It’s been 20 years since the first high-definition TV sets went on sale in the United States. The takeoff was sluggish; a full five years later, in 2003, when the Oscars were broadcast in HD for the first time, host Steve Martin noted the fact and joked, “So I’d like to say a big hello to the three guys watching at Circuit City—hey!” The audience laughed and applauded. But by the end of the decade, more than half of American households owned a high-def television. As of last year, the figure had risen to 85 percent—about the same level as computers.
And so, with the market all but saturated, the TV industry needed another glitzy piece of hardware to hawk. 3D didn’t pan out; I’d thought sports and porn might serve as gateways, but it turned out no one wanted to wear those damn glasses. So the industry went full bore on another format that the research and development shops had been developing.
That format is 4K or UHD, for ultra-high definition. These new types of TVs have been around for only five years. But in just the past year, the technology has fully matured, and for another month or so—until April or May, when the 2018 models come on line, sporting higher prices but equal or just marginally better pictures—the best 2017 models are going for crazy-cheap prices.
I recently bought LG’s 65-inch OLED65B7 for less than $2,500. A 55-inch version, the LG OLED55B7, can be had for less than $1,600. (Similar Sony, Samsung, and Vizio 4K sets are selling for similar prices.) These are widely regarded as the best 4K sets on the market. By comparison, throughout the era of mere high-definition TVs, the best models on the market never sold for less than $5,000, and most of those were for smaller screens.
In other words, now is the time to buy a new television set.
“4K”—short for 4,000—refers to the number of pixels on each horizontal line of the TV screen. The precise number is 3,840. Multiplied by the 2,160 pixels on each vertical line, that makes for a total of 8.3 million pixels. By comparison, high-definition TVs display 1,920 horizontal and 1,080 vertical pixels, for a total of 2 million pixels. So 4K TVs display four times as many pixels—that is, they have four times as much detail and resolution—as HDTVs.
Some scoff that the human eye can’t distinguish between 8 million pixels and 2 million. The scoffers are wrong, but to the extent that they have a case (and they do, if your screen isn’t large and your couch is far away), it’s beside the main point, which is that the newest 4K televisions offer more than just higher resolution.
Just as HDTVs featured not only high definition but also improved digital color standards and, even more noticeably, wide screens, 4K televisions—the newer ones, anyway—also boast huge advances in color, brightness, and contrast. These advances are the results of four technologies, which had been chugging along independently of one another and are now converging with—and getting incorporated into—ultra-high definition TVs. These technologies are known as high-dynamic range, wide color gamut, 10-bit color depth, and (on some models) organic light-emitting diodes.
In audio, “dynamic range” refers to the difference between the softest and the loudest sounds. In video, it refers to the difference between the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. High-dynamic range, or HDR, is an industry standard indicating that the range is, well, very high.
Wide color gamut, or WCG, provides a wider palette of colors with much greater intensity of red, green, and blue (the primary colors in video). Ten-bit color depth refers to the number of colors and shades that can be reproduced within that wider palette. The best HDTVs (which had 8-bit processing) displayed 16.7 million distinct colors. With WCG and 10-bit processors, 4K televisions can display 1 billion colors. (Click here for the math.)
Finally, screens powered by organic light-emitting diodes, or OLED, may seem similar at first glance to LED displays, which have been around for a long time, but their innards are very different. LED screens are simply LCDs (liquid crystal displays) that are backlit; the pixels open and close, like a camera shutter, to let light pass through or to block it. One flaw of LCD panels has been that they don’t accurately display black; some light always creeps through the pixels, even when they try to shut it out, so black objects come out looking a bit gray. With OLED, there is no backlighting; rather, each pixel emits its own light, so if that pixel is supposed to be black in the color scheme of the picture, it looks inky black. There is a trade-off here: Pixels don’t emit quite as much light as a backlit screen, so OLED pictures aren’t quite as bright as the best LEDs. I’m willing to take the trade-off, as are many reviewers, since true black provides the foundation for all other colors, but this is a matter of taste. (Another advantage of OLED is that the screen is much flatter—only ¼-inch thick—and you can watch it from way off to the side without any degradation in color or focus.)
In any case, each of these four technologies—4K, HDR, WCG, and OLED—reinforces the others. WCG allows a wider swath of colors, and HDR extends the range of brightness within that swath, while OLED makes each of 4K’s 8 million pixels look distinct.
All this sounds nice, theoretically, but how does the picture look? In a word, it looks real. You don’t realize how artificial and approximate a high-definition picture looks—you aren’t aware of how many lapses and gaps your brain has to fill—until you take a look at ultra-high definition.
If you missed a movie in the theaters, the loss, in picture quality anyway, is no longer irretrievable; UHD TVs come closer to capturing the look and feel of a 35 mm film or a 4K digital print than any HDTV I’ve ever seen. Reds, blues, and greens—and all the shades in between—just glisten (if they’re supposed to glisten). Urban streets and landscapes are portrayed with a palpable sense of depth. Reflections of light look like reflections of light, not merely a lighter shade of some color. Nothing gets obscured in dark scenes; the subtle distinctions between a black coat and a shadow, or a shadow and a moonless night sky, are as clear as they are in nature (assuming the cinematographer in question captured it and the digital mastering was well done).
