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4K and Ultra HD TV

Learn about the new technology that provides four times the picture detail of a typical HDTV

By

Steve Kindig

Steve Kindig has been an electronics enthusiast for over 30 years. He has written extensively about home and car A/V gear for Crutchfield since 1985. Steve is also a volunteer DJ at community radio station WTJU, where he is a regular host of the American folk show "Atlantic Weekly," as well as the world music program "Radio Tropicale."

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Samsung 55HU8550

The millions of Ultra High Definition TVs that were sold last year are proof that this new screen technology is more than a passing fad. These 4K Ultra HD TVs have four times the picture resolution of regular “full HD" 1080p TVs, and can display much more detail. Ultra HD TVs are often referred to as “4K" TVs, because they have a horizontal resolution of around 4000 pixels.

You've probably seen a movie in 4K without even realizing it — 40% of movie theaters use 4K digital projectors to display Hollywood’s latest hits with maximum detail and depth. Now, imagine how lifelike watching at home would be with that many pixels on a 55", 65", or 85" screen instead of a 30-foot theater screen. And if you want the most theater-like experience, we now offer some very impressive 4K Ultra HD home theater projectors.

Shop all 4K Ultra HD TVs

More pixels = more picture detail

Whether it's a TV, a tablet, or a smartphone, the more pixels a screen has, the more seamless and detailed the picture will look. The ideal is a screen where the "pixel structure" is invisible. You already find that on high-end tablets and phones like those with Apple's "Retina" display. 4K Ultra High Definition models take television a giant step in that direction — you have to stand right next to an Ultra HD TV to notice any pixels at all. Because the picture is so clear and sharp, you can actually sit closer to a 4K TV even if the screen is larger than your old TV. And that adds even more to the sense of immersion.

4K picture resolution vs. 1080p

4K Ultra HD TVs have four times as many pixels as a 1080p HDTV, for a picture that's incredibly clear, detailed, and lifelike.


How close should you sit to a 4K TV? Most experts say you can get as close as 1-1/2 times the screen height, versus 3 times the screen height for a 1080p TV. That's much closer than most of us sit when watching HDTV, but it really transforms the experience — the screen completely fills your field of vision, making you feel more like you’re in the scene. A darkened room and surround sound will further intensify this feeling of immersion. See our article on TV sizes and viewing distance for specific recommendations.

How much 4K content is available?

4K TVs have quickly become popular, but there's still a limited amount of true 4K content to watch. The same thing happened with the introduction of DVD, HDTV, and Blu-ray — the hardware arrived first, followed by the content.

Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra-HD BLU-RAY PLAYER

Here's some exciting news: The first Ultra HD Blu-ray player for the U.S. market — Samsung's UBD-K8500 — is now available. Like 4K Ultra HD TVs, Ultra HD Blu-ray supports resolutions up to 3840 x 2160 pixels. And because Ultra HD Blu-ray discs can hold a lot more data than standard Blu-rays, the picture can have not only more detail, but also higher contrast and a wider color range.

Samsung's player has two HDMI outputs. You'll be able to run one HDMI cable directly to your 4K TV for video, and another one to your receiver for audio. Your 4K TV will need to have at least one of the latest HDMI 2.0 connections with HDCP 2.2 copy protection, but if you run a separate HDMI for audio, your receiver won't.

Plenty of 4K streaming options

As we head into Spring 2016 there are announcements almost every week about new streamed 4K video content. Both Netflix® and Amazon Instant Video produce several of their acclaimed original TV series in 4K. Netflix's 4K offering includes House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones. Amazon's 4K series include The Man in the High Castle, Transparent, and Orphan Black. To watch Netflix or Amazon in 4K, you'll need a 2014 or newer Ultra HD TV with HEVC decoding. And any type of 4K streaming requires reasonably fast Internet service — at least 20Mbps.

Netflix Screen Image

Netflix offers several of its highly-rated original series in 4K, as well as a few movies.

