If you’re looking for a way to step up your home cinema game, you need to invest in a 4K Blu-ray player. 4K streaming through services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video might be convenient, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the audio and picture quality that a 4K disc brings to the table.
The weaknesses of streaming are clearly visible in high action scenes where moments like a fiery explosion is accompanied by artifacting (visible blocks or pixelation). This is because the highest quality 4K stream delivered by the likes of Netflix and Amazon top out at a bitrate of 16Mbps, which amounts to 14GB in size for a typical two hour movie. When you compare this to a 4K Blu-ray which can support bitrates of up to 128Mbps and 100GB in size on a single disc, you start to understand why streaming services can not look as good.
But it’s not just about better picture quality, it’s also about better sound. The likes of Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and iTunes might stream select content in Dolby Atmos, but this is once again heavily compressed and based on the Dolby Digital Plus format.
On Blu-ray, Dolby Atmos is uncompressed as it uses the very high-bandwidth of Dolby TrueHD as its source, resulting in a far more detailed and punchier sound. If you have a surround sound speaker setup, or even a decent soundbar, the difference is clearly audible particularly if you’re someone who likes to watch movies at a reasonable volume.
Dedicated 4K Blu-ray player vs Xbox One
So at this stage you might be convinced about buying a 4K Blu-ray player, and are most probably leaning towards an Xbox One which offers 4K Blu-ray playback. While the Xbox One is a good entry point for gamers looking to dip their toes with 4K Blu-rays, it does come with some significant caveats.
Firstly, while Xbox One’s Netflix app supports Dolby Vision output, its 4K Blu-ray player does not. Dolby Vision, with its ability to optimise the picture on a frame-by-frame basis, provides a much more enticing and nuanced picture than HDR. Barring Samsung, all of the major television manufacturers support Dolby Vision and there is a growing library of 4K Blu-rays supporting the format.
The lack of a second HDMI-out port for audio on the Xbox One is also an issue for those with an older receiver or soundbar that can’t pass through 4K video with HDR. Dedicated Blu-ray players come with two HDMI outputs; one for sending the video to the TV and the second output for sending audio to your receiver. With the Xbox One’s single HDMI-out, you miss out on the high resolution audio options like Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD, unless you upgrade your receiver or soundbar as well.
A dedicated Blu-ray player will generally be quieter and boot discs faster as well.
The best of the bunch
There are two key reasons why Panasonic’s UB9000 is the 4K Blu-ray player to beat.
For one, the UB9000 is the first 4K Blu-ray player on the market to support all four HDR formats including HDR, HDR10+, HLG (HDR format of choice for broadcast media) and Dolby Vision.
Its killer feature, however, is Panasonic’s ‘HDR Optimiser’ which as the name suggests tone maps HDR content to match the capabilities of your display. Now this is something that 4K HDR televisions already do themselves but most of them, particularly the ones with limited brightness which is common in entry level to mid-range models, often struggle to tone map HDR content correctly. This results in clipping or a loss in colour saturation.
I tested the UB9000 with my 75-inch Sony Bravia 900E; a mid-range LED television with full-array local dimming. While it’s a great TV that can get fairly bright, HDR isn’t exactly one of its strong points, but this is where the UB9000’s HDR Optimiser feature made a night and day difference.
Picking content that has been mastered at 4000 nits of peak brightness is a good way to test the HDR chops of any player or television. Cue the opening scene in Sully where the plane plows into buildings in downtown New York, creating an explosion that fills the screen. With the HDR Optimiser off, the explosion is bright but the highlights are blown out. Turning on HDR Optimiser, the different shades of the fireball become clearly defined while also making parts of the building underneath the raging fire much more visible. The image is not only much more pleasing to the eye, it feels closer to what the director had intended.
While the transformation wasn’t as dramatic on my more capable 2017 LG C7 OLED, I still preferred the UB9000’s dynamic tone mapping over the TV’s as it generally produced a more detailed image.
Of course you can also access Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube through the UB9000 with the additional benefit of being able to use the HDR Optimiser feature on streaming content as well, which again makes a tangible difference to the viewing experience.
The UB9000 will also breathe new life into your old DVD and Blu-ray discs, with high quality upscaling devoid of any unwanted image enhancements. My only real gripe against the UB9000 is that it does not support Dolby Atmos or DTS-X playback on Blu-ray rips played via external storage (disc only). Hopefully Panasonic rectify this with a firmware update in the near future.
HDR or bust
Panasonic’s UB9000 is reference class but its HDR Optimiser feature puts it in a league of its own. At $1649 it doesn’t come cheap, but the good news is that Panasonic also offers a step-down model, the UB820, which sports all the same video features as the UB9000 (including HDR Optimiser), but with a street price of just $549 making it cracking value.