The Ultimate Guide to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray: What is Ultra HD Blu-ray technology, what do you need to watch it, and what are the best 4K Ultra HD discs you can buy right now? We go through everything you need to know about UHD Blu-ray – and why you might consider upgrading.
So you’ve just bought a shiny new 4K TV. Now you need something to watch on it, to really show it off. But where is the content?
Netflix and Amazon offer some 4K content, but they’re not ideal. They require a fast and stable internet connection (good luck getting that in the UK) and the selection isn’t particularly varied. You’re limited to TV shows, mostly – Netflix mostly has 4K TV shows and Amazon charges you extra for 4K films.
To get the best-looking films on your TV, you should consider Ultra HD Blu-ray – also known as 4K Blu-ray. That’s got the best possible picture in home media right now, and it’s not reliant on the internet gods.
Read on for our complete guide to Ultra HD Blu-ray players – or scroll down for our list of the best 4K Blu-ray films you can buy right now.
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What is Ultra HD Blu-ray?
You’ve heard of Blu-rays, right? That’s a huge step over the old DVD in terms of picture quality. Ultra HD Blu-ray is the next step up. As the name suggests, it supports 4K Ultra HD, which offers about 8.3 million pixels – that’s four times what you get in Full HD/1080p. When you cram more pixels into the same sized TV screens, you get a sharper, clearer picture.
It’s not just about sharpness, either. UHD Blu-ray also adds all sorts of useful things like High Dynamic Range (HDR) and new-gen audio standards like Dolby Atmos. HDR is a new standard designed to deliver a wider range of colour, brightness and contrast, in theory taking the picture a lot closer to what our eyes are capable of perceiving. Dolby Atmos, meanwhile, is an audio upgrade, essentially offering more subtlety and location precision to sound effects.
Sadly, all this requires higher capacity discs, which is why a new format is required. That means Ultra HD discs won’t play on a normal Blu-ray player, though you can play older Blu-ray discs on an Ultra HD player.
Why should I care?
There’s no denying Ultra HD Blu-ray and 4K TVs are luxuries, but they’re luxuries worth having. And if you want the absolute best possible picture from your 4K TV, Ultra HD Blu-ray is where you’ll find it.
High Dynamic Range, or HDR for short, is especially important because it adds support for a greater range of colours and picture information than old Blu-ray discs, vastly improving the picture you see. In fact, HDR support is arguably more important than the increase in picture detail, though we like both all the same.
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What do I need to watch Ultra HD Blu-ray discs?
You need three things: an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, an Ultra HD TV and some discs, obviously. There are a few important caveats, though.
First, you’ll need to make sure your TV supports at least the HDMI 2.0 standard. Most TVs from the last year or so will, but very cheap models and some models from 2014 or earlier might not. Check your manual or Google the model number to find out – the even newer HDMI 2.1 standard should also be fine.
Related: HDMI 2.0 vs HDMI 1.4
Also, only the very latest TVs sold in 2016 onwards will support HDR pictures. That’s because HDR requires TVs that can display more colours and have a higher peak brightness.
You can still enjoy Ultra HD Blu-ray without an HDR-ready TV, but it’s loads better if you do have one.
Finally, there are a few players to choose from right now – the still impressive Panasonic DMP-UB900, the newer, equally excellent Panasonic DMP-UB700, and the slightly cheaper, but still very good, Samsung UBD-K8500.
There is a third, unconventional option: the Xbox One S is the first games console to also play 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays, and it’s actually pretty good at it.
We expect a number of more affordable players to launch over the coming months. Sony, for example, recently revealed a dummy prototype UHD Blu-ray player.
That will be one to watch out for, as the company has traditionally been very strong in the disc-spinning department. That should make up for the disappointing news that the 4K PS4 will not support UHD blu-ray playback.
LG also recently revealed its first 4K Blu-ray player, so your options are increasing and prices are starting to go down.
Best 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player deals
In fact, you can grab the UB700 for under £300 on Amazon UK right now, and that’s just one of a handful of tempting price cuts on offer.
