Ultra HDTV, HDMI 2.0, and HDCP 2.2 – Oh, What A Tangled Web We Weave…

A few days ago, I received an email from the president of an AV products manufacturer. He had purchased a Samsung UN65HU8550 65-inch Ultra HDTV back in 2014 and decided to take the plunge into Ultra HD Blu-ray.

Previously, he had been using an upscaling Blu-ray player to achieve 3840×2160 resolution, but now he wanted the real thing. So, he visited his local Best Buy and picked up Samsung’s UBD-K8550 UHD Blu-ray player, took it home, and connected it to one of the HDMI inputs on his UHDTV.

Sounds simple, right? Except that it didn’t work. The UHD disc spun up, started to play, and then a message was displayed that the player would down-convert to 1080p resolution because it didn’t detect support for HDCP 2.2 (the newest and most aggressive form of copy protection for optical disc media).

To him, this made no sense whatsoever. (Me, too!) Here he was, playing an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc, from a Samsung Ultra HD BD player, into a Samsung Ultra HDTV – and it wouldn’t work. I advised him to make sure he was truly using an HDMI 2.0 input (sometimes labeled as such, or color-coded).

He tried all of the inputs, including the MHL input that is supposed to be compliant with HDCP 2.2, but no luck. Again, the disc would spin up, and then display the same error message. (By the way, HDMI 1.3/1.4 inputs can also support HDCP 2.2.)

Another trip to Best Buy resulted in the purchase of Philips’ BDP7501 Ultra HD Blu-ray model, which was then connected to the Samsung TV and – voila! It worked, playing back in true 2160p resolution.  That is; only when connected directly to the Samsung TV, and NOT through his existing Denon AVR (which likely doesn’t support HDCP 2.2 key exchanges on any of its HDMI ports).

Some quick checks on the Internet showed this wasn’t an isolated problem – others had purchased the same TV, or different screen size variations of it, and were unable to watch 4K movies from the Samsung player. One comment I read talked about going so far as to buy an HDCP 2.2 to HDCP 1.4 converter, a product I wasn’t even aware existed. And apparently, it worked! (Warning: This product may be illegal to purchase as it alters a copy-protection process. I’m only providing the URL as a reference.) (http://www.hdtvsupply.com/hdcp-2-2-to-hdcp-1-4-converter.html)

The next step was to check in with my friends at Samsung, who responded that an upgrade kit would fix the problem. It’s called the SEK3500U One Connect Evolution Kit, and attaches to your Samsung 4K TV through a separate connector on the side panel.  This $400 box – which resembles a thin Blu-ray player – provides four HDMI 2.0 inputs, all up to speed with HDCP 2.2 support, HDMI 2.0a compatibility for high dynamic range playback, and improved color rendering, according to several Amazon reviews I read. (https://www.amazon.com/Samsung-SEK-3500U-ZA-Evolution-Kit) Samsung also commented that frame rates may play a part in the problem, as the Blu-ray Disc Association HDR specification for HDMI 2.0a calls for 2160p60 playback with 4:4:4 color, and that using a lower frame rate might fool the UHDTV into down-converting to 1080p resolution.

All of this just confirms my continued advice to my friends and colleagues: “Wait just a little bit longer before you buy a 4K TV.” Too many things are still in a state of flux on the manufacturing side, not the least of which is support for multiple high dynamic range formats. And the issues with HDCP 2.2 support are frankly, just ridiculous at this point: The standard’s been out for a few years, and it will be used exclusively with all HDMI inputs on Ultra HDTVs.

Another takeaway from this is the slow and steady move away from optical disc delivery of 4K movies and TV shows to streaming connections. The protocols for copy protection are a bit different for streaming, but at least the underlying architecture is standard across all platforms (some sort of common streaming protocol like RTSP, carrying MPEG4 H.264 or HEVC H.265 / VP9 with IP headers) and can be easily updated with software.

Given the continual increase in home broadband speeds – especially in metro areas – 4K streaming is fast becoming a realistic option. Granted, the image quality at 15 – 20 Mb/s won’t be as good as a file coming off an optical disc at 100 – 110 Mb/s, but as we’ve seen repeatedly, the vast majority of home viewers continue to choose convenience and price over quality. That may be one reason there are only three Ultra HD Blu-ray players on the market today: How many people are going to spend $300 – $400 – $500 for one?

As I write this, the SEK3500U is on its way, and my colleague will soon be enjoying true Ultra HD movies like he should have been from the start. I suppose the $400 cost is a small price to pay if you’ve already shelled out a few thousand dollars for an Ultra HDTV, but it would irk me to no end to be in that situation. (You know what they say about the “leading” edge often being the “bleeding” edge.)

To summarize; my advice to readers remains the same as it has been. If you are thinking of buying a new Ultra HDTV – like me – WAIT until next spring, or at least until Super Bowl time. Not only will you see lower prices, but you’re more likely to have all of the bugs out of the system – and you’ll be able to score a good deal on a set that can show high dynamic range content, too; certainly supporting two or more of the new HDR formats.

And if you just gotta have an Ultra HD Blu-ray player? Those prices will have come down, too. A quick check on Amazon shows the UBD-K8500 currently available for $317.99, while the Philips BDP7501 will cost you $279.99.  (Panasonic’s DMP-UB900 player wasn’t shipping at the time this article was written.)

Caveat emptor….