Ultra HD vs. HD TV: Is Ultra worth the extra money?

Is an Ultra HD TV a worthwhile splurge? That’s something many of us have been wondering lately, especially given the onslaught of Ultra HD TV (UHD TV) announcements coming from most of the major and several secondary brands. With four times the number of pixels (3840x2160) as regular 1080p (1920x1080) sets, Ultra HD TVs—also known as 4K TVs—promise to deliver picture detail beyond what we can get from conventional high-definition models, surely an enticing proposition.

While there are still some issues related to Ultra HD TVs, mainly the lack of true 4K content that can show these sets to their best advantage, we've been wondering whether most people will be able to see a difference in the images displayed on these TVs.

Since we have two Sony Ultra HD TVs—and Sony's 4K media player—in our labs, we decided to compare native 4K content displayed on a top-performing Ultra TV with the same program material on an HD Blu-ray disc connected to top-rated 1080p TVs. We also took a look at that same Blu-ray content when it was upconverted and displayed on a 4K set. Our goal was simple: to see if most people would benefit by getting an Ultra HD set, and whether there were noticeable picture-quality differences with an Ultra HD display. What we found may surprise you.

Setting up the test

We performed our Ultra HD and HD viewing on two Sony XBR-series Ultra HD TV sets: the 55-inch XBR-55X900A ($4,000), and the 65-inch XBR-65X900A ($5,500). These are Sony’s flagship models with excellent high-definition picture quality, very good sound, and a lot of features, including Sony’s smart TV Internet platform.

As we mentioned, these Sony sets—and the lower-priced XBR-X850A models—can accept native 4K content from Sony’s FMP-X1 Media Player ($700). The player’s hard drive comes preloaded with 10 feature movies from Sony Pictures, plus some other videos mastered in the 4K format. Recently, Sony marketed an Ultra HD download system, so you can add new movies (for a fee) to the player’s storage. Unfortunately, the Sony media player only works with Sony Ultra HD TVs. For the purposes of this test, we connected Sony's media player exclusively to the Sony 65-inch Ultra HD TV.

For comparison with regular HD viewing, we had several top-rated 1080p TVs on hand, including flagship plasmas from Panasonic (the 65-inch TC-P65VT60) and Samsung (the 60-inch PN60F8500, plus LG’s midlevel 55LA7400 LED/LCD TV. Oppo's BDP-103 Blu-ray player, set to output 1080p video, was our signal source.

Using a distribution system, the Oppo was connected to all three 1080p HDTVs, plus the 55-inch Sony Ultra HD set, so we could evaluate 1080p content upconverted to the set’s Ultra HD resolution. All the TVs were calibrated to Consumer Report’s usual test standards for highest image fidelity, with any nonessential features, such as noise reduction and image enhancements, turned off or minimized as needed.

Among the 4K movies preloaded on the media player were more recent films, including "Total Recall 2012," "The Karate Kid," "Salt," and "The Other Guys," and older titles such as "Taxi Driver" and "Bridge on the River Kwai." For comparison we purchased a Blu-ray disc of each of those films. (We chose Sony’s new "Mastered in 4K" version on Blu-ray if it was available.) With the older titles in particular, we were curious to see whether the 4K versions could actually wring out any more detail than we’ve seen on the Blu-ray releases.

We also viewed some of the non-film-based videos that came preloaded on the media player, even though no Blu-ray versions were available for direct comparison. These titles turned out to be very useful demonstrating Ultra HD's performance potential.

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Can you see a difference?

For our head-to-head evaluation, I cued up each movie—one playing on the Sony media player connected to the Sony Ultra HD TV, the other playing on Oppo Blu-ray player connected to the three 1080p sets and Sony's 55-inch Ultra HD TV—and synced them so that all five TVs displayed the same content simultaneously. Whenever a well-focused, finely detailed scene appeared, I paused both players on the exact same frame and compared image detail across all the TVs.

So was there a difference between the 4K and 1080p images? The simple answer is yes—the 4K films did show a noticeable bump in image detail compared to their HD counterparts.

But there's a caveat: These differences were not present on all movies, and were visible only when viewed less than 2 feet from the screen, and even then only on certain scenes. When I moved back about 7 feet from the displays, differences between 4K and HD content were not discernable to any meaningful degree. In all cases, the differences between the two formats were in the very finest details in the image.

Several examples are provided below. In the first, from the movie "The Other Guys," there's an early scene showing a female cable news anchor (photo 1). In the 4K version, the level of detail in her face—such as the skin texture and hair—was indistinguishable from the HD version.

But closer inspection of the moving ticker text showed the UHD image had crisper edges, as did the station’s "GNN" logo, which was better defined than on any of the HDTVs. One part of the image (highlighted in the red box) also included very fine text that was legible in 4K (photo 2), but was reduced to a blur in the HD (photo 3) image. Images were improved in the upconverted version (photo 4) shown on the Ultra HD TV, but not to the level of the native 4K system.

