and those seeking high video quality, it will be the format of choice. While 4K streaming is an eventuality, it is not there yet for consumers— content and availability are limited and bandwidth requirements are constrained against the average steady free broadband bandwidth available in households.”

Getting consumers to buy into yet another format (current Blu-ray players won’t play UHD discs) required two things from the industry: a low price point and no messing around with the availability of content, something the studios learned from the failures of 3D Blu-ray, industry experts said.

On both counts, UHD Blu-ray is in decent shape—both Samsung’s player and a spring model from Philips are priced at $400, $600 less than what the very first Bluray player cost when it was released (the Samsung BD-P1000, in 2006). And even before Samsung’s UHD Blu-ray player hit stores, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released seven UHD Blu-ray titles in February. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Lionsgate and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment followed with their initial UHD Blu-ray slates in March.

Bob Michaels, VP of media operations for Burbank, Calif.-based Deluxe—which has done the compression and authoring for a majority of the UHD Blu-ray titles—said the studios and CE companies are fulfilling the promises they made to consumers during this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

“I think we’ll see all-new theatrical releases having a UHD Blu-ray component, along with key franchises, catalog titles and the new wave of high-quality episodic from new production companies,” he said. “UHD Blu-ray is really timely too, coming just as new monitors hit the market and before consumers are able to stream high-bandwidth content into the home consistently.”

Jason Gish, senior VP and GM for UHD Blu-ray testing and quality control firm Testronic Labs, said the next technology can succeed where 3D failed, not only because of better marketing, but also because of a simplified home experience: no glasses are needed.

“The more discerning consumers will see the quality difference,” he said. “Our hope is that the adoption happens with consumers beyond just the more technical and early-adopter folks. As a comparison, 3D is a very cool technology and it tends to do quite well in theaters. In the home, however, there are factors that complicate the family-viewing environment…[ and] had some effect on its adoption over the years.”

What has Paulette Pantoja—CEO of UHD Blu-ray testing and quality control firm BluFocus—excited is the added features that UHD Blu-ray brings into the home: object-based sound formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X; high dynamic range (HDR); wider color gamut; and a new, “digital bridge” option, allowing consumers to make a bit-for-bit digital copy of what they own.

“More pixels just isn’t enough,” she said. “Adding more color and increasing the brightness are differentiating factors that allow you to see the advantage of the new format from across the room. Why limit the amount of color in the content and displays to just 36% of what the human eye can see? That’s what the current Blu-ray format supports. The new Ultra HD Blu-ray format can support up to 76% of what the human eye can see. That’s more than double.”

Still, UHD Blu-ray isn’t without its detractors. Some say DVD was the last great disc for Hollywood, and nothing else will ever bring back the good old days of double-digit annual home entertainment growth.

“If [UHD Blu-ray] had come out a few years ago, things would be a bit different,” said Joel Espelien, senior analyst and advisor for research firm The Diffusion Group. “Everybody’s streaming now.” He said the current golden age of television has consumers looking away from disc and toward Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other digital services, and episodic content doesn’t lend itself to UHD Blu-ray.

“People’s behavior—binge-watching, catchup viewing—doesn’t lend itself to disc, and the remaining market is archival fandom, very niche,” he added. “Discs have lost everyday viewing, and they’ll never get it back. I can’t remotely see millennials getting into it.”