At CES, the 4K TV sets arrive: Boom … or bust?

A 64-inch Sony XBR 4K Ultra HDTV, on display at the Consumer Electronics Show this week.

LAS VEGAS — The pictures are simply stunning. The TV sets are sleek, slim and gorgeous. The crowds at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show are packing the Samsung, Sony, LG and Toshiba booths to see the dawn of Ultra HDTV: the next great leap forward in consumer TV technology.

Or is it?

There’s little doubt the TV manufacturing industry want to establish Ultra HD sets — with screens capable of showing 4K by 2K video or roughly 4 four times the resolution of today’s 1080p sets — as the new consumer standard. When companies like Vizio are selling 55-inch 1080p TV sets for $900, an industry desperate for higher-margin sales needs some feature set so compelling that buyers will pay the maximum dollar to get it.

But even as the brand new sets were being revealed at the show, many were skeptical that Ultra HD is the new “insanely great” thing, to quote the late Steve Jobs’ memorable phrase.

A Samsung Ultra HDTV on the CES show floor this week

To spend $10,000 and upward on a new set is out of reach for most buyers. A low end 55-inch set from LG will come out of the gate at roughly $12,000. The plus-84-inch sets from Samsung, Sony and LG allegedly will be in the $20-25,000 range.

But the emerging technology has more than just pricing problems.

At the Sony booth, two 80-inch screens showed pages from the print edition of the New York Times side by side in 4K and in 1080p. The detail in the 4K set was remarkable. Standing inches from the set, the text was as clear as reading on a Retina iPad.

But the need for virtually any consumer to be viewing content inches away from a giant screen is probably not justification for buying one of these pricy new TV sets. A 1080p set can handle text perfectly with a little zoom, sitting comfortably in a chair 6 to 8 feet from the TV. And to consumers still in the throes of transitioning to 1080p HD sets, yet a further move to Ultra HD is problematic.

Will Ultra HD become the new standard for TV? Based on the showing at CES, the early results are promising on the tech end, but more problematic on the consumer end. While the pictures are good, they hardly compare to the quantum leap between the 4:3 NTSC pictures of yesterday and today’s range of 16:9 high definition video. The bigger the screen — we’re talking over 60 inches and up — the picture improvement will be extremely noticeable. Techies will more easily see the difference between the two standards; the TV manufacturers can only pray consumers will, as well.

At the various demonstrations of Ultra HD, show-goers could see the fine detail possible on a screen that delivers four times the resolution of current HDTV set. At the Toshiba booth, this writer watched a side-by-side 4K/1080p screening of “Brave,” the Pixar animated film. The 4K film was arguably sharper, but not “killer” sharp.

Sony put forth its best case for Ultra HD in two showings. A closed home theater presentation on a 110-inch screen, using a Sony VPL-VW 1000E home theater front projector, screened a theatrical trailer shot in 4K from “Skyfall,” the recent James Bond film, and a clip from a Billy Joel/Tony Bennett concert on a Blu-ray disc.

The movie trailer was crisp and detailed, its picture coming from a 4K server hooked into the projector: a complete closed-loop 4K presentation.

But the real surprise was what the video projector did with the Blu-ray disc. A Sony spokesperson indicated the concert footage was up-converted to 4K in the projector from a standard consumer Blu-ray player. To the casual eye, the picture quality was every bit as good as the native 4K content.

A second Sony Ultra HDTV set, the new XBR-65X900A, a 65-inch 4K TV, was shown in the main booth. 4K footage from “After Earth,” a new Will Smith sci-fi film, was shown, and as expected, 4K footage delivered to the TV from a 4K server was as crisp or crisper than the home theater presentation.

The new XBR TV internally up-converted a standard Blu-ray disc — in this case the latest “Spider Man” film — but there were noticeable motion artifacts. Sony is planning to release 4K versions of some of its 1080p Blu-rays but it is too soon to say whether the semi-upgraded disks will deliver the value of native 4K footage. The set itself, along with a 55-inch version, will be released next summer, but no pricing is available.

Back at the Toshiba booth, a 4K TV ran samples of native 4K footage shot on a Red digital cinema camera, There were a variety of shots, including aerial footage of the spectacular Getty Center perched in the Santa Monica Mountains. But the footage was marred severely by motion artifacts, so noticeable that the footage could have been shot from a consumer camera.

Samsung demonstrated an array of stunning 85-inch and 110-inch sets, but its mostly static visuals gave no hint of how its sets handled panning and moving images. Other than saying sets would be available in the second half of 2013, the company gave no specifications nor prices on any of its sets.

Ultra HD has another more subtle problem. Manufacturers may see 4K sets as the future, but they’re front-loading their current sets with smart TV options — Internet, home media and social integration. Merely upping the resolution may be a less-powerful draw than it if their super sets also introduced those features.

Part of Ultra HD’s appeal is rooted in science fiction: homes with wall-sized TVs that bring video into every part of our lives. But that future never imagined smart phones, tablets and wireless mobility. Nor did it see “TV” as a TV set — a piece of furniture — rather than a massive wall-size installations. Even at affordable prices, how many homes, how many mothers and wives, will permit their homes to be taken over by giant TVs?

That answer may well determine the future of the Ultra TVs that debuted here at CES.

Skip Ferderber is a Seattle-area journalist covering the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. He is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, edited Millimeter Magazine in the motion picture and television technology industry, and contributes to Crosscut.com, Seattle Business Magazine, HD Video Pro Magazine and others.

  • SilverSee

    This is impressive from a technical standpoint, but it is mostly TV industry hype without 4K content to light up all those pixels. Upscale HD content to drive sales? Maybe to a niche enthusiast audience, but 1080p HD content still looks fantastic to most people.

    And it’s hard to see how the industry will address the content problem in the foreseeable future. Yet another post-Blu-Ray disc format? I don’t think so. Streaming? Cable, satellite and broadband all have serious bandwidth constraints even with HD content, much less ‘Ultra HD’.

    In fact, the content industry still has one foot firmly planted in the SD market: cable services still dump a crapton of 4:3 SD channels that you have to edit out of your guide, and most over-the-top streaming services have a limited selection of HD content.

    The TV industry would love to have yet another ‘savior’ technology to drive upgrade sales, but I can’t see how this could become a mainstream product in the next 5 years at least.

  • Guest

    Boom! A lot of men poo-pooed HDTV when it first came out and sets cost $10,000, but now everyone has a hi-def-tel. In a few years, UHDTV will be the norm and we’ll all be using cheap 3840×2160 monitors and tablets.

  • Guest

    Bust. Lack of content = lack of demand,. Now, ultra monitors – that’s a different story. I can see having a 32 inch 4K monitor but that’s not far from what’s possible today.