Making the Switch to 4K
We made the leap to 4K television in our home. Even though there isn’t a whole lot of content available at this time, we were looking forward and now is the time to strike because the end of February is the end of the “model year” for televisions. At the beginning of March, you will start to see 2018 models come out in stores and the prices will be 2 or 3 times more than the 2017 models are at the end of February. So, we took advantage of the sales put in place to reduce stock at our local Best Buy and made the leap into 4K.
We did a lot of research about the model of television we were looking at, but as we meandered through the journey into 4K, we found there were many more things aside from just the television that needed to be taken into account. Since we spent many hours traveling back and forth to Best Buy (and other stores), I thought I would write down a few notes to share with others so it might save them some frustration. When you feel like it’s time to upgrade your TV, make sure you take certain things into consideration.
When we were looking into televisions there were three big features we definitely wanted:
- Smart TV Capable — We wanted an instant connection to services like Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and Netflix without having to use an outside source.
- 4K HDR — 4K has also been called ‘Ultra HD’ or ‘UHD’. It has been available for a few years, but since HDR has been included the picture quality has improved dramatically and there is a whole new depth to the video that you see on the screen.
- Upscaling — Since most of our content isn’t going to be natively 4K, we wanted to make sure that the TV had a strong enough processor to upscale an HD signal.
The television we settled on was the Sony X850E. It is an LED television with 4K Ultra HD and HDR. It’s a smart TV with the Android TV operating system and it has the Sony X1 4K HDR Processor built in so that all your video is upscaled to near 4K HDR quality.
Input Devices — Where your content is coming from
As it happens, our main video sources were not 4K compatible and even though we decided on a television that would upscale the video signal, we still had some fundamental decisions to make regarding our input devices. Everyone’s situation may be different, but for us, we have three main external video sources — Apple TV, Xbox One, and DirecTV DVR Set Top Box.
We made the decision to upgrade our Apple TV to an Apple TV 4K and then we upgraded our Netflix account to the 4K compatible version so that we had that as an option for viewing 4K content.
The Xbox we determined wasn’t worth upgrading at this time because the options available are the Xbox One S or the Xbox One X. The ‘S’ version only provides an option for ‘streaming’ in 4K. It will upscale 1080p games to 4K, but it’s not a ‘true’ 4K console. If you want the real 4K gaming experience, you would need to upgrade to the ‘X’ model, which is twice the cost of the Xbox One S. We determined that for our situation it didn’t make sense to spend the additional $230 for an Xbox One S just for streaming content when we would be getting that through the Apple TV 4K and our new smart TV.
When it comes to DirecTV, you do have options for upgrading to their 4K service. This, however, comes at an additional monthly charge and at this time, they only offer a handful of channels that push out a 4K signal. When we reached out to DirecTV to inquire about upgrading the equipment and plan, we were told that they would require us to sign a new 2-year contract and we ultimately decided that we would rather remain outside of a contract. Since their offerings are poor, this seemed like the much more logical decision than paying for a higher monthly bill, new equipment, and a 2-year contract. Depending on your current cable/satellite status and provider, you might be able to get a better upgrade option, but be aware that content isn’t readily available and it might make the most sense for you to continue with your current service.
Network Speed — How Fast Your Content Will Load
Along with the external input devices, you have to consider your network speed. Some sources recommend at least a 25 MB/s or higher internet connection. I would personally recommend at least 30 MB/s. Our internet connection at home is 100 MB/s and we have a mesh WiFi network (Netgear Orbi) set up. The reason the internet speed is so important is that most of the 4K content available is streaming and not broadcast. So, your main sources of content will end up being services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
Even though we have a hearty networking speed natively and a strong WiFi signal throughout the house, we still experienced some lag and artifacting when we attempted to view 4K content through both the TV and the Apple TV 4K. This was even more prevalent when someone in the household was actively using a WiFi-connected device (a laptop browsing the internet for instance). Again, our home networking and bandwidth is designed a bit differently than others. We have more than 30 smart devices actively in use in our home as well as multiple mobile phones, tablets, and computers. So, bandwidth in our house is stretched. If you are single, or even a family of four, but with limited connected devices, a 30 MB/s WiFi network may work just fine.
We ultimately decided to add an Ethernet hub to our living room entertainment system so that our internet hungry devices could have an Ethernet hookup rather than WiFi. After we made that connection, our signals were much clearer and artifacting was much less of a problem.
Connectivity — How It All Fits Together
Some people might consider this category the same as networking, but for our house, it is about the actual cables and connections you are using. First, I’ll discuss the cables.
