09.01.15

Letter from America: Living with 4K

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As you read this there is a strong possibility that you are on your way to, at, are returning from, or wishing you were at the 2015 edition of the International Consumer Electronics Show, commonly known as CES.

While we are writing this before the big event, and thus not yet able to report on the trends and products, everything that our crystal ball indicates points towards “4K/UHD” as something that will be at the top of the reports you will read, including ours when it appears next month. Look for what CES points to in terms of 4K set pricing, new display technologies such as OLED, new sizes, new content delivery services and increased 4K content availability and much more. In a vacuum, you might view these as separate factoids. However, for full consumer acceptance of 4K/UHD and particularly for you to properly present the value proposition to your clients it must be viewed as a cohesive whole; the sum of the parts, if you will, not as individual bits and pieces that the end-user is left to figure out on their own. After all, the ability to both assist them in doing that and, equally important, to do much of it for them is what your value proposition is!

The best way to get the full 4K experience is to live it yourself. Nothing beats complaints from assorted family members as a means of determining what you need to do when you provision these things for paying customers. We’ll take a side bet that while virtually all of you sell UHD, not nearly as many of you actually live with it. In the interests of honesty, we’ve been reporting about it for a few years now, but only recently took the plunge at home by taking advantage of ‘Black Friday Week’ pricing to land a 65-inch 4K set in our home. The experience we’ve had may, or may not, be typical, but for the benefit of those who have not lived with 4K it has raised a number of “teachable moments”. Some may be obvious but are driven home when you live them first hand. Others were somewhat unexpected. These are our “4K Notes”. We encourage you to use the HiddenWires Group on LinkedIn to share your own experiences.

Connections
From a connectivity standpoint, a few things are critical with 4K/UHD. As discussed here and elsewhere, HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 are key to getting 4K content from a source device through an AVR or surround processor and then on to the display. While native 4K sources are currently few at this point, we’ll see them increase as the year progresses and you need to be prepared. When selecting a UHD set, either for yourself or a client, it is essential to make certain that there are as many “2.0/2.2” inputs as possible. Be careful to see how many of each; just because an input is HDMI 2.0 it may NOT be HDCP 2.2 and vice-versa. Even if have to consult the dreaded Owners Manual see “which is which” when you do the installation and connections as the rear-of-set legends are not always clear. It will be at least six to 12 months before all inputs have both! Also keep this in mind when provisioning for any audio product between sources and displays as you simply can’t slap and HDCP 2.2 source into any HDMI. PLAN CAREFULLY or something will not work. Native 4K content delivered via IP, selected via an “app” and then decoded in the set using HEVC eliminates the need to worry about HDMI, but it brings other things to think about with regard to networking and audio.

Most 4K sets have both wired and wireless networking, and where available it is always advisable to use the former but, as is the where the UHD set sits in my home, that isn’t always possible. Wi-Fi is fine, but where the home infrastructure and the set’s capabilities allow, we strongly recommend using 802.11n or 802.11ac. If the distance between the set and the router allows, go even further and use the 5G band. Our experience showed that without moving the set or router, the 5G connection consistently yielded a 10% to 20% faster connection. Given that 4K streaming is a bandwidth hog, every extra bit of throughput helps! The final part of the connectivity puzzle for 4K/UHD also relates to streaming and in-set, “app/IP delivered” content. Since the source decoding is in the display you’ll need to use the HDMI ARC or SPDIF output to route the audio streams back to the AVR or processor for playback through the multichannel system. Sounds easy, but like everything else here it isn’t as simple as you might think.

Quick quiz, and be honest: How many of you have actually used an audio connection back from the TV to the audio gear via ARC or SPDIF? I’ll guess not many as that is rarely used when sources pass through another device for selection and audio decoding on the way to the display. We learned the hard way that this takes some adjustment and getting used to. Learn from our trial and error. First, depending on how the CEC settings on both the TV and the audio gear, the user will find that switching to the “TV” input is automatic. Or not. Don’t assume that this is simple and before putting one of these in a client’s home, let alone your own, make certain that everything is synced up and switches in and out of the TV/ARC mode when it should and does not when it shouldn’t. If you don’t get this right the customer will be angry, Granny will be confused and the baby sitter’s boyfriend will try to change the settings and make matters even worse. [ADDITIONAL WARNING: Lock the settings, if there is a function to prevent that sort of tampering!]

