Vudu Tag

Review: The Green Knight

The Green Knight (2021)

There are three main reasons one might adapt an Arthurian legend for the silver screen. The first—and I submit Guy Ritchie’s awful Legend of the Sword as Exhibit A—could be described as an attempt to create a crowd-pleasing modern action blockbuster with a built-in audience for which the director has little respect. 

 

The second—and I’ll submit John Boorman’s well-intentioned and engaging but overwrought Excalibur as Exhibit B—boils down to a desire to create a fantasy film and recognition of the fact that there are fewer legal barriers to entry when adapting

works in the public domain.

 

The third main impulse for adapting such works largely comes from a desire to illuminate, interpret, and start a discussion about why these stories still hold such sway in the modern mind. David Lowery’s The Green Knight seems to largely fall under that umbrella.

 

I say “largely,” because it’s a difficult film to pin down. It’s partly a screen adaptation of the famous 14th Century epic poem, but partly a commentary on it. Even as I finish typing that sentence, though, it feels wrong. The Green Knight isn’t so much commentary as it is a prompt for conversation, exploration, and reexamination of the source material. It’s more a question than an answer.

 

It is, in many ways, Lowery’s way of telling the audience 

THE GREEN KNIGHT AT A GLANCE

This telling of the medieval tale is as much a commentary on the legend as it is the legend itself. 

 

PICTURE
Dolby Vision’s expanded gamut captures the nuances of the imagery, adding additional richness to the fabrics and foliage.

 

SOUND     

The mix is carefully orchestrated, thoughtful, never distracting, and always clear in its delivery of dialogue.

what this story means to him, and what lessons he thinks there are for modern audiences to learn in its medieval text. Interesting as that is, though, far more interesting is the room Lowery leaves the viewer to reflect on their own relationship with the poem and its place in the modern world.

 

If you haven’t guessed from all the above rambling, The Green Knight is at times a very abstract work of cinema. Those unfamiliar with the source will likely be lost at times, and those more familiar with the poem will just as likely be pushed off balance by the elements of the original that Lowery is slavishly faithful to, those he elides and expands, and the unrelated medieval legends he weaves into his narrative to reinforce the themes he wants to accentuate. It’s a weird mix of reverence and revisionism that certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste.

 

The one thing we can all agree on is that this is a sumptuously gorgeous film. There are long stretches that can only be described as pure audiovisual experience, and with the benefit of Theater at Home delivery via Vudu, I found myself tempted at times to reach for my remote and pause the film just to get lost in the perfect composition of a frame, the lushness of the 

colors, richness of the contrasts, and depth of the shadow detail. I resisted that temptation, since this is a work intended to be viewed in motion. But the temptation was there.

 

Shot in 6.5K and finished in a 4K digital intermediate, the imagery is packed to the gills with detail of the sort that actually enhances the experience rather than merely throwing more pixels at your screen. Despite the judicious and effective employment of CGI, the film also relies on 

some old-school tricks of the trade, seemingly as a reminder that this is not an alternate reality to which you can escape but rather a piece of art on which to reflect. In Vudu’s Dolby Vision presentation, you can clearly see the reliance on matte paintings, an art form Hollywood has been poorer for abandoning.

 

It’s true that there are a number of low-contrast shots, especially low-light sequences photographed indoors with natural light, which means blacks aren’t always the inkiest and the image flattens out a bit, especially when compared with the most dramatic outdoor shots. But this seems intentional, and the dynamic metadata of Dolby Vision allows for each shot to be tone-mapped to the capabilities of your display. Long story short, this is one of the few films I’ve seen recently where Dolby Vision isn’t merely a technical nicety but a borderline necessity to keep the image from devolving into a puddle of indistinct grays in a handful of shots. 

 

There are a few fleeting moments of banding in Vudu’s streaming rental (less than one second in total, I reckon), but I’m half-convinced this is baked into the master. And I say this is because the opening scene—with its eye-reactive highlights and deep shadows, and quick transitions between those extremes—is the sort of image you would forgive for being a bit banded even on full-bandwidth UHD Blu-ray. But I didn’t see a hint of such. Dolby Vision’s expanded gamut also captures the nuances of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo’s imagery, adding some additional richness to the fabrics and foliage and conveying in seconds what the original poet sometimes took multiple stanzas to articulate. 

