Netflix Tag

Ep. 9: New Frontiers in Content & Compression

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Episode 9 opens with hosts Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger talking about Dennis’s piece
on the surprisingly high quality of 4K streaming when watched using the right device.

 

At 6:18, Cineluxe contributor Andrew Robinson joins Mike & Dennis to discuss how Netflix
might be a threat to both the TV networks & the movie studios but the really innovative
programming isn’t happening on Netflix but on YouTube.

 

At 33:22, Cineluxe contributor John Higgins joins Andrew, Dennis & Mike to discuss the
controversy set off by the literally unwatchable Game of Thrones “Long Night” episode
and whether we can expect to see compression problems disappear any time soon.

 

The episode concludes at 59:20 with everyone (except Mike) talking about the most
interesting things they’re watched, listened to, or experienced in the past two weeks.

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Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles, product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions around the world.

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN, or Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don’t Blame Netflix

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

We all take for granted that buying a better video display will result in a better home cinema experience. Ditto speakers and sound processors and amps and control systems and so on. But for some reason, even in an era where streaming has pretty much taken over as the dominant source of AV entertainment, we talk about services like Netflix as if the hardware delivering them doesn’t really matter.

 

This realization has been at the forefront of my mind recently, as I’ve had discussions with videophiles on Facebook and in the comments section of Home Theater Review about the quality of the streamed video experience. Even folks with roughly the same internet speeds as me, similar quality home networks, and comparable displays seem to be watching a wholly different Netflix than the one I enjoy.

 

This absolutely baffled me for the longest time. My first inclination was to write it off as pure bias. Or maybe even ignorance. But then I started asking about a variable we videophiles rarely discuss when we talk about streaming: “How, exactly, are you accessing Netflix?” (By the way, I’m using “Netflix” a bit like “Kleenex” here, as a synecdoche for high-performance streaming

video across the board. You could just as easily plug in your high-quality streaming service of choice, be it Vudu or Amazon or what have you. But none of this necessarily applies to lower-quality streaming apps like CBS All Access, etc.)

 

What I found is that almost none of the commenters who bemoan the quality of Netflix watch it the same way I do, via Roku Ultra. Some use cable or satellite boxes. Some rely on the smart apps built into their TVs. Some even have their laptops plugged into their TVs via HDMI.

 

This makes a difference. Way more than you would think. Way more than I would have ever imagined until I actually sat down for some exhaustive comparisons between the exact same Netflix programming streamed to the exact same display.

 

The first thing I discovered is just how substantially different loading times are between devices. I did all of this testing on my 75-inch UHD TV, installed just above my credenza, which houses my Roku Ultra, Dish Network satellite receiver, Kaleidescape Strato, and my other AV components. All are plugged into the same enterprise-grade, gigabit Cisco network switch, and as such have access to the exact same level of connectivity. If you’re a numbers nerd, you can check the “Netflix by the Numbers” sidebar below for a breakdown of exactly how long it took each device to load the Netflix app (after a hardware reboot), begin playing a title, and reach full UHD resolution and full bandwidth.

None of the above is even slightly shocking. What was shocking, though, is just how different Netflix looked via these different devices. Cueing up my recent favorite, Our Planet, I couldn’t help but notice that via the app built into my smart TV, this gorgeous nature doc looked a bit less gorgeous. A bit smeared. A bit noisy. A good bit less refined. A closer inspection of the screen revealed the cause: Numerous video compression artifacts, pretty much right in line with what all of the streaming detractors have been hollering at me about on Facebook.

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

Switching inputs to the Roku Ultra—again, via the same network connection—I was a little staggered to discover a complete lack of compression artifacts. Ignore, by the way, the subtle swirling bands of brightness fluctuation in the image below. Those are a result of moiré, a misalignment of pixels between my TV and the digital sensor in my cell phone.

 

Ignore too the slight softness in the upper row of leopard spots. This frame is from about half a second later than the one above, and as such the cheetah is moving a little faster, so there’s some motion blur. Also, don’t focus on differences in color—my smart TV’s integrated Netflix app is delivering the program in Dolby Vision, whereas my Roku Ultra only supports HDR10, but the camera in my smart phone can’t capture the gamut of either format. This image was also taken a few inches away from the TV, so what you’re seeing is a tiny fraction of the screen, blown up way larger than life-size.

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

But I think what’s clear here is that via the Roku Ultra, Our Planet’s image is virtually artifact-free. (As I mentioned in my review of the program, the only compression artifact I could find in the series’ entire run, at least from any reasonable seating distance, was about a second-and-a-half of very minor, almost imperceptible color banding in one early episode.)

 

I sent a series of images to colleague Andrew Robinson, since he and I have been discussing the geeky particulars of compression a lot recently. He immediately started poking holes in my methodology, at my request.

 

“Are you using the same picture profiles?”

 

Yup.

 

“Are you letting the smart TV buffer up to full resolution?”

 

Uh huh.

 

“Is your Roku running through the video processing of your AV preamp?”

 

Nope. I bypassed my preamp and ran the Roku straight into HDMI 1 on my TV.

