UHD Blu-ray: A Nice of a Niche

As a handful of UHD Blu-ray players and pre-recorded titles make their market debuts, consumer electronics companies are devising plans for how to position this product in the face of a dramatically changed consumer video landscape.

A dozen years ago when BD was the logical next-generation format to DVD, widespread PVR use wasn’t common, pay TV subscription VOD was novel, and the first streaming video services were in their infancy.

Some of the UHD BD player suppliers who have dipped their toes into the new format pool are taking different approaches on selling a new packaged media format in a video landscape where fewer consumers will likely show much interest.

In the U.S. market, Samsung and Panasonic are two examples of the first UHD Blu-ray player models. Panasonic’s first true consumer UHD Blu-ray player is the DMP-UB900. Unlike the more mainstream Samsung UHD Blu-ray deck, Panasonic is positioning the UB900 as a high-end model with a $699.99 high-end price. Panasonic seems to recognize UHD BD will appeal to consumers who want to get the highest-possible playback quality for their high-end UHD TVs and are willing to pay for it.

Among the UB900’s platinum-eye attributes are a proprietary 4K High-Precision Chroma Processor that interpolates decoded 4K (4:2:0) signals to 4K (4:4:4), 4K Direct Chroma Up-scaling to better upscale 2K content to 4K, 60p frame rate, 100Mbps video bit rate for 4K (40Mbps in 2K), brightness up to 10,000 nits, BT.2020 wide color gamut, and THX certification. It’s also tricked out with a stack of functions, features and circuitry, including 192kHz 24-bit Hi-Res audio compatibility, for the platinum-eared set.

At its introductory press event last month, we got to see and hear the subtle aural and visual bonuses delivered by the UB900 compared to the Samsung deck. To our naked eyes in side-by-side demos, the assembled media could detect better and deeper blacks with brighter and better definition, and slightly more natural and brighter colors from the UB900.

More important, perhaps, than these technical and perceptional quality differences is Panasonic’s premium product positioning. Considering the lack of 4K content on broadcast and cable, UHD Blu-ray could and might enjoy a short-term vogue, and Panasonic wants to ride that trend for all it’s worth.

But even if broadcast and cable never provide UHD 4K content, physical media of all kinds is fast becoming an anachronism in this video ecosystem that now includes a strong streaming market. UHD Blu-ray will likely only be a secondary source for playing back 4K UHD content, especially when video streaming services find better ways to get the more bandwidth intensive content to consumers. Trying to maintain corporate profits by trying to generate volume sales of slim margin UHD Blu-ray decks may prove to be a dead end strategy.

Which means going forward and long-term, perhaps Panasonic is correct to seek a more sustainable (and more profitable) niche of a niche positioning for a premium UHD Blu-ray deck as it did with its quality-leading but low-selling premium plasma TVs not too long ago. As non-physical UHD content availability expands, such as via downloads to ever-fattening home media content storage devices, other UHD vendors may follow Panasonic’s premium hardware positioning lead, the high-end 4K viewing experience.