Sync & Scale
While we’re on the subject of audio, one thing that will require increased attention with UHD sets is lip sync. With scaling applied to any non-4K native input it is likely that any audio-to-video delay that was already in the system will be exacerbated by the heavy video processing. Work with all inputs to see if you first need to set a global base line delay in the display, and then fine tune each input as needed in the audio gear. The Blu-ray player may require less delay than the cable or satellite set top, an old legacy analogue source more.  If you don’t take care of this complaints will be more numerous than the number of pixels on the screen. The scaling just referred to is also key. Hopefully you’ve judged that as a quality decision point when comparing sets for purchase, but no matter how good the set it may have a hard time with some input sources. Test all likely sources out before delivery so that you may advise the client or your family where the push from a 480i/576i VHS of an old family event may just not look as good in 4K as broadcast TV or an optical disc. This is may be out of your control as to how it happens, but it is very much in your area of responsibility to know about it and explain where appropriate. We had to do that in our own home.

Adjust and Calibrate
Just because UHD sets are supposed to have a better image because of the increased pixel count, higher bit-depth and fast frame rate (when available) doesn’t mean that you‘re off the hook for image calibration. Indeed, having the best possible image on screen demands that you set things properly so that every last iota of quality is squeezed out. Again, something that good practice dictates you should always sell up to, but here you have an easy path to a profitable add-on with demonstrable benefit: “After all, Mr. & Ms. Client, with all the money you’ve spent to go for the best display, don’t let scrimp on a relatively small investment that will give you everything you paid for in terms of image quality.” You get the picture, figuratively, don’t miss the chance to see that they get it, literally!

Keeping Up to Date
Much as was the case with the early DVD and Blu-ray players, and is almost an everyday occurrence with the apps in a smartphone or tablet, UHD displays will require upgrades. In most, but perhaps not all, these are push upgrades that the user will receive automatically, but we note it here for two important reasons. First, in some cases some user action may be required to “check for and install an upgrade to your set”. Some of your more technophobic clients may be reluctant to do this, so it is your responsibility as their “home theatre concierge” to keep in touch with manufacturers to know when major feature upgrades are pushed out. Checking in with clients to make certain that they have the upgrades on their set is an easy and inexpensive way to maintain a customer relationship that will pay dividends for your business. Second, and perhaps more important, some of the features your clients will read about concerning 4K content delivery may not be in their set when you deliver and install it. For example, while some brands already have the 4K-capable version of Amazon’s video service, mine does not—at least upon delivery. A quick call to the manufacturer calmed things down when they advised me that the upgrade was due shortly, and by giving them the set’s serial number they promised to put me in the first wave of upgrade pushes. Given that having a UHD set will be a pride point for your clients (or family), when they read in the general or financial press about new 4K content they will want to show it off to everyone. Avoid the embarrassment when they find it isn’t quite ready yet, by assuring them that this isn’t always a same-day situation and tell them as best you can when it will be pushed into their set and how to do that if required. Again, more information, not less, always helps secure the relationship.

End Result
At the end of the day, our personal experience with a 65-inch 4K/UHD set has been interesting. Has everyone who has come in to look at it noticed the difference? That’s not quite fair as it replaced a 42-inch set that was always too small for the viewing distance. Unprompted, everyone who looks at the picture has commented that it is “great”, though few either noticed or knew enough to say something such as “WOW! Look at that increased resolution!” The viewing distance is such that we’d need a larger set for that and the room’s furniture didn’t permit it. However, the comments do always mention image quality and improved colour. Not uncommon was, “Even though it isn’t 3D it gives that look but better than the “real 3D’ and without those goofy glasses.” Perhaps that is the combination of everything working together. Regardless, it certainly proves out the value proposition to the clients (here, my family) as being more than just another fad. Equally important, as this letter indicates, we learned a lot by having UHD at home to play with and learn about. If you haven’t done that yet for yourself, it’s time for a belated holiday gift. Treat yourself to some very enjoyable “on-the-job training”. By being able to offer first-hand observations and learn the ins and outs you’ll profit by it in more ways than one.

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group, follow him on Twitter @captnvid, or comment on his article, below.