 

I’ve done my darnedest to think of any reason why the same UHD/HDR program would look so rough via one streaming device and so flawless via another connected to the exact same network switch in the same room, running the same

streaming service from the same account. The only thing I can come up with is something Andrew touched on in his most recent piece about compression: HEVC (aka H.265), the video codec Netflix uses to deliver UHD/HDR, is very processor intensive. The cost of shoving such high-quality video through such a small pipe is that it makes the device on the playback end do a lot of heavy number crunching. And if those numbers can’t be crunched quickly enough, the results look a lot like the top screen shot above.

 

My guess here is that my Roku Ultra has the horsepower to deliver Netflix practically flawlessly, whereas my smart TV simply doesn’t. (And as gorgeous as the TV is with native 4K video, its middling performance in upscaling lower-resolution video to 4K is further evidence of this. That’s why I use my AV preamp to upscale video.)

 

And look, none of this is intended to be an advertisement for Roku. It may be my streaming player of choice because it consistently delivers the best performance for the streaming apps I use most. But I haven’t tested every single media streamer on the market to compare their video quality. (As our own John Sciacca has reported, though, even the highly lauded Apple TV 4K sometimes struggles on the audio front, and Andrew reported anecdotally in our most recent conversation that he noticed a significant improvement in video quality when he switched to Roku.) Nor do I have a representative sample of smart TVs to confirm that all of their built-in Netflix apps render such poor video performance.

NETFLIX BY THE NUMBERS

A nuts & bolts comparison of different streaming devices

 

I started with a simple load-time test, to see how long it would take for Netflix to launch to the user-select screen via devices that had just been powered up. All of these numbers are, of course, influenced by the speed of my internet connection (500 mbps) and the quality of my home network.

 

Roku Ultra  3.05 seconds on average from the time I selected the Netflix app until it loaded to the user-select screen

 

Dish Network Hopper DVR  4.41 seconds on average

 

Smart TV  22.38 seconds on average

 

I then selected three different Netflix programs (Our Planet, Love, Death + Robots, and Test Patterns) and ran numerous tests to find the average time it took each device to start playing the program after it was selected.

 

Roku Ultra  3.20 seconds on average, from the time I pressed Select until the program started playing

 

Dish Network Hopper  9.64 seconds on average

 

Smart TV  13.15 seconds on average

 

Lastly, I cued up the Test Patterns again, specifically the pattern labeled “YCBrCr 10-bit Linearity Chart: 3840×2160, 23.976fps.” This test gives you a bitrate meter at the top of the screen, and also displays playback resolution, which let me gauge how long it would take each device to reach full bandwidth (16 mbps) and full resolution/color bit-depth.

 

Roku Ultra  Played at UHD 10-bit immediately, although it did start at 12 megabits per second and took 4.15 seconds on average to report full 16 mbps bandwidth

 

Dish Network Hopper DVR  Switched from 1920 x 1080 resolution to full 3840 x 2160 resolution after 15.62 seconds on average, and took an average of 46.26 seconds to reach full 16 mbps bandwidth

 

Smart TV Took 47.18 seconds on average to switch from HD to UHD resolution, and didn’t reach full 16 mbps bandwidth until an average of 142.54 seconds into the stream

All I can say for certain is that the device you use to access Netflix and all of the other streaming services you subscribe to does matter. And it matters way more than I would have predicted just a week ago. Simply put, if you’re streaming Netflix in your luxury entertainment system and notice that the picture isn’t up to snuff, don’t blame Netflix. Start pointing your finger at the device you’re using to access the app.

Dennis Burger

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.

Dead to Me

Dead to Me

In Netflix’s new original series Dead to Me, nothing is quite as it seems. Even the show itself isn’t exactly what you might glean from a casual viewing of the Netflix teaser. You think it’s going to be a show about a grieving wife who lost her husband in a violent accident and is trying to move forward with the help of a support group—and especially another grieving woman that she meets there.

 

Perhaps you tune in because you love the two female leads, Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, and you think it’ll be fun to watch a sharp-edged show about two middle-aged woman who suddenly find themselves single and must help each other navigate grief, dating, parenthood, etc.

 

You’ll realize before the end of Episode One that Dead to Me plans to tell a different—and much more interesting—story. And if you’re at all like me, you’ll be instantly hooked and burn through all 10 half-hour(ish) episodes in a weekend.

Dead to Me

One thing that does meet expectations is the performances, as both Applegate and Cardellini are a joy to watch. But the real credit goes to show creator Liz Feldman and the writing team for giving them such great stuff to worth with. This kind of story could easily slip into a stereotype: “One is hard and angry. The other is sweet and quirky. Don’t they make a wacky team?” But both characters are fleshed out with depth and believability. Yes, Applegate’s Jen has a hard time keeping her anger in check, but she’s written as a real woman, with a real vulnerability underneath that helps her remain the sympathetic heroine.

 

Dead to Me is presented in Dolby Vision or HDR10 with a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. I streamed it through my Apple TV to an LG OLED TV, and the picture quality was excellent. The show is meant to have a very natural, everyday look, so there’s nothing particularly stylized about the cinematography. But the image is clean, colorful, and razor sharp, and the many Orange County, CA landscapes provide some nice eye candy. It’s beautifully lit, and the HDR just serves to reinforce that, be it through bright patches of sunlight streaming in through windows or the flicker of a firepit’s flames against the dark night sky.

