If you’ve got a 4K TV with its extra pixels collecting dust, fear not – the 4K content drought is on the cusp of being washed away with a verdant selection of high-resolution Blu-rays. There are now two 4K Blu-ray players on the market: the pricey Panasonic DMP-UB900 and this, the more affordable Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player.
It’s rather nice, but is it time to retire 1080p once and for all? Or will cinephiles have to wait a little longer to fulfill their Ultra HD home cinema dreams?
What Is It?
Samsung’s first (and the world’s second) commercially available 4K Blu-ray player, which is also capable of upscaling your older 1080p Blu-ray discs and decrepit DVDs so that they don’t look so rubbish on your fancy new telly. It’s priced at £429, making it a fair whack cheaper than its £600 Panasonic rival.
Who Is It For?
Your family’s film buff. Whoever managed to convince the household that yes, you really did need to upgrade to a 4K TV, even when there was no 4K stuff to watch on it. Home cinema fanatics that want to see what all the fuss surrounding High Dynamic Range is about (providing they have a HDR-capable TV, of course).
The Samsung UBD-K8500 is an unassuming, if not unattractive, black box to pop under your TV. In terms of looks, there’s not much to it; with a slightly curved front that houses its pop-out disc tray, its front-most edge has four touch-sensitive buttons (power, disc eject, stop, play/pause), with the box having a slightly brushed finish to its top casing. Measuring 15.98 x 1.76 x 9.06 in inches, it’s quite long, but not greatly larger than many dedicated Blu-ray players. There’s also a covered USB port on the front supporting files in 4K resolution in formats including MKV, DivX, AVCHD, WMV and JPEG.
Around the back, it’s kept pretty simple. You’ve two HDMI ports, one for connecting to your telly and the other (very handily) optionally piping audio back to your AV receiver if it’s not equipped to handle 4K signals. Though Wi-Fi is built in, you’ve also got an Ethernet port, as well as an optical digital output for further audio options. There are no analogue connections, with Samsung drawing the line under older cabling.
3D Blu-ray and CD playback is supported, with the main HDMI port compatible with HDR signals and HDCP 2.2 copy protection. 7.1-channel Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio decoding and bitstream output over HDMI is included too for those with mad home cinema rigs to support all those speakers.
With web connectivity covered, Samsung gives you access to a bunch of smart functions, too. 4K Netflix and Amazon Instant Video support is built in (though neither offered HDR streams yet), as well as Spotify, Deezer, YouTube and others. iPlayer is said to be on the way, but NAS networked file sharing is already good to go, as is screen mirroring from a smartphone. It’s a solid feature set for the new deck.
Finally, a small, simple remote control, about the size of three Milky Bars stacked, is also included. It’ll let you jump between sources, control volume levels and navigate discs, naturally, with raised button icons letting you find the correct one to push even in the dark.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Samsung UBD-K8500 is that it’s fast. Like, really fast (for a Blu-ray player, at least). My old Blade Runner standard Blu-ray hit the film’s opening credits in just 15 seconds, while I was at the 4K Ultra HD version of The Martian’s menu screen in just 14 seconds. The general interface, simply laid out in easy-to-understand boxed off areas, is just as quick too – the YouTube app fired up in about five seconds, Netflix in about three. It may not sound ground breaking, but those disc-load times in particular are a far cry from how sluggish the first wave of Blu-ray players were.
Get a 4K disc fired up, and they look truly marvelous too, the sharpest, most vibrant and detailed images your TV has had to joy to output thus far. While it’s not as mind-blowing a generational leap as was VHS to DVD or DVD to Blu-ray, but there’s no denying the richness of the image on show.
Using The Martian as my primary test flick (and having the luck of owning the original Blu-ray for comparison) there’s a clearly defined jump in quality. It’s easy to pick out individual grains among the red sand dunes of Mars that Matt Damon regularly finds himself faceplanting into, with a wide colour gamut doing justice to the subtle changes in hue in a film that, in a lesser format, can be a sea of murky oranges. Gradation in particular is far more subtle, making the transition between shades and tones much more natural.
