4k Blu-rays: excellent format, questionable lifespan

I have mixed feelings about 4K Blu-rays after plowing a lot of time and money into the technology. The format has significant hurdles for everyday TV watchers that make me question its longevity. Yet the upgrades have been substantial, at times incredible, even with a dated home theater setup.

That upgrade stems from Blu-ray’s unimpeachable picture and sound quality. In an era where most movies on streaming sites are compressed 1080p, where 4K streams may not even be an option unless you’re on a premium monthly plan, a 4K Blu-ray’s rock solid 4K HDR image looks sensational. The detail can be astonishing. In Blade Runner, as a character reads a newspaper, I can make out the text on individual articles. 4K Blu-rays also preserve the original film grain for movies shot on film stock, given the high quality scan. It’s a subtle effect that adds character, especially for older, classic films.

In fairness, you can purchase and rent many streaming movies in 4K. It’s also a commonplace resolution for streaming originals on services like Netflix and Apple TV Plus. However, because the data transfer rate on streaming is a third to a quarter of that on Blu-ray (streams top out at 40mbps, while Blu-ray maxes to 128mbps), the former relies on compression and other algorithmic tricks to deliver video.

Compression adds posterization, artifacts, and color banding, an especially noticeable effect on large, uniform blocks of color like skies or grassy fields. Streaming fast moving action can also add pixelation or smearing. If the connection slows (which can happen even on the high speed fiber optic I have at home), image quality can drop to 1080p or lower resolution.

Visual enhancements aside, audio is the defining advantage of Blu-rays over streaming. That’s because streaming uses lossy compression to deliver sound, forcing compromises. Blu-rays provide uncompressed audio tracks, ensuring a full dynamic range and the highest sound quality possible.

To test differences in practice, I watched several scenes from Michael Mann’s crime classic Heat and the popular Disney movie Frozen, alternating between streaming and 4K Blu-ray formats. I purposefully chose two movies with widely different content and audio specs. Heat on Netflix uses Dolby Digital 5.1, a longstanding streaming standard. Frozen on iTunes uses a Dolby Digital Plus container with Dolby Atmos, the most up to date, advanced streaming sound solution. For the 4K Blu-rays, both movies lean on DTS-HD Master Audio, the most common disc audio format around.

Note my Sonos surround speaker setup (sound bar, subwoofer, two surround speakers) and TV is several years old, driven by an optical connection instead of HDMI eARC. Optical can’t deliver uncompressed audio, so technically, the sound on my system from streaming and Blu-ray is in the same lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 package.

That said, how and where that 5.1 sound originates makes a difference. The Blu-ray versions had noticeably better clarity and presence for most scenes, especially those that leaned on surround audio. Individual soundtracks were easier to parse, with cleaner dialogue and a more enveloping surround effect.

To highlight one example, an early sequence in Heat has Robert De Niro’s and Amy Brenneman’s characters chatting in a diner. The audio setup is typical for a two-person conversation: the center channel delivered dialogue, while the surrounds outputted ambient noise from the restaurant. On 4K Blu-ray, the dialogue was crystal clear, with a decent audio balance around my listening position. Sound levels from the diner were high enough to establish the scene but not enough to distract from the two main characters. But that scene required a few volume adjustments on Netflix because the kitchen noise sounded messy. Streaming surround usage, while present, was minimal to the point the soundscape felt forward-facing.

Earlier in the movie, an armored van heist showcases surround audio: an explosive charge goes off and shatters nearby car windows. The sounds are mixed across multiple channels, separated by several milliseconds to heighten the scene’s intensity. When comparing this audio blast between formats, while both Netflix and the 4K Blu-ray delivered similar raw power, the latter had improved separation for each audio cue. It’s a subtle difference, but the Blu-ray’s explosion and shattering sounds had more “tug” in a distinct direction away from the TV.

For Frozen, I focused on the musical numbers. I could make out individual instruments alongside the vocals on the Blu-ray, with a bit more dynamic range in the low end. To test surround audio, I picked an early scene introducing the troll characters; a series of rumbles pans around the sound channels as the creatures appear. As with Heat, the sound separation was more distinct and directional with the Blu-ray.

