It might be the ultimate upgrade: an 84-inch television with four times the clarity of a typical high-definition model.
And it can be yours — for the price of a four-door sedan.
Sony’s $25,000 Ultra high-definition stunner, aka “4K TV,” heralds a new hope for a languishing electronics market. The past decade saw phenomenal TV sales when consumers ditched their weighty analog consoles for thinner, lighter digital wall panels. In fact, Americans made a faster switch to HDTV than to color TV, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. But the consistent run-up of TV sales ended in 2011. Shipments fell by 11 percent during the first quarter of 2013.
Now the industry is trying to bring early adopters — those high spenders who thrive on the latest and greatest technology — back into showrooms with the ultimate 7-footer. Retailers are hoping that once consumers are done gawking at what a $25,000 TV looks like, they’ll at least want to supersize with a slightly more affordable 50- to 65-inch Ultra high-def TVs costing between $1,100 and $7,000.
“4K technology is the next wave for premium TV,” said Veronica Thayer, analyst for consumer electronics and technology at IHS Market Research.
Best Buy, the world’s largest consumer electronics retailer, is one of many in the industry hoping that the extra size and pixels in the Ultra will reverse the decline in television sales. Many new larger-size models from Sony, Samsung and LG feature twice the number of pixels to create a picture so crisp and real that it looks like it could walk out of the set.
“The 4K, or Ultra high-definition technology, is the major development we see,” said Amy College, Best Buy’s vice president of merchandising for home theater and digital imaging.
The 4K’s clarity made it the star of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, producing much-needed star power in the market place.
Whether that’s the nudge consumers are looking for is difficult to say. David Strasser, a retail analyst with Janney Capital Markets, said it’s too soon to know if clarity will be the game changer.
“It depends on whether people see the clarity change as incremental or substantive,” said Strasser. “Most people are generally content with their current TVs.”
Tommy Densinger of Edina one of them. The 16-year-old’s family is pretty happy with their 60-inch Pioneer Elite plasma. “The eye can only see so much high definition,” he said. “At some point, it becomes a waste of money.”
Still, larger screen sizes are catching on. TVs 50 inches or larger saw a 72 percent sales increase in the first quarter compared to 2012, according to IHS.
The 42-inch HDTV that was once considered big league is entry level by today’s standards, said Louis Ramirez at Dealnews. “Manufacturers and retailers are pushing us to make 50- or 60-inch sets the new standard,” he said. That means that the 42-inch TV is moving from the living room to the bedroom and a 50-inch or larger screen is replacing it.
Concerns beyond price
Even if consumers can see a noticeable difference in Ultra high definition, the big sets still have other hurdles to get past. Currently, they don’t have a lot available content to show off.
No cable or satellite companies are broadcasting in Ultra HD, and it’s anyone’s guess when that will change.
Ultra TVs will convert regular high-definition programs from cable or Blu-ray, but the quality will be compromised compared with native 4K content.
Pixel geeks who want to show off their toys’ heavenly hues have to buy a media server for about $700. It will provide preloaded content with an odd assortment of movies such as “Karate Kid,” “That’s My Boy,” “Bad Teacher,” and “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Additional content is supposed to be available in the fall.
But even if it takes time, most experts expect the higher resolution to become part of a standard television package that will include 3-D and Internet TV.
And those prices in the $5,000, $7,000 or even $25,000 range? Expect those to change as soon as all manufacturers release their own version of 4K. “Manufacturers don’t want to repeat the same mistakes they made with 3-D,” Ramirez said.
In 2010 consumers were paying twice as much for 3-D as a standard set of the same size, but they also had to choose between active or passive 3-D glasses. Consumers weren’t sure which 3-D glasses would become the standard, Ramirez said, so they hesitated. The clincher came when consumers realized there was no 3-D content yet.
4K already has more content than 3-D, and Sony and Netflix are promising more soon.
As for sticker shock, Ramirez said that prices will quickly drop. Seiki just debuted a 50-inch Ultra set for $1,100, which will put pressure on Sony, LG and Samsung to come down as well.
John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633