 

Dolby Digital Plus is just fine for this type of dialogue-driven content. Your surround speakers and subwoofer won’t see much action here, although there is some effective LFE use in certain key scenes.

 

I must admit, I’m not sure if Dead to Me has the legs to run many seasons without the story devolving into absurdity. But I thoroughly enjoyed Season One, and I look forward to seeing what surprises Season Two will throw our way.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Our Planet

It’s been barely more than a year since beloved natural historian Sir David Attenborough took viewers on another romp around the natural world in Blue Planet II, so for some it may seem a little soon for another such epic journey. After all, Attenborough’s tentpole nature documentary series tend to follow big technological leaps, either in terms of presentation (HD, 4K, HDR, etc.) or exploration (e.g. the Nadir and Deep Rover submersibles employed in Blue Planet II).

 

Needless to say, we haven’t made such quantum leaps in the past calendar year. For the most part, what sets the new Netflix original Our Planet apart from its predecessors isn’t technological (although its heavy reliance on 4K drones does mean that we get to witness the wonders of a natural world from a new perspective at times). No, for the most part, what sets this series apart is its intent, and the prominence of its message.

 

Since the 1980s, Attenborough’s documentaries—at least the big “event” series—have been largely subtle in their environmental and conservational messaging. A summary sentence here or there. Maybe a wrap-up episode that connected the dots and spelled out how human activity has threatened and continues to threaten the fragile ecosystems around our pale blue dot.

 

With Our Planet (and its accompanying hour-long making-of special), that message takes center stage. Which isn’t to say that Attenborough dwells on it constantly. Large swaths of the eight-episode series are devoted to the drama, heartbreak, and 

hilarity of the natural world. Show a ten-minute clip from the middle of any given episode to your dad, and he might be hard-pressed to tell it from an old episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, if not for the stunningly modern cinematography and deliciously dynamic Dolby Atmos sound mix.

 

But Attenborough does a great job of priming the 

pump here, setting the stage in such a way that you can’t help but meditate on how much of nature relies on delicate, precarious balances, and how those balances are undeniably being thrown out of whack.

 

One example: It’s one thing to be told that arctic sea ice is on the wane. It’s another altogether to see with your own eyes how that’s affecting the wildlife in the region. At the other end of the globe, we also see how diminishing sea ice around Antarctica is disrupting eating, mating, and migration patterns of everything from seals to penguins to humpback whales.

Even if that message doesn’t resonate with you, it’s impossible to deny that Our Planet is an absolute feast for the eyes. Presented here in 4K with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 (depending on which HDR format your system supports), the series is one of the most striking video demos I’ve ever laid eyes on—in any format. The high dynamic 

range is used here to enhance everything from the iridescent shimmer of orchid bees to the fluorescent glow of algae growing underneath sea ice, and while we’ll likely never know how much better (if at all) it could look if released on full-bandwidth UHD Blu-ray or via Kaleidescape, one thing is for certain: This streaming series manages to surpass the already mind-blowing video presentation of Blue Planet II on any format, streaming or not, and that’s mostly due to its stunning HDR mastering and grading.

 

There are times when the contrasts and highlights are so rich and nuanced, and the imagery so detailed, that your brain just can’t help but interpret the picture as glasses-free 3D. Individual snowflakes fall through the back of the frame, reflecting stray sparkles of sunlight, without a hint of lost definition or clarity. If not for the liberal application of slow-motion, you’d swear you were looking out a window. Indeed, only the appearance of some very occasional, subtle, fleeting, almost imperceptible banding in the underwater sequences of the second episode give the slightest clue that this isn’t uncompressed video.

The audio is mostly fantastic, as well. For a nature documentary, the surround effects can be quite startlingly aggressive at times, but they’re never egregious, and such effects are always used for the purposes of immersion, not merely spectacle. If I have a slight beef here, it’s that the Dolby Digital+ encoding doesn’t quite fully capture the nuanced timbres of Sir Attenborough’s inimitable voice in the way I suspect Dolby TrueHD would. But again, that’s a minor nit to pick.

 

As mentioned above, the series is also amongst the rare Netflix offerings to be accompanied by bonus features—in this case, a behind-the-scenes documentary that sheds light on how so many of the stunning images within were captured. The series was four years in the making and involved 3,365 filming days at 200 locations, with a total of 6,000 drone flights and 991 days at sea. With only an hour to play with, the behind-the-scenes doc can’t dig into all of the high-tech trials and tribulations of the filming, but it’s enough to scratch your curious itch and answer most of the biggest “How did they film that?!” questions you may have.

 

In the end, it’s difficult for me, a nearly fanatical David Attenborough devotee, to come to terms with the fact that Our Planet could conceivably be the last of his major earth-spanning natural history mini-series. He is, after all, approaching the age of 93. As such, and when taking into consideration the urgency with which he delivers his message here, it’s hard not to view this series as a potential swan song of sorts. If that be the case, I couldn’t imagine a finer farewell, nor a more fitting final lesson from the man who has done so much to entertain, inform, and enlighten us about the wonders of the natural world for the better part of half a century.

