Sony 'mastered in 4K' Blu-rays a mixed blessing

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CNET Editor

Seamus Byrne is the Editor of CNET Australia. At other times he'll be found messing with apps, watching TV, building LEGO, and rolling dice. Usually at the same time.

The "mastered in 4K" name is sure to confuse many buyers this year, but Sony's special new Blu-rays are an impressive boost in quality over your average Blu-ray release.

You'd be excused for thinking this Blu-ray is in 4K. It isn't, but it is still very good.
(Credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Sony is pushing its status as the only company able to deliver a complete 4K experience "from the lens to the living room". As part of this business integration — from movie studios shooting and finishing films in 4K through to new 4K televisions hitting the market in coming weeks — Sony is eager to deliver something that gives viewers a reason for choosing Sony ahead of Samsung, LG or another company.

Enter Sony's "mastered in 4K" Blu-ray releases, which will hit the market around the same time as Sony 4K televisions (we will find out Australian availability later this month). These films are specially mastered to deliver enhanced quality over standard HD movies, particularly when viewed on a 4K TV.

That statement alone encourages consumers to make some bad assumptions. No, these discs are not 4K; they are still HD Blu-ray discs. Sony representatives have been using phrases like "near 4K", but we are still talking about movies delivered in 1920x1080 that will be upscaled to 3840x2160.

When discussing these new "mastered in 4K" discs with technical staff at Sony Pictures, there was a clear disdain for using 4K terminology on discs that are not 4K. Confusion may breed resentment, and ultimately cause a negative reaction to the value that real 4K content will deliver once the content is ready to be delivered in its truest form.

On the other hand, "mastered in 4K" Blu-rays also turn out to be the best picture quality ever produced on a Blu-ray disc, and will really look amazing when played on a Sony 4K TV.

There are three technical measures that elevate a "mastered in 4K" disc above the rest:

  1. Enhanced bitrate: these discs exclude content extras in favour of using all available disc space to deliver the film in a greatly enhanced bitrate. Where most Blu-ray discs are typically delivered in rates in the 24Mbps to 30Mbps ballpark, these "mastered in 4K" discs deliver at 35Mbps to 38Mbps. A greater bitrate means a much clearer picture, and less moments where blocking or blurring will occur, particularly in action sequences.

  2. XvYCC support: in the Blu-ray standard, xvYCC (also known as x.v.Color) is a colour space option that to date, has almost never been supported. XvYCC extends the available colour gamut to better represent the colour space that the original film was intended to be displayed at, while the standard sRGB space cuts off a lot of information in the red and blue-green sections of the spectrum. As long as your Blu-ray player and your TV support xvYCC, these discs will deliver a solid colour enhancement over other discs on the market.

  3. Sony 4K algorithms: this final feature is a sweetener focused on giving Sony 4K TV owners a better experience with these discs than any other 4K TV owners. Being part of the same family, Sony Pictures and Sony Bravia have shared proprietary algorithm information to give the best possible upscaling performance on these films. Sony 4K televisions will be able to identify a "mastered in 4K" disc and use an upscaling algorithm based on the same formula used at Sony Pictures to downscale the film from 4K to HD. This secret sauce is likely to give a Sony TV the edge over other TVs that must use less-specific algorithms to upscale the content.

Viewing a "mastered in 4K" disc side by side with the same footage displayed in true 4K video, you have to be looking very carefully to pick up on the difference. But that leads to another dilemma: is Sony's stop gap "mastered in 4K" going to create another scenario where 4K TV owners don't see the benefit in buying true 4K content? Could HD Blu-ray be "good enough" in the same way that DVD has mostly been seen as good enough for HDTV owners?

These special edition discs are undoubtedly little more than a stop gap until a final 4K Blu-ray format hits the market, and spending money on a movie collection that will be outdated next year also seems to be a dud play. But they do give an enhanced experience, so it isn't just a marketing exercise.

The best-case scenario would see these movies offered up as a bundle deal with the purchase of a new Sony 4K TV. Then they move from the awkward (if gifted) step-child to a sweetener that gives great value today while you wait for perfection tomorrow.

Fifteen films are scheduled to be released in the format, ranging from recent releases like The Amazing Spider-Man, Total Recall, The Other Guys and Battle: Los Angeles all the way to classic films restored in 4K, such as Lawrence of Arabia, Taxi Driver and Ghostbusters.

Seamus Byrne attended a 4K television press event as a guest of Sony Australia.

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StuartB3 posted a comment   

The technology is seriously ahead of the content availability, my UDTV only costs $500, UD android TV only costs $ 100, 128 GB USB 3 sticks only cost $75. Most old films were chemical, with only the slightest digital tailoring, they can be made 4k, with QHD on 5" smartphones. At 7" screens with the same PPI will be able to run UD, this year tablets will go 64 bit, 14 nm, lots of GRAM, flash. 1 GB/s WiFi ac, fiber to the home, basement, node, VDSL /GSLAM, hybrid fibre coax, 4G Advanced, YouTube compression standard, Toshiba demonstrated a 10" UD tablet nearly a year ago. If you've seen rip tide 2 running on a Snapdragon 800, Adreno 330, or Tegra 4, with 72 GPUs, in FHD, imagine games, with 4 times the GPUs, running at twice the speed and 4 times the pixels. It's an order of magnitude qualitative improvement, with big economies of scale calculation advantages. In just 3 years I have 32 times the pixels, 6 times as many TV channels, 4 times the CPU cores, 16 times the RAM, running at twice the speed. 4 times the hard drive, we're ready now, at the end of the year, we'll be even more ready. This is worth trillions of dollars, why the delays ??


ccampbell498 posted a comment   

Are Sony 4K blurays region free as I bought The Amazing Spiderman off Amazon uk. The disc was a US import. On the amazon us website it says that it's region 1 except on the amazon uk website it does not mention the region at all.


JoshN posted a comment   

You've stated the pro's and cons well for a Mastered in 4K Blu-Ray. Clearly it'll be the best 1080p blu-ray to ever present the best of video presentation. I wouldn't mind if Universal re-releases Jurassic Park under this line, seeing how the 2011 Blu-Ray is artificially sharpened. The 2013 version (3D) was 4K scanned while color corrected back to the intended color timing. For the 3D experience, the quality is great but as a stand alone 2D, it has ways to go since DNR is used. If they can go back a step in retaining the finer details, that will be the best 4K master Jurassic Park to have.

Jurassic Park did have a superbit DVD back in the day, I don't see why Universal won't milk out on this either. I know I'd buy it.

I'm very curious to see how Ghostbusters will look. From the sounds it, that movie used a heck of a good remaster.


grumpi posted a comment   

This is misleading.

Sony really need to hurry up and finalise the multi-layer Blu-ray disc standard and produce genuine 4K discs.


GregP3 posted a comment   

Baraka was scanned at 8k for Blu-ray. How will this perform on a 4k TV ?


Seamus Byrne posted a reply   

The 8K scan will still have been pushed down to HD for Blu-ray. The scan means it will be ready for 4K mastery once true 4K discs come to market.

4K TVs we've seen do have excellent upscaling for Blu-ray -- much better than from DVD to HD -- so a good Blu-ray will look very good on a 4K TV... just not as good as it will eventually look in true 4K.

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