Likewise, subtle diagonal lines that looked choppy in HD were smoother on the UHD display. But scenes like this were the exception. For most of the movie, it was almost impossible to pick out any differences, as the standard 1080p picture did a fine job conveying most of the detail I saw on the 4K image. (Please note the photos are meant to illustrate differences in picture detail; ignore color variations in the photos.)

In another example, from "The Karate Kid," the advantage of 4K resolution was again apparent (photo 5). The individual openings on the car hood’s grill (highlighted in red) are clearly distinguishable in 4K (photo 6) but aren't nearly as well defined on the HD version (photo 7). Once again, images were improved and looked less choppy in the upconverted version (photo 8) shown on the Ultra HD TV, but were not as clearly defined as in the native 4K image. But as we've seen previously, this difference was no longer apparent when viewed from 7 feet back.

With "Taxi Driver," I had a very hard time seeing any differences between the two formats, and I eventually called it a draw. With "Bridge on the River Kwai," despite the heavy film grain, there was surprisingly an ever-so-slight improvement in detail in the 4K version. When the Japanese commander is addressing the British troops, the medals on his uniform were slightly better defined, as were the faces of the troops. But it will probably take a trained eye to notice this level of difference.

While the Blu-ray versions of the movies looked excellent, I have to give Ultra HD the overall picture quality advantage, but only by a slim margin. Whether viewed up close up or further back, Ultra HD always presented the highest-quality images.

Does Ultra HD TV make 1080p movies look better?

Given the scarcity of real 4K content, Ultra HD TVs owners will—at least for the near future—be spending a good amount of time watching standard high-def content on their TVs. So we were curious to see whether upconverted 1080p content looks better or worse on an Ultra HD TV. As you can see in photos 4 and 8, regular high-definition material can look better on a 4K TV, though we anticipate that there will inevitable performance variations among the Ultra HD TVs, especially in the image processing area.

Compared to the image on a 1080p TV, the same content upconverted to 4K gives you most of the benefits we saw with the true 4K image, minus the extra detail. When displayed on the 4K screen, the finest details in the HD image were better resolved, with edges that were visibly smoother and less jagged than on the HDTV’s coarser 1080p pixel grid. And I saw no obvious upconversion artifacts to speak of, which demonstrates that the benefits of an Ultra HD TV's higher pixel density can still be appreciated even without true 4K content to watch.

Looking at the upconverted images (photos 4 and 8) and comparing them to the HD versions (photos 3 and 7) and true 4K versions (photo 2 and 6), you'll see that while they don't recover all the detail shown in the 4K photos, you do get a smoother, less-coarse image and slightly better detail than you'd see on a regular HDTV.

4K videos are even more impressive

The image quality of film-based movies often depends on the type of film stock used, which in turn can affect picture detail and the level of film grain present. While film-based content can look spectacular, theatrical movies are not necessarily the best choice for showcasing UHD’s image-quality potential. This was my experience with the 4K videos from the Sony media player, which include a number of short films and music videos that were shot with a native 4K studio camera.

The first thing that grabbed my attention was the quality of opening title sequences and graphics, where the edge detail of text rendered in 4K was razor sharp, to a level that just can’t be achieved with 1080p. Whether I was watching the “Eldorado” clip, the “Bucket” music video from Annah Mac, or any of the short movie videos, it was evident I was experiencing something new and special. With this type of content, Ultra HD image quality is simply stunning, revealing a depth of detail and texture that’s unprecedented for home video. Colors were vibrant, with an intensity that never looked false, and subtle shades revealed no hint of banding or compression-based noise.

I also didn’t see any aliasing or moiré (false patterns) on complex fine detail. In short, the picture was as seamless as a projected film, with no visible clues that I was actually watching video. In my opinion, 4K videos are the real showcase for what Ultra HD can deliver, with cleaner, better detail than I saw with the film-based movies.

The bottom line

It’s easy to be awed by Ultra HD’s pristine picture, but in light of our observations it’s fair to ask what added value does UHD really give you over HD?  One evening this past week I sat down to watch "Star Trek Into Darkness" from Blu-ray disc on my 65-inch 1080p plasma, sitting about 12 feet back from the screen. As I enjoyed this film and its exciting visuals I can tell you the last thing on my mind was wishing the picture had more detail. Colors were right on, faces and clothes had excellent texture, and fine details were sharp as a tack. In short, the movie looked terrific, and I'm a very picky viewer.  And this highlights my quandry with Ultra HD at this early stage in its evolution.

That Ultra HD can yield better picture quality than HD is indisputable, and it can help HD programs look better, too. But to best appreciate this benefit you'll either have to slide your sofa very close to the screen, or go for the largest Ultra HD display you can get your hands on. Either way you'll dish out a premium—often considerable—for the privilege, and still have no native 4K content to watch (unless of course you go the Sony route).

Do you need Ultra HD? No, you don't. As long as Ultra HD TVs command a premium price over comparably sized HD sets, it's hard to justify the extra expense, especially given the reality that UHD's advantages over regular HD will be lost in most typical home-viewing situations. For most consumers, investing in a high-performing HDTV will provide the greater value.

But when UHD prices drop to near HD levels—and you know they will—and 4K content becomes widely available, the choice will be simple: Go Ultra.

—Claudio Ciacci

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