 

To call this one “essential viewing” may be the biggest understatement I’ve ever typed.

Dennis Burger

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.

Love, Death + Robots

Love, Death + Robots

The first night I sat down to watch the new Netflix anthology series Love, Death + Robots, I went into it in full binge mode. At 220 minutes total, it hardly seemed a daunting marathon. Four episodes in, though, I was burned out. Overloaded. Overstimulated. Desensitized to the carnage and ribaldry pouring out of my screen.

 

That’s not a knock against the series, which is the realization of David Fincher and Tim Miller’s failed attempts to bring Heavy Metal to the big screen again. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the fact that I think I’ve discovered the first streaming series that expressly discourages binge watching. That could in part be due to the fact that most of the 18 shorts in the anthology are radically different in tone, style, and genre. The collection runs the gamut from dungeon-diving horror to comedy to fantasy to science-fiction, with sprinkles of high-tech action/adventure and steampunk wǔxiá thrown in. The animation is also

quite varied, including a nice mix of hand-drawn 2D animation and CGI that ranges from stylized and painterly to hyper-realistic. There’s even a delightful live-action short that harkens back to Steven Spielberg’s old Amazing Stories series from the 1980s.

 

In short, there’s really nothing tying these episodes together, aside

from loose adherence to the titular theme to one degree or another. Honestly, a better title might have been “Love, Death, and/or Robots.”

 

But none of that should be interpreted as a knock against the series, either. Merely an observation about why I think Love, Death + Robots works better as a collection of disconnected morsels, intended to be taken in one at a time here and there, not consumed in one or two sittings.

 

You almost certainly won’t enjoy all of the shorts, even if this is your sort of thing. (And to gauge whether this is your sort of thing, it probably boils down to your fondness for the aforementioned Heavy Metal, the magazine on which it was based, or maybe even the old MTV/BBC Two anthology series Liquid Television.) Half of the shorts in this first season collection

are downright brilliant, and the other half are a weird mix of puerile, pointless, and outright repugnant.

 

The problem is, although I think most people would agree with that assessment overall, I doubt you could find two people who could come to consensus on which shorts belong in which category.

There are a few objective standouts, though. “Zima Blue,” one of the few 2D shorts, is as profound as it is simple in its storytelling. “Good Hunting,” an adaptation of one of the short stories from Ken Liu’s award-winning The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is another fantastic vignette that manages to create a wondrously gorgeous and compelling world populated by fascinating characters in its all-too-brief 17 minutes. It’s one of the longest shorts in the series, although it feels like one of the shortest.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, goofy and disturbing romps like “The Witness” seem to have taken the series’ lack of censorship as a mandate rather than a license, and the result is a gratuitous and exploitative nightmare that I can’t imagine anyone actually enjoying.

 

Don’t let missteps like the latter scare you off, though, as long as you’re not turned off by animated violence and sex across the board. Love, Death + Robots is a radical experiment in filmmaking that deserves to be celebrated in spite of its misses. And its audiovisual presentation is utterly stunning. From beginning to end, Love, Death + Robots is a UHD/HDR video torture test that demands to be watched on the best screen in the house. Only a weird sound mix for one of the shorts, “Sonnie’s Edge”—which buries the dialogue and leans way too heavily on the surround channels—keeps this series from being an A+ AV demo from beginning to end.

 

In the end, Love, Death + Robots is, like most good genre fiction, a product of its time. Without the risk-taking attitude of new media outlets like Netflix, it probably wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day. Had it somehow beaten the odds and been made before now, there’s no way it would have snuck under the wire with an R rating without some massive edits. And without the benefit of modern AV formats, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact.

 

But in a weird way, the series also comes across as an interesting rejection of our current media climate and its emphasis on gluttonous consumption. To appreciate the series fully, you really need to treat it as a bag of snacks, not a sustaining meal.

 

Dennis Burger

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.

Even Streaming is Better than Most Movie Theaters

We’ve been talking a lot here lately about how a home entertainment system—built with the right components, carefully installed, and properly calibrated—can now deliver an experience that surpasses that of most commercial movie theaters. There’s this persistent and niggling perception in the home theater enthusiast community, though, that achieving such a seemingly lofty goal means that you must eschew streaming formats like Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Vudu altogether.

Simply put, this is silly.

 

And mind you, I’m not saying that such streaming formats are perfect. Consider the fact that your typical 4K movie, which is only compressed down to roughly 250 megabits per second at your local cineplex, is squeezed into a 15- or 20-megabit-per-second pipe for Vudu streaming. It’s pretty obvious that something is lost along the information superhighway. (A UHD Blu-ray release or Kaleidescape download, by the way, runs at more along the lines of 60 to 100 mbps).

I’m merely arguing that when viewed in the right environment, on the right system, the quality of the experience you can get via streaming can far exceed the quality of most movie theaters.

