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The State of Ultra HD Blu-ray in 2024

23 Apr 2024 | Yoeri Geutskens |

How is Ultra HD Blu-ray doing? Quite well. But how well? There's a couple of aspects to that question. Let's begin with the content.

If you happen to follow the @UltraHDBluray tweet feed you'll probably have noticed that the share of Ultra HD Blu-ray in the overall disc market is steadily growing, mainly at the expense of Blu-ray Disc, and not so much at the expense of DVD.

As noted before however, it's growing relatively in a shrinking market. The overall video disc market is declining by 20% to 25% annually since a few years. Effectively, the market for 4K HDR content on physical media is stable, thanks in part to a constant flow of new titles.

UHD Blu-ray sales

Market share in units for DVD, Blu-ray Disc and Ultra HD Blu-ray according to Circana VideoScan

Retail for all three formats is dealing with a double threat: Consumption shifts from physical media to TVoD and streaming, and those who still buy discs increasingly do so from online retailers. Consequently, brick and mortar video specialty stores have disappeared years ago, like record stores did years before when music went through the same double transition. Now also other retailers are giving up. Best Buy exited Ultra HD/Blu-ray/DVD business in 2023, and Target announced the same move this week. Leaving consumers with fewer options to buy media in stores, this accelerates the shift to online distribution. In some cases, studios phase out entire regions. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment never even introduced Ultra HD Blu-ray in Latin America, but since 2020 they’ve stopped releasing discs there altogether. It’s the same in Asia, minus Japan, and they’ve quit in Australia last year. The number of titles released per year is quite constant at about 120 on average. During the pandemic years 2020-2022 the numbers dipped below 100 but by 2023 they were back to the same level as before 2020. That’s what we can conclude from DVD & Blu-ray Report, tracking and reporting numbers of official releases in the U.S., also of Ultra HD Blu-ray since the format’s launch in 2016.

The players

Data from the Consumer Technology Association CTA, reported here in 2020, indicated that Ultra HD Blu-ray player sales had peaked in 2017, one year after launch, and that is just as true today. Sales have not gone back up. One important footnote to the CTA numbers is that these are stand-alone players only. They do not include games consoles with UHD BD playback like PlayStation 5, Xbox One S, One X and Series X, a lot of which have been bought in recent years. As the disc sales prove, however, this has had no noticeable effect on the popularity of the disc format for movies and TV series. Going forward, consoles aren't likely to have much impact on the market. They're not perfect players, and it looks like new models are moving away from integrated optical disc drives step by step. The new smaller PS5 will have an attachable disc drive. With PS5 Pro we don't know anything about its storage media yet, but from what's transpired so far about the Xbox Series X refresh codenamed Brooklin is that it's going to be discless.

Ageing installed base

Another thing we can look at is availability of players. If perhaps you cannot remember when exactly one of the main brands last announced a new player model you're excused, because it is a while ago. Over 5 years, to be more precise. In 2019, at CES, Panasonic launched their entry-level models, DB-UB450 and UB150. The other models they still carry, the UB420, UB820 and UB9000 are even from 2018. The latter model has had a refresh in the form of a Mk II in 2021, only because a specific component, the DAC, had become unavailable and had to be replaced.

Panasonic UHD Blu-ray

Panasonic's complete Ultra HD Blu-ray Player range

All of Sony's models are from 2018, except the update of the 2018 model UBP-X800. The X800 M2 replacement, which had Dolby Vision added, was launched in 2019.

Panasonic UHD Blu-ray

Sony's complete Ultra HD Blu-ray Player range

Whether LG still makes players isn't really clear. They've never announced any withdrawal from the market, like Oppo Digital did in 2018 and Samsung in 2019, but their last players were introduced no less than 6 years ago.

UHD Blu-ray players

Line chart showing when each model of player was launched and phased out

The chart lists some models you may never have seen or been aware of. Funai has produced some players under the Philips, Magnavox and Sanyo brands, likely with very little success, even if some had interesting designs, such as Philips' first model, the BDP7501. The later models were more conventional 'set-top' AV component-style units in full size and compact width.

Philips BDP7501

Philips' BDP7501 Ultra HD Blu-ray Player looked like something between an Apple TV box and a Mac Mini. Photo: Philips

The only new players then to get launched in the past 4 years are from brands you may be unfamiliar with: Pannde, Reavon and Magnetar. These brands (reportedly the same company is behind the latter two) have launched ambitious models that, like Oppo's famous players before them, accept almost every format you throw at them. And while their internals are designed quite differently, they're both aimed at the premium market.

Not much competition

Should you be wondering why the players are still relatively expensive compared to the price levels DVD and BD players reached eventually, it's because there's so little competition. There's mainly Panasonic and Sony left, and maybe LG. Samsung and Oppo have publicly announced they would exit the market, and Pioneer, who've made two of the loveliest players in the business, has quietly ceased product not very long after their launch, reportedly triggered by the shortage of electronic components that happened in 2020 – an effect of the disruption of global supply chains caused by the pandemic. Chinese no-brands have not entered this market and driven prices down, like they have with DVD and to a lesser extent with Blu-ray Disc. If they had, would the market be bigger? Possibly. But the fact they never saw an opportunity here is maybe telling.

Market saturation

So while the Ultra HD Blu-ray format was launched 8 years ago, pretty much all models were introduced within 3 years, with nothing since. Of course, there's a big difference between players and content. Of the latter, one has never enough, but one player will do for most families. So it appears that after some 3 years, most of the demand had been fulfilled, and the addressable market supplied. The market is quite literally saturated. I don't know if the CE brands are actually still manufacturing players or just supplying retailers with stocks they've still got. Does it matter? That's questionable. What's quite sure is that development teams have been dissolved years ago. From 2019 on they stopped developing new models – something that was a recurring annual business process cycle before. Even if they'd want to develop a new model, it'd be hard to get the right resources together. But this is a hypothetical issue. Also read: An 8K disc format is unlikely. Here's why There aren't really any new features to develop. No obvious ones at least. A poll I held about this didn't come up with anything substantial. They most common response was 'multi-region playback', but that's of course something manufacturers aren't really allowed to do.

Market outlook

Can we make the market grow? If each of us manages to 'convert' a friend, neighbor, relative, or colleague, that'll make a significant difference. Especially if they then go on converting their acquaintances, too. Now is the outlook really this gloomy? Maybe not. Since the beginning of this year, there have been numerous articles about renewed interest in physical media collecting, for a wide range of reasons: nostalgia; streaming fatigue; users being unable to find what they're looking for, because of the proliferation of platforms; concerns about streaming services removing titles; fears of content owners tampering with/censoring of titles; the desire to own and hold tangible things; and the urge to curate a collection and preserve great movies for posterity.

A New Hope

It does seem that some studios are waking up to the idea that there's an eager market out there, ready to snap up almost anything they release. There are healthy margins to be made with special collector's editions, Steelbooks, etc., priced appropriately. Disney finally started releasing their new Star Wars and Marvel series – originally developed especially for Disney+ – on disc, only on Ultra HD/Blu-ray, and only in Steelbooks. Also, it hasn't gone unnoticed that quality movies like Oppenheimer can sell out on Ultra HD Blu-ray in no time. Also see: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray database Some have suggested the Ultra HD Blu-ray market is becoming like the vinyl business, and for sure there are parallels here. If the ultimate video disc format has the same kind of longevity, that's great news for all involved.
Yoeri Geutskens works as a consultant in media technology with years of experience in consumer electronics and telecommunications. He writes about high-resolution audio and video. You can find his blogs about Ultra HD at @UHD4k and @UltraHDBluray.

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