 

In terms of the audio, I feel like a bit of a broken record for saying this but once again we have a Premium VOD rental whose levels haven’t been optimized for home cinemas. My best estimation is that it’s mastered about 4.5dB below reference levels, so go ahead and crank up the volume from the giddy-up (assuming you’re renting it via Vudu—other providers might have tweaked the levels). 

 

I wish I could tell you more about the mix, but I was so hypnotized by the film that I rarely noticed the technical aspects of the sound, aside from the aforementioned stretches that could best be described as pure audiovisual experience. But I’d say that’s the mark of really effective sound design. It’s never distracting, but it is carefully orchestrated, thoughtful, and always clear in its delivery of dialogue—assuming, again, that you give your volume knob a bit of a twist to the right. 

 

For the past few days, since I staked claim to this movie for review, my colleague John Sciacca has been hammering my text-messaging inbox, asking me for my assessment. And I’m still not sure I’ve fully made up my mind about The Green Knight, nor am I sure I ever will, despite the fact that I’ll be purchasing it the instant it’s permanently released to home video. 

 

“Did you like it?” he asked me last night, I suppose tiring of my vacillating and ambivalating. I’m not sure that’s the right question. What I will say is: The film continues to haunt me. I simply cannot shake it. It has also, in some not-so-subtle ways, changed my relationship with the text of Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight. Or, more accurately, it has prompted me to reassess that relationship on my own terms. 

 

I sat down last night to re-read the poem, not through Lowery’s lens but rather through a lens of my own making that Lowery nudged me into grinding and polishing myself. I reached for Tolkien’s translation, always my first choice for its fidelity and excellent footnotes. A few pages in, though, I found myself longing for something different, something more energetic. So, I put down the Tolkien and picked up my less-well-worn copy of Simon Armitage’s more recent translation, which I’ve never quite been able to give myself over to completely. Something changed after having seen The Green Knight. The immediacy and energy of Armitage’s verse rang truer to me than the scholarly pedanticism of Tolkien. 

 

Of course, the Professor’s interest in the poem was always more philological, whereas Armitage’s is undeniably more emotional. I can appreciate that now. In fact, as ashamed as I am to admit this, I think I love both translations in equal measure, but for different reasons. 

 

I’m not sure I ever would have reached that point without having seen The Green Knight. And although I’m not sure this was Lowery’s intention with the film, I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear it. 

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.

Review: Better Days

Better Days

Derek Tsang’s Better Daysan Oscar nominee for International Feature Film—is a frustrating movie that’s worth the frustration. Its imperfections don’t keep it from being a powerful and moving story and its convolutions aren’t wholly justified, but if tasked with trimming it down a bit, I’m not sure what I would cut. It’s also plagued by issues forced upon the filmmaker by the Chinese government. But before we dig into all of that, let’s talk about what makes it unique and beautiful nonetheless.

 

Adapted from the novel In His Youth, In Her Beauty by Jiu Yuexi, Better Days is the story of Chen Nian, a gifted young woman preparing for her college entrance exams while also suffering horrific treatment at the hands of bullies. That makes it all 

sound a bit trite, but there’s no way to convey in a few sentences how horrible the bullying on display here truly is. Think Lord of the Flies on steroids, just in an urban environment.

 

Shortly thereafter, Nian attempts to report the beating of a street thug and gets drawn into his life after nearly being killed by the gang attacking him. And again, Tsang shows a level of restraint here most directors wouldn’t. We don’t see Xiao Bei being beaten because we don’t need to. The look on her face tells us everything we need to know about the violence she’s witnessing.

 

The story that follows is equal parts Romeo and Juliet (sans the family feuds), Lord of the Flies (but with societal pressures standing in for the lack thereof), and a touch of Mean Girls (without the humor), but it combines its influences into something unique. The plot does get a bit messy at times but it holds together thanks to the 

BETTER DAYS AT A GLANCE

Nominated for the International Feature Film Oscar, this brutal tale of bullying and societal strife is compelling and satisfying despite some meddling by the Chinese censors.

 

PICTURE
Even at 1080p on Vudu, the image is wonderfully detailed, especially in closeups, without any significant artifacts.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel soundtrack manages to be creative without being gimmicky, with the ambient sound effects beautifully mixed.

performances of Dongyu Zhou as Chen Nian and Jackson Yee as Xiao Bei, as well as Tsang’s gifts for visual storytelling.

