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The Brilliance and Growing Pains of AT&T’s DirecTV Debut of the Masters in 4K

Could we actually be getting the 4K signal? I watched with baited breath until 10:30 at which point the screen was filled with the live coverage. I clicked on the source info screen on the Sony projector to confirm that it was indeed receiving 3840x2160.

The Masters golf tournament has always done things a bit differently. First, it has the fewest commercial interruptions of any sporting event—or regularly televised program—on TV. Second, the Masters is very selective over who gets to advertise during those brief spots, limiting to just three “sponsors,” currently IBM, Mercedes, and AT&T. Back in 2010, the Masters also was one of the first major sporting events to be broadcast in 3D. And this year, on the 60th anniversary of its first live telecast, the Masters pulled out the stops to become the first-ever 4K Ultra High Definition broadcast in the U.S.

Thanks to AT&T and DirecTV, viewers could finally enjoy the full majesty of Augusta’s famed “Amen Corner.” For the first time the millions unable to attend the event in person could fully appreciate all of the elevation changes, flawless manicuring, blooming azaleas, and treacherous breaks on the lightning fast greens. Amen Corner consists of holes 11 (White Dogwood), 12 (Golden Bell), and 13 (Azalea) and make up three of the most famous—and challenging—stretch of holes in all of golf.

Enjoying 8 million pixels of golf’s most hallowed ground required subscription to DirecTV’s Ultimate or Premier package (with an authorized 4K customer account), a new UHDTV that supports a minimum of 60 fps with an HDMI 2.0 interface that also supports HDCP 2.2, and a 4K Genie Mini set-top box connected to DirecTV’s new Genie HD DVR (model HR54). (Owners of DirecTV 4K Ready TVs from Samsung, LG, or Sony that subscribe to the proper tier were also set.)

The 4K coverage was broadcast on DirecTV channel 106 and lasted nearly 8 hours—from approximately 10:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.—all four days of the tournament.

With Augusta, GA just a little over three hours away, golf is a pretty huge deal here in Myrtle Beach, SC. Our showroom has a DirecTV dealer account, so I wanted to capitalize on this exciting event and hopefully draw in some curious viewers and be able to demonstrate the answer to, “How long until broadcasters start showing things in 4K?”

I contacted our local DirecTV supplier, Mac from Satellite Service Center, and he ordered a new HR54 Genie and 4K Genie Mini for our showroom. We had initially planned on connecting the 4K Mini to a new Sony XBR75X850D TV, but unfortunately the set didn’t arrive in time. Instead—and even better—we connected it to our VPL-VW365ES front projector and prepared to show the Masters in 100 inches of 4K glory.

Mac installed the receiver on Wednesday, the day before Round 1 coverage was set to begin. Unfortunately, after Mac called DirecTV to activate our account, our receiver still displayed a message that it wasn’t authorized for 4K content. Mac called DirecTV back and—bizarrely—was told that no showroom systems were going to be authorized to receive the 4K broadcast.

Bummed, we kind of wrote off watching the Masters in 4K, but the next morning when I came in to work, I tuned to channel 106 and saw this:

Could it be?!? Could we actually be getting the 4K signal? I watched with bated breath until 10:30 at which point the screen was filled with the live coverage. I clicked on the source info screen on the Sony projector to confirm that it was indeed receiving 3840×2160.

So…how did it look?

To be honest, at first we weren’t super impressed. While I could never confirm what kind of cameras were being used, what the signal path was, or what compression was being used, the image didn’t really appear much different than the regular HD broadcast. This is probably because we were really used to watching a lot of “true” UHD Blu-ray-quality 4K images on the projector from a Kaleidescape Strato; those images set a pretty high bar. Later in the day, however, when I could switch between the 4K channel and the HD channel and see the same images, it was clear that the 4K channel added significantly more fine detail. This was especially noticeable in distant objects and the fine detail around edges. Here is a full screen shot of the 4K screen:

And the same shot from the HD channel:

Here are the same images side-by-side, with 4K on the left, kept full-size but cropped in on Jason Day:

Here is a close-up of the crowd and stand detail in the background in 4K:

And the same image in 1080:

And, again, the same images side-by-side with 4K on the left, kept full-size but cropped in tight:

It was pretty clear that there was a shift in the color space, with the 4K images looking more “natural” but the HD images looking more saturated and a deeper green. This was likely the 4K channel pushing the projector into a different color space, but whether it was correct or not just shows some of the early growing pains that we’ll face with 4K.

As you switched back and forth between the two channels, and especially if you went up closer to the screen, things were definitely sharper and clearer. This definitely became more noticeable after you were aware of it, as your eyes would then start hunting out all of those fine, micro details that 4K can resolve that HD just can’t.

As soon as we saw that we were able to show the Masters in 4K, I went out and threw this up on our marquee to take advantage:

Was the 4K broadcast a game changer? Did it bring in a lot of people to see it? Well, turns out I didn’t get to show it to anyone; my wife was sent to the hospital on Friday morning, and then induced into labor on Saturday evening. Our family will remember this Masters as the year that we welcomed Audrey Elize Sciacca into our family: