The case for 4K Blu-ray in a world of streaming

Collage of hand holding a glowing Blu-ray disk.
Cath Virginia / The Verge | Photos from Getty Images

With Christopher Nolan praising the benefits of 4K Blu-ray, is now the time to revisit physical media?

A decade-plus into the streaming revolution, you’d be forgiven for thinking physical media has had its day. Late last year, Best Buy announced it would no longer be selling DVDs and Blu-ray, just months after Netflix got out of the disc rental market that kick-started its business. According to a 2021 report from the Motion Picture Association, global physical media sales more than halved between 2017 and 2021, falling from $14.9 billion in 2017 to $6.5 billion in 2021.

But more recently, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray has been making headlines for a very different set of reasons. The 4K Blu-ray release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer promptly sold out at major retailers just weeks after its director stood onstage to proudly talk about the amount of care and attention that the team was putting into it. Aside from new releases, there’s also been a steady flow of older titles coming to the format. James Cameron is currently in the midst of rereleasing films including Titanic, Aliens, and The Abyss on 4K discs, and last year, Disney reissued Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

It’s probably too early to claim that 4K Blu-ray is leading a vinyl revival-style resurgence of physical media. But these headlines piqued my interest as someone who fondly remembers building a respectable DVD collection as a teenager. “It’s such a good time to get into it right now,” Jeff Rauseo, whose Films At Home YouTube channel specializes in reviewing physical media releases, tells me. “It’s getting a lot of traction.”

So what do I have to gain by re-embracing physical media and getting into 4K Blu-rays? And where should I even start?

Nolan suggests there are at least two different benefits to a 4K Blu-ray disc: AV quality and ownership. “I’m known for my love of theatrical and put a lot of effort into that, but the truth is, the way the film goes out at home is equally important to me,” the director said at a screening last year. “In the case of Oppenheimer, we’ve put a lot of care and attention into the Blu-ray version but also in particular the 4K UHD version and trying to translate the photography and sound that we formatted for the IMAX format, the 70mm releases, and putting that into the digital realm for a version that you can buy and own at home and put on a shelf so no evil streaming service can come steal it from you.”

This ownership aspect is the most indisputable benefit of owning a 4K Blu-ray. Licensing deals mean streaming service lineups are in constant flux, and that’s before you get into the likes of Disney culling first-party titles like Willow from its own Disney Plus service. Even digital titles bought outright aren’t totally safe, as we saw when Sony threatened to pull Discovery content its customers had purchased through the PlayStation Store (even if it didn’t go through with it in the end) or the forthcoming shutdown of the Funimation app and website.

What’s particularly nice about owning a 4K Blu-ray is the sense that it has a good chance of being the final physical release a film might get. Cas Harlow, AVForums’ lead 4K Blu-ray reviewer, doesn’t think he’s going to have to replace all his 4K Blu-rays with 8K discs anytime soon like he had to do with VHS, DVDs, and Blu-rays in the past. “If they do 8K you’re edging past what you can justify,” he says. “We’re talking about [4K Blu-ray] as being probably the end physical format, the final physical format.”

Another advantage 4K Blu-ray discs have is the sheer amount of data they can hold, which allows for a much higher bitrate and, hence, higher-quality picture and audio than a typical compressed stream. But experts I spoke to agreed that at least some of these benefits are less clear-cut than they originally were, as both internet speeds and compression technologies have improved.

In a worst-case scenario, like the original broadcast of the Game of Thrones’ season 8 episode “The Long Night,” the benefits of having a high-quality 4K disc can be obvious. When most people watched the episode, the comparatively low bitrates of broadcast and streaming squeezed out a lot of the finer detail and even created visual artifacts. “It had these gray squares and all this compression happening. It was really hard to make out what was going on,” Rauseo recalls. But watch the same episode with the higher bitrate of a 4K Blu-ray, and the difference is stark (ahem). “I have the 4K disk that if you put that in, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what they were trying to do. That’s the vision. That’s what they saw when they were editing and mixing this.’ TV and streaming just couldn’t handle that with compression.”

But compare a good quality 4K stream with a 4K Blu-ray on a regular TV, and the difference can become difficult to spot. TV reviewer Vincent Teoh, of the YouTube channel HDTVTest, says he personally can’t tell the difference between a disc and a streaming service like Sony’s Bravia Core, which has a bitrate of up to 80Mbps.