Here’s a selection of the best 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player deals right now – all prices were correct as of our last update.
- BUY NOW: Panasonic DMP-UB700 for just £290 at Amazon UK – save £110!
- BUY NOW: Panasonic DMP-UB900 at Amazon UK for £453
- BUY NOW: Samsung UBD-K8500 at Richer Sounds for £269 – save £110!
You’ll also want some content to play on your snazzy new hardware, which brings us to…
10 of the best 4K Blu-ray movies right now
The industry suggests there will be up to 100 Ultra HD Blu-ray discs by the end of 2016, but there’s plenty to choose from already. Many are already available in the UK and several US releases can be imported safely.
TrustedReviews TV expert, John Archer, has picked out the best Ultra HD Blu-ray movies so far, based on both the quality of the films and their picture quality.
The Revenant – An absolute must-have disc
Critics Consensus: This Oscar winning film has been widely praised by critics for its stunning beauty, a convincing central performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, and its brutally simple but absorbing tale of survival and revenge in the unforgiving 19th century American wilderness.
Picture & Sound Quality: The Revenant is the best all-round demonstration yet of just what Ultra HD Blu-ray is capable of.
The UHD BD version looks far more detailed and crisp than the standard Blu-ray version, and even better, the addition of HDR takes the film’s stunning cinematography to a whole new level.
Shots are almost luminously beautiful, and crucially for the film’s visceral impact, the world looks far more real and direct.
Some of this is, of course, down to the care that appears to have gone into the disc’s mastering. But based on my experience of all the first UHD BD discs to market, I’d also say it has something to do with the fact that much of the film was shot digitally using natural lighting in near native 4K.
Being able to draw on a predominantly native 4K master usually seems to yield better UHD BD results than movies that have been largely or completely upscaled from native 2K digital masters.
The movie’s soundtrack is extremely effective too, subtly creating a terrific sense of the sense of outdoor space and the different environments the film takes place in.
The only disappointment is that while you get a DTS-HD 7.1 mix, Fox hasn’t included the Dolby Atmos soundtrack the film enjoyed for its cinematic release, even though this is exactly the sort of film that could have benefited from adding a height element to the mix.
Extras: There are no extras on the UHD BD disc. The (region-free) Blu-ray that ships with it contains a good 45-minute making of documentary, but that’s it.
Verdict: As both a movie experience, and a demo disc for what Ultra HD Blu-ray is capable of The Revenant, is an essential – and oddly addictive – purchase.
Exodus: Gods And Kings – Great HDR, crap film
Critics Consensus: Although it’s frequently a visual feast – as you’d expect of a Ridley Scott film – some clunky dialogue and awkward performances mean it falls short of its biblically lofty ambitions.
Picture & Sound Quality: As you can probably guess from the IMDB and especially Rotten Tomatoes scores for this film, the Exodus UHD BD hasn’t made our top 10 on its artistic merit but for the way it shows off Ultra HD Blu-ray’s potential. Or at least the HDR part of Ultra HD Blu-ray’s potential.
As it appears to be from a native 2K digital master, the detailing in the UHD BD transfer is a little inconsistent, with some background material in particular sometimes looking a little soft and unnatural. But its use of HDR’s expanded brightness range and wider colour performance is the most extreme I’ve seen to date, as scorchingly bright desert sequences give way to pitch black nights over a contrast range normal Blu-ray can only dream about.
Colours, too, look stunningly vibrant in UHD BD’s HDR form, injecting new life into the jewellery, costumes and architecture of the luxurious Pharoah’s world.
Be warned, though: Exodus’ brightness extremes ruthlessly expose any backlight weaknesses your TV might suffer from.
A potent and intricate DTS-HD 7.1 soundtrack, meanwhile, joins the lush visuals in trying to distract you from the fact that film is utterly pants. Though again, it’s a pity there’s no sign of the Dolby Atmos track available with the film’s cinema release.
