While we were testing our latest batch of 2014 TVs, which includes several new Ultra HD sets, we found out something interesting: Despite having built-in HEVC decoders, not all TVs can play Netflix 4K videos.
Among the TVs that we've tested so far, models from LG Electronics, Samsung, and Sony have been able to play 4K videos from Netflix—basically, the second season of "House of Cards" and "Breaking Bad," plus a few movies. But a TV from another major brand—Panasonic's TC-58AX800U—was not able to play the Netflix 4K streams.
Up to this point, we assumed that all TVs with built-in HEVC decoders—needed to "unlock" the 4K videos that used the codec—would be able to play Netflix 4K streams. HEVC, also called H.265, is a new, more efficient video compression scheme that's being used to send 4K videos, which take up a lot more space, through existing broadband networks at speeds as low as 15 to 16Mbps.
But what we learned is that Netflix has its own certification program that TV manufacturers must pass in order for their TVs to be able to receive Netflix 4K videos. According to Netflix, beyond a TV having an HEVC decoder, its certification program examines things such as picture quality (whether the 4K streams from a particular model look good enough) and whether the TV (and the HEVC chipset it uses) can support a wider gamut of colors. Some manufacturers may start selling TVs before the sets have passed the certification process. Once they do, the software can be updated to deliver 4K Netflix streams if the set passes, but if it's the chipset that is the problem, they may never be able to play Netflix 4K streams.
That appears to be the case with the Panasonic AX800-series TV set we tested, which apparently is using an HEVC chipset that doesn't meet Netflix's certification requirements. We've reached out to Panasonic for confirmation, but haven't yet heard back. We'll update the post if we do get additional information.* Panasonic will be introducing a step-up AX900 series later this summer, so it's possible that those models in that series will support 4K Netflix streaming.
But it's also quite possible that UHD TVs from other manufacturers—especially low-cost secondary brands—may not be able to play 4K Netflix videos, depending on the HEVC chipset they employ. The problem for potential buyers is that there's no way to know if the set can play these higher-resolution video streams until you take the set home.
Consumer Reports plans to test many of these off-brand UHD sets this year, and of course we'll let you know which TVs can't play 4K Netflix streams, since in the short term that will be the main source of 4K content for many. Keep checking back for our latest updates, and make sure you visit our TV Ratings for all the information on fully tested models.
—James K. Willcox
August 7, 2014: A Panasonic representative says that the company is still in the process of securing certification for the AX800 sets.
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