 

For all its ugliness, Better Days is a beautifully shot film, with some of the best application of color theory I’ve seen on any screen in some time. The portions that take place in Nian’s school are awash in secondary hues and pastels that starkly contrast with the browns and grays of Xiao Bei’s underworld. It’s a shame the film wasn’t released in 4K HDR because the color palette really deserves the expanded gamut 10-bit video would bring. So, too, do the darker scenes, where the dynamic range feels constrained. Shadows simply don’t reach as deep as they should, and the image lacks of a bit of dimension as a result.

 

Otherwise, Vudu’s HDX presentation is admirable. The film was shot in 3.2K resolution and finished in a 2K digital intermedia, so it’s not as if we’re losing out on a lot of resolution in the 1080p presentation. Indeed, the image is wonderfully detailed, especially in closeups. And I didn’t see any significant artifacts in Vudu’s stream. If you’re going to rent this in the digital domain, though, pick your provider carefully. I can’t imagine Amazon Prime would do justice to the cinematography, given how drab and fuzzy most of that service’s HD streams look. My advice would be to stick with Vudu or iTunes. 

 

Either way you go, though, the 5.1 soundtrack (delivered on Vudu in Dolby Digital+) is a lot better than you’d probably expect. The mix manages to be creative without being gimmicky. There’s a scene early on where a character is listening to headphones and pulls them out of her ears one at a time. The sound mix follows her lead, planting the audio she hears dead center at first, then leaning to the left before fading away completely. Ambient sound effects are also beautifully mixed, be it the sounds of rain, traffic, or simply the background din of an overpopulated cityscape. 

 

Vudu also presents the film with baked-in subtitles, and the only soundtrack option is the original Mandarin. This, of course, shouldn’t be a problem in and of itself, but it sort of is.  I know next to no Mandarin, and what little I do know comes from wuxia films and kung-fu flicks. But even I picked up on the fact that the subtitles are occasionally lacking. Regional idioms in particular are stripped of all their flavor in favor of more generic translations. 

 

That does little to rob the film of its impact. What does suck a bit of soul out of it is the blatantly tacked-on coda that reads more like hostage video than a legitimate expression of the filmmaker. After the story has wrapped back on itself beautifully, like a narrative ouroboros that manages to let go of its own tail, we’re subjected to some tacked-on text—accompanied by cheery music—that would have us believe the Chinese government has stamped out all the bullying and all the societal ills represented in the film have been rectified. 

 

That left me stunned. It was so incongruous with everything else about the film that I went digging. And I found that this was far from the only meddling the Chinese government did. And with that, it all makes sense—the little plot threads that don’t feel properly resolved, the heavy-handed exposition at the hands of the film’s police characters . . . all the little nagging problems I had with the film can seemingly be blamed on the interference of the CCP. 

 

But Better Days rises above those flaws to be a compelling movie with universal applicability. It’s a heart-wrenching story about the weight of societal and familial expectations and the tolls of living in a society where the choices made in one’s youth represent a fork in the road, with one path leading to a comfortable but oppressive life and the other toward the freedom of squalor and destitution. I wish we could see the film Derek Tsang wanted us to see, because I can only imagine how much more impact it had before all the government censorship. But none of that is to say that I’m dissatisfied with the movie we got instead.

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.

Review: Minari

Minari (2020)

There’s a certain frustrating injustice in the fact that Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical Minari came out in 2020. While this gorgeous slice-of-life drama is being hailed as one of the year’s best films, that recognition carries with it some tallest-kid-in-kindergarten connotations. The truth is that Minari would be a triumph of cinema in any year. But to be plucked from the dustbin and heralded as such this year almost seems like a consolation prize. 

 

I’ll admit, though, that I have some significant bias as far as this film is concerned, so maybe take my adulation with a grain of salt. I’m a sucker for a simple story. Writing complicated tales is easy—you string together a bunch of “what had happened was”es, cut between disparate narrative threads when one has gone on too long, throw as much as you can at the wall, and 

hope enough of it sticks to be honed in the editing. Writing a simple story is significantly more difficult, and writing one that holds together narratively and thematically is an admirable accomplishment.

 

Minari is the simplest of tales, and a familiar one at that: A family, facing unendurable financial hardship and lack of opportunity, moves to a strange new place in search of a better life. Familiar though that plot kernel may be, Chung tells it in the most unexpected of ways, never going for the obvious twists, never beholden to the traditional three-act narrative structure.

 

In some respects, a lot of what you’ll get out of the film is dependent upon what you bring into it, because Chung’s thumb never rests too heavily on the scales. Speaking purely for myself—a Caucasian southern man whose familial roots grow in rural soil very similar to the setting of 

MINARI AT A GLANCE

A Korean family’s attempts to farm in rural Arkansas told in a deceptively simple tale that adds up to one of the best films of 2020.