“When you have a well-mastered movie that is streaming at a high bitrate from Apple TV or whatever, I think most consumers generally wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” Teoh says. John Clancy, who runs the Movie Collector YouTube channel, argues you really need a projector and a large screen to get the best out of a 4K disc and that, at regular TV sizes, the differences between physical and streaming can be “a little academic.”

It’s a different story when it comes to sound. “In terms of the dynamic range and compression, the 4K Blu-ray will always trump any streaming service out there,” Teoh says. You might not notice the difference from your TV’s built-in speakers, he admits, but it should be apparent when played through any half-decent soundbar or AV receiver.

Aside from the objective benefits, the collectors I spoke to talked about having an almost emotional attachment to their discs. “There’s just something about human nature and collecting and just having a representation of who you are,” says Rauseo, who estimates he has around 2,500 movies in his collection, including roughly 600 4K Blu-rays.

That’s where smaller boutique Blu-ray labels have been able to carve out a niche for themselves with deluxe packages that can often include additional collectibles like books and art cards in the box. Harlow points toward Second Sight Films’ recent rerelease of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a key example of this trend. “What you’re getting there is a classic film that perhaps no one expected to hit 4K, let alone look great in 4K, that’s been given a loving and not controversial restoration and put in a lavish box set,” he says. According to market research firm Circana, the market for collector’s editions like these rose 85 percent to reach $80 million in the 12 months ending March 2023, and boutique label Arrow Films recently told Variety that its US sales increased 72 percent between 2020 and 2021.

Rauseo likens this trend to vinyl, where smaller boutique labels are serving a niche that major studios seem less and less interested in. Alongside Second Sight and Arrow Films, he cites Vinegar Syndrome, Shout! Studios, the Criterion Collection, Umbrella Entertainment, and Via Vision as some of the most interesting labels operating today.

As I quickly found out, if you ask five different physical media fans for the best discs to start a 4K Blu-ray collection, you’re likely going to get five very different answers. So consider the discs listed below an interesting spread of titles that show off what the format has to offer, rather than a definitive ranking of the best of the best. Other frequently recommended 4K releases include Lawrence of Arabia; 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Shining; Blade Runner (The Final Cut); Blade Runner 2049; and interestingly enough, the modern remake of Murder on the Orient Express (which might look a little out of place on this list of cinematic greats, but being shot on 65mm means the 2017 film looks “fabulous,” Clancy says).

Before we get into the recommendations themselves: a quick note on 4K Blu-ray players. If you’ve got a modern game console with a disc drive, whether that’s a PS5, Xbox Series X or S, or even something older like the Xbox One X or S, then you already have an entry-level 4K Blu-ray player on your hands. But stepping up to a standalone model can come with advantages including support for standards like Dolby Vision and a nicer interface based around a traditional TV remote rather than a gamepad. There have also been reports of game consoles and lower-end 4K players having other minor playback issues and struggling to play larger-capacity 100GB discs.

If you’re going dedicated, then the go-to recommendation tends to be the Panasonic DP-UB820. Rauseo says there are lower-cost models in Panasonic’s lineup with cheaper build quality and without Dolby Vision, and Sony has a competing model called the UBP-X800M2, but the Panasonic DP-UB820 ticks basically all the boxes.

Tom Cruise on a motorcycle in Top Gun: Maverick.
Image: Paramount Pictures
Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick.

Top Gun: Maverick

For an example of a modern release that shows off the best the 4K Blu-ray format has to offer, multiple people I spoke to recommended Top Gun: Maverick. “You’re going to be looking at something like that for a demo disc,” Harlow says, pointing to the film’s 6K source material as a key reason for its amazing 4K presentation. “I would think that that’s a good suggestion to someone if they want to pick up one title and go, ‘Yeah, this is what the format is all about.’”

“For a combination of both picture and sound quality, it’s very difficult to beat Top Gun: Maverick,” Teoh says.

