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I watched a 4K Blu-ray for the first time in years – and was left disappointed

blu-ray player
(Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

“What are you doing?”, asked my partner at the sight of me fiddling with cables underneath the TV. “We’re going to watch Dune (opens in new tab)… on Blu-ray. 4K Blu-ray.” 

Maybe it’s not something I should admit in my position but, like lots of people, it has probably been a few years since I dusted off the Blu-ray player. It’s there underneath the TV but for a good while now has been playing a distant third or fourth fiddle to Netflix, Disney+, and the rest. 

For I am only human, and the convenience of streaming services has most certainly turned my head. All that content at the touch of a button and for a relatively low, sign-up-and-try-and-forget-about-it monthly fee. 

What’s more, those of us who care about quality now needn’t worry unduly that we’re getting short-changed, with 4K, HDR, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos and more, all making their way to streaming services. So why would anyone bother with a disc?

The devil is in the detail. Aside from the whole argument for the value of physical media over streaming - which, in the case of vinyl, I'm very much on board with - 4K Blu-ray discs have still clung on in my mind as the superior choice when it comes to performance. For not all 4K pictures, nor all next-gen audio formats, are equal. 

See, 4K Blu-ray discs run at up to 128Mbps. This is the amount of data sent to your screen every second. By contrast, streaming services tend to top out at around 17Mbps. And this will drop further depending on the speed of your internet connection and demand on the wider network. So 4K on disc should be better than 4K via your favourite streaming service.

What about sound? It's a closer call but there's still an edge for Ultra HD Blu-ray. Yes, you can get Dolby Atmos pretty much everywhere, but streaming services deliver it in the compressed Dolby Digital+ format while discs generally carry it in full-fat Dolby TrueHD. As for DTS:X, you need to be watching on a disc. And of the two next-gen audio formats, DTS:X is a bit more flexible. It works with standard surround sound set-ups and doesn't require extra overhead speakers the way Atmos generally does. You can also manually adjust sound objects, meaning you can crank up the volume of voices on a soundtrack making it easier to hear dialogue (a common gripe).

Ultimately, my old Blu-ray player should still deliver a better picture and sound performance than the same thing via a streaming service. Hurrah. I knew I should have been buying more 4K Blu-rays. So now, having finally decided to soak up those extra megabits, why was I left disappointed?

Well, for the most part, the experience. Sure, the sweating and fiddling with cables was my fault but the subsequent wait for the disc to load was not – and it seemed like an eternity. While I was somewhat prepared for this and doing my best to act unperturbed, despite being shocked by quite how slow it seemed, my partner was incredulous. “We could be half way through a film on Netflix by now…” With a sleeping baby upstairs, every second counts in our household.

I gripped the remote and stared straight ahead, waiting for the disc to load – the stunning picture and sound about to enter our eyes and ears would soon have her convinced, I thought. 

Once I’d checked the sound options and marvelled at the “old school” menu screen, we were off. Lights dimmed, sound turned up loud, we were ready to immerse ourselves in a true home cinema experience… But hang on, what was that noise? Was there a car outside with the engine running? A light aircraft overhead? Is the boiler overheating? Ah no... that whirring noise was the Blu-ray player’s fan.

Memories of Group Tests of Blu-ray players came flooding back, wondering which player was quieter, and whether this particularly unit merited a "noisy fan" in the Against column. To be fair, my Sky Q box is no shrinking violet, and I also couldn’t rule out that my Blu-ray player really was literally as well as metaphorically dusty and old, and this could be spurring the fan into action. But regardless; loud mechanisms on disc players is definitely a thing. And another reason to feel somewhat deflated at the Blu-ray experience.

But, ultimately, the epic sandscapes and trademark stirring Hans Zimmer soundtrack had us hooked. Of course there was no buffering, no drop in quality, just 59.80Mbps of 4K HDR10 goodness complete with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. What’s not to like?

And herein lies the real disappointment: we're simply not getting the full-fat, best-possible AV experience from the streaming services that so many of us are watching 99% of the time. 

There’s no arguing with the content, from great documentaries to brilliant TV shows, and many blockbuster films now going straight to streaming, but that only makes it more depressing that we're not getting to enjoy this content in the best possible quality.

Alright, if you don't have the latest TV, you're watching on a smaller screen or you don't have much of a sound system, you may not notice these differences, but for those of us eager to be getting our TV and films "as the director intended", we don't want to miss out on so much as a smidgeon of AV information.

We've been here before of course, when low-quality MP3 downloads and then streams replaced CDs, despite being far inferior sonically. The good news is that we did eventually get lossless and high-resolution audio from streaming services. The quality did catch up with the convenience. And it's fair to say the gap between Netflix and 4K Blu-ray is already much (much) closer than MP3 and CD. 

So we could all keep (or start) buying more 4K Blu-rays. I know plenty of people who do, whether for the reasons above or because they love physical media (and steelbooks). But for those who have left discs behind and have no desire to go back, there is hope. 

Both Apple TV+ and Disney+ now boast up to 40Mbps and 30Mbps top data speeds respectively, though your experience will depend on your devices and network. Sony's Bravia Core service, meanwhile, offers genuine 4K Blu-ray-baiting data rates but is exclusive to Sony's flagship TVs. Bravia Core does point to the future of streaming, though, and of course the beauty of software is that it can be upgraded and improve over time.

But until then, you might want to remember to splash the cash on a 4K Blu-ray disc from time to time – you soon get used to the fan, after all.

