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Impressions of 4K Television

See my review of the relatively low end yet very impressive Sony XBR-55X800B 55" Class 4K Smart LED TV. It is far from the best 4K TV out there, but even to my picky eyes I find it hard to complain about the TV. The content is what makes the most difference.

Sony XBR-55X800B 55" Class 4K Smart LED TV

HD = 1080p = half-res (1/4 the pixels)
(must be scaled-up 2X linearly on 4K TV)
UltraHD = 2160p = full-res (3840 X 2160) aka 4K TV

A 4K television can be driven by the Mac Pro, iMac or MacBook Pro. A 4K TV provides a large and pleasurable viewing experience not just for video, but for still photography. Fewer pixels are displayed by a 4K TV than with an iMac 5K (8.3 vs 14.2), but on a much larger screen.

To connect a 4K television to your Mac, you’ll need a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI cable with 4K support or a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter with 4K support plugged into an HDMI-HDMI cable.

I’ve accumulated some distinct impressions on 4K television, based on various streamed shows on and off the past month or so (I am educating myself on the potential of 4K video, so streamed 4K seems like a good place to start).

  • Plenty of 4K material falls short of 4K resolution; contrast enhancement makes edges pop, but things like city flyovers show a nice crisp look that yet lacks fine detail, falling well short of full resolution. This seems related to video shot while moving; things get blurred.
  • Some modern shows have actors with the most immaculate skin one might ever see. I got used to it, but few real people have skin like that AFAIK. In some ways this makes things unreal. And yet when actors are “real”, skin flaws, beards, dirt, etc all are very real. In plain HD, all of this realism disappears, smeared away.
  • Makeup on women is overused, a director’s error as I see it: one sees makeup first, particularly with closeups.
  • Shaving (or not) on men is so much more real: instead of a smeared look to skin, pores and stubble can be distinguished. It adds a level of realism. Going back to HD, facial texture looks smeared.
  • Lens flaws are revealed! Bad bokeh, color fringing, etc—though generally the lenses used are good, some have really ugly bokeh, like OOF blurs with dozens of dark spots in them. Traces of color fringing can be seen. No, cine lenses are not perfect.
  • Depth of field is very much an issue, and very noticeable in some scenes. But when filmed to full-res, the in-focus areas “pop” incredibly against the out of focus areas, in a way that cannot happen with HD. I quickly grew used to this visual impact; it makes plain HD so disappointing for some kinds of material.
  • Scenery with fine netting, cloth, detailed architecture, etc, looks crummy in HD, but delights the eye in UltraHD. When well done and with the right subject matter, UltraHD crosses a perceptual threshold that makes plain HD look downright crummy.
  • Any error in follow-focus is noticeable. Those guys have a tough job, and do get it right always.
  • Close/closeup shots of faces are just like still photography: one sees blurred noses and blurred half of a face and one sharp eye, etc.
  • Digital noise in dark scenes is plain to see, grain in film-based video is more pleasant and more random—better, and it helps mask other flaws, including the lower resolution (HD).
  • Older “HD” shows that were shot on film look better to my eye than many modern films shot digitally. The grain of film seems to mask the defects of the lower resolution video.


Recommended not so much for content (which may or may not appeal), but for seeing state of the (mass) art for digital streaming video. There is not a lot of 4K content yet; films like Mad Men and Beasts of No Nation ought to look great in 4K, but are only there in HD.

The fact is, most 4K content is marginal (in terms of 4K quality). Many offerings claimed to be 4K can be worse than good HD. Lawrence of Arabia, claimed to be 4K (Netflix) is badly pixellated and doesn’t even qualify as good HD—it’s awful and that’s the remastered version on Netflix. The Bourne Identity (first of series, Matt Damon) is only HD, but looks remarkably strong—looks great on a 4K set.

Amazon 4K selection is poor (Netflix is notably better), but if you want to see good 4K to get an idea, go with Netflix streaming. 4K selection will expand greatly in 2016.

  • Narcos: very recently made, generally very high quality. Excellent demo of 4K.
  • Blacklist: many facial closeups, dark scenes. Excellent demo of 4K.
  • Marco Polo: shows clear limits on depth of field, details sometimes good but often oddly soft. It falls short of full resolution, even though the cinematography is pleasing and richly filmed (I watched only part of the first episode).
  • Chef’s Table, first episode (Massimo): starts with a TV-res newsclip which is truly awful compared to plain HD, excellent historical perspective! The filming of this episode seems to be shot almost entirely wide open or nearly so. It’s a study in shallow DoF, stunning creamy bokeh, and the power of in focus versus out of focus. Watch the background bokeh in various scenes, and the nearly perfect secondary color correction with out of focus blurs. If I had to guess, I’d say “Zeiss Master Prime”. But that’s purely a guess.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (remastered, claimed 4K): atrociously bad quality. Massive artifacts on all edges; it does not even qualify as HD quality: could there have been a streaming problem? Streaming quality is not always reliable.
  • Bosch (Amazon): visibly soft on every scene, no detail on faces, et5c. Branding footage looks better (show introduction), but that's about it. The Bourne Identity in (only) HD looks better to my eye.

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