Extras: The Ultra HD Blu-ray boasts a solid, thoughtful commentary track featuring Ridley Scott and co-screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, as well as a historical guide to the ‘events’ the film chronicles. The accompanying Blu-ray adds some deleted and extended scenes.
Verdict: Exodus is definitely not a great film. What its Ultra HD Blu-ray does give you, though, is a stunning demonstration of the formats extra colour and brightness extremes. It’s a great disc for highlighting the shortcomings of HDR TVs, too.
The Lego Movie – Even better in 4K and HDR
Critics Consensus: The Lego Movie combines glorious animation, brilliant voice acting, and a fast-paced and hilarious script with a surprisingly sophisticated and heart-warming story to deliver a film that offers something for all ages.
Picture & Sound Quality: Anyone who doubts if HDR and 4K can really add much to the relatively pristine world of animation needs to check out this Ultra HD Blu-ray as soon as possible. For starters, there’s a clear boost in detail, letting you see lots of subtle extra wear and tear on the characters and ‘sets’ that makes the plastic world feel more ‘real’ and lived in.
Again, though, it’s the HDR that really stands out. The extra luminance range visible in the way the light reflects on the virtual plastic greatly enhances the feel of the Lego worlds and characters, as well as making everything look more three dimensional even though – as with all Ultra HD Blu-ray releases – this is only a 2K transfer upscaled to 4K.
Even better is the extra dynamism and vibrancy of the HDR colour palette, which is a perfect fit for Lego’s artificially colourful worlds. Interestingly, the HDR effect seems to open up the scale of the environments quite effectively too. Basically, the UHD BD release makes this brilliantly realised world an even more riotously fun place to visit.
The main sound mix is a DTS-HD 7.1 affair rather than the Dolby Atmos track that was available to cinemas, but it’s still rich enough in detail and range to reinforce the gorgeous visuals. This is plastic world you won’t want to leave.
Extras: Nothing on the UHD BD as per usual, but the accompanying Blu-ray has an audio commentary featuring directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord, plus cameos from a number of the actors. There are featurettes on bringing Lego to life and developing the story, as well as a series of mini-featurettes showing children how to build models from the film, some deleted scene storyboards, an early animation test and, inevitably, a couple of sing-a-long music videos.
Verdict: The Ultra HD Blu-ray release of The Lego Movie makes an already great film even more fun to be around. Just the job for a film that stands up superbly to repeat viewings.
Buy Now: The Lego Movie 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray at Amazon.co.uk from £24.99
Buy Now: The Lego Movie 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray at Amazon.com from $29.99
Kingsman: The Secret Service – Top-notch sound
Critics Consensus: This action packed comic take on the James Bond genre proves an unexpected hit thanks to its spectacular action scenes, sparky characters and subversive laugh-out-loud humour.
Picture and Sound Quality: Kingsman proves more than any other Ultra HD Blu-ray to date that it is possible to turn a 2K digital master into a detailed Ultra HD Blu-ray disc.
The picture looks both stunningly clean and, more surprisingly, exceptionally detailed. It delivers a clear resolution improvement over the standard Blu-ray picture and imbues all of the film’s settings with a more lived in look that really adds to the sense of atmosphere.
The addition of HDR gives Kingsman’s already vibrant look even more dynamism (the film’s nuts ‘head fireworks’ climax, especially, looks even more insane than it does on the Blu-ray), as well as adding some, at times, quite beautiful extra contrast range to dark interior sequences.
One or two of the effects shots look a little soft relative to the mostly pristine images elsewhere, and the general clarity makes you sometimes notice a slight loss of focus at the top and bottom edge of the film due to the way it was shot. But for the most part this is a really outstanding transfer.
Its lead DTS 7.1 soundtrack rounds out the ‘demo disc’ status, missing no opportunity to back up the kinetic action scenes with potent left to right and back to front transitions, while also piling on subtle details and doing a great job of creating a sense of the film’s many different types of environment. As with Fox’s other launch Ultra HD Blu-ray titles, though, there’s no sign of the Dolby Atmos track available for this film on its theatrical release.
