Is 4K Blu-ray Worth It? What to Know Before Upgrading

4K Blu-rays have been on the market for the past several years now, but as users primarily move to streaming, 4Ks seem more like a curiosity for the hardcore collector. After all, when streaming services are offering 4K streams of movies, why would you need to purchase the 4K copy on top of your subscription? Also, there’s the added expense of buying a 4K player on top of your 4K TV, so is it really worth it for a slightly nicer picture?

Before we get into all of that, let’s break down a little terminology and explain what 4K Blu-ray even is. In the beginning, there was VHS, which messed with aspect ratios (known as “fullscreen” or “pan-and-scan”) and had a resolution of 333×480 pixels. Then came DVDs, which were much better for collectors since they could contain not only special features, but had an improved picture quality of 720×480 pixels. Blu-ray was the next jump forward with 1920×1080, more than doubling the resolution you get on a DVD. And now we’re at 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, which gives you 3840×2160.

And yet a fun trick of 4K is that you’re not really paying for the resolution. As this video from Engadget explains, 4K isn’t even really 4K, but really an upscaled 2K version, so what are you really getting for your money?

The larger benefit isn’t 4K, although that’s all well and good, but HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range. When you go to a TV store and see the videos they’re playing on their expensive 4K TVs, what you’re marveling at isn’t the 4K, but the HDR videos, because HDR really makes colors and contrasts pop. That’s the big difference from Blu-ray, but 4K was used as the shorthand and the selling point. Also, HDR has its own variants, which you can learn about more from this video:

But what does this mean for you as a collector? For starters, let’s assume you are in fact a collector and not someone who’s fine with whatever movies are floating between various streaming services (also keep in mind that most streaming services currently lack 4K streams). Speaking as someone who has been collecting since the days of VHS and has built up a collection of DVDs, Blu-rays, and now 4Ks, I’m not of a mind to tear down my entire collection and replace every disc with the 4K Blu-ray version when it comes along.

Instead, I recommend that if you’re going to go down the 4K Blu-ray road, you try to be a bit discerning with your dollar and think about if the film is really going to benefit from vibrant colors, impressive contrasts, and high resolution. For example, this May, The Blues Brothers will arrive on 4K, but is that film really going to give your entertainment system a workout beyond your speakers? If you’ve never had it in your collection, you may as well go with the 4K (it currently only costs $6 more than the Blu-ray, and it comes with a Digital Code), but if you already have the Blu-ray, an upgrade would probably be unnecessary.

But compare that with the recent Lord of the Rings 4K, which Peter Jackson went back in and personally remastered. These are grand, sweeping epics, packed with visual effects, vibrant landscapes, and gorgeous details. Even at a heavy price point and no special features, if you’re looking to see these movies at the best they’ve ever looked, then the 4K is worth the investment even if (like me) you had already purchased the trilogy on DVD and then Blu-ray.

Ultimately, what the decision comes down to is which movies are really going to give you the bang for your buck on 4K. You don’t need to upgrade all the way to this format because it’s “the best” when sometimes Blu-rays, DVDs, or even digital, will allow you the control over your collection you want without sacrificing quality. Streaming isn’t going anywhere, but as I’ve argued before, the best collection is the one you control. There’s nothing wrong with being selective about the 4Ks you choose to add to your collection, and there’s also nothing wrong with sticking with regular Blu-rays if you feel that’s all you need. We’ve now reached the point where rather than rethinking your entire collection, you should think about which films you want to own regardless, and which films you want to own because they’ll look amazing on your home setup.

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