If there is one overwhelming theme driving this year’s CES show in Las Vegas it has to be, without a shadow of a doubt, UltraHD. This is no surprise, in fact, myself and others predicted as much. However, just because our premonitions have proven true doesn’t mean we –you and I –are any closer to getting handle on just what the march towards UltraHD (aka 4K) really entails. While I’ve always maintained the move to UltraHD wouldn’t be predicated upon content, its pending release, some promise as early as summer, is still rife with uncertainty.

For instance Sony, arguably a driving force behind the “technology”, is muddying the waters by showcasing not one, but two so-called 4K content solutions. I say so-called because one solution, Sony’s re-release of 4K filmed movies from their vault dubbed “Mastered in 4K”, isn’t 4K at all but HD –albeit with a slightly higher bit rate. That’s right, it’s Superbit DVDs part two; this time it’s war. The problem with Mastered in 4K Blu-rays is that the concept doesn’t even make sense. Take for instance the halo title, The Amazing Spider-Man, which was ORIGINALLY filmed in native 4K. This means that when it was mastered for theatrical release it was mastered in 4K, and that subsequently when it was scaled down for Blu-ray the file(s) used were those same 4K ones. So it stands to reason that the copy many of you already own was, in fact, mastered in 4K. Had Sony just come out with a higher bit-rate copy of the film on Blu-ray and called it as such then I wouldn’t take such offense but this is marketing BS as you’re not getting a 4K anything, just a slightly less compressed HD disc.

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly probable that we may not have a physical 4K format at all as both Sony and Samsung were keen to “showcase” 4K media servers and/or streaming solutions. Sony with their “secret” 4K media server (details are very sketchy) and Samsung with their 4K “streaming” demo comprised of content from Netflix. Neither manufacturer’s claims came with much “meat” in terms of details; suffice to say the Sony demo was far more impressive than the Samsung/Netflix one. One patron of the Samsung demo said the following to me while we took in the sights, “you would’ve thought it would look better.” To which I replied, “You would hope.” Obviously, there is much work to be done in this area but never the less the writing is definitely on the wall.

All the other manufacturers had UltraHD displays too, some more successful than others, though I chastised Toshiba for playing parlor tricks with consumers. In their booth they compared the same signal –HD –being fed to two displays; one HD the other 4K. This was done in order to showcase their 4K display’s upscaling prowess. Sounds good, except the two displays were not the same display; one was their entry level set available at Walmart and Best Buys, where as the other was a yet to be released flagship model. More frustrating still was how clear it was that one was “turned down” in terms of its picture controls where by the other, guess which, was “juiced” in order to appear more satisfying. I’ve talked about these types of games in the past and while Toshiba wasn’t the only offender their demo was the most blatant. To add insult to injury their deliberate enhancement of the 4K display resulted in one of the noisier images I saw during my first day at the show –a trend that many were noticing as the day went on. Despite the added resolution and apparent lack of pixels, there was still little that could be done about the signals’ poor compression and noise, two things that were killing everyone’s UltraHD displays upon close inspection.

Some, like Hisense, managed to stave off the compression monsters by simply relying on still images to showcase their 4K wares, which was far more impressive but not exactly realistic in terms of how customers will ultimately choose to enjoy their UltraHD sets.

In truth the best picture I saw during my first day at CES 2013 came by way of an HD display courtesy of Panasonic and their all-new ZT Series of plasma displays. Panasonic, while too having a few UltraHD offerings, shifted their focus away from resolution and instead put it upon the three factors that matter most to how the eye perceives quality; brightness, contrast and color. The ZT Series plasmas looked positively brilliant, possessing the richest, most detailed blacks I’ve seen to date, not to mention color upsampling that actually works. The ZT plasmas are said to be able to reproduce 98-percent of the DCI color space, which is far larger than HD (and UltraHD’s) Rec.709 and while it may be upsampled or upscaled color the effect is dramatic. Couple all that with LED like brightness from a plasma and you end up with an image that appears wholly natural but that also possesses terrific light uniformity, brilliant, realistic contrast and truer to life colors. Not even OLED displays looked as good –in my humble opinion.

Again, it’s not that I wish UltraHD a miserable death; I don’t, for I believe its presence to be an inevitability. And I’m also not against 4K, I’m just disappointed by how taken in people are by hype and how objectivity seems to have gone out the window. Even some of my own peers with whom I work with have asked me to calm down over 4K, if for no other reason than to suggest that the specialty AV market needs something new to talk about. Well this is part of the discussion, and I, like many of you, have questions. Only instead of getting concrete answers we’re getting flashing lights and carnival barking. It’s not that I don’t want UltraHD or 4K, I do, but I want it the way it was meant to be seen and if that’s not going to happen then at least they could keep the discussion honest.

As always, I thank you so much for reading and until next time, take care and stay tuned…

Andrew

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