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Finding the Elusive AV Receiver that Supports 4K-Caliber Copy Protection

HDCP. Have there ever been four letters that have caused a larger collective shudder from custom integrators everywhere?

HDCP. Have there ever been four letters that have caused a larger collective shudder from custom integrators everywhere? It works… It doesn’t work… It works again… Often there is no rhyme, reason, or understanding as to why.

To make matters more vexing, there is a new version of this copy protection algorithm–called 2.2–that will be required for displaying UHD video content, and if any part of the signal chain is not HDCP 2.2 compliant then there will be no 4K picture. Adding to the confusion is that products can be HDMI 2.0 certified but not include HDCP 2.2.

As integrators we are expected to be at the forefront of information for our clients, and yet the whole HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 issue is very confusing and nebulous. I have gone out of my way to research it, talked to industry experts, read spec sheets and chipset white papers, and I’m still not 100 percent certain on all aspects and intricacies of it.

The bottom line is that HDCP 2.2 is about protecting 4K content, and for a 4K image to work, it will have to pass through a chain of HDCP 2.2-certified and hand-shaking components. While there is currently only one true 4K source on the market–the Sony media player–there are more on the horizon. For instance, the new 4K Joey from DISH is expected to be available this summer, 4K Blu-ray players will start appearing later this year, and ultimately we’ll witness the arrival of new cable boxes and 4K media players from Apple TV, Roku, and others. And if you want to view this 4K content, every device in your video chain must have HDCP 2.2.

One thing I found out is that there is a real shortage of audio/video receivers that support HDCP 2.2 in the 4K ecosystem. And because the receiver is the connection hub for virtually every system that we install and is frequently relied on to send video to the display via a single HDMI cable, this is going to be the inevitable shortcoming in systems in the months to come.

To get some information about what is here and what is coming I reached out to multiple AV receiver manufacturers to ask which–if any–of their current receivers support HDCP 2.2, how many HDCP 2.2 inputs/outputs those models have, and if no models are currently available, when we will see the first models that do support HDCP 2.2?

Here’s what they had to say:

Anthem product manager Nick Platsis, stated that none of his company’s current products use HDCP 2.2 but that it is looking forward to providing support for 4K60 in 4:4:4 and BT2020 “once the dust settles and UHD Blu-ray appears.”

“The minimum HDCP 2.2 requirement doesn’t cover all of the above and shopping by version number alone can lead to disappointment,” Platsis stated.

At Denon and Marantz, no models currently support HDCP 2.2, either, although parent company D+M Group will be offering a free hardware upgrade to its flagship Denon AVR-X7200W and Marantz AV8802 products in the spring.

“[The upgrade will be for] all inputs except for the front [panel HDMI] in,” explained Paul Belanger, product manager, D+M Group. “And this is not the color/bandwidth limited 4K/2.2 input that you find on [some existing] products; this is full spec 4K60@4:4:4 color with HDCP 2.2. New D&M products (yet to be announced), shipping later this year will incorporate HDCP 2.2.”

The current range of Harman Kardon AVRs does not support HDCP 2.2. Some models are HDMI 2.0 certified but without HDCP 2.2. The AVR 1610S and AVR 1710S offer HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 1.4. The brand’s next-generation product, however, will support both HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2, even if it is a bit early to provide an accurate date on availability of next generation.

“The first product will be a Soundbar, which we’re expecting to release in fall 2015 with other products following,” said Emmanuel Millot, director of home product marketing for Harman International. “As you probably know there are currently no source players available with 4K, HDCP 2.2 content, and this should not happen before the end of 2015, best case.”

Krell’s Foundation 4K UHD has four HDCP 2.2 inputs out of 10 total and two HDMI outputs. “We can handle 1080p60 4:4:4 with 12-bit Deep Color or 4K 60Hz 4:2:0 with 8-bit color (this is for any input, HDCP 2.2 is a separate issue),” stated Bill McKiegan, president, Krell Industries. “HDMI 2.0 specifies a maximum resolution of 4K 60Hz 4:4:4, but no parts exist yet to handle that (it’s twice the bandwidth of the current parts).”

Meridian currently does not offer anything that is HDMI 2.2 compliant.

“HDMI is still an evolving technology from a hardware (and firmware) standpoint,” stated Ken Forsythe, VP, Meridian America. “This is one of the reasons why Meridian developed its architecture of keeping HDMI outboard, with the HD621 HDMI audio processor, from the surround controller. This enables Meridian to make future changes and enhancements to the HDMI hardware (improving audio and video over HDMI) in a system without changing the entire surround controller product. While there is quite a bit of buzz around the potential benefits of HDMI 2.2, until we see real sources and implementation, we are cautious of committing clients’ money to an evolving technology.”