There are also pay-per-view streaming sites with 4K content, like Vudu and UltraFlix™. Not all 4K TVs include built-in apps for these services, so if you're comparing TV models it's worth spending a few minutes to find out which services are supported. YouTube has an eclectic and growing library of millions of 4K video clips. While you probably won't find your favorite movie or TV show, there are a few concerts in 4K, as well as some amazing nature documentary footage. To watch YouTube's 4K content, you'll need a 2015 or newer Ultra HD TV with VP9 decoding.

DirecTV's Ultra HD service has so far been limited to some 4K movies available on a pay-per-view basis. But both satellite and cable companies made announcements at the 2016 CES (Consumer Electronics Show), so we may see dedicated 4K content channels from these providers later this year.

For the most complete and up to date info on 4K content options, read our 4K content article.

Sony's 4K X-reality Pro upconversion

How will my current video sources look on a 4K TV?

Don't worry if you don't have access to any 4K video sources right away. All 4K TVs include built-in 4K upconversion, also called "upscaling," which takes the video signals from your Blu-ray player, satellite or cable TV box, or game console, and makes them fill the 4-times greater pixel count of the 4K screen. Without upconversion, a 1080p Blu-ray signal would appear as a small rectangular image at the center of the screen, with black bars on all sides. While upconverted 4K isn't the same as true 4K, the processing enhances the appearance of non-4K video to more closely resemble 4K. Blu-ray, in particular, looks terrific on a 4K TV.

What's the story on HDR (High Dynamic Range)?

Several 2015 and 2016 Ultra HD TVs from Samsung, Sony, and LG feature High Dynamic Range technology that allows these TVs to reproduce a wider range of white to black. This not only improves the all-important picture contrast, but also gives colors more pop. Although these TVs have the capability to decode High Dynamic Range information in video content, by Spring 2016 there was still very limited HDR content available. Amazon and Netflix offer HDR on a couple of their streamed series, and Vudu has around 100 pay-per-view movie titles with HDR.

2016 looks like it will be the real breakout year for HDR. We're seeing many more HDR-capable models from the major TV makers. And the streaming video services are planning to beef up their HDR-enhanced content considerably. Probably the most exciting HDR-related news is the launch of Ultra HD Blu-ray players and discs. HDR should prove to be one of the biggest picture quality advantages of Ultra HD Blu-ray over standard Blu-ray.

To get the full scoop on HDR, see our HDR article.

Why are there so few 4K TVs in smaller screen sizes?

Although 4K TV screen sizes now extend down to 40", most people find that 1080p resolution looks "good enough" on screens 50" or less. From a typical viewing distance you won't notice the screen's grid of pixels — sometimes called the “pixel structure." But 55" and larger screens benefit from a much higher pixel count, making the grid virtually invisible. Ultra HD not only offers a more detailed picture, but also allows you to sit closer to a screen and/or view a larger screen while enjoying unprecedented clarity.

Sony 4K Ultra HD TVs

Sony has more 4K experience than any other TV maker. They build professional 4K cameras and cinema projectors, and Sony Pictures has a bigger catalog of 4K films than any other studio. This end-to-end approach helps ensure a truly theater-like experience at home.

Shop Sony 4K Ultra HD TVs

Sony XBR-55X850B

Samsung 4K Ultra HD TVs

Samsung's top-of-the-line curved-screen JS9500 series TVs offer exceptional picture quality and future-readiness. Each TV includes a separate One Connect Box with inputs for your video components. In the future you'll be able to get a newer-version Box that will upgrade the TV's main processor, graphics processor, and memory to support future formats as they evolve.

Shop Samsung 4K Ultra HD TVs

Samsung UN55HU9000

LG 4K Ultra HD TVs

Most of LG's latest LED-LCD Ultra HD TVs feature their IPS (In-Plane Switching) panel technology. It keeps picture contrast and color looking crisp even as you move from directly in front of the screen to viewing more from the sides.