 

How is that possible given the above admission about compression? It all boils down to the way our eyes prioritize certain elements of an image over others. In short, the most important aspects of an image, at least to our eyes and our brains, are black level and dynamic range. The closer the darkest parts of an image are to true black, and the more steps there are between the darkest and lightest areas of an image (to a point), the more pop and impact an image has.

Streaming Better Than Movie Theaters

Need an example? Here’s a screen grab from the 2017 Pixar film Coco. The top image is a direct screen grab in all its high-contrast glory, with inky blacks and sparkling highlights. And this doesn’t even capture the high dynamic range you’d get from the Vudu stream of the film, with its enhanced sparkle and superior shadow detail.

 

The bottom image? I simply tweaked the contrast to make the blacks a little less black and the whites a little less white, in line with the limited brightness and dynamic range capabilities of most commercial cinema projectors and screens.

 

And you may be thinking to yourself, “What about the vibrancy of the colors? The glow of those magically lit leaves? The pop of Miguel’s jacket? Surely you toned down the colors of the bottom image a bit, too!”  Nope.

The perceived loss of saturation in the bottom image is simply a byproduct of tweaking the relationship between black and white, to illustrate the differences between a good home display and Screen 3 at Jim Bob’s Continental Cinema 16 down the street. That’s literally the only thing I manipulated here.

 

Actually, I lied. The top image was also subjected to roughly four times as much lossy compression as the bottom before I combined them and compressed them again.

And hey, maybe you don’t like the DayGlo color palette of Coco as it was originally intended to be seen. That’s valid. But what’s true of this example is true for any other film. Even via a streaming source like Vudu or Netflix at home, you’re getting an image that’s more vibrant, with truer-to-life contrasts and oodles more brightness. And at the end of the day, that’s far more important to our visual cortices.

 

And that’s not even taking into account the films these days that were color graded and mastered with the superior brightness and dynamic range of home displays in mind, with no thought given to the compromised theatrical experience. I’ve never seen a theatrical presentation that came close to capturing the contrast, shadow detail, and highlights of Netflix’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, just to name one example.

 

Maybe if more commercials theaters converted to Dolby Cinema, with its vivid laser projection and higher dynamic range, this argument would carry less weight. But of the 250 Dolby Cinema theaters in the US of A, the closest one to me is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. So, for me, the very best commercial cinema experience is defined by the

limitations of IMAX Digital. And if you bother to venture out to your local cineplex with any frequency, the same is likely true for you, as well.

 

In his most recent post, our own John Sciacca made the point that Kaleidescape is the only sure-fire way of ensuring that you enjoy the absolute best picture and sound that you can at home, short of buying UHD Blu-ray discs. That’s absolutely true. No arguments from me on that point. If nothing less than audiovisual perfection will suffice, streaming hasn’t reached that level
. . . yet.

 

But if we’re simply talking about enjoying a better experience than you’re likely to get at your average local megaplex? I would argue that streaming, in the era of 4K and HDR, and when viewed on a properly installed and calibrated home display, has already crossed that Rubicon.

Dennis Burger

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.

Home Theaters are Better Than Movie Theaters

Home Theaters are Better than Movie Theaters

Photo by JESHOOTS.com from Pexels

As John Sciacca points out in his recent article, “Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?” home entertainment spent more than half a century playing a catchup game with commercial cinemas, at least in terms of technological innovation and quality of presentation. But Wabbit Season has now pretty much undeniably become Duck Season, and home entertainment reigns supreme. Yes, commercial cinemas are making some interesting technological innovations, as John points out. But most of these are limited to a handful of theaters in major metropolitan areas.

 

For most people, a well-built, well-calibrated, well-programmed home cinema system (be it in a dedicated screening room or multi-use home entertainment space), has the potential to vastly outshine the movie-watching experience at the average local cineplex. And while much of this has to do with incredible advancements in the quality of consumer electronics in the

past few years, that’s not the whole story. There’s also a story to be told here about comfort, convenience, and customization.

 

In short, here are 10 reasons why home theaters are now better than movies theaters.

 

 

1) BETTER PICTURE

These days, even a mid-level Ultra HD (or “4K”) display, when properly calibrated and positioned, can give 

you a better and more immersive image than you’re likely to find in your local movie theater. Sure, your neighborhood megaplex has bigger screens working to its advantage, but depending on how far away you sit, a 75- to 120-inch screen at home can fill up just as much of your field of view. And displays this large are pretty close to becoming the norm for better home entertainment spaces. What’s more, you’d have to look pretty far and wide to find a movie theater screen that delivers anything close to the black levels and high dynamic range delivered by a good modern home display.

 

 

2) BETTER SOUND

At least in theory. While commercial cinemas still have the advantage in terms of channel count, let’s face it—you really don’t need 128 speakers in your living room to deliver an audio experience that’s every bit as engrossing as that of a movie theater. What’s more, theater sound has to be balanced for potentially hundreds of viewers. At home, you can tune the sound for the handful of seats that matter most. And today’s advanced room correction systems can make even a somewhat compromised space sound positively cinematic.