Greg Stidsen, director of technology and product planning for Lenbrook International said that with the ever-increasing speed of innovation, “premature obsolescence” is on the minds of many customers looking to upgrade their AV systems. NAD’s chassis design–called Modular Design Construction–allows all major digital circuits to be replaced to add new features and capabilities, enabling an easy and affordable upgrade path. A prime example of the benefits of MDC would be the current fast evolution of HDMI and its companion copy protection HDCP, Stidsen contends.

“NAD has taken the position that rather than rushing an ‘incomplete’ 4K video solution, we will wait a little longer for the correct semiconductors and finalized firmware before offering our complete solution as an MDC Upgrade. When the Upgrade Module is available, owners of older NADs can also benefit by upgrading their existing AVR to HDMI 2.0. Customers purchasing our flagship AVP, the M17, have a coupon entitling them to a free upgrade when the new MDC Module ships later in 2015.”

Kevin Brannan, director of marketing for Onkyo USA Corp., offered that the following product models are all HDCP 2.2 compliant, each with one HDMI input (STB/DVR) and one HDMI output (OUT MAIN): Onkyo – TX-NR636, TX-NR737, TX-NR838, TX-NR1030, TX-NR3030, PR-SC5530, and HT-S7700; Integra – 30.6, 40.6, 50.6, 60.6, and 70.6, and pre-amp DHC-80.6.

Outlaw Audio has one processor, and it does not have HDCP 2.2. However, the company is working on a step-up processor that will have Atmos, DTS-X, HDMI 2.0, and HDCP 2.2. The number of inputs is still up in the air because of the limited availability of just-announced chips.

“This is a moving target (like so many other announced technologies),” said Outlaw Audio president Peter Tribeman. “Our schedule is ‘later in the year’; it is not imminent.”

The majority of Pioneer’s current AV receivers support full bandwidth (18Ggbps) HDMI 2.0; however, they do not support HDCP 2.2, according to Chris Walker, director product planning and marketing at the company. “Moving forward, Pioneer understands the need to support both full bandwidth HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 for compatibility with next-generation 4K sources and upcoming video technologies, such as high dynamic range and expanded color gamut,” he said. “Full details on our new lineup will be announced in the next few weeks.”

There are no current Rotel products that support HDCP 2.2, but Doug Henderson, president of B&W Group North America believes that CES 2016 is a solid target for a first offering. “Our view is that without sources it’s still a non-issue,” he said. “The presumption, as well, is that future 2.2 sources will have dual outputs to maintain backward compatibility.”

According to Samantha Albright, who offers consumer and brand marketing for Sony, the following models are currently on the market and support HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2: STRZA1000ES (1 in/1 out), STRZA2000ES (1 in/1 out), STRZA3000ES (2 in/2 out).

“We just announced two more models at CES–STRDN860 and STRDN1060 that will support HDCP 2.2, and both models will have 1 in/1 out, as well as three new soundbar models–HS-ST9, HT-NT3, HT-CT780–that will be available in Spring 2015,” she said.

Currently there are no Yamaha receivers that are HDCP 2.2 compatible, and McIntosh did not respond to an information request.

Several manufacturers–and multiple internet forums–have pointed out that while some currently available receivers are touting both HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2, these models are using a chipset only capable of supporting a lower bandwidth of 10.2Gbps (similar to HDMI 1.4) and not the full, maximum 18Gbps capability of HDMI 2.0. Specifically, these chips won’t be able to handle 4K/60 with 4:4:4 color sampling, but are held to a bandwidth-limited 4:2:0 color space.

Beyond any potential future sources that may or may not utilize the full 18Gbps bandwidth–such as 4K Blu-ray players that will support high dynamic range and the BT.2020 color gamut as part of the spec–there is a source out right now that does: the Pioneer Elite BDP-88FD. This new flagship Blu-ray player’s video processor upscales content to Ultra HD 4K resolution (4K/60P/4:4:4/24-bit), and the upscaled video is output utilizing HDMI 2.0’s full 18GBPS bandwidth.

Because the most commonly used HDCP 2.2 chip right now is the Silicon Image SiL9679, I reached out to them to ask about the chip’s capabilities and what would be coming on the horizon.

“The SiL9679 supports 4K resolutions that include 4K2K 24, 25, and 30 frames per second,” stated Kristin Uchiyama, senior manager, global communications, Silicon Image. “In these resolutions, color support is 8-bit RGB/YCbCr 4:4:4, as well as 8/10/12-bit YCbCr 4:2:2. 4-K2K 50 and 60 frames per second color support is 8-bit 4:2:0. These are in addition to all of the standard 480/525/720/1080p resolutions that people have used for years.

“Our [new] SiL9777 [chip] supports the full 18Gbps rate of HDMI 2.0, which adds support for 4K 50/60. In these resolutions, color support is 8-bit RGB/YCbCr 4:4:4, as well as 8/10/12-bit YCbCr 4:2:2, and the 8-bit 4:2:0 mode,” Uchiyama added.