HDMI vs. HDMI 2.0 (4K)
I’m not going to go into too much depth here, but there isn’t a huge difference between HDMI and HDMI 2.0. If you have purchased newer HDMI cables within the past few years, as long as they are in working order and ‘high speed’, you may not need to upgrade to the new shiny HDMI 2.0 cables that salespeople will try to insist you need. In our case, our HDMI cables were not new and we wanted to ensure that we had high-speed cables for our TV/receiver connection and TV/Apple TV 4K connection. HDMI 2.0 cables raised the maximum capacity from 10.2 GB/s to 18 GB/s. Not a huge bump but enough to upgrade if you haven’t for a while. Because the signal from the Xbox and the DirecTV boxes were not 4K, we did not upgrade those cables. If you are looking for more information about the differences in the cables, check out this article from Crutchfield.
HDMI vs. Digital Optical for Audio
After we decided on our video connections, we looked at our audio options. We have a 5.1 surround sound system using the Klipsch Quintet speakers with a 350W Klipsch subwoofer. We decided to keep these same speakers as they perform admirably with any type of audio source. When we purchased these speakers, we also invested in an audio/video receiver from Denon (AVR-1912). That receiver is a workhorse and I do recommend it for anyone with an HD setup. It can carry 7.1 surround sound and 3D video formats. At first, we weren’t going to upgrade our receiver, but once we really dug into the setup, we discovered that in order to have the best picture quality with the control we wanted for each input device, we really needed to upgrade the receiver as well. We ended up with another Denon, the AVRS530BT, a 4K Ultra HD and 3D pass-through receiver.
At first, we plugged the video from all our devices into the receiver and sent the video signal from the receiver to the TV using an HDMI cable. The problem we discovered with this is that the smart TV functions controlled by the remote control would not function properly as the input devices were all coming into the same input on the TV. In order for us to regain control over the inputs, we had to isolate them into their own input on the TV and then take the audio source out to the receiver for the surround sound speakers. So, then we were faced with another decision — digital optical or HDMI for audio. Both cables carry digital audio signals, but the optical cable as the limitation of only supporting up to 5.1 channels whereas HDMI supports Dolby Digital Plus (up to 8 independent substreams), DTS HD (up to 7.1 channels), and Dolby TrueHD (up to 8 discrete channels) formats. So, even though we currently only have a 5.1 system, we felt our decision was clear — use HDMI for audio connections.
Universal Remote — Not All Remotes are Created Equal
When we first began using our new Sony 4K television, we found that you could program your input devices to the remote. Don’t let this fool you. The remote is not universal. We found out very quickly that while you can operate basic functions (on/off, volume up/down, channel up/down), that the TV remote is by no means a universal remote. We were concerned about losing valuable Smart TV functions if we switched to a true universal remote (we loved the Netflix button), but ultimately, we had to do it in order to have the control and functionality we wanted from all the devices in our setup.
Prior to this setup, we had a Logitech Harmony Ultimate One remote. Over the years, unfortunately, it is now showing its age and we’ve had some connection problems with it. So, we upgraded to the Logitech Harmony Elite Universal Remote. With this acquisition, we discovered just how nice the Logitech Harmony hub system can be. You really can control not only your entertainment devices but also other smart home products in your house. We have Philips Hue bulbs that are compatible. So, we can now have the light bulb buttons on the remote turn off lights in our living room when they cast a glare on the TV. The trick with the Harmony system is to spend some time and think out how everything works together. It might actually help if you draw out a roadmap for yourself if you are a visual person.
If you stuck through the entirety of this article, I applaud you. Navigating through the world of home entertainment can be a frustrating process. Even though we had been through this before, technology has improved leaps and bounds since that time and we had brand new elements to consider. My suggestion is to really think things through and come up with a plan before you even look at specific devices. We started this journey with the intent of upgrading our TV. We thought, “Hey, let’s go look at TVs.”
As soon as you have that thought, you should stop and consider what your setup might look like with that upgraded technology. At that point, you can make decisions about the equipment you need and then you can find the actual pieces you want. The process will be much less frustrating and you can be much more efficient. The way we did it — piece by piece — caused us to make several trips to Best Buy and rewire devices multiple times. Our result has been amazing as we now have an entertainment system that works together and will even respond to voice assistants (depending on how it’s programmed). If you are considering a new home entertainment setup, save yourself a headache and plan ahead.
FINAL HOME ENTERTAINMENT SETUP
Originally published at macsources.com on March 6, 2018.