At a time when it’s still pretty hard to get much 4K content to watch over the air, Japanese public broadcaster NHK began its regular 8K channel service this weekend, becoming the first broadcaster in the world to do so. As you might expect, I don’t have an 8K TV, an 8K receiver, or the correct satellite dish in order to watch at home — almost no-one in Japan does at this point. But NHK has set up theaters and demo stations at a new mall in Tokyo called Shibuya Stream, appropriately enough, and I went along to see the ultra-ultra-HDTV future for myself.
Much of what NHK is broadcasting falls into the typical TV showroom demo footage category — beautifully detailed slow-panning shots of the Louvre, Sagrada Familia, and Yellowstone, that sort of thing. But the broadcaster did manage to secure one legitimately impressive piece of content for its inaugural day of service: an exclusive 8K version of Stanley Kubrick’s eternal classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It’s hard to imagine better demonstration material, in theory. Most digitally-shot Hollywood movies aren’t even captured in 4K, let alone 8K, whereas you can usually get roughly 4K-equivalent resolution out of a 35mm film scan. 2001 was shot in the much larger Super Panavision 70 format, however, making it an ideal candidate for 70mm prints and now, 8K restoration. It helps that even though it’s 50 years old, it remains one of the most visually stunning movies ever created. I saw an IMAX showing a couple of months ago and was amazed at how well it held up.
An NHK representative told me that the 8K version was scanned by Warner Bros. in the US at what is apparently the sole studio in the world capable of doing so, then sent to NHK for color grading and conversion into the broadcast format. I watched it broadcast live at 1.10PM on Saturday, and I will say it looked vastly better than I would have ever expected 2001 to look on TV. But I wasn’t completely blown away.
Part of that was undoubtedly down to the viewing situation. I was standing just a few feet in front of a roughly 85-inch Sharp LED 8K TV, in a big room with undrawn curtains and a TV to my side blasting out music from a simultaneously broadcast 4K Hatsune Miku concert. This isn’t the most conducive environment to making it through the notorious “Dawn of Man” opening sequence, for example, which I do like but would normally prefer to watch with a comfy chair involved. Also, the TV inexplicably had motion smoothing turned on, which I am truly glad Kubrick was never around to witness.
But more importantly, I didn’t get a ton out of the extra resolution. Granted, I was standing really close to the screen, but if we’re going to be talking about normal living room distances, it’s hard to imagine 8K being noticeable over 4K for most people in that kind of situation, even assuming a lack of broadcast compression. Some scenes in 2001 definitely look crisper than others, something I noticed while watching the IMAX version, and there were moments where the 8K resolution stood out. But there were others where it was barely noticeable. After watching the 8K broadcast, I compared it to the 4K iTunes version at home, and honestly I don’t think there’s all that much to separate them in practice.
At normal viewing distance on my 55-inch 4K TV, the Apple TV 4K version basically out-resolves my (good) eyesight; there are several scenes with text on computer monitors that I’d need to move closer to the TV to be able to read. I’m not convinced that the NHK version’s jump in detail, when it exists, would be enough to outweigh the effect of stretching the image onto such a large 8K TV. When you take bitrate into account, I wouldn’t be surprised if the 4K Blu-ray looked noticeably better overall. (Side note that probably goes without saying: I would love to watch this 8K scan playing off local media.)
It’s debatable whether 8K TVs will ever be a mainstream thing, and it’s hard to see many content creators switching to an 8K production pipeline in the near future. That doesn’t mean the 8K broadcast isn’t impressive or meaningful, though. A future where TV channels can show 4K-quality movies even after taking compression into account is something that will benefit anyone with a 4K TV, which is essentially everyone who’s bought a TV in the last few years and beyond. After all, it’s not like current HD broadcasts come close to the quality of a regular Blu-ray disc.
So with that in mind, I think this is a really cool and important development in broadcast technology, whether or not 8K TVs ever take off. In fact, I think it’s something to look forward to even if you just dropped thousands of dollars on a 4K TV. Around the corner from the Sharp 8K LED set was a smaller 4K Sony OLED TV hooked up to an 8K receiver that was also showing 2001. And you know what? I thought it looked way better than the 8K Sharp, as well as being a far more practical and “affordable” solution for almost everyone’s living rooms.
NHK hasn’t yet made the case that I should buy or even particularly want an 8K TV. But it has demonstrated that over-the-air television broadcasts can look incredible on a 4K TV, which is something everyone can look forward to. It’s also certain to remain the case that if you care about image quality, panel quality is going to trump resolution for all but the most gargantuan of home cinemas.