Are 4K optical discs really better than 4K streaming video?

There's a whole new wave of 4K optical discs, but are you missing anything if you stick with streaming media devices like the Roku 4?

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Sony Pictures

It’s a debate for the ages.

Actually, we had this one when HD video emerged quite a few years ago, and it will continue for some time. Yet, I wanted to find out if 4K optical discus are noticeably better than streaming 4K, even if the specs “on paper” suggest there is a world of difference.

I tested the same movies on multiple services, including all three recent Star Trek movies, all of the newer Spider-Man films, and a couple of recent animated movies.

My main projector, the Epson Home Cinema 5040UB, was an important part of the test because it supports HDR video, casts a clear 4K screen that took up an entire wall of my basement (I also used a perfectly white projector screen and only tested at night in pitch black), shines at 2,500 lumens, and has the chops to make almost any video source look much better, even the one about Ninja Turtles.

For the 4K player, I used a Philips BDP7501 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray player, which has one HDMI out for video that supports HDR and one HDMI out for audio. You can also play Netflix and YouTube movies in 4K. My last piece of hardware for testing optical discs was the Polk Magnifi Mini Speaker, a sound bar that supports optical audio, HDMI, and wireless. One downside: The Polk Magnifi only worked with my receiver for optical audio, but the HDMI audio out on the Philips player does not support ARC.

For testing video streaming, I stuck with the basics. I started with an Microsoft Xbox One S, which plays movies in 4K using services like Netflix but does not quite support HDR using the Epson projector (even after checking and rechecking for compatibility). I also used every other streaming device available -- an NVIDIA Shield TV, a Roku 4, Netflix and 4K movie rentals playing on a DISH Hopper 3, and the Vudu service. The one piece of gear I didn’t have for this, the Google Chromecast Ultra, was on backorder.

My main finding is that HDR is really important, and it's far easier to know that an optical disc supports it. On the Roku 4 I have, for example, I streamed in 4K but without HDR. (Newer Roku players like the Roku Ultra do support HDR.) The Xbox One S did not support HDR on the Epson projector. The DISH Hopper has 4K movies and even some broadcasts in 4K (like the Rio Olympics), but they're not in HDR.

One of my test movies was Star Trek: Beyond in 4K. There’s a scene on the alien planet when Captain Kirk first arrives where a few floating dandelion-like plants come into view. You might know the scene. What you might not know is that this particular scene is a perfect test for 4K. My own discovery is that there is a difference between raw resolution (the number of pixels) and contrast, brightness, and color depth. The two have to work together to create convincing video playback. Star Trek: Beyond simply didn't look as theatrical in 4K on all of the streaming devices I tested.

On optical, it’s no contest. The HDR on the Philips player creates a color quality that makes you feel like you are in the scene. The blacks look distinctly black (not washed out or slightly gray), the tiny white flecks of the plant noticeably more pronounced. On streaming, even after making sure my movie from Vudu was playing in 4K (using the Epson, you can see the on-screen resolution), the clarity was not quite the same, and I started really missing the flat, glorious color of HDR. Vudu should support HDR, but it played in normal 4Kon my Roku 4. Similarly, on the NVIDIA Shield TV, 4K support is hit or miss. You can't play 4K movies from Google Play yet, even though they are available.

But here’s where things get a little interesting. Watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 4K on every player imaginable (including the Xbox One S, the Roku 4, and even the original Google Chromecast that costs a measly $25 these days), you can still see the web during those CGI-rendered scenes flying around tall buildings. In HD, they are not as obvious -- even a little washed out. So you can still see differences.

Watching the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows in 4K, there’s a scene involving the characters Bebop and Rocksteady involving some phlegm and snot. Not to gross anyone out, but the 4K version on optical disc using HDR has a “sheen” and color quality that was missing on the streaming versions, mostly thanks to the HDR rendering. Several test movies, particularly Angels & Demons on optical in 4K, had this same color depth difference compared to streaming.

My final movie test, Angry Birds in 4K, proved the point even more. 4K on streaming without HDR is not quite the same. With a few friends and family helping test, there’s something missing on 4K compared to the Philips version on optical. During one scene, a characters has what looks like a subtle game of tic-tac-toe on its beak. For anyone who is an uber-techie, this is a good example of what you might miss. It’s still there in normal 4K and HD, but not as obvious. My issue is that not all 4K streaming is the same. The Xbox One S, the Roku 4, the DISH Hopper, and the NVIDIA Shield TV didn't use HDR.

With the Vudu service, it's even more complicated. The Roku 4 and NVIDIA Shield TV support 4K playback, but not in HDR. Even the Chromecast Ultra, if I had one, would not have support Vudu in HDR. For that, you need an LG or Vizio television.

Yes, I plan to test newer streaming media players, particularly the Roku Ultra. And, my plan is to test the Chromecast Ultra as soon as possible. We'll see.

For me, optical is the way to go for now if you want to see everything, and you want to be sure the playback is optimal. It matches or even exceeds what you see in a movie theater. 4K is still viable on streaming media, and you almost have to be overly detailed-oriented if you care about spider webs and snot looking picture perfect. I’m not sure it matters too much in the long run, but optical discs do look better...for now.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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