4K Blu-ray box of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Image: Second Sight
Second Sight’s rerelease of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

If Maverick shows off what 4K Blu-ray is capable of with pristine source material, Second Sight’s 2023 release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shows what’s possible at the other end of the spectrum. It’s a film “that you never expected to ever look good, that you never expected to have in 4K, landing in a gorgeous box [and] looking spectacular,” Harlow says. Although the limited-edition box set is now out of print, the standard release is still readily available.

Rauseo points out that this isn’t the first time the film has been released on 4K Blu-ray, but Second Sight’s version benefits from a cleaner presentation versus Dark Sky’s US release. If you’re prepared to pay the shipping cost, it’s also a great example of the benefits of 4K Blu-ray’s broad lack of region locking.

Soldier standing on the beach at Dunkirk.
Image: Warner Bros.
Nolan’s use of large-format cameras in films like Dunkirk make for fantastic 4K Blu-ray releases.


If I weren’t careful, I could have ended up with three or more disc recommendations on this list from Christopher Nolan, a director famous for his love of large film formats like IMAX, which Clancy says will often make for the best-looking 4K discs.

“If you look at any of [Nolan’s] last five films,” Clancy says, whether that’s The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet, or Oppenheimer, “you’d be hard pushed to find any 4K disc that looks better than any of them. If you start with the best, you end up with the best no matter how you shrink it down.”

While Dunkirk is my personal favorite of the bunch, Oppenheimer, or any number of the director’s films, would make great entries in any 4K Blu-ray collection.

A promotional image of the movie Jaws.
Image: Universal Pictures
Numerous classic films like Jaws have received beautiful rereleases on the modern format.


Jaws might not have been shot on a large-format film, but for Rauseo, it’s a great example of a film that everybody’s seen but that few will have seen in this sort of detail. “You put that [disc] in and it’s the full 4K restoration at its highest quality,” Rauseo says. “This is without any compression. It’s pristine.”

The Ten Commandments

While a lot of proponents of 4K Blu-ray focus on resolution and detail, Clancy recommends the 1950s classic The Ten Commandments as a film whose colors are the real star. “If you want to see the best Technicolor on 4K, have a look at The Ten Commandments,” Clancy says.

The movie was shot on VistaVision, a film format that debuted in the 1950s that involved shooting horizontally onto 35mm film rather than vertically, resulting in a larger frame size and more detail. But in Clancy’s view, the biggest strength of this release is its rich colors. “You’ve got that rich Technicolor,” he says, “The blackest blacks, the reddest reds, the most light. Well, it was larger than life colors.”

Warner Bros 100th anniversary box set.
Image: Warner Bros.
The Warner Bros. collection includes 30 discs spanning the studio’s century in existence.

Honorable mention: Warner Bros. 100th Anniversary Studio Collection

Is it cheating to include a massive box set on a list of great starter discs for a 4K Blu-ray collection? Probably. Is it annoying that the Warner Bros. 100th Anniversary Studio Collection isn’t readily available in North America and retails for the eye-watering sum of £300 (around $381) in the UK? Firmly, yes. But if you’re prepared to spend the money importing it, then Harlow thinks the recent Warner Bros. box set is a great starting point for a new collector.

Highlights from the set include classics like Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Shining, through to modern audio-visual delights like Mad Max: Fury Road.

“You’re getting a broad spectrum of films that should, arguably, be in everybody’s collection,” Harlow says. “There’s going to be 10 that you would never probably pick up, but you ought to have… and you ought to watch. And there’s going to be 10 which are absolutely on your list. And then there’s going to be 10 which you’re very happy to have.”

I don’t think I’m ever going to have the same relationship with 4K Blu-rays that I once had with DVDs as a teenager. For starters, a lot of the films and TV shows that I’d want to buy (The Wind Rises, Ida, Succession, Fight Club, Zodiac) simply aren’t available in 4K, and it’s difficult to know if they ever will be. And when streaming offers such easy and often affordable access to practically every modern title, it’s hard not to use it to watch a new film that you’re not sure you’ll ever return to.

And yet, I want to find space for at least a few 4K Blu-rays on my shelves. Partly because, yes, I want to know I’m seeing and hearing them at their best. But I also want to make space for my favorite films in a very literal sense. After a decade of renting and streaming, I’ve got little more than a chaotic page of notes in Notion and my own terrible memory to remind me what my favorites have been. Maybe a shelf full of discs will help me change that.