 

PICTURE
Shot digitally, the movie is a beauty to behold, with imagery that evokes the organic quality of Kodachrome film. 

 

SOUND     

The film surprisingly benefits from a Dolby Atmos mix that helps evoke a three-dimensional world without getting gimmicky.

Minari—I was drawn almost as much to the setting as I was to the human drama of it all. I’ll admit, though, that I tensed up the first time a white southerner appeared onscreen. You almost can’t help but expect the residents of rural Arkansas to be portrayed as caricatures, as overtly racist and malicious bumpkins. They aren’t, though. They’re portrayed as ignorant, to be sure, but the exact sort of ignorance that feels 100% authentic to the film’s setting; the sort of ignorance I’m met with at every big family gathering. This is simply one of the most accurate portraits of the rural south in the 1980s I’ve ever seen.

 

Against that backdrop, the story that unfolds is one of duty—duty to one’s parents, children, partner, and oneself. And most of the drama comes from trying to find the right balance between those interdependent dials. Duty to his parents is largely to blame for the financial struggles Jacob Yi (played to perfection by Steven Yeun) and his family suffer in California. Duty to 

their children is what forces Jacob and his wife Monica (played to equal perfection by Han Ye-ri) to the Ozark Plateau. Frustration with this tug-of-war and a disproportionate attempt to be dutiful to himself contributes to Jacob’s Sisyphean struggles in his new home, both within his family and on the land that he obsessively farms.

 

The farm, it should be said, serves as an unnamed character in the film. It embodies the tension at the center of the struggle between an untenable past and an uncertain future. Those two forces, though, receive their embodiment in the forms of David—Jacob and Monica’s ill son—and 

Soon-ja, Monica’s mother, who comes to live with the family to care for her grandchildren while their parents work at a nearby hatchery, and who plants the perennial herb that gives the film its name and so much of its meaning.

 

David and Soon-ja not only serve as the heart of the film, they also serve as its funny bone, adding some much-needed levity exactly when it’s needed most. As with the rural whites, it would have been all too easy to paint both of these characters with too broad a brush, but Chung packs each with the sort of contradictions essential to any human. In the case of David, that’s not all that surprising, since the boy serves as the writer/director’s proxy in the story. But Soon-ja must have been a much trickier character to write, no matter how much real-life inspiration Chung had for her. She represents tradition, but she’s an idiosyncratic, eccentric force of nature who defies tradition at every turn. That Chung didn’t chisel off her rough edges to force her into the symbolic mold she fills in the film is a credit to his skills as a writer and his faith in the audience.

 

Individually, David and Soon-ja are fascinating (and indeed somewhat tragic) characters. Together, they’re absolutely hilarious—the sort of duo that Taika Waititi would write if he made dramas instead of comedies. 

 

But don’t dwell too much on that comparison. I’ve simply been so primed by a culture that’s obsessed with every new thing being categorized as “this meets that” that I found myself drawing that parallel before I could catch myself. If forced to draw deeper parallels of the same sort, I would call this film Waititi meets Faulkner meets Sinclair.” But that’s hardly fair. Minari is boldly, unapologetically its own thing. 

 

It’s also beautiful to behold. The film is currently available on PVOD—or “Theater at Home,” as described by Vudu, where I rented it. Vudu presents Minari in Dolby Vision with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, both of which serve the material well. Although shot digitally, the cinematography has a very organic look that’s vaguely reminiscent of Kodachrome stock. It’s incredibly contrasty, with inky shadows and dazzling highlights; but the most prominent aspect of the cinematography is the richness and warmth of the colors, all of which are captured beautifully by the transfer. 

 

Despite the 2K digital intermediate, there’s a wealth of detail in everything from the tattered interior of the Yi family’s mobile home to the chaotic kaleidoscope of patterns caused by overlapping layers of flora blowing in the breeze. If the film’s presentation proves anything, it’s that lenses are more essential to the final look of a cinematic work than are capture resolution (3.2K in this case) or the pixel-count of the DI. 

 

Interestingly, though, when I switched between my Roku Ultra and my Apple TV 4K purely for the sake of thorough comparison, the latter didn’t hold up quite as well. On the Apple hardware, the Vudu stream was marred to a degree by some banding, digital noise, and lack of definition that was nowhere to be seen on the Roku. 