High Dynamic Range (aka HDR) visuals are stunning too. With the 4K discs providing inky black levels, HDR can make pinprick stars in The Martian’s space scenes glitter powerfully through the darkness. In scenes that are more well-lit, the presence of HDR adds an extra layer of depth and three dimensionality to the image that even Full HD Blu-ray can’t deliver. I’d definitely tweak the out-of-the-box image settings of the UBD-K8500 though through it’s easy-to-understand menus; I found that images only really popped how I expected them to after ramping up the contrast on a custom User profile first. Working most clearly at the extremities of light sources, this may be a side effect of the addition of HDR, but 4K discs tended to be a little dimmer before tweaking. But overall it’s hard to find fault with 4K performance.
The same goes for Blu-ray upscaling 1080p disc sources to the player’s native 3840 x 2160 resolution, which the Samsung player manages with aplomb. My library of discs, from recent decents like Jurassic World to older remasters like Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey looked better than they ever have before – pin sharp, if lacking against the HDR-enabled visuals of the new Blu-ray standard. Standard definition DVDs were passable too – they’ll look smeary compared to Blu-rays, but Samsung’s upscaling efforts don’t do anything too drastic, meaning they’re more than watchable with as few added artefacts as can be expected at these resolutions.
- It’s fast – pop a disc in the tray and by the time you’ve sat back on the sofa your film is ready to go. Same goes for the interface in general, which is speedy.
- Play a 4K disc in it and it’s about as good as anything has ever looked on any telly, ever.
- Upscaling of older Blu-ray discs is handled well enough for you not to immediately feel the urge to purchase them all again in 4K, and it doesn’t make a complete mess of standard-definition DVDs either, even if they are now really showing their age.
- A good range of appropriate smart features, laid out in such a way as to not confuse the overall interface.
- Though it’s not a failing of the player itself, there isn’t a particularly wide selection of 4K discs available yet, and many of those that have been released are little more than touch-ups of existing lower-res sources.
- The disc tray is a bit clunky, folding out to accept a disc in such a way that I could imagine the mechanism eventually giving up the ghost.
- The remote takes a large circular watch battery. Ain’t nobody got time for watch batteries. There’s also a lack of dedicated fast-forward and rewind buttons, instead relying on holding the chapter skip buttons, which progressively increases the speed of the scan making it difficult to land on the precise moment you’re looking for.
- There’s no 4K-compliant HDMI lead in the box, which feels a little stingy.
Should You Buy It
Well, with only two 4K Blu-ray players currently on sale, it’s not exactly as though you’re spoilt for choice, is it? I’ve only had a quick look at Panasonic’s DMP-UB900, but anecdotally I’ve heard it’s image quality may be just a tad richer than Samsung’s deck. But it’s also almost £200 more expensive. So is Panasonic’s offering worth the extra splash of cash? From my experience with Samsung’s UBD-K8500 I’d say that’s doubtful – Samsung’s 4K Blu-ray player offered very vibrant, crisp images, fast load times and a clean interface packed with features. It’s a notable step up from 1080p, and HDR footage is particularly stunning. With its affordable price tag, I’d currently put my money on Samsung’s deck. So that’s a “yes” to buying this one, if you really must have a 4K Blu-ray player at this moment in time.
But SHOULD you be investing in 4K Blu-ray just yet? I’d argue no. At least £20 a pop, the discs are still quite expensive. But that wouldn’t be a problem if the quality of the library was a little better. Right now, most discs seem to be 4K intermediate jobbies of existing Blu-rays, while there are barely two-dozen 4K Blu-ray films on sale altogether. To exacerbate the problem, for every excellent Mad Max: Fury Road, there are a handful of naff titles like Exodus: Gods and Kings or The Expendables 3. For now, there just isn’t enough good stuff to sink your teeth into. So while I recommend Samsung’s player itself, the film selection has some catching up to do first.
Samsung UBD-K8500 Specs
- Price: £479
- Size (inches): 15.98” x 1.76” x 9.06”
- HDR compatible
- DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby True HD compatible
- HDMI 2.0a output
- 3D Blu-ray compatible