For those of us who grew up in the days of three (maybe four) broadcast TV stations—before the advent of cable and home video, much less streaming—the wealth of available video content today can be a little staggering.
But how much of it is actually worth watching? That depends largely on what you want to watch and how much you care about the quality of the presentation. But even figuring out which sources excel over the others when it comes to quality can be difficult, especially given that streaming video sources (once undeniably the bottom of the barrel) continue to get better and better.
For now (and it’s important to stress that this can and will change over time), the pecking order looks something like this, from worst to best:
One of the biggest trends in the home entertainment market over the past decade—cord cutting—started largely as a backlash against draconian pricing models forced on consumers by big telecom conglomerates. Simply put, subscriptions to a streaming service like Hulu—or even buying shows à la carte via iTunes or Amazon—just made more financial sense for a lot of folks.
These days, though, that’s not the only consideration. Today’s high-performance displays—even cheap ones—are so revealing that watching Grey’s Anatomy via satellite or cable can be downright insulting to the eyes, leading many to switch to streaming just for the upgraded experience.
Of course, it’s hard to ditch your subscription-based linear TV service if you’re a huge sports fan—especially on the professional, national level. But there are alternatives.
If you still dig the traditional linear model of broadcast TV (in other words, everything is parceled up into channels and This Is Us comes on at 9E/8C on Tuesdays), but can’t abide the quality of satellite or cable, or just don’t want to pay for all of those channels you never watch, broadcast streaming might be a better choice. Services like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now allow you to cut the cord but leave it dangling. Most offer some form of cloud DVR so you can record your favorite shows, and most look at least somewhat better than the traditional alternative, assuming you have a decent-enough Internet pipeline.
Yep, you read that correctly. The tried-and-true TV antenna is making its second comeback (its first being the early days of HDTV, when cable and satellite were struggling to catch up). These days, you can buy DVRs that allow you to record content straight from the airwaves, along with new antennas that aren’t as ghastly looking as the whale skeletons of bygone eras. And oddly enough, those broadcast images almost always look better than cable, satellite, or broadcast streaming thanks to less compression.
Of all the non-linear streaming services on the Internet, YouTube demands its own spot on this list, but figuring out where to put it is a tough one. In addition to the glut of cat videos and Russian dashcams, you’ll also find some really nice-looking regular programming, as well as a wealth of nearly perfect-looking demo material that’ll put any 4K HDR display to the test.
Hulu, Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Instant, iTunes, and the Like
Whether you’re looking for episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the latest Marvel blockbuster, or even compelling original content like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, streaming services are getting better and better all the time in terms of video quality. In fact, with certain content, it can be difficult to tell a good Vudu 4K UHD stream from the UHD Blu-ray disc. Granted, some of these services look better than others.
Some of them (like Netflix and Hulu) offer a vast collection of streaming content for one monthly fee while others are à la carte. And Amazon offers a bit of both. But chances are that no matter which pay model you prefer, you’ll be able to find tons of great-looking 4K HDR video just a few clicks (sometimes a few frustrating clicks) away.
UHD Blu-ray and Kaleidescape
While streaming services may be pushing video quality to the point of diminishing returns, there’s no denying that if you want the absolute best picture—and sound—for every movie or TV show you watch, you’re going to have to pick between UHD Blu-ray discs if you’re old-school or Kaleidescape downloads if you want to keep your shelves clutter-free. Granted, as mentioned above, streaming can come dangerously close to matching the quality of these full-bandwidth sources, but for some, “close” just isn’t good enough. What’s more, the Dolby Digital+ audio found on most streaming services usually can’t compete with the lossless Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks available only on discs or full-sized downloads, especially if you have a decent-enough sound system.
Again, the quality of all of these services is a moving target, and what’s true today may not be true a year from now. And when you look at the various streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, quality can vary quite a bit from one to the other, and even from device to device. So comparing them fully demands more scrutiny—a subject we’ll be digging into more in future posts.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.