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Ultra high-def TVs get ultra price cuts nine months after debut

Samsung's ultra high-definition TV comes in both a 55- and 65-inch version.
Samsung's ultra high-definition TV comes in both a 55- and 65-inch version.Samsung

Less than nine months after the debut of ultra high-definition TV, the next-generation television format, industry leader Samsung dropped the price of its 55- and 65-inch ultra high-definition TVs by $1,000 and $1,500, respectively. The move follows recent price drops in the same amounts by Sony — one of the first manufacturers to bring ultra high-definition sets to market — for its current 55- and 65-inch models. Toshiba, which has yet to ship an ultra high-def TV set to its dealers, posted a $1,500 price drop according to an authorized dealer website.

Now, instead of paying $7,000 or more for a 65-inch ultra high-definition TV at a time when there’s no broadcast, cable, or disc content available in the format, you can buy one at authorized Sony brick-and-mortar dealer or online for $5,499. In a situation reminiscent of the early days of HDTV, when most viewing consisted of upconverted standard-definition content, TV makers are telling consumers that their respective ultra high-def TVs will upconvert HDTV to the new format.

These screens are the TV equivalent of the iPhone’s “Retina” screen: They have pixels so small they are practically invisible, unless you nearly stick your nose up against the screen. And like those super-high-res screens now found on tablets, phones and computers, these serve a purpose even when the content doesn’t have that native resolution.

Why the sudden price drop?

Here’s the real behind-the-scenes story: The cost of manufacturing an ultra high-def TV isn’t anywhere close to the prices that TV makers are currently charging. Along with premium pricing and a lack of available content, the required transmission standards for ultra high-def TV aren’t yet in place.

Also, the current-generation digital interface found on new ultra high-definition TVs, called HDMI 1.4b, can’t handle signals in the 60 frames-per-second rate used by existing HDTVs. (The next generation of HDMI chips that would make this possible are expected to arrive in early 2014.) And even if you get to see a movie in the ultra high-def format, you’ll need to sit much closer to the screen than the typical 9- to 10-foot viewing distance in order to see all the added detail. (Sony recommends sitting just 3.6 feet from its 55-inch model for an optimal viewing experience.)

All current ultra high-def TVs use LED-lit LCD panels to produce an image with four times as many pixels as current HDTVs: 3,840-by-2,160 resolution versus HDTV’s 1,920-by-1,080 resolution.

Sony, billing its 55-inch ultra high-definition TV as the next step in television picture sharpness, originally offered the new set last April for $4,999, while its comparable-size regular HDTV sells for $2,299. Aside from the resolution boost, the only major addition found on the ultra high-definition is bigger, more powerful attached stereo speakers. 

With high prices and no content, the new format is already struggling for market share. Ultra high-definition TV is clearly too premature and expensive to encourage even higher-end TV buyers to make the leap. Unless you are the type who flies on private jets, or an early adopter who insists on having the latest TV format even before it’s ready for prime time, you can probably understand why consumers are not yet treating ultra high-definition TV like the next-gen iPad or the smartphone-of-the-month.

Not only are ultra high-def transmission standards yet to be implemented, but the only movies available in the new format are from Sony, which is offering a $700 device called a Media Player to download titles and play them.

How many movies can you get today? A whopping 10, with around 100 expected by this Christmas. Want to buy a Samsung, LG or Toshiba ultra high-def TV instead? Sorry, but Sony decided to make its Media Player proprietary, therefore limiting those 10 movies to the buyers of its 55-inch XBR55X900A (now $3,999) and 65-inch XBR65X900A (now $5,499).

Our advice: Wait it out. With LG, Toshiba, Sharp and others planning to soon offer more ultra high-def TVs, we expect to see even further price erosion between now and the Christmas buying season. 

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