 

 

3) BETTER QUALITY CONTROL

Have you ever been to a commercial cinema and complained about an image that was too dim or stretched, or a screen that was soda-stained, or speakers that were blown, only to be greeted with that deer-in-headlights look? The fact is that most movie theater managers don’t care about (or even understand) quality of presentation. At home, you can either

address problems when they arise or, at worst, call your local integrator for assistance.

 

 

4) THE AV EXPERIENCE CAN BE
TWEAKED TO YOUR TASTE

Whether you like your movie sound to be played at reference listening levels, or just a bit louder or quieter than industry standards would dictate, chances are slim that you’ll ever be happy with where the volume knob is set at your local movie theater. At home, you can adjust the loudness to your liking, and even tweak it based on your mood.

 

 

5) THE “WOW” FACTOR CAN BE EVEN BETTER

Back in the day, there was an undeniable theatrical element involved in going to the movies. And yes, most of that boiled down to that highly anticipated moment when the curtains opened or widened to accommodate a Cinemascope film, but still. They used to call it “going to see a show” for a reason. The movie itself was simply the centerpiece of a larger event.

 

These days? Not so much. But home theaters can make movie-watching special in a way that commercial cinemas have long since abandoned. If you have a home automation system, you can dim the lights and draw the shades and maybe even cause the screen to drop down from the ceiling at the press of a button. If you have a Kaleidescape movie server system, these automated events can even be tied to the opening and closing credits of the movie itself—or even intermission. And you can program an entire evening’s worth of entertainment—trailers, cartoons, movies, and more—that can be launched with a single click. Simply put, movie night at home can be special in a way that bopping down to the local movie theater long ago ceased to be.

 

 

6) YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN TIMETABLE

Speaking of intermission, how many times have you missed a few minutes of a movie due to a necessary potty break? That’s not a problem when you’re watching at home. Perhaps more importantly, unless you’re itching to watch

the latest Marvel movie, which is likely to be playing on half the screens at your local multiplex, you’ll likely find that your choice of viewing times is limited to 4:25 or 9:45. At home, you can start the movie when you want.

 

 

7) THE VARIETY OF ENTERTAINMENT IS SO MUCH BETTER

As I alluded to in that last point, even at a megaplex with 16 screens, half of them are likely to be playing the same movie, which greatly limits your viewing options. These days, the rise of streaming services creating their own award-winning movies means that your options are wide open for home viewing.

Want to check out something like Bird Box or Roma? Outside of a few film festivals and a limited theatrical release aimed only at Oscar contention, the only way you’d ever see these films is at home. You could easily argue that Netflix and Amazon are the most innovative and important film studios in existence today, and their works are only available in the home for most people.

8) TWO WORDS: GOURMET POPCORN

OK, it’s entirely possible that my wife and I are weirdos in this respect, but we’re total popcorn snobs. We have our own oil popper, and when it’s time to sit down for a movie we’re likely to spend five minutes simply deciding what kind of kernels to pop. On the rare occasions when we do go to the cinema, the grease-covered cardboard they sell by the bucket is an unappetizing letdown.

 

And hey, maybe gourmet popcorn isn’t your thing. Substitute your own snack of choice and you get the point. Movie theaters have done a decent job of offering more variety in their snacks in recent years, but let’s be honest here: They’re all kinda gross unless you live in a major metropolis. At home, you can snack better, snack cheaper, and snack healthier to boot.

9) YOU GET TO DEFINE “COMFORT”

My wife recently returned from a road trip, during which she went to the movies with a friend of ours who lives up north. She came home raving about the recliners in the cinema they visited, to which I replied, “Were they as comfortable as your seat on the sofa?” The answer, of course, was a resounding, “no.” Still, it’s humorous to me that the notion of comfortable seating in a movie theater is a novelty in and of itself. What’s more, these seats have to accommodate a broad range of opinions as to what constitutes “comfortable.”


Personally, I like a firm memory foam sofa that conforms to my posterior, but isn’t so cushy that I drift off during our annual 12-hour Lord of the Rings Extended Edition marathon. Maybe your tastes lean even firmer, or maybe you’d prefer to sink into the accoutering equivalent of a marshmallow. Either way, in your home theater or multi-use entertainment space, you get to pick the seats.

 

 

10) YOU GET TO PICK THE AUDIENCE

There may yet come a day when commercial cinemas once again reclaim their technological superiority over home cinema systems en masse, but even if they do, I can’t imagine going back to the movies on the regular. And that mostly boils down to the fact that the moviegoing masses are loud, obnoxious, obtrusive, self-centered jerks. When we went to see Captain Marvel a few weeks back, I nearly sprained my shushing muscles. And outside of chains like Alamo Drafthouse, most cinema operators generally couldn’t care less if kids are swinging from the rafters.


Anyone who comes to my house to watch a movie knows they’re there to watch a movie, not gab for two hours straight or check their phones every ten minutes. And you could argue that my rules for movie-watching at home are a little strict, but you know what? Friends and family who join me on my couch for a show always come to appreciate the specialness of the experience.

Dennis Burger

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.

