It’s finally time to buy a 4K player. Five years after its largely unnoticed introduction to the marketplace, the ultra-high-definition disc is becoming a serious medium for home theater, and not just a platform for high-speed adventures and computerized visual effects. The turning point may have come in November, when the Criterion Collection—the most prominent purveyor of classic films on video for 40 years—released its first three titles in 4K, one of which was Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
This was no doubt a sentimental choice for Criterion: Kane was the first film it released on laserdisc, the boutique alternative to VHS tape, back in 1984. But there were three other things that raised eyebrows about the choice—and suggested this might be a bellwether for the future of the format. Kane is widely hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, so 4K might be a medium for art films, not just action movies. Warner Bros. put out an excellent-looking Blu-ray of Kane 10 years ago, suggesting that 4K might have something to add even to that highly lauded release. Finally, the film was shot in black and white, suggesting that 4K might not be just for movies with bright, bold colors.
What’s more, 4K UHD sets are commonplace now—nearly every new TV on the market, though many (perhaps most) of those who buy them don’t know or care. So, unlike five years ago, one major precondition for a spurt in 4K discs—something to display them—has already been satisfied.
Let’s go back a step. What does 4K mean, and what’s so ultra-high about UHD? 4K, short for 4,000, refers to the number of pixels in each horizontal line of a frame—or, actually, the precise number is 3,840. Multiplied by 2,160, the number of pixels in each vertical line, this means a total of 8.3 million pixels. By comparison, Blu-ray high definition—which has 1,920 horizontal and 1,080 vertical pixels—has 2 million pixels, not quite one-quarter as many. (Standard-definition DVDs have just 345,600 pixels.) More pixels means more resolution and detail.
But resolution is the least of UHD’s virtues. 4K TVs and discs also incorporate three other technologies that arose around the same time.
First, there’s HDR (high dynamic range), the span of difference between the lightest and darkest images. HDR allows much brighter whites and much deeper blacks. The second is WCG (wide color gamut), a wider palette of colors with much greater intensity. The third is 10-bit color depth, which refers to the number of colors and shades in that palette. The best high-definition TVs (which had 8-bit color depth) displayed 16.7 million colors. With WCG and 10-bit color depth, 4K TVs can display 1 billion colors—which also allows more palpable textures, realism, and depth.
Each of these four technologies—4K, HDR, WCG, and 10-bit color depth—reinforces the others. WCG allows a wider swath of colors, 10-bit color depth supplies the extra colors, HDR extends the range of brightness and darkness within that swath, and 4K scanning lets you see all of this with a clarity and detail that nearly matches that of the original film. That’s why bright-colored, high-contrast, fast-action movies look so terrific in 4K UHD, and why they’ve been the ones that sales reps and early adopters play to show off their fancy new wares.
So what could 4K do for a film like Citizen Kane, an 80-year-old movie in which the fastest-paced scenes show a little boy throwing snowballs and an old man messing up a room? The answer is clear even before the first shot. In the 4K transfer, the bold capital letters that spell out Kane’s title beam like white neon against a jet-black background. The effect is bold, electrifying. Then there’s the opening scene, the camera slowly crawling up the gate of Kane’s property with the “No Trespassing” sign, the high fence, the mansion in the distance. HDR and WCG also include the array of grays between black and white, and the Criterion version shows a vast range of grays in the metallic sign, its palpable wear and tear, the full menace of the wire fence. It’s axiomatic that Kane was a movie whose bold images revolutionized cinema, but I’d never absorbed the full whack of its brilliance until I watched this 4K disc. By comparison, even the Warner Blu-ray—which was revelatory at the time, especially compared with the earlier DVD (or a 16 mm print that I’d seen in college)—seems dull and sluggish.
