Thank you Samsung! Perhaps, even, thank you Consumer Electronics Industry might be in order. When DVD appeared in Australia, players cost $1500 or more. When Blu-ray appeared in Australia, players cost $1800 or more. Now that Ultra HD Blu-ray has appeared in Australia, the first player costs just $599. By the time this review publishes, a second UHD Blu-ray player, from Panasonic, will be available (earlier than expected) at $1099. But for right now, the only player in town is Samsung’s UBD-K8500.
Ultra HD Blu-ray is, of course, the long-awaited higher performance version of Blu-ray. Rather than a resolution of 1920 × 1080, you get 3840 × 2160. You also get HDR (High Dynamic Range) and WCG (Wide Colour Gamut), with ten bits for encoding each component of the signal instead of eight. That means 1024 levels instead of 256 (or actually 235 to 240, for technical reasons). You also get the potential for HFR (High Frame Rate), though whether or not this will ever happens remains to be seen. The HFR supported is 60 frames per second (compared to the usual 24 fps), and the only big Hollywood HFR productions have been The Hobbit series at 48 fps.
So all this is supported by the Samsung UBD-K8500. Not supported, however, is Dolby Vision, which improves on the HDR/WCG elements and provides a number of performance standards. Dolby Vision discs are expected next year, and presumably compatible UHD players too.
The Samsung is a slimline unit, three centimetres narrower than standard component width, and with a gently concave front. The disc tray is to the left and the touch keys are on the right, on the leading edge at the top. The styling is attractively subdued. The front panel display is... nowhere; there isn’t one, so you will rely entirely on the on-screen display if you want to see how far you’ve progressed through a movie or whatever.
There are two HDMI outputs rather than one. That means that if you have a UHD TV, but a home theatre receiver which does not support UHD video signals, you can use one output for the TV and the other for the receiver. The second HDMI output is labelled ‘Audio Only’, but HDMI cannot be audio only since the sound is interwoven into the video. What the second output delivers is a black screen in 720p/50, a nice easy signal with which pretty much everything ought to be compatible, and with sufficient bandwidth to contain the highest audio standards.
There’s also an optical digital audio output, but no analogue ones. The rear panel has an Ethernet port and the front panel has a USB socket with one of those ugly rubber plugs that flop around when you have something connected. Dual-band Wi-Fi is built in. Depending on your home Wi-Fi setup, you’re likely to get better performance from Wi-Fi than a wired Ethernet connection because the latter is limited here to 100BASE-T, not gigabit.
If there’s a weakness with this unit, it’s the remote control. This is a neat unit, small and pleasantly styled. It works at good range and reasonably wide angle, but it has a paucity of keys. There are 25 of them, and four of those are for controlling a TV (more than 50 brands are supported). I don’t like dual function transport control keys, or having to enter numbers using an on-screen selection pad and so on. The transport control keys skip forwards and backwards, but also work as fast forwards or rewind by holding them down. You can slow-mo forwards only by holding down the skip key in pause mode. There is no frame stepping possible.
There are both kinds of menu keys, but right between them is the ‘Home’ key, which takes you right back to the main player menu, jumping out of disc playback without requiring confirmation. With a BD-Java disc, except for those few with a ‘Resume Playback’ function, that means starting over and having to find where you left off if you accidentally hit this.
This unit has an excellent set of smart features as well, with the player appearing to use Samsung’s proprietary operating system, rather than the Linux-based Tizen it now uses in its smart TVs.
The unit features a wizard to do basic set-up, not that much is needed. The main thing will be connecting to your Wi-Fi network. You can use the WPS push button method or enter a password the old-fashioned way. You probably won’t need to fiddle with any other settings. Most of the output AV settings default to ‘Auto’, which means that the player does what it thinks is best. For output resolution, for example, that means it queries the TV over HDMI and sets itself to its preferred resolution. That was 2160p for the UHD TV used in this review. If you wish, you can manually set it to 2160p, 1080p, 1080i, 720p or 480p/576p. No 576i output is available.
The sound defaults to PCM conversion, which is sensible since that allows BonusView secondary audio to be mixed in. The unit can also re-encode to either DTS or Dolby Digital if you’re using old equipment, or you can have the original bitstream out.