There are, however, a few caveats. First, right now, there’s not a lot of 4K content to watch. The TV networks broadcast no programs in 4K. Streaming services are better: Seven of them—Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now, and iTunes—offer some movies and TV shows in 4K, and an increasing number of them are encoded in HDR or Dolby Vision (a proprietary format that has the same effect). Studios are starting to release UHD discs (which all offer HDR), and eight companies are making UHD players (which can also play Blu-ray Discs, DVDs, and CDs). But in both cases—the discs and the streaming—we’re talking about just a few hundred titles.
Still, these numbers are sure to grow. Several years ago, when studios started digitizing their movies for HDTV and Blu-ray Discs, they mastered many of them in 4K. They did this—even though no 4K projectors, disc players, streaming services, or TVs existed at the time—because they figured 4K would be a natural successor to HD; let’s make 4K masters now, they reasoned, so we don’t have to do it all over again, at great expense, when the upgrade happens.
Another reason for optimism: People are buying 4K televisions. Last year, according to Michael Fidler, president of the UHD Alliance, an organization of TV and software companies, 80 million 4K TVs were sold worldwide—19 million of them in North America, more than half of all TVs sold here. (About a quarter of those 19 million also featured HDR.) This is eight times the number of 4K sets purchased in 2014, when they started appearing in stores, and industry experts foresee the number tripling by 2020.
In any event, sales are climbing much more rapidly than HDTVs did in their first years. And even the UHD discs are plentiful when seen in historical perspective. The first HD discs didn’t hit the market until 2006—eight years after the first HDTVs—and a format war raged (between Toshiba’s HD DVD and Sony’s Blu-ray), discouraging buyers, until 2008.
Meanwhile, the sparse supply of 4K content isn’t as big a disappointment as it might seem, because 4K televisions are equipped with processors that “up-convert” high-def images to simulate 4K. Some of these TVs also have video settings (which can easily be activated) that simulate the brightness of high-dynamic contrast. These gimmicks are no match for genuine 4K or HDR, but they come impressively close.
This leads to the second caveat about the new generation of TVs: They are not plug-and-play machines. You have to fool around a bit with the menu settings to make them look really good.
Here’s a nasty little secret that a few dealers admit off the record: The factory settings on these TVs are designed to make the picture look wowie-zowie on a brightly lit showroom floor.
When you haul it home and turn it on, in a normally lit (or, at night, somewhat darkened) room, the picture will look too bright, too flat, too Etch A Sketch–y, and weirdly unnatural, like a cheap soap opera.
Not by coincidence, this weirdness is called “the soap-opera effect,” and while it might be OK for watching cartoons or football games (which is what TVs on showroom floors are usually tuned to), it’s annoying—to many, including me, it’s intolerable—for watching anything else, especially movies.
Fortunately, the problem can be fixed. On your TV remote, click “Settings.” Click “Picture Mode” or “Picture Settings” (on some models, “Advanced Picture Settings”). The setting that causes the soap-opera effect is called (again, the name is different on different models) “Auto Motion” or “Auto Motion Plus” or “TruMotion.” It’s probably on. Turn it off. Also turn off “Digital Noise Reduction” and “Edge Enhancement.”
Turning off these settings will get rid of most of your problems but not all of them. The picture will probably still be too bright, too intense, or too something. While you’re in the Picture Mode settings, click on (and, again, the name varies from model to model) “Film,” “Movie,” or “Cinema.” Better still, if they’re listed among the Picture Modes or Picture Settings, click on “Technicolor Expert” or “ISF Dark Room” (if you watch mainly in a dark room) or “ISF Bright Room” (if you watch mainly in a bright room). All of these modes will alter many of the other settings (Brightness, Contrast, Gamma, etc.) in ways that will dramatically improve the picture. (If none of these settings are listed in Picture Mode, click on “Software Update.” They might simply have to be loaded.)
Still, these modes won’t get you to Nirvana. To get there, you have to do one of these things, in order of convenience and cost:
• Before any of this, simply to stream 4K content (whether or not you’re interested in the path to Nirvana), you’ll need a fast Internet connection—25 megabits per second, at least. To see how fast yours is, go to www.TestMySpeed.com. If it’s not fast enough, contact your ISP. You’ll also need an HDMI 2.0 wire (not your old HDMI) for connecting the TV with the cable box and the Blu-ray player.
• Buy a Blu-ray calibration disc. Following the directions, you’ll be able to dial in color and contrast corrections more precisely than your TV’s mode options will manage. (Unfortunately, there are not yet any 4K calibration discs, though there soon will be.)
• Read a review of the TV that you bought in a publication such as Sound & Vision (where, full disclosure, I review Blu-ray and UHD discs) or CNET.com. These reviews often include sidebars that cite the settings (for Brightness, Contrast, Warmth, Gamma, etc.) that the reviewers—some of whom are professional TV calibrators—punched in. These are only suggestions, not definitive answers, as, for some reason, there are minor unit-to-unit variations in some TVs.
• Hire a professional to come to your house and calibrate the TV personally. Ideally, this person should be “ISF-certified” (meaning he or she has been licensed by the Imaging Science Foundation, an industry consulting service that monitors the enforcement of color standards for modern TVs). This will cost a few hundred dollars, but if you want to eke out that last 20 percent toward perfection, you’ll want to do this. I did.
In any case, do—or have somebody do—something. Otherwise, it would be as if you bought a Steinway grand piano and didn’t bother to have it tuned.
Meanwhile, buy the Steinway—the 4K HDR WCG 10-bit color (and, I would add, OLED) UHDTV. It will open your eyes.