What about another black-and-white movie, this one more soft-focused, The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, which Criterion will release on 4K later this month? It looks a little better than Criterion’s 2014 Blu-ray of the film—textures are a bit more palpable, skin tones more varied (looking more like a silver gelatin print than a digital scan)—but not by very much; it doesn’t particularly enhance the charms of the movie (which, by the way, I love). If you have a 4K disc player but don’t own the film, then get this one—which, like many 4K releases, comes with a Blu-ray disc as well. However, if you already have the Blu-ray, it’s not worth the upgrade. (I would say the same about Columbia’s 4K disc of Dr. Strangelove, compared with Criterion’s Blu-ray of that film.)
Robert Harris, a prominent film-restoration artist who also reviews Blu-ray and 4K discs in Home Theater Forum, told me, “Probably 70 percent of these discs have no reason to be in 4K. The camera negatives don’t even have 4K’s worth of information.” Citizen Kane notwithstanding, Harris says the best candidates for 4K treatment are large-format films, mostly shot on 70 mm, with bright colors and black backdrops. His favorites include My Fair Lady, Vertigo, and Lawrence of Arabia, all shot on large-format film, and the 1977 horror film, shot in 35 mm, Suspiria; among the Criterion 4Ks, he particularly admires Mulholland Drive for its immersive colors and clarity, even in the darkest scenes. (In his Home Theater Forum reviews, he’s awarded five-star ratings to many more 4K discs, based on their fidelity to the original film.) I agree with Harris’ top picks and would add, among the 4K films in my collection, Blade Runner: The Final Cut, Die Hard, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Rear Window, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Still, the inconsistency of 4K’s edge over lesser mediums is one way in which it differs from previous advances in home video. The DVD was far superior to VHS and Betamax tapes. Blu-ray was way better than DVD. But 4K? In some cases, it’s a lot better than Blu-ray; in others, not so much. More than that, you have to have a very good 4K television (not all of them are the same), and you have to calibrate it at least a little bit to tell much of a difference.
This may be why, five years after their debut, 4K discs are not the commercial hit that DVDs or Blu-ray discs were at the same point. Another obstacle to 4K’s blastoff, probably the biggest, is streaming. Eleven streaming channels offer at least some 4K content, usually (though not always) at no added cost: Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max (though not HBO cable or, for that matter, any cable or terrestrial channel as yet), Hulu, Apple TV+, Disney+, Paramount+, YouTube, YouTube TV, Epix Now, and Fubo TV. If “HDR” or “Dolby Vision” appears in the upper right-hand corner of the screen at the start of the program or the movie, that means you’re watching 4K UHD.
A few years ago, 4K streaming was pretty bad: Resolution wasn’t great, contrasts were gray, viewing was marred by frequent buffering. Streaming is much better these days, in part because companies have devised better compression techniques, in part because the internet is now much faster. (Not long ago, my router’s speed was around 25 megabits per second, barely enough for HD. Now it’s 175 Mbps, nearly four times faster than what you comfortably need to stream 4K.)
For most people, including home video enthusiasts, 4K streaming is good enough. Kevin Miller, one of the top TV calibration technicians, told me that two-thirds of the clients he services these days don’t own a disc player of any sort—and these are people whose home theater systems cost tens of thousands of dollars or more. (The customers who do have disc players all have 4K players.)
“Convenience is everything to most people,” Miller says. It upsets him because, as good as streaming has become, physical discs tend to look and sound much better. Those who just stream aren’t going to see or hear the full effects of their home theater systems or of Miller’s calibration.
Industry statistics support Miller’s observation. According to the NPD Group, a leading consumer market research firm, sales of 4K discs dropped 20 percent over the past year. Sales of Blu-ray discs and DVDs dropped even more, by 33 and 23 percent, respectively. This might suggest a somewhat greater degree of enthusiasm for 4K discs, but another statistic undermines that inference. As a share of total digital movie disc sales, 4K discs make up just 4 percent, Blu-ray discs make up 22 percent, and old-hat DVDs 74 percent.
This may seem stunning, until you realize that DVDs are sold near the cashier counters at grocery stores, drugstores, and Walmarts. This is not true of Blu-rays or 4K discs, for which retail outlets have been disappearing over the past decade for several reasons.