Which should you choose? It does a good job with PCM conversion, using the DTS-HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD audio, rather than the DTS core or embedded Dolby Digital, so you’re not losing any quality. But what it won’t do is decode Dolby Atmos (nor, presumably, DTS:X), so if you have an Dolby Atmos capable receiver, you’ll want bitstream out.
Actually even if you don’t, you’ll probably want bitstream out. For some reason the player delays the audio, or at least the TrueHD of my sync test track delivered as a bitstream. The delay is around 120ms. That might nicely match the video delay in your 4K TV, but it’s good to be aware of this because if you have a delay dialled into your AV receiver, the doubling of the delay makes for a lip sync issue. Set the player to PCM conversion and the delay increases by a further 120 or so milliseconds. A total delay of 250ms is too much to be matched by the video on all but the very slowest TVs.
The first of these is an error of calibration. The sound should not be delayed at all. Fortunately, though, the delay that is there should work okay with most UHD TVs, so long as you switch off the audio delay in your receiver.
As for picture quality, well, what the UBD-K8500 delivered was quite unimpeachable. With Blu-ray and UHD Blu-ray the picture quality was as good as it gets, especially with the latter, and especially when used with an OLED TV, which permitted the benefits of HDR to be more evident. With UHD discs not once was there the slightest hint of banding in colour, just the smoothest graduations. There was noticeably more detail evident in darker scenes, particularly in ‘Deadpool’. At the other end, the orange and brown and blue palette of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ was entrancing.
With no 576i output, you have no choice but to rely on this player to deinterlace your DVDs. I was split on performance with DVDs. The progressive-scan conversion used the normal motion-adaptive system, weaving when in film mode, and bobbing and weaving in video mode, according to the movement of elements within the picture. It was first class at both. But in determining which it should use, it was just a little too ready to slip into video mode in cases of ambiguity. That was with my DVD torture test, so with most content the results were good.
On the other hand, the general picture processing and scaling added a touch of life and clarity to even mediocre standard definition and high definition video. At one point I wanted to share a lowish bit-rate 1080i/50 movie I’d recorded from HDTV with my family. For some reason the house would only play the first half, whether streamed over the network or delivered by USB. So I plugged in this player, plugged in the USB and played the movie, and my wife, typically indifferent to such matters, remarked how much better it looked.
The smart functions of this unit were very good. There are a bunch of apps you can install, should you wish. There are catch-up services for free-to-air TV channels, YouTube, vTuner internet radio, a number of video streaming services, a web browser and Netflix. Netflix supports 4K and HDR streaming, which we couldn’t try since the NBN-level speeds required remain a distant hope in my location.
The unit had a bit over 1.5GB of storage available for installing apps. They typically ran to not much more than five megabytes each, so there’s room for plenty to be installed.
The media player handles plenty of different kinds of audio, including FLAC up to 24/192kHz, but not DSD. And it isn’t a DLNA renderer, so you can’t send music to it using such a player; you have to drive it from the unit’s own interface. It also displays videos and photos from your network or USB, supporting (again) full UHD and full 4:4:4 colour from photos, with no bottlenecking to a lower resolution. 
There’s also a prominent selection for Screen Mirroring, which worked with Miracast and WiDi. My Android phone connected readily and surely to this, and my Windows 10 portable connected a little less surely, usually taking two goes, but effective once it did. With Windows, you could use this either to mirror your display or to act as a second extended display. With Android, it simply mirrored, but when I displayed photos or ran videos from the phone, these expanded to fill the screen.
Samsung has done an impressive job with the UBD-K8500. The company should do something about that audio delay. But it played all our UHD Blu-rays perfectly, loading discs quickly and operating as reliably as if they had been mere DVDs. The price is excellent for the first player in a new generation of video disc replay, and should encourage early adoption. And with the physical formats facing the onslaught of online streaming options, and some companies clearly waiting to see ‘how it goes’, UHD Blu-ray needs all the early adopters it can get.
Samsung UBD-K8500 UltraHD Blu-ray player                           
Price: $599 
+ Ultra High Definition!
+ Two HDMI outputs for backward compatibility
+ Excellent smart features
- Remote could do with more dedicated keys
- Possible audio delay issues
- No front panel display
Tested with firmware version: 1006
Outputs: 2 x HDMI, 1 x optical digital audio
Others: 1 x USB, 1 x Ethernet, WiFi
Dimensions (whd): 406 x 45 x 230mm
Weight: 1.9kg
Warranty: 12 months