At no point would I characterize the streaming versions as “bad.” However, after listening to the Blu-rays for a while, the downgrade to streaming was apparent. I suspect the downmix to Dolby Digital 5.1 on Blu-ray benefited from the higher quality, uncompressed Blu-ray audio. When I upgrade my equipment to utilize eARC, the gap between disc and streaming will only increase.

Still, any platitudes for Blu-ray’s picture and sound won’t translate to 95% of the movie watching audience. Many watch movies and TV on budget or older TV sets. Most play sound directly from the TV or, at best, a low-end soundbar. Some skip the big screen and watch on a laptop or mobile device. Under such conditions, it’s practically impossible to tell the difference between a stream and a disc.

Even for home theater enthusiasts like me, the 4K Blu-ray player market is limited and filled with unreliable technology. While there are high-end brands (Magnetar, Reavon) for a niche audience willing to shell out thousands on hardware, Panasonic and Sony are the only mainstream brands that still make 4K players. Neither has issued a new player since 2019. Their players are frequently out of stock and rarely on sale. Also, according to many online forums and The Wirecutter, Sony’s players can lock up and refuse to play certain discs. Outside of dedicated players, the PS5 and Xbox Series X can also play 4K Blu-rays, but from personal experience, they are noisy, fail to support Dolby Vision, and can run into disc skipping bugs.

When you start adding up 4K Blu-ray’s practical challenges – small audience, high cost, often unreliable hardware – against streaming’s sheer convenience and availability, Blu-ray may not have a long future. History has not been kind to physical formats aimed at enthusiasts.

However, the resurgence of interest in vinyl records shows a glimmer of hope. 4K Blu-rays and records share many of the same selling points. Both are better quality than their streaming counterparts, but often in subtle ways, best showcased with high-end equipment. Both can be pricey investments, with records and Blu-rays regularly $20 to $30 a pop alongside extra equipment like a turntable, amp, or separate disc player. In some ways, Blu-rays make for a stronger overall case than vinyl. Records and turntables, with their analog roots, are more fragile than Blu-rays. The online availability of film is also far more limited and volatile than most music, making a local physical reference all the more valuable.

Yet anecdotally, based on online chatter and the local brick and mortar stores I visit, vinyl is enjoying a larger resurgence. Blu-rays are mostly relegated to a few prominent online vendors like Amazon, with many titles dipping in and out of stock.

Part of the gap in interest stems from our relationship with movies versus music, especially among young people. As I’ve written previously, film, except for big tentpole blockbusters, is becoming more of a specialty pursuit compared to music. There’s also the throwback, analog appeal of vinyl in a digital world, embracing an activity readily prevalent before the internet.

So, while vinyl has carved out a stable base, I see the endgame for Blu-rays as dependent on actions from the big streamers, hardware manufacturers, and how Hollywood studios react. For the big streamers, finding movies to watch will get more difficult over time. We’ll see more price fluctuations for a la carte rentals while subscription libraries add and remove titles more aggressively. That volatility gives Blu-rays a narrow opening.

A new dedicated 4K player from Sony or Panasonic that’s affordable, easy to use, and doesn’t have any reliability or noise challenges would also help. I’m pessimistic in this area, given no players were announced at CES this month.

That leads us to the studios, who care foremost about profitability. It’s inexpensive to mass produce 4K discs, but if the buy rate drops below a certain level, Warner, Universal, and the rest won’t hesitate to stop manufacturing, given streaming’s penetration rate. Granted, tiny outfits like Shout Factory, Kino Lorber, and Criterion are producing 4K discs. However, none of these smaller shops have the distribution and marketing muscle to keep the format afloat, especially for brick and mortar.

Given all these factors, I’m keeping a close eye on more prominent 4K Blu-rays direct from studios like Barbie and Oppenheimer. Strong sales, I think, could singlehandedly give the format enough of a lifeline to keep chugging along for at least a few more years. But if the new Hollywood Blu-ray output starts to sag, watch out.

That news may sound like a highly questionable future to invest in. Still, 4K Blu-rays unlock the best experience you can have at home for the proper film enthusiast, which takes advantage of every bit of your theater setup. For that reason alone, even if the format is not long for this world, I’m in for the rest of the ride.