However, there is cause for some optimism. In the fourth quarter of 2021, 4K sales surged to 12 percent of total disc sales, mainly because of the release of such titles as F9, Free Guy, Black Widow, and The Suicide Squad, all of which would predictably look great in UHD.
The point is content matters—and here is where the Criterion Collection’s toe dip into 4K could boost the medium’s fortunes. Once serious cinephiles know that films like Citizen Kane, Mulholland Drive, Le Cercle Rouge, The Piano, and The Red Shoes (the last three being some of Criterion’s upcoming UHD releases) are available in 4K, maybe they’ll buy a 4K UHD disc player, and, once that’s installed, maybe they’ll buy more 4K discs. (Check CNET or Sound & Vision for reliable reviews of the best players.)
Criterion is not alone. Kino Lorber has started a major push in UHD discs, and the major studios, notably Columbia and Universal, are not far behind. Other 4K releases just in the last few days or in the coming months include Dune, The Last Duel, The Wolf of Wall Street, Eastern Promises, Touch of Evil, Some Like It Hot, In Bruges, The Apartment, Paths of Glory, Ghostbusters, Mad Max, and—on a date as yet unannounced—the Godfather trilogy.
When the first Blu-ray discs came out in the mid-2000s, around the same time that Netflix started streaming movies, many thought that the new format was dead on arrival—streaming would make physical discs obsolete or at least undesirable. And yet before too long, studios started releasing nearly all of their movies on Blu-ray (and, still, on DVD too). It’s unclear whether the same will happen with 4K. At this point, new Blu-ray releases outnumber new 4Ks by well over 10-to-1.
John Buffone, executive director of the NPD Group, told me that 4K UHD discs are likely to remain a product for film or video “enthusiasts”—and “a narrow segment” of even that market. Still, he noted a few caveats to that assessment. First, he acknowledged, a lot of people said the same thing about LPs not long ago—and now vinyl outsells CDs (though both are vastly overshadowed by audio streaming). Second, there will always be collectors who want physical objects; this may be especially so for movies, since so many of them vanish from streaming services after a certain amount of time (usually after their licenses expire).
Finally, he said, there may be a cascading effect. As more titles come out in UHD, and as more of these titles appeal to a “targeted audience”—whether the art film crowd that buys Criterion discs or the much larger one for Some Like It Hot or The Godfather—that might boost sales of UHD discs and disc players.
It’s a boutique item, but it’s not going away.
And now, a few guidelines before you start buying:
• Not all 4K TVs are equipped with HDR; most of the cheap ones are not. Only buy the TV if it says HDR; otherwise, you’ll only see a fragment of 4K UHD—and not the most impressive or lifelike.
• Beware video boxes that say “4K mastered.” When Blu-ray discs got popular, studios scanned many of their films in 4K, mainly to get ready for the next upgrade. However, they compressed the 4K masters to high definition (2K) to make Blu-ray discs. For true 4K, make sure the box says “4K UHD.”
• To stream or otherwise play 4K movies, you’ll need faster HDMI 2.0 cables. (To stream, your router speed should be at least 50 megabits per second.)
• 4K TVs are not plug-and-play items. Go to the video settings on the menu and turn off the settings for motion smoothing and digital noise reduction. Otherwise, movies—4K movies especially—will look like soap operas. (If you don’t believe me, listen to Tom Cruise.)
• Look up the calibration settings for your TV in such sources as CNET or Sound & Vision, and adjust the settings accordingly. Better still, hire a professional calibrator, preferably one licensed by the Imaging Science Foundation, to come tweak your TV to a fine level. They charge a few hundred bucks, but otherwise it’s like buying a Steinway without hiring a piano tuner.
Update, Jan. 11, 2022: This article has been edited to clarify the Blu-ray standard of resolution. A reference to 8-bit and 10-bit as measures of processing power rather than color depth was also corrected.