Extras: A pretty entertaining 6-part behind the scenes documentary is found on the accompanying Blu-ray, along with a trio of image galleries. There are no extras on the main UHD BD.
Verdict: Great movie, great Ultra HD Blu-ray transfer – especially if you want an explosive soundtrack to keep those lovely 4K visuals company.
Mad Max: Fury Road – Great spectacle, but could be better
Critics Consensus: Almost universally praised by critics for its endlessly stylish, relentlessly brutal action and ruthlessly efficient story-telling, Mad Max bagged Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations.
Picture & Sound Quality: While at times the Mad Max: Fury Road Ultra HD Blu-ray shines, overall it’s a strangely inconsistent effort.
Sometimes its pictures look quite noisy and some special effects shots – especially backdrops – look noticeably soft. In fact, I’d even say there are times where they look softer than they do on the normal Blu-ray – perhaps because the generally enhanced clarity of the Ultra HD Blu-ray throws the backdrop softness into shaper relief.
Another issue is that the addition of HDR can make some of the film’s special effect highlights – especially CGI bursts of flame – look a little unnatural.
On the upside, some shots, but especially close ups, look noticeably more detailed on the Ultra HD Blu-ray transfer, and while the HDR impact isn’t always helpful, there are plenty of shots where HDR injects more richness into the film’s desert exteriors and more life into the extravagant costumes of the film’s out-there characters. There’s a lovely boost to contrast during the film’s interiors, too.
Joining the slightly mixed visuals is a masterfully designed Dolby Atmos audio track (the same one you get on the normal Blu-ray) packed with explosive transitions, thoughtful details and a huge dynamic range, but which also includes lots of subtle detailing rather than always relying on bombast alone.
Extras: Nothing on the UHD BD, but there are plenty of goodies on the accompanying Blu-ray, including a half hour ‘making of’ documentary and a series of mini documentaries taking in everything from the creation of the characters and vehicles to the travails of filming a relentless action movie in a tough desert environment.
Verdict: Although its picture quality is a bit patchy, the Fury Road Ultra HD Blu-ray still does enough as an all-round package to justify adding it to your new UHD BD collection.
Buy Now: Mad Max: Fury Road Ultra HD Blu-ray at Amazon.co.uk from £24.99
Buy Now: Mad Max: Fury Road Ultra HD Blu-ray at Amazon.com from $29.99
The Martian – Not the best demo, but still a great film
Critics Consensus: Director Ridley Scott and Matt Damon team up to deliver an engaging, witty and dramatic movie version of Andy Weir’s best-selling sci-fi novel.
Picture & Sound Quality: Considering this is arguably the most high profile film on the Ultra HD Blu-ray launch slate, its 4K transfer is a slight disappointment.
Detail levels only sporadically feel like a significant detail step up from the HD Blu-ray. There’s more texture in Watney’s space suit, more detail on faces and other close up content, but the film’s exterior shots of the Red Planet and the skies above it look hardly any sharper than the standard Blu-ray.
There’s also some trace evidence of colour striping in some sky shots, and while I can’t say definitively that the richer colour tone of the planet’s surface on the Ultra HD Blu-ray isn’t closer to the director’s intention, I can say that it somehow doesn’t look as natural as the more muted tones found on the normal Blu-ray.
The transfer’s HDR component is more effective, with the film’s interior sequences opening up a more expansive contrast range that enhances the sense of the confined spaces and artificial lighting Watney is living within.
Sound comes courtesy of a strong DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio mix. The film isn’t stuffed with action, but key moments like the storms and the climactic rocket take off are delivered with extensive effects steering and a real sense of scale. Quieter sequences also impress, though, thanks to their clarity and the subtle use of background effects that again root Watney in his alternately confined and expansively open spaces.
Extras: None on the Ultra HD, while on the normal Blu-ray you get a Gag Reel; two featurettes on the film’s writing/direction and casting/costumes; a gallery of production art stills; and a series of featurettes looking at various elements of the movie using a pseudo-documentary approach.
