Testing: My New 4K Home Theater

By Loyd Case

The process of planning a 4K home theater pipeline.

When the first 4K HDTVs arrived a few years back, I stuck with my tried-and-true LG plasma display and it's seemingly obsolete 1080p resolution. I had several reasons. The industry delivered the first 4K displays using LCD technology, which has problems with black levels and viewing angles. The lack of availability of 4K content proved to be another roadblock. So I waited.

LG delivered its first OLED TV in 2010, a puny 15-inch unit. OLED technology looked like the most promising technology, but scaling up resolution, cost, and limited lifetime of blue OLEDs proved daunting. The advent of "white OLED" – really a sandwich of red, green, and blue which use color filters and sub-pixel switching to generate colors – addressed both cost and lifetime issues. By 2016, LG OLED TVs had dropped from stratospheric pricing to merely very expensive. Sony and Panasonic began using LG OLED panels in their HDTVs.

I still waited.

By 2017, LG HDTVs had started dropping in price. The cost wasn't quite to the point where I would pull the trigger, but the trendline looked clear. So I began planning my 4K home theater pipeline.

It's All About Content

It's been interesting to see how 4K content has been slow in coming until the advent of HDR standards.

Content has historically trailed technology. Color TVs arrived when most of the existing shows used black-and-white. Television remained at a 4:3 aspect ratio even as DVDs moved to support widescreen. HDTVs hit the market long before 1080p content became the default. If the technology is good enough, content hits an inflection point where the new features begin arriving rapidly.

That time is now for 4K HDR (high dynamic range). All of Netflix's new shows are now available in 4K HDR. UltraHD Blu-ray is finally trickling in, with new movies shipping in the new format. It's been interesting to see how 4K content has been slow in coming until the advent of HDR standards. I'd argue that HDR offers a notable improvement in image quality and presence beyond simple resolution scaling. The combination of 4K with HDR can be stunning.

It's this inflection point in content availability plus hardware costs dropping that finally made me jump on the 4K bandwagon.

Starting Point

I had a reasonably high-end high-definition home theater. I say "reasonably" because I didn't have the income nor the room for one of those ultra-fancy projection rooms complete with theater seating. Instead, I have a 15-foot x 15-foot room with a stairway. (I mention the stairway because it helps tremendously with acoustics – a simple square room is the worst thing for tuning home theater audio. The stairway acts as a kind of port, making it easier to tune audio response for the room).

Here's the gear I began with at the start of 2017; I'm not listing speakers as they're not relevant for this.

  • LG Infinia 60PZ750 60-inch, 1080p Plasma HDTV

  • Sony BDPS6200 Blu-ray player

  • Onkyo TX-SR809 7.1 channel receiver

  • Dish Network Hopper satellite receiver

  • Amazon FireTV

All the gear supported HDMI 1.4a, which is pretty much all that's needed for a good 1080p home theater. Most of the content either came through the Dish satellite receiver or the Sony Blu-ray player; the FireTV went mostly unused.

Step by Step

By Spring, I knew that prices of OLED 4K displays would come down to a price I considered affordable. The trigger point, from my perspective, would be $2,500 for a 65-inch unit. I planned to be ready for when that happened, so dropping in a 4K UltraHD TV wouldn't mean a huge cash outlay in other respects. Planning a slow upgrade cycle meant I could also take advantage of sale pricing.

The first opportunity came in March, when I ordered an Onkyo TX-RZ810 7.2 channel receiver for half-price ($690). The RZ810 supports HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2 content protection, enabling pass-through of UltraHD content. This receiver directly supports the HDR10 standard for high dynamic range with Dolby Vision HDR support coming in a firmware update.

I wanted to replace the FireTV streaming box with something more flexible for future use. I watched as various products launched, including the latest Apple TV. I ended up opting for a Roku Ultra, which supports both wired and wireless connections as well as HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2, and 4K HDR. Curiously, though, the device only supports fast Ethernet not gigabit Ethernet, which is something of a disappointment.

I also kept tabs on UltraHD 4K Blu-ray players, which seemed to be slow in coming. The cream of the crop currently is the $549 Oppo, which seemed a little too rich for my blood. The other unit that seemed to garner good reviews was the Sony UDP-X800, the Wirecutter's pick for best all-around UltraHD Blu-ray player. The UDP-X800 only supports HDR10, not Dolby Vision, but that's really good enough since not all UltraHD Blu-ray discs support Dolby Vision. I popped it into my inbox and hit the order button when the UDP-X800 dropped below $200.