Joe is Content Director for Specialist Tech at Future and was previously the Global Editor-in-Chief of What Hi-Fi?. He has worked on What Hi-Fi? across print and online for more than 15 years, writing news, reviews and features. He has covered product launch events across the world, from Apple to Technics, Sony and Samsung, reported from CES, the Bristol Show and Munich High End for many years, and provided comment for sites such as the BBC and the Guardian. In his spare time he enjoys playing records and cycling (not at the same time).

  • bigfish786
    To be honest, it doesn’t seem all that long ago since I was packing a toddler into her pram and taking the 90 minute round trip to the local video shop. Getting one for the child and two for us for £1.99
    the walk back 48 hours later was less fun.
    back then, I had a decent Panasonic telly and video recorder, and when dvd came along I bought one of those too.
    I don’t think the sound or picture quality was ever a conversation beyond the first 5 seconds of video tape “auto tracking”.
    just watching a movie was a treat, I still remember early movie releases costing £70 back in the mid 80’s so renting three for £2.00 was great.
    I’ve never gone beyond dvd quality for movies, I’ve just not seen it as important to the enjoyment of the movie.
    I don’t even have the 4K Netflix anymore, I just didn’t see any difference.
    doesnt stop me enjoying the odd movie or two now and again.
    Reply
  • Fgars2
    3 minutes of reading and I said I won't continue reading this article.
    First slow landing? What u have 1 generation bluray ?
    Have a 2019 panasonic that read it in less than 10 seconds, and xbox series x that read it in 5 sec. So ya sure upgrade ur player.
    Bluray player in 1 day were slow...
    Now the fan is that loud? Man good the baby didn't wake up ! Uh and ur worried about him while the sound is up and high ?
    In 2 years owning 4k player never noticed fan noise, don't think it's noise is louder than the home theater system .
    So sorry skipped the while article.
    The 4k image is bit better than BD but the HDR with the correct TV yes its worth it.
    Reply
  • cobraBLACK
    I have a bunch of BDs but I rarely watch them if I can find the content to stream. The compression with streaming is frustrating but the backwards step in functionality of blu-rays was even moreso. My last DVD player could resume playback in about 3 seconds after pressing the play button in standby. I've had a Pioneer BD player and the PS4 and not only was the load time for both ridiculous but there was no guarantee you could resume from where you last watched.

    So they lose revenue because people don't want to buy inconvenient media and we lose AV quality.
    Reply
  • kaladin
    Tbh I'm quite gob-smacked. I really don't want to be an "internet moaner" and I'm really trying, but I have bought the mag on and off for 30 years and never read an article quite like this.

    Where to start with this article:
    My Blu-ray is already cabled and in regular use. As a film fan I was surprised yours was not already.l and that you didn't understand how to (assumed you could have "watched half the film" in that time. (power and hdmi: it can be a challenge)

    Placing a disk inside and pressing play is very similar to a steaming service as apps do not load instantly. Fake issue.

    Apps have issues, I have Disney+ however I can't get atmos sound. My tv does not support arc+ and Disney+ via sky does not provide it either. So streaming sound is a long way behind for me at least.

    Picture- in most situations I've found that disk HD is superior to streaming 4k. I've on many occasions read the same in this magazine as well.

    Convenience: ok streaming probably has it here and that is what it is. Most people are happy with that over quality.

    So overall there really is no comparison. I do have to wonder if this is the vocation for you? Have toy considered selling popcorn instead? (Yeah you guessed it, I'd rather buy from someone that understands popcorn)

    Such a shame - love the rest of you guys at What hiFi keep rocking it
    Reply
  • FredFelicitas
    Poor article, it goes without saying that streaming is more convenient and if you're watching blu-ray these days it's only going to be because of picture quality (or you happen to own a movie that they don't have).

    I'd even take Physical Media 1080p over 4KNetflix - what's the point in 4K when you can see contour colour banding with 1" stripes.
    Reply
  • Ataripower
    I found myself getting very annoyed reading this article. We've passed April Fools day so is this guy being serious?

    I'm not against streaming and have several active subscriptions but when it's time to watch a decent movie, it's always got to be on 4k disk. The difference visually and sonically is still significant. I suggest that if you're really serious about what you do, perhaps consider acquiring some equipment that's less than 10 years old!
    Reply
  • Solun
    This sounds so strange, I have a 6 years old blu-ray player and never noticed any fan sound. And if it bothers you while watching sound-rich Dune, it's definitely not normal and you might wanna replace the player.
    Reply
  • 12th Monkey
    I'd be surprised if a player capable of playing 4k discs was old enough to be slow at loading - my first player, a huge Denon, often too a minute or two, but it's as close to instant now, even on an OPPO that's a few years old. No fan noise either.
    Reply
  • abacus
    Seems to be a lot of new users (which seems to be the same one joining with different credentials) complaining, so I would take those with a pinch of salt.
    Most systems I have seen from users don’t allow enough air flow over the equipment (Read the manual) so hardly surprising the fans kick in; those that don’t have a problem have probably followed the instructions in the manual.

    Bill
    Reply
  • Ataripower
    abacus said:
    Seems to be a lot of new users (which seems to be the same one joining with different credentials) complaining, so I would take those with a pinch of salt.
    Most systems I have seen from users don’t allow enough air flow over the equipment (Read the manual) so hardly surprising the fans kick in; those that don’t have a problem have probably followed the instructions in the manual.

    Bill
    I'm one of those new users. Yes I'm a real person and felt the need to sign up just to comment on what nonsense was written here.
    Reply