The Umbrella Academy

The Umbrella Academy

A few years back, YouTuber Patrick H. Willems made a mock trailer for an imaginary X-Men film helmed by Wes Anderson. I’m honestly not sure if the video was intended to poke fun at Wes Anderson’s films or the whole concept of the X-Men, but I also kinda don’t care. I just want to see that movie. And in a weird way, I felt like I had come close to seeing it play out in reality as I watched the first episode of the new Netflix original series The Umbrella Academy.

Dig a little deeper, and there’s much more to this stunning new series than that. After a bit, it starts to feel more like, “What if Wes Anderson and Guillermo Del Toro teamed up to write and direct a mashup of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen?” Don’t worry if you have no idea what any of that means, by the way. All you really need to know is that The Umbrella Academy is a fun and introspective comic-book romp with lovably flawed 

characters, delicious action, and a wonderfully weird sense of humor. And as with all good pastiche, it manages to synthesize all of its comic book inspiration into something delightfully new and captivating.

 

The premise goes something like this: In 1989, forty-three women around the world mysteriously give birth despite having not been pregnant earlier that day. One mysterious billionaire tries to adopt them all, but only manages to assemble seven of them, six of whom he trains to become masked crimefighters. Fast-forward to today, and said billionaire has died, bringing this dysfunctional family back together to solve the mysterious circumstances of his passing.

What I love most about The Umbrella Academy is that it manages to do far more with its premise than you might expect (unless you’ve read the comics on which the series is based). Yes, part of the appeal here is watching super people do super things. But at its heart, the show manages to be both grander in its scope and far more personal. It tackles big questions, yes—questions about determinism vs. free will, about nature vs. nurture—but also grapples with issues like what happens when the repressed demons of our past start to break their restraints. (We’re talking metaphorical demons here. The show is weird and supernatural, but not that weird and supernatural.)

 

I also love the fact that showrunner Steve Blackman (Fargo, Legion, Altered Carbon) resists the urge to lean on heavy exposition. The world of The Umbrella Academy isn’t our own, but it always errs on the side of letting the viewer get

The Umbrella Academy

immersed in the world rather than dragging us through it with CliffsNotes. There’s absolutely no explanation for why there’s a talking chimpanzee butler, for example, because it’s the most normal thing in the world to the inhabitants of the series. You just have to roll with it. And other mysteries that unfold do so mostly organically.

 

Even if you don’t care about any of the above, The Umbrella Academy is worth a watch simply as a display torture test. Despite the fact that

the resolution is limited to 1080p (likely a result of all the special effects, which would have been tough to render in 4K on a TV show budget), the stunning Dolby Vision high dynamic range proves that contrast and color vibrancy are more important than pixel count when it comes to rendering a jaw-dropping image.

 

If I have one nit to pick with The Umbrella Academy’s AV presentation, it’s that the compressed audio just doesn’t quite do the show justice at times. That’s largely due to the fact that it boasts the best pop-music soundtrack since Guardians of the Galaxy, and all of this wonderful music would rock so much harder in full-bandwidth Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio.

 

That’s only something you’ll really notice if you have a truly high-fidelity sound system, though. And it’s seriously no reason to skip this brilliantly dark, hilariously weird, and wonderfully acted superhero romp.

—Dennis Burger

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.

Russian Doll

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

Anyone who tells you they truly enjoyed the first episode of Russian Doll is either a liar or a masochist. That’s not to say there’s nothing redeeming about the inaugural 24 minutes of this new Netflix original. It’s beautifully shot in a gritty, naturalistic style that makes subtle but effective use of its high dynamic range instead of leaning on it as a gimmick. It’s undeniably well written, despite the fact that its dialogue is too clever by half and a little pandering at first. And the performances—especially by Natasha Lyonne of Orange is the New Black fame—are nothing less than inspired from the giddy-up.

 

The problem, though—and what kept my finger hovering over the cancel button for the entire first episode—is that the series starts on such an utterly grimdark note that it’s equal parts fatiguing and boring. It’s shocking just for the sake of shock value—or so it seems. It’s offensive for no other reason than causing offense. There’s nothing remotely likeable about any of the characters, and I found myself distracted by the incongruity of the fact that Amy Poehler produced this seemingly joyless pit of sardonic despair.

 

It’s not my intention to be moralistic here. And it’s not as if I shy away from the dark. But darkness without light is just sort of monotonous, and there’s nary a stray luminous beam to be found within Russian Doll’s first—thankfully brief—episode.

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

What follows that grimy start is a series of seven episodic romps, each of which cranks up the levity—and indeed the weirdness—until it manages to find some equilibrium. Some carefully teetering balance between the inherent grimness of the show’s premise (in short: Lyonne is forced by the universe to die in increasingly ironic ways and live some semblance of the same day over and over again) and the wonderful absurdity of it all.

 

By the time Episode 8’s ending credits rolled, I was oddly sad to see Russian Doll come to an end. I’d fallen in love with its unlovable characters. I was completely on board with its flippant earnestness. I wanted more of the show’s delightfully wacky and inventively improbable twists and turns. The utterly unapologetic human beauty and levity of its final moments more than made up for the soulless dehumanization of its earliest scenes.

 

Still, though, when I reflect on this undeniably beautiful work of whimsical and meaningful art and consider whether or not to recommend it to friends, I can’t help but pause. If you managed to make it through that first episode and you’re wondering whether to soldier on, yes. Keep going. It’s so worth the ride in the end.

