Blu-ray vs 4K: Great and Greater

When I reviewed The Big Lebowski 4K/Blu-ray disc set, I promised that I would soon compare Blu-rays with 4K Ultra HD discs. I finally got to it.

4K Ultra HD discs (yes, it’s a horrible name) offer better image quality than Blu-rays . The improvement is not as spectacular as that of DVD to Blu-ray, but it just may be worthwhile.

The Lebowski set was not the best choice for a Blu-ray vs 4K comparison. The two discs were from different scans and masters made a decade apart. Of course, the Ultra HD looked better!

I should mention that the Lebowski 4K Ultra HD looks fantastic. Details are sharp and the colors pop. But I had no way of knowing how much of that came from the new scan and master, and how much from the better playback medium. What’s more, Lebowski isn’t the sort of film that cries out for impressive visuals.

So I waited for the new 2001: A Space Odyssey package, which contains 4K and Blu-ray discs from the same new digital restoration. A large-format movie known for its immersive visuals, 2001 seemed the perfect choice for the comparison. And besides, it’s also a masterpiece that I’ve revisited three times so far this year theatrically.

2001 is also the reason why I waited so long to do these tests. I had to wait for the package to be released.

Blu-rays have a maximum resolution of 1920×1080 pixels, generally called 1080p. 4K Ultra HDs has a maximum resolution of 3840×2160, generally called 4K. (Yes, the names are confusing, but I don’t want to get into that.) Do the math, and 4K has about 3.16 times as many pixels as 1080p.

But does that enhanced resolution mean much? If you stand in front of the screen and carefully study details, you’ll find little bits you couldn’t see before. In the opening title, I noticed one star that was bluer and more defined on the 4K disc. I could better see the separate hairs on the apes’ fur. And in the space station scene, I studied William Sylvester’s coat and saw what was either film grain or the weave of the cloth.

All this while standing very close to the TV. Sitting back as I usually do, these changes were barely visible if visible at all.

The problem isn’t with our technology; it’s with our eyes. There’s only so much detail we can see. The size of the screen makes a big difference. If I had a 110-inch screen instead of a 55-inches, I probably would have seen more.

If you want to see the difference, compare this 4K photo with this 1080P-sized copy. For best results, examine them on a large, 4K monitor full-screen.

Higher resolution isn’t 4K Ultra HD’s best feature. Most of these discs (all, as far as I know) have High Dynamic Range (HDR), which provides more information per pixel. DVDs and Blu-rays use a separate 8-bit channel for each primary color, which means 256 shades of red, green, and blue. Combine them and you have over 16 million possible colors. But HDR offers 10-bit channels, which provides over a billion possible colors.

The colors are much more intense. Everything was just that more exciting. What’s more, you see shadings that weren’t visible on Blu-ray, such as hues on the apes’ faces.

At this point, a 4K Ultra HD player is only for the fanatics (you’ll also need a 4K TV). I’m glad I have one. But for now, I must wait for more of my favorite films to become available in the new format. So far, there are few.

By the way, you can read my Eat Drink Films article on 2001 on the big screen. Also, there’s a very different kind of 2001 image quality comparison coming up. From Friday to New Year’s Day, the Castro will screen the film, alternating between a 4K DCP and a 70mm print.