Ultra HD Blu-ray Isn’t Dead Yet

Samsung’s recent decision to end production of Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray disc players has some home theater aficionados and market watchers fearing the hastened demise of both the 4K-disc format and potentially physical media entirely.

Despite manufacturers including Sony and LG announcing plans to carry on marketing Ultra HD Blu-ray players, some industry sources believe that new streaming initiatives including direct-to-consumer over-the-top video services from leading studios and distributors like Disney, WarnerMedia and Apple could soon rob marketing resources and attention from the still growing Ultra HD Blu-ray disc category.

But history suggests that although the most direct distribution technologies, like streaming media today, will ultimately prevail, formats that provide the best quality experiences should hold onto a significant audience for years to come; and Ultra HD Blu-ray fits that description. The most immediate example supporting this position is vinyl record sales, which are experiencing a resurgence among consumers who value sound quality and collectability over streaming convenience and digital technology.

In addition, consumers with large personal libraries of disc-based media, like CDs and DVDs, have been substantial enough to keep those formats viable long after newer and better systems emerged. Notable exceptions to his pattern, like DVD-Audio, SACD, MiniDisc and Laserdisc, never amassed enough of a following to warrant continued software production, and the quality benefits they delivered were quickly replaced with equally robust formats and technologies, like Hi-Res Audio and Pure Audio Blu-ray.

For background, Samsung, the first to deliver an Ultra HD Blu-ray player to market, disclosed in late February that it would no longer introduce new Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray players. This followed a similar decision by Oppo Digital last year.

Although no formal explanation was issued, Samsung’s decision was undoubtedly influenced by the acceleration in the popularity of streaming media and a sharp decline in the number of new customers into the disc player market.

Though the abrupt timing was unexpected, Samsung’s action was predictable; The company made a similar decision to end DVD player involvement years earlier, after being the first to market. But then, as now, the DVD market didn’t disappear.

Meanwhile, Samsung has aggressively developed its smart TV streaming platform, and cultivated a powerful stable of streaming app partners, the most recent of which is the powerful Apple, with its iTunes library.

So, who stands to profit from Samsung’s departure? On a global basis, Samsung and Sony were closely matched in Blu-ray player market volume. Samsung was able to leverage its predominance in the TV market to sell more Blu-ray players than it might have done otherwise. But Sony has a bigger stake in maintaining Blu-ray/UHD Blu-ray due to its film studio interests that continue to churn out Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs.

Meanwhile, LG has been aggressively driving the volume end of the Ultra HD Blu-rayer market by cutting price points lower as retailers offer TV and Ultra HD Blu-ray player promotional bundles.

Concurrent with Samsung’s exit is speculation that some studios might be diverting resources and attention from Ultra HD Blu-ray releases in favor of launching new direct-to-consumer streaming apps of their own. The forthcoming apps from Disney (Disney+) and WarnerMedia are just two recent examples. But Blu-ray Disc Association executives have said they are not seeing that trend at all, pointing to both Ultra HD Blu-ray hardware and software generating approximately 40% and 60% growth, respectively.

According to the BDA, Ultra HD Blu-ray content is performing beyond expectations and is still on track to reach an estimated global consumer spend of $360 million. Furthermore, Ultra HD Blu-ray content sales continue to grow steadily, with an 83% increase in 2018 vs. 2017, and forecasts for 45% growth in 2019.

The group said Ultra HD Blu-ray software accounted for 11% of Blu-rays sold globally in 2018 and has predicted that rising to 22% by 2020, and 40% by 2022.

Ongoing challenges will remain for Ultra HD Blu-ray, including the improvement in video compression, transfer rates and in combatting buffering that plague today’s video streaming services. Investment in higher-capacity networks like 5G and new bigger pipes for video promise to improve the sometimes-poor streaming quality for high-resolution video content.

However, the ease of use of physical media combined with collectability are powerful market sustainers. And just as with DVDs, a viable marketplace for Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs should continue for years to come, whether that comes through continued direct studio home media involvement or from third-party distributors that license titles for Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray disc releases in the future.

But for consumers who want the best pictures and sound possible to help drive the millions of new 4K and 8K Ultra HDTVs of the future, Ultra HD Blu-ray is the only technology that truly delivers, for now.