Recently, a spate of articles online have suggested that the end of physical Blu-ray disc media is near, largely as a result of the growth in streaming. Much of the fear has been fueled by Samsung's recent announcement that it will no longer sell Blu-ray players in North America; Oppo announced the same in a farewell message on its website just shy of a year ago. But this couldn't be further from the truth.
Samsung originally reported its exit from the Blu-ray market last October, but the news has resurfaced following further confirmation via comment to CNET. "Samsung will no longer introduce new Blu-ray or 4K Blu-ray player models in the U.S. market," the spokesperson said.
This has caused media outlets to jump to the conclusion that Blu-ray is dead. A recent article on Zdnet.com entitled "The end of Blu-ray," suggests that streaming services are the catalyst for Samsung exiting the category in North America. "Samsung," writes the author, "is just beating the rush to the door."
Despite these rumblings, I'm here to tell you that physical Blu-ray disc media is far from being replaced by streaming. Companies like LG, Panasonic, and Pioneer are still making and marketing high-end Blu-ray disc players in North America. Panasonic is seeing tremendous success with its UB9000 and UB820 players, the latter of which will I'll be reviewing soon, while Sony dominates with its mid-market, all-purpose universal players. The Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) cites data from Futuresource Consulting that forecasts a 30% growth in standalone UHD Blu-ray player sales for 2019, up from the already 44% rise in 2018 when compared to 2017. Of those, 15% worldwide are anticipated to be Ultra HD Blu-ray (4K) players, with the share expected to rise another 25% for 2019 (not including sales of the Xbox One gaming console).
Worldwide, the BDA expected we'd see 4.5 million UHD Blu-ray players installed in market worldwide by the end of last year. In total, as at December 2018, there are 40 4K Blu-ray player models available, including 29 UHD Blu-ray players and 11 UHD recorder/player models. While it's unclear of the worldwide divide, it's safe to say that a good portion of these sales are happening in the North American market.
Time and time again, I have to re-iterate that no streaming service anywhere in the world can remotely touch the picture quality of physical discs. At the absolute best, UHD streaming is 25Mbps (Netflix) and can be as low as 15 Mbps (Amazon Prime Video). Compare those numbers to physical media at the range of 108Mbps to 128Mbps. Even on a 65" non-calibrated edge-lit LCD TV viewed from 10 feet away, one can easily detect the inferior quality of the best streaming service. The best 4K streaming video can't beat the quality of regular HD physical media. If you use projection, forget about it. That's not even mentioning that the audio with streaming is inferior to physical media. Many people can't hear, or perhaps even see, the difference. And I can accept that. But for those who appreciate top quality audio and video, Blu-ray discs remain the best choice.
What's more, the selection of 4K content through streaming services is, while constantly growing, still limited. And content doesn't always remain on the services forever: due to licensing, you might find a movie one year, and it's gone the next.
With regards to articles that suggest Blu-ray disc sales are dwindling too, this isn't true either.
Sales of 4K Blu-rays now account for 13% of all total Blu-ray spending, according to the British Association for Screen Entertainment (BASE), and based on data from the Official Charts Company as well as Futuresource Consulting. Overall disc sales were down in the third quarter of 2018, according to DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group. But sales of 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs were up an impressive 68% from the same quarter in the prior year. True, standard Blu-ray sales might be falling, and that might very well be because of the convenience and quality of streaming services. But 4K Blu-rays, and players, are capturing a specific portion of the market. If anything, what might also be contributing to a drop in Blu-ray disc sales is the mere fact that there are fewer purchase-worthy movies available. Why release a 4K disc when the movie is Holmes and Watson that bombed at the box office, and has a 10% score on Rotten Tomatoes?
Blu-ray players from companies like LG and Sony offer features like Dolby Vision, of which hundreds of titles are available on physical media, as well as digitally through iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, and Rakuten (EU). Samsung, on the other hand, supports the HDR10+ format instead for its players. Several providers have offered support for HDR10+, including 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, and Rakuten TV, but limited titles have been released. Many studios say they will begin offering HDR10+ content later this year on disc, via digital, or both. The format is relatively new, and it takes time to build up a content library for any format. But by comparison, more than 100 UHD Blu-ray disc titles already support Dolby Vision, with many more coming soon, including Oscar-nominated films like Mary Queen of Scots (February 26), and box office hits like Creed II (March 5) and Bumblebee (April 2).
Beyond just playing back Blu-ray discs, many sleek players work as entertainment hubs for your living room as well, and boast attractive designs with affordable pricing that makes them a viable alternative, or companion, to streaming. Samsung might be making a move to put all of its eggs into the streaming basket in North America, including its latest partnership with Apple for iTunes integration in its smart TVs. (Could this also include integration with Apple's long-rumoured streaming service as well?) But that doesn't signal the end to the category itself.
Sure, there have been many times in the industry when streaming has overtaken physical media. Music CDs and traditional movie DVDs are the most obvious examples. But many physical formats still remain. There's a reason we're seeing a resurgence in vinyl: people appreciate good-quality, clean and rich sound. And the same goes for 4K Blu-ray. Sure, you can stream a movie in 4K from a streaming service, and it will look fantastic. But you won't get the same experience you would with a physical disc, in the same way that listening to a high-quality streaming tune on Spotify, while great, isn't going to evoke the same emotions as pulling out the LP and spinning it on a turntable.
Bottom line: don't believe the hype, and stop being a Chicken Little. The sky is not falling, and Blu-ray disc players and media aren't going anywhere.