Hands On: Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-Ray Player

High Dynamic Range continues to prove its importance as Samsung's UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray disc player lands on Australian shelves.

Panasonic jumped the gun recently in order to announce Australia's first Ultra HD Blu-ray disc first player — I've already put the Panasonic player through its paces, but it won't actually be on sale until September and judging by overseas pricing it's likely to sell for at least $1000. Now Samsung has thrown its hat in the ring with a $599 player that hits the shelves this month.

Samsung's Ultra HD Blu-ray player is the first in Australian stores as movies start to appear on the shelves. Photo: Adam Turner

Having now tested both Panasonic and Samsung's new players with their respective top-shelf 65-inch Ultra HD televisions, I'm even more convinced that the improved brightness and contrast of High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Ultra HD's expanded colour palette are far more important to overall picture quality than the increased resolution.

If you're fussy about picture quality I'd be hesitant to give your lounge room an Ultra HD overhaul until the HDR-enabled televisions offering 10-bit colour and 1000-nit brightness are priced within your budget.

The Big Picture

Watching both The Martian and The Revenant, two movies praised for their Ultra HD picture quality, the difference between the Ultra HD Blu-ray disc and the standard Blu-ray disc upscaled to Ultra HD by the player is even less noticeable with the Samsung gear than it was with the Panasonic.

It's not that Samsung's UHD picture looks shabby, it's just that the upscaling from standard Blu-ray is so impressive that it takes a fussy eye to appreciate the difference – more so than with the Panasonic gear. Delving into the Samsung player and television's advanced settings didn't help, although enabling HDMI Deep Colour improves the overall look of the picture.

Force the Samsung player to output at Full HD 1080p and the difference is naturally more striking, highlighting the quality of the UHD upscaling. UHD players can output Ultra HD Blu-ray discs at 1080p if they're connected to an older Full HD television, but at this point every new UHD disc comes with a free Blu-ray copy anyway.

Of course UHD picture quality varies from disc to disc depending on how the movie was made, so we can expect to see more of a difference once we see more movies actually shot and edited in Ultra HD. Deadpool promises to be a good benchmark.

For now it's the benefit of HDR which really shines through when you switch between the two disc formats, whether you're looking at the details in the rockfaces in the shadows of a Martian sunset or the bark on the trees in the rugged Canadian wilderness. Thankfully you'll appreciate this improvement even if your budget forces you to settle for a smaller television.

Get Connected

Like the Panasonic, Samsung's Ultra HD Blu-ray player has twin HDMI outputs at the back in case you want to run one cable to your television and one to your surround sound system. Some UHD Blu-ray movies feature Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks if you can afford to drop a bundle on a state of the art surround sound system.

It's important to note the Samsung lacks the 7.1-channel analogue audio outputs of the Panasonic, which won't bother most people but will be critical to a few lounge rooms. You will find a 5.1-channel digital optical audio output on the back of the Samsung, along with Ethernet and built-in Wi-Fi.

At the front of the Samsung you'll find a USB port but no SD card slot. The player has a clean finish with a slightly curved face, clearly a nod to Samsung's range of curved televisions and soundbars. In the 2016 range Samsung offers flat and curved options for all of its high-end SUHD LED televisions, although you're paying a premium for the curve and, like me, you might not feel that it brings much to the party.

Get Smart

I can't say I'm overly impressed with Samsung's UHD player's remote control – it's small, fiddly and has combined fast-forward/ skip buttons which make it easy to skip chapters by mistake.

Thankfully you won't need to rely on the player's remote too much if it's hooked up to a Samsung television like the flagship flat 65-inch SUHD 65KS9000 that I used for testing. The television comes with a smart universal remote which can detect your attached devices and program itself, relying on a mix of infrared and HDMI-CEC commands.

Samsung has also worked hard to integrate external sources into the television's interface. Not only can you pin devices and services to the bottom of the home screen, you can even pin individual Netflix programs as well as Foxtel channels if you own an iQ2 (iQ3 support is coming).

The tight integration of the television's sources and apps also lets you browse through the Netflix library while you're watching another source or live TV. When you turn on the television it will even relaunch Netflix automatically if it was the last thing you were watching before you switched it off.

Getting back to the disc player, you've got Netflix Ultra HD HDR support along with Presto, Quickflix, YouTube and several catch up services. Dive into the app store and you'll find the usual eclectic mix, including a few gems like Plex and Vimeo.

So What's The Verdict?

It's still early days, but if you're keen to rush into Ultra HD Blu-ray then Samsung's player is the way to go unless you need the Panasonic's 7.1-channel analogue audio outputs. The Samsung player is also a good way to add Ultra HD Netflix to your lounge room if your Ultra HD television only supports Full HD Netflix streaming but your home broadband can do Ultra HD justice.

In terms of Ultra HD picture quality Panasonic's player impressed me more, but it's hard to say whether that's because it was a better picture or just that there was a bigger difference between Panasonic's Ultra HD and upscaled Blu-ray. The merits of the televisions is also a factor.

It's tough to pass judgement without getting both Ultra HD Blu-ray players in the same room and hooked up to the same TV – an HDR-capable LG Ultra HD OLED would be sweet – to compare apples with apples and remove as many variables as possible. I'm hoping to do this in the next few months, but until September it's a moot point as right now Samsung is the only show in town when it comes to Ultra HD Blu-ray players.

Adam Turner travelled to Sydney as a guest of Samsung.

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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