Shop LG 4K Ultra HD TVs

LG 55UB8500

At this point it's safe to say that 4K Ultra HD TV is the new standard. Even if you're not convinced that the extra pixels will result in a significantly sharper picture, TV makers are putting all their other best picture technologies, like superior contrast and color, into their 4K models. Stay tuned for further developments.

Last updated April 27, 2016
  • Daniel Roth from 61060

    Posted on 5/11/2015 1:21:40 PM

    will these TV's show 3-D movies? My blu ray DVD shows 3-D DVD's

  • bailey from dallas

    Posted on 5/11/2015 7:07:40 PM

    they only clear with blue ray or dvd player , cable,and dish have not gotton 4k uhd yet

  • dwayne from VA

    Posted on 5/12/2015 10:39:54 PM

    No more. I'm tired of upgrading everything!

  • Robert from L.A.

    Posted on 5/24/2015 12:00:51 PM

    No mention of Ultraflix?!? They have the largest 4K content of all!

  • Jack from MIRAMAR, FL.

    Posted on 5/26/2015 12:56:58 AM

    Frankly you'll never slow the tide but if consumers are purposely slow to adopt 4K then manufacturers may learn the endless format changes are not really helping and in fact making consumers feel played. We don't have 4x the bandwidth with our ISP's, I don't want to use 4x the disk space, can't we just settle with HD for a little bit before the push for 4K? Frankly it's a game that we have to choose to stop playing...

  • David Bickel from United States, MN

    Posted on 5/28/2015 8:32:58 PM

    Our TV is also has regular stuff and 3d as well.

  • thomas nichols from wharton wv.25208

    Posted on 6/8/2015 3:29:52 AM

    When is 4k coming to direct TV. And dish .

  • Max Slugger from Illinois

    Posted on 7/8/2015 6:43:31 PM

    Wow - those 4K images on my monitor are way better than any thing else I've seen on my 1080p monitor. Boy technology has come a long way.

  • Dan mccoy from Santa fe, nm

    Posted on 7/29/2015 10:36:11 AM

    You might mention apples 5k computer that plays 4k and the images are stunning with netflix 4k movies

  • chester f everett from United States

    Posted on 8/10/2015 10:30:19 AM

    keep me informed

  • dan mccoy from santa fe nm

    Posted on 8/27/2015 10:45:44 PM

    no where is anyone mentioning the imac 5k computer that streams 4k very well and the images are fantastic to watch.

  • Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/28/2015 9:56:13 AM

    Thanks for the head's up Dan! I haven't seen that yet.

  • freddy from turnhout Belgium

    Posted on 9/15/2015 6:36:50 AM

    In the sony and Samsung and other labs they are busy with 8K and 16K were will it ends ... Our eyes can not handle that much (sorry for bad english) They improve but we can not keep buying a tv each year or 2

  • Mo from Seattle

    Posted on 9/24/2015 12:38:36 PM

    Freddy from Belgium is correct... This new 4K technology is truly awesome.. But until more content is produced in 4K. It's pointless right now. Just like 240hz/60fps TV's.. Even at 25 years of age, the human eye can only detect so much of horizontal pixels per screen. Now if we had a bird of prey set of eyes (owls,eagles)... Then we can clearly tell the mass difference of 1920p vs 3840p... This new 8K & 16K testing in labs wont be sold for commercial use.

  • Glenn from Arlington,VA

    Posted on 10/11/2015 4:27:41 PM

    it's interesting how fast prices are dropping on these units though. That's quite encouraging. I think a curved 65" tv will be my next upgrade. The problem is that the manufacturers are jamming 3D into most of their offerings even though it's essentially a failed experiment. I'd rather save several hundred bucks and get a set without 3D.