 

But if you noped out before you even figured out what the show is really about, I can’t much say that I blame you.

Dennis Burger

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.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & PIracy

Things were back in the day that if you subscribed to cable, you could expect to watch any TV content that came along. You paid a single monthly fee to the local cable provider, and you got their slate of programming. If you wanted to expand your viewing horizons to include movies, you could either wait and rent the videotape—VHS or Beta!—or add one of the nascent premium channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, or The Movie Channel. But all original programming was essentially available to anyone willing to pony up for a cable subscription.

 

But, boy have times changed. Today, some of the very best original content is exclusively available on paid services. This trend can be traced back to HBO’s experimentation—and success—with original programming starting in the early ‘90s

with such shows as Tales from the Crypt, Tracey Takes On . . ., and The Larry Sanders Show.

 

Today, however, it isn’t just one or two services offering exclusive content, but many, with more seemingly coming every day. Sure, there’s still HBO with its award-winning Westworld, Game of Thrones, True Detective, and more. And Showtime, with Ray Donovan, Billions, Homeland, and others.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Of course, you can’t forget the original streaming juggernaut, Netflix, which seemingly produces a new “must see!” show every day. In fact, Netflix has so much terrific original programming it barely seems to concern itself with providing Hollywood fare any longer. Besides its marquee titles like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, The Crown, and Stranger Things, there’s recent epic fare like BirdboxTaylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour, Roma, and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

 

Then there’s Amazon Prime, which has been quick to join the original-programming game with features like Man in the High Castle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Homecoming, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

 

Beyond that you have Hulu, with The Handmaid’s Tale, 11.22.63, and Castle Rock (review coming soon), among others.

 

And don’t forget YouTube Premium, which is trying to get all those eyeballs that are already tuning in for free homemade videos to pay for new exclusive content. One of the first shows used to attract paying viewers was Cobra Kai, a continuation of the Karate Kid series. But the company recently announced it plans to release 50 original shows during 2019.

 

Even traditional network channels like CBS are getting involved in the premium streaming game. If you want to watch Star Trek: Discovery, The Good Fight, Tell Me a Story, or the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot, you’ll need a CBS All Access pass.

 

Plus you have Shudder offering original horror content, Apple announcing it plans to spend in excess of $1 billion to acquire and develop original content, DC Entertainment with its DC Universe streaming, and the elephant in the room: The upcoming

Disney streaming service, called Disney+. We’re not even sure what Disney+ will cost, what shows/movies it will have, or the quality of the original content, but already people are calling it the next must-have service. I mean, sure, it might be worth subscribing just to see Star Wars: The Mandalorian (shown above) and The Clone Wars.

 

But getting some shows isn’t always just as easy as pulling out your credit card and clicking the sign-up tab. For example, if you want to enjoy any of the original programming on the Audience network—like the fantastic Mr. Mercedes—you’ll need to subscribe to either DirecTV or AT&T U-verse—a pretty big commitment just to watch a few hours of some show.

 

Of course, exclusives aren’t anything new. They’ve been a part of the video-game industry since the start. For example, if you wanted to play Mario, you needed to buy a Nintendo, but playing Sonic required going with Sega. Still today, games like Halo or Forza require owning an Xbox One, while playing God of War or Spider-Man requires a PlayStation.

Back at the launch of 3D Blu-ray discs, Panasonic and James Cameron played with exclusivity, making the only way to get a copy of Avatar in 3D—the top-grossing film of all time and (arguably) the best use of 3D—by buying a Panasonic 3D TV.

 

This can all lead to a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). And then anger. And then piracy.

 

In fact, the pirate streaming service BitTorrent is re-gaining popularity thanks in large part to  these streaming exclusives. Cam Cullen, Vice President of Global Marketing at Sandvine commented, “To get access to all of these services, it gets very expensive for a consumer, so they subscribe to one or two and pirate the rest.”

 

People are clearly getting sick of being nickeled and dimed (or rather $10 to $15’d) to death every time they turn around because they want to watch some new show.

 

While unlikely, one solution would be some kind of unified “Premier Pass” where you pay some amount per month/year and have access to everything. Let the services divvy up the money based on a percentage of usage of each service. They now have the capability to see what and how often we’re watching something, so they could split the money up amongst themselves that way, but give consumers the ability to choose from everything available. Ultimately, the best content will win out by attracting the most eyeballs.

 

This seems to be something the music industry is already figuring out.

 

According to Troy Carter, Spotify’s Global Head of Creator Services, “Exclusive audio content, specifically with albums, is not within our playbook. I think people have learned over the last six months that it’s bad for the music industry, it’s not that great for artists because they can’t reach the widest possible audience, and it’s terrible for consumers. If you wake up in the morning and your favorite artist isn’t on the service that you’re paying ten dollars a month for, sooner or later you lose faith in the subscription model.”

 

Even Kanye West is against exclusives. Last year, he Tweeted that streaming wars were “f***ing up the music game.”

 

Amen, Yeezy. Amen.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.