Because many of the comments about current model limitations specifically mentioned Onkyo and Integra, I felt I would give a representative of those brands a chance to shed some light on their decision to go with this chip. “The chipset we use allows for HDMI 2.0, HDCP-2.2 copyright protection and Color Space 4:2:0,” stated Brian Sandifer, product manager for Onkyo and Integra. “We chose this chipset because all three of these actually exist and are now needed in the consumer Ultra HD space, and this is the only chipset that will support all three that is currently available in the marketplace.

“So when HDCP-2.2 content is streamed through our AVR, it will result in both picture and sound; assuming of course that the display device is HDCP-2.2 compliant,” Sandifer continued. “Color Space 4:4:4 can eventually exist in the consumer space, but there is no content in existence to support it. If and when it ever does materialize (ie: ‘Deep Color’ for Blu-ray was in the spec but has never materialized) you will still, of course, need to be HDCP-2.2 compliant for the content to pass in full resolution, and you will have the option to turn off the 4:4:4 colorspace if devices down the line cannot support it (unlike HDCP 2.2, which you cannot turn off). Some other products are touting color space 4:4:4 capable. But, without being HDCP-2.2 compliant and with no content to support it, it is a bit of a moot point.”

Sony’s current product offerings are similarly bandwidth limited and the company’s senior product marketing manager for home audio, Aaron Levine, weighed in on this as well. “We want to point out what will determine what type of content is available to consumers is not just HDMI 2.0 but copyright protection with HDCP 2.2,” he said. “It is unlikely that copyrighted protection will utilize the full 4K60P bandwidth in the near future due to bandwidth (file size) and production (film) issues. Also, the chip sets currently in the market only offer HDMI 2.0 (HDCP 2.2) 10 Bit 4:2:2 4K 60P. Our receiver line-up features exactly the content bandwidth that is needed today and in the near future to maximize the experience from both broadcast, movie streaming, and disc capabilities.”

Levine noted that Sony’s 4K media player, FMP-X10, supports a wider color space and HDMI 2.0 but does not support the full BT2020 color space and high dynamic range. “Our line-up features the specs that are actually needed to support content today,” he said.

Sandifer added that it’s a bit too early to discuss the specifics of next-generation AV receivers. “Typically we are fortunate enough to be on the forefront of new technology, hardware, processing, etc.,” he said, “so I would expect the same this year as new models start rolling out in a few months. We typically start rolling out entry-level products in March-April and transition the rest of the line over the next few months, culminating in the release of our top-end models in summer/fall.”

While some manufacturers are hoping to dodge the HDCP 2.2 bullet by leaning on sources that will have dual outputs–one HDCP 2.2 for sending HDCP 2.2-protected video directly to the display, and another for sending non-HDCP 2.2 audio to the receiver–a la the Sony FMP-X10 server and the way some Blu-ray players handled 3D video, it’s clear that this won’t be the case for every source. For example, the upcoming 4K Joey from DISH will only include a single HDCP 2.2 HDMI output.

Compounding the potential problem is that an upgrade to HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 won’t be something that can be handled by a simple firmware or software update. It will require significant amounts of new hardware and would be an update that likely wouldn’t be able to be performed in the field. Beyond Denon and Marantz–which are offering complimentary upgrades for customers purchasing the company’s respective flagship models–and NAD, whose unique Modular Design Construction allows for “cards” supporting new features to be easily added–no company has made any mention of an upgrade path short of purchasing a new model. In fact one manufacturer told me that it would cost them around $350 per unit to perform an upgrade. On the upside for retailers and dealers, this means that every receiver and processor currently on the market is about to become obsolete. On the downside, expect some awkward conversations from any customer that purchased a high-end piece recently.

Sony is uniquely poised to deliver 4K content to the consumer as the only company that has “Hollywood to Home” pipeline, literally involved in every aspect from lens to home screen. I asked Sony’s Levine what his company thought of these HDMI and HDCP issues as we transition into a UHDTV world.

“As a founder in the HDMI Coalition, and a major part of the UHD Alliance as well as the HDR Alliance, Sony is working with the industry to ensure consumers get the best possible 4K experience at home, from source to sound,” Levine said. “We know that 4K will continue to grow in the marketplace. We are seeing prices drop as content increases, so our goal is to support the overall consumer experience. We see the full-4K experience being exactly what today’s consumer needs, both picture and sound, and our goal is to optimize 4K content that is available to consumers now and in the near future.”

It is likely that within the next one to two product cycles we’ll have a plethora of receivers to select from that will support full bandwidth HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 on all inputs and outputs. One manufacturer commented that he couldn’t see this not being ubiquitous at all budget points and on all models. But for now, the industry is in another transition period. As an integrator, knowledge is power, and the more you know, the better prepared you’ll be able to help your customers make informed decisions that don’t lead to black-screen-of-death situations.

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.