Verdict: The Martian is strong enough as a film to justify adding it to your collection, and the UHD BD version does add a little extra quality beyond the straight HD Blu-ray. But it’s not the most emphatic demonstration of what UHD BD can do.
Buy Now: The Martian Ultra HD Blu-ray at Amazon.co.uk from £37
Sicario – An absolutely essential purchase
- Certificate 12
- Not yet available in the UK, $28
- Region locked
- IMDB: 7.7
- Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Critics Consensus: Gritty, cerebral but also visually striking and atmospheric thriller elevated by a believable mix of characters and excellent performances from all the lead actors.
Picture & Sound Quality: Sicario was shot entirely digitally at a near-UHD resolution of 3.4K, and this turns out to be a pretty great match for Ultra HD Blu-ray.
Pictures look sensationally detailed throughout, making the film’s grimy locations feel all the more intimidating and leaving the standard Blu-ray version looking soft by comparison. The image is also stunningly devoid of noise or softness, making it easier to become absorbed in the tense action, while HDR opens up the luminance palette in a way that really brings out the naturalised lighting and deliberately bleached colour palette the film-makers have chosen to employ.
Sicario joins The Revenant in suggesting that above-HD resolution digital photography and lots of natural lighting are a particularly great combination for Ultra HD Blu-ray’s strengths.
The beautiful video transfer is joined by a wonderfully atmospheric Dolby Atmos audio mix that does an outstanding job of throwing you right into every tense situation as well as making sterling use of Johann Johannsson’s effective electronic score.
Extras: There’s nothing on the Ultra HD Blu-ray, but the accompanying Blu-ray (this one’s a Region 1 disc only if you import the US version) contains featurettes on the film’s visual design; the cast; the film’s origins; and the film’s score.
Verdict: Sicario should be considered an essential Ultra HD Blu-ray purchase, as it’s both an excellent film and a superior quality UHD BD transfer. Sadly, the US version is region locked, so UK readers must wait for the eventual UK release. It will be worth it.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – An authentic 35mm master
Critics Consensus: Impressive performances and some occasionally sharp and touching dialogue can’t stop this super-hero action film from falling prey to a meandering story and apparent lack of confidence that sees it trying to cram in too many characters.
Picture & Sound Quality: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows off a different dimension to Ultra HD Blu-ray’s capabilities: its potential to capture the experience of watching 35mm film.
Sony Home Entertainment has a policy for its first batch of UHD Blu-ray releases of scanning 35mm master prints at 4K resolution, and using those digital scans to create the Ultra HD Blu-ray video. The idea is to recreate the same visual ‘feel’ people got when they originally saw the films at the cinema.
This approach yields a very different picture than you get with the generally more digital source assets other studios have used for their first UHD BD titles. There’s a warmer tone to colours, as well as a markedly ‘rougher’ finish as the film scanning process captures 35mm film’s inherent grain. Some may not like this relatively grainy look I guess, but for me it’s a welcome sign of how the finest nuances of a 35mm print can be brought out by a careful 4K digital scan.
There’s also a beautifully natural sense of sharpness to The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s images, as well as noticeably more detail in dark areas than you get with the Blu-ray, and a big uplift in the film’s colour range that enhances both naturally lit interiors and explosively vibrant sequences like the Times Square fight.
Keeping Amazing Spider-Man 2’s celluloid-like images company is a barn-storming Dolby Atmos track that rocks the house during action scenes but also keeps you wrapped up in Spidey’s world during quieter moments with subtle detailing and atmospheric/spatial effects.
Extras: The UHD BD disc carries a commentary track by writers Alex Kurtzman and Jeff Pinkner, plus producers Matt Tomach and Avi Arad. The accompanying HD Blu-ray adds a series of deleted and alternate scenes, a six-part making of documentary, a featurette on Hans Zimmer’s music, and an Alicia Keys music video.
Verdict: While Amazing Spider-Man 2 is hit and miss as a film, Sony’s decision to scan from 35mm for this Ultra HD Blu-ray release yields a picture most movie fans will adore for both its cinematic naturalism and its lovely detail and colour richness.
Buy Now: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 at Amazon.co.uk from £19.99
Buy Now: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 at Amazon.com from $29.99
X-Men: Days Of Future Past – Decent film, average disc
Critics Consensus: One of the ‘hits’ of the rather hit and miss X-Men series thanks to a fast-paced but character-driven plot and some beautifully realised action set pieces.
Picture & Sound Quality: Another film to find its way onto Ultra HD Blu-ray via an upscale from a 2K master, X-Men: Days Of Future Past doesn’t make as convincing a case for the upscaling process as Kingsman: The Secret Service.
There is slightly more detail in the image overall than you get on the Blu-ray, and every now and then a particular shot or two really ‘pings’ with the extra clarity that’s quality 4K’s trademark. The image as a whole, though, lacks that purity, detail and feeling of directness you get with the very best Ultra HD transfers.
The addition of HDR is welcome, though. It clearly opens up the image’s brightness and colour ranges, making the film’s settings look more real without making the special effects look excessively artificial. The HDR brings out slightly more detail in dark scenes too, and Mystique has never looked so… blue.
Audio comes courtesy of a pretty huge DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix that pushes your speakers to the limits of their dynamic range while also serving up lots of accurately positioned details and transitional effects. The only pity is that again Fox hasn’t stuck the Dolby Atmos track on there that accompanied the film’s cinematic release.
Extras: The UHD BD contains a commentary track by director Bryan Singer and writer/producer Simon Kinberg, while the Blu-ray that accompanies the UHD BD carries a gag reel, deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, a gallery, and a featurette on the Sentinels.
Verdict: While the X-Men is one of the UHD BD’s highest profile movies so far and does have some good 4K HDR moments, it probably isn’t worth it if you already have the normal Blu-ray.
Buy Now: X-Men: Days of Future Past at Amazon.co.uk from £19.99
Life Of Pi – Incredible use of HDR
Critics Consensus: Director Ang Lee manages to make a visually stunning, emotional and thought-provoking film out of a much-loved book many people had thought impossible to film. It won four Oscars including best director and best cinematography.
Picture & Sound Quality: Life Of Pi on Ultra HD Blu-ray was created from a 2K digital intermediate upscaled to 4K. This predictably means the picture doesn’t look as consistently detailed and, in particular, crisp as some UHD BDs. Particularly noticeable is some slight blurring over motion at times, such as on the fur of the film’s many real and CGI animals.
Relatively static shots enjoy a clear step up in apparent detail and crispness, though. And in any case the Life Of Pi Ultra HD Blu-ray has another ‘killer app’: High Dynamic Range.
Having so much more brightness and colour to work with delivers images which are at times the most beautiful I’ve seen on a television. This is particularly true during the daylight sequences of Pi and his stripey friend bobbing around in the endless ocean, as the extra brightness gives the images an almost otherworldly quality.
But the extra contrast range and colour also means that dark sequences like the candle-lit river ceremony and the luminous jellyfish/jumping whale look so spectacular that going back to the relative flatness of the ordinary Blu-ray feels painful.
The UHD BD’s DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio soundtrack is gorgeous too, packing in subtle effects and details that combine with the irresistible score to enhance the film’s unique atmosphere. The only pity is that Fox hasn’t provided the Dolby Atmos soundtrack developed for the film’s cinematic release.
Extras: There’s nothing on the Ultra HD disc aside from the film, but the accompanying Blu-ray provides a good hour long documentary that charts the film’s development, as well as a featurette on the special effects; a featurette on working with both real and CGI tigers; a gallery of the film’s artwork; and presentations of the storyboards used to develop some of the film’s key scenes.
Verdict: Despite not always being the crispest Ultra HD Blu-ray around, Life Of Pi’s at times incredible use of HDR means it’s still a stunning showcase proving why all serious movie fans need the new disc format in their life.
Buy Now: Life of Pi on Ultra HD Blu-ray at Amazon.co.uk from £19.99
Buy Now: Life of Pi on Ultra HD Blu-ray at Amazon.com from $25
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