Early in 2014 the market saw a flood of new 4K TV sets. At the same time the niche market for onerous 4K video projectors has been steadily growing, slowly pushing their poor 1080p counterparts into the oblivion. Why? Because even if you’re watching 720p or 1080p programs on a 4K screen, the jump in quality is obvious. What about other 4K capable AV-gear, is there any? Well, most of today’s AV-receivers with HDMI 1.4c can already pass through a 4K signal. Now all we need are sources and…movies.
Here’s where things start to get a little complicated. Today the only available 4K standalone player is Sony FMP-X1 tablet. It will not only give its owner 20 pre-recorded 4K movies, but also some headaches. This player will only work with a couple of Sony TV sets, it is not even compatible with Sony 4K projectors! It can be bought exclusively in the US and, moreover, before playing a movie it will go online and feed your IP address to a dedicated server. If you’re not in the US, the movie will not start. The tablet even requires a PIN code in order to synchronize itself with the TV set. Finally, it will take a full 24 hours to download a movie from the server. And to add insult to injury there are plenty of glitches in HDCP 2.2 protocol, which are likely to drive you nuts. Long story short you better off waiting for PS4 to get a software update, which supposedly will enable its 4K capabilities.
However, there are still ways to build your 4K home system. For instance, with Nuvola gear. The Intel B85 based NP-H1 HTPC ($699) is already selling and can output a full 4K video stream. A full specs Android player NP-1 ($299) is about to hit the shelves and it will also handle 4K video (as well as H.265 codec, when its latest version becomes available). There are no details as to HD sound capability – up until now most Android based players wouldn’t output DTS HD/DD THD bitstream. But if you’re impatient there’s always a professional dedicated player for RedRay cameras, billed at $1750!
But let’s say you built yourself a beautiful HTPC and are eager to start enjoying…what? Here lies the main problem. Yes, there are a number of 4K clips on YouTube. But I doubt you will really enjoy watching the hi-res frogs twice and you don’t need a standalone player to watch YouTube on your TV set – there’s an inbuilt app for it in most of today’s 4K TVs. There’s also a free short feature "Tears of Steel” that you can download in native 4K from http://mango.blender.org/download/. And… that’s about it.
This brings us to the main feature you want today in 4K devices, i.e. the upscaling of your existing 1080p movies to 4K resolution. Obvious as it seems, it is not that simple, believe me, and you may be in for a surprise.
Using a 4K display will surely get you many benefits compared to a regular 1080p TV – much smaller pixels, better color palette, etc. But what about those little intricate details, will you get them from an upscaled picture? It all seems fairly easy – you feed a signal in its native resolution to a display and let the latter’s processor do the trick. Now let’s see how it really works.
In order to achieve a "perfect” 4K scaling we used an Oppo BDP-103D universal player, a Pioneer SC-LX87 AV-receiver and a Sony VPL-VW500ES projector, as well as AudioQuest Carbon high speed HDMI cables.
We set Oppo’s video output to Auto or 2K4K, its Darbee video processor to Hi-Res mode and 35% scaling. In AV-receiver’s menu we select Resolution – Pure, that will switch off the internal processing and enable the pass through mode. Now Sony VPL-VW500ES will see a 4K 24 Hz signal. Important notice – Sony’s MotionFlow would automatically switch off and you may see some judder during panning scenes. To obtain a smoother result you have to manually select Impulse MotionFlow in projector’s menu.
Now let’s compare a sequence from "The Dark Night Rises” Blu-ray as processed by two different devices. The first one will be the signal upscaled by Sony VPL-VW500ES, receiving 1080p/24 Hz video from Oppo (please bear in mind that Sony has one heck of a video processer on board). The second one will be pushed up to 4K resolution by Oppo’s Silicon Image and Darbee chips (replaced in the updated Oppo BDP-103D by a Marvell solution).
And what a difference between the two! In the first case we see, albeit a very good one, but still an upscaled picture that we are used to from watching 720p content on a FullHD TV. But the second one is leaps ahead! Clarity and detail are dramatically improved; the image is much sharper, it has better depth and presence. Still not 4K but sooo much better than 1080p!
We carried out the same test using Samsung UE55F9000AT 4K TV set and Panasonic DMP-BDT330 Blu-ray player. Whenever upscaled to 4K resolution by the Panasonic, the picture always had better sharpness and detail. Our experience with Sony BDP-S790 Blu-ray player only confirms these findings. Remember, we tested three best players on the market –picture quality-wise – and it’s Oppo BDP-103D that came out on top. Thanks, no doubt, to its excellent Darbee processor, but more about it later in a dedicated article. Anyhow, the difference between 2K and 4K pictures output by Darbee fed the same 1080p signal is obvious. Surely, when using lesser Blu-ray players your results may vary, but we are talking about perfection, aren’t we? You will find screenshots from the test below but please bear in mind that they were taken with an iPhone 5s in a dark room.
What’s the verdict? When scaled up to 4K by a reference video source and then displayed on a 4K screen, 1080p movies will look more detailed and sharper than if watched in their native resolution. Your Blu-ray collection gets a new life and you will be able to enjoy many of 4K benefits right away. If you don’t believe us, go and try it for yourself, you won’t be disappointed.