  • Ron from Toledo, OH

    Posted on 10/16/2015 5:38:19 PM

    how far into future will it be that tv networks get into 4k video? we don't watch movies from dvd, blueray nor any streaming. apparently streaming is becoming more main stream but doesn't carry live network tv as i understand it

  • Bill Howsley from Dallas

    Posted on 11/1/2015 9:55:09 PM

    How many nature shows can we watch? When will the previous commentors and the Silent Majority demand better content? We watch only sports on our hdtvs at our house.

  • Chris from South Jordan

    Posted on 11/10/2015 12:59:05 AM

    I've compared 4K movies with the same content scaled to 1080P on the same 55" brand of monitor side by side simultaneously, and it is not that much of a difference. In fact to me the 4K display made the movie effects look "fake" since there was so much detail, and I actually thought the 1080P looked more pleasing. This demo was not at a retail store by the way. I didn't expect this, but I do think that 4K will be great on bigger displays like projectors. Assuming of course that there is enough 4K content to be had!

  • Tom P. from Morgantown

    Posted on 12/1/2015 4:52:50 PM

    A recent Wall St J article suggested that the next significant improvement in TVs will be High Dynamic Range (of the color spectrum, which is apparently now somewhat compressed except in OLED and some very new expensive sets). Crutchfield: Do you have any comments on that?

  • ByteMe from Agrabah

    Posted on 1/7/2016 9:24:26 AM

    As of January 2016, there is not ANY 4K content available on blu-ray. 8K is twice the hoax as 4K. The Ultra HD blu-ray standard was finalized recently. Will you pay $30 for a movie that wasn't SHOT in 4K, but re-mastered/up-converted to 4K?

  • Stig O'Tracy from Birmingham UK

    Posted on 1/8/2016 5:46:06 PM

    You'd have to be out of your mind. The storage and bandwidth requirements for 4k are outrageous, and there's no way I'm paying even 1 penny to watch the crap shows that they list in the article.

  • Ken

    Posted on 1/10/2016 7:54:17 PM

    It seems so strange to be talking about 4K. Most cable companies are only capable of providing 720. It would make more sense for all involved to get together and settle on common goals and broadcast standards for the consumer.

  • Alex from San Francisco, CA

    Posted on 2/15/2016 8:19:21 PM

    What bothers me, and has since over-the-air (OTA) TV went digital, is the compression used on video streams that causes noticeable artifact in almost any moving or panned image. The closer you sit to the TV the more noticeable it is. Sit close to your 1080p TV and wait for an image that has (nearly) nothing moving--the picture looks wonderful! Incredible! Spectacular! Now, switch to an action movie, or nearly any sports program (excluding golf, of course) and suddenly the spectacular TV picture is now ruined by all of the blocky-abstracts that show as soon as something large moves. I imagine that 4K will be even more heavily compressed when broadcast than 1080 or even 720 is, which will make for some truly expensive, awful entertainment (especially sports, except golf).

  • Joshua from Wasilla

    Posted on 2/21/2016 4:53:42 AM

    I feel like I am being conned into buying a Betamax because the picture is so much better than VHS and don't worry there will be content its a superior format. I bought a VHS because all the content was VHS. I also just bought a 1080 65" for the same reason. There is no $K content.

  • J K

    Posted on 2/23/2016 11:09:20 AM

    The main reason to "go 4K" is purely practical (economic) basically. New advanced features for picture quality overall generally won't be put on TVs that aren't being made in large numbers, so the only way to get any wow features will be to get a TV being made in large numbers. As more 4K are made, this will make them less expensive (as we've already been seeing happen) to a point where they will have more features and be less expensive than non-4K of similar size but lower (theoretically) quality, because of the inferior pixel density and lack of features. Content well that will fit whatever is the standard (prevalent) resolution at some point. The bottom line is it looks like 1080P products just won't have up to date image enhancing technologies, which will put them more and more at a disadvantage as time goes on. Although for the foreseeable future, that might make existing models a great buy as new and used ones are put on the market to make way for 4K. The writing is on the wall, and the odds of this all falling apart and going backwards seems pretty slim.