The home theater was now prepped for a modern, HDR-capable UltraHD TV. Or so I thought.

OLED Cometh

November 2017. The email arrives in my inbox announcing price drops for LG units on Amazon. Now to pick one.

Anyone who's looked at LG OLED TVs no doubt noticed the plethora of models. Model lines are easy to distinguish: the letter following "OLEDxx" – eg, OLED55C7P – denotes the model line, with "xx" being the panel size. LG has B, C, E, G, and W; higher letters in the alphabet signify higher-end models. The actual panels differ little; E and above use a glass substrate while B and C lines use plastic substrates. Glass supposedly reduce glare, but I was hard pressed to notice any difference in my research.

The very lowest end model appears to be the OLEDB7A. The only significant difference between this and higher end models in the B series and the C series seems to be lack of built-in support for Dolby Atmos. The panels themselves are the same.

In my home theater, the TV is the end of the display chain. Everything connects to the receiver, which acts as the hub. Only one HDMI cable connects to the TV from the receiver. Since the Onkyo TX-RZ810 supports Dolby Atmos, having it the end node would be pointless. I also don't use the TV's smart features.

I bought the OLED65B7A at a little under $2,500 in early November. Late black Friday deals had the price down to under $2,300. Never has such superb image quality been available for so little. People who required a smaller unit could pick up a 55-inch model for under $1,500.

The Whole Chain

I'd carefully planned the elements of my 4K content chain. I had the receiver, UltraHD Blu-ray player, and Roku Ultra, all of which supported HDMI 2.2 and HDR. Nothing could go wrong.

Except that something did go wrong. The Roku, which had been working perfectly with the previous 1080p setup, began flickering like mad, sometimes suffering complete HDMI disconnects. Amazon reviewers of the Roku had complained about this, so I thought I might have chosen badly.

It turned out to be cables. After replacing all my cables with SecurOMax HDMI 2.0 certified cables, everything began working flawlessly. Since these particular cables only cost about $12, I didn't feel particularly put out – just a little embarrassed that I'd forgotten that older HDMI cables might not support HDMI 2.0's higher bandwidth.

Stunned

HDR plus deep black levels at 4K delivers an incredible sense of depth much better than any 3D Blu-ray disc I'd used in my old setup.

Once everything had been properly hooked up, I fired up Stranger Things 2nd season using the Netflix app on the Roku Ultra. I watched the first episode literally open-mouthed. At times, I had to look around to make sure the actors weren't actually in the room with me. HDR plus deep black levels at 4K delivers an incredible sense of depth much better than any 3D Blu-ray disc I'd used in my old setup. UltraHD 4K Blu-ray discs delivered similar reactions: Wonder Woman, Mad Max Fury Road, and The Martian all delivered stunning immersive experiences. But a downside exists: you also see all the defects. For example, I could tell when some shots in Wonder Woman were shot in a studio versus actually being outdoors, which is jarring when the entire scene is supposedly outdoors. Mostly, though, it's all amazing.

Last Step: Cord-Cutting

I've been living with the Dish Network Hopper DVR for several years now. It's been reliable and convenient. It's also expensive. I'd been shelling $137 each month to Dish Network for the privilege of having a satellite receiver with DVR. However, even my brief experience with Roku brought home a salient fact: bundled satellite and cable services are obsolete. I'd initially called up Dish to upgrade to a 4K hopper only to find that the company wanted to up my cost to $145 each month – over $1,700 each year. That's bananas.

I ended up cancelling my Dish service. The only paid services I have now include Netflix (which I'd already been paying), Amazon Prime (not just for TV), Playstation Vue basic (for local channels plus some other cable-exclusive channels), and CBS All Access just because I'm a Star Trek nerd. Oh, yeah, and I'd been donating to the local PBS channel, which allowed me access to the PBS streaming app. Even if you count Netflix and the PBS donation, my total cost is less than $70 – less than half what I'd been paying for bundled satellite service.

So now I'm in 4K HDR heaven, and I'm paying less every month to boot. The only thing I haven't done is fire up the Playstation Pro and see what games look like. Where's that PS4 controller? Gotta go now.