 

Minari doesn’t seem like the sort of film that would benefit from an Atmos mix, but does it ever. It’s another case where, if Atmos were handled this gracefully by every sound mixer, I would be a bigger fan of the format. The extra channels are used in this case to construct the film’s world in three dimensions. Heck, if you took away the dialogue and music, it seems like 90% of what would be left would be the chirping of crickets and tree frogs and—to borrow a beautiful turn of phrase from Randy Newman—the song that the trees sing when the wind blows. Once you get over the novelty of sounds coming from overhead, the film’s mix just sounds authentic, like strolling through the wild acreage of my dad’s property with my ears attuned to the aural landscape. 

 

And in a way, that’s an apt metaphor for the film itself as a whole. It’s obviously contrived. Every story is. But give yourself to it and there’s nearly nothing about Minari that feels contrived. It’s as honest and unforced a work of cinema as I’ve experienced in ages. Its show-don’t-tell approach to grappling with the struggles of the working poor and the realities of cultural assimilation, combined with its pitch-perfect performances and effortless artistry, make it an absolute must-see.

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.

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters (2019)

As the title suggests, Todd Haynes’ film Dark Waters is no light piece of fluffy escapism, and its tone and weight feel even darker and heavier given the current state of the world. It is a film that forces you to confront sickness, death, and corruption head-on, like Robert Bilott, the protagonist of the story, convincingly underplayed by Mark Ruffalo. Based on a true story, you will be both disturbed and riveted.

The film opens on a warm night in Parkersburg, West Virginia in 1975 when a trio of teenagers sneak onto private property, shuck off their clothes, and take a dip in the lake. A few seconds later, they are swiftly kicked out by the authorities, two men in a small power boat bearing the name “West Virginia Containment Services.” The men are in the midst of spraying a mysterious chemical onto the water’s surface as one of them shouts to the other, “Turn off the beam, fool!”, referring to the boat’s spotlight. Whatever they’re doing, it’s meant to be a secret.

 

Cut to 1998 in Cincinnati, where Robert Bilott (Ruffalo), a recent partner at the corporate law firm of Taft, Stettinius and Hollister, is paid an unexpected visit by a farmer from Parkersburg seeking his help. Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) 

DARK WATERS AT A GLANCE

This frightening, powerful true story of DuPont Chemical’s poisoning of a small West Virginia town features a strong performance from Mark Ruffalo as the lawyer who uncovers the truth.

 

PICTURE

The film is well made, but relies on a blue filter effect that’s distracting and ultimately unnecessary.

 

SOUND

Composer Marcelo Zavros’ score is particularly effective. 

claims that DuPont is poisoning his farm’s creek and thereby killing the animals—and he has proof. He needs a lawyer, though, and he wants Bilott, whose grandma lives in Parkersburg. Only problem is that Bilott defends chemical companies, he doesn’t sue them.

 

Bilott refuses at first, but a nagging curiosity brings him to Tennant’s farm in West Virginia, and what he sees there cannot be unseen—190 dead cows, people getting sick, and a mysterious landfill belonging to DuPont. Bilott eventually takes the case, as he is the only lawyer willing to face the juggernaut chemical company. Dark suspicions and alarming evidence begin piling up, as does the paperwork Bilott must sift through to uncover the horrible truth. It will take him many years to find it, and at what cost? His career? His family? His life?

 

Mark Ruffalo gives one of his best performances as “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, which is the title of the New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich from which the screenplay (by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan) is adapted. The supporting cast is equally strong and includes Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham, Bill Camp (heart-breaking as Wilbur Tennant), and Anne Hathaway, particularly compelling as Bilott’s wife, Sarah.

 

The music score by Marcelo Zarvos is effective and in one scene, the use of the John Denver hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was particularly eerie juxtaposed with the film’s grim circumstances.

 

The look of the film, however, is its one weak spot. Nearly every scene is layered with a blue filter, used in an effort to manipulate the tone of the film, to make it feel somber and serious. The effect is overbearing and relentless. When we first see Tennant’s farm, for example, it is a dreary, blue day, and then when we revisit the farm more than a decade later, it looks exactly the same. The weather has not changed one iota. Did Haynes film it all on the same day using the same blue filter? His film does not need to rely on gimmicks. Dark Waters is an excellent movie; well-shot, well-scored, well-edited and well-acted, and these elements alone give us the tone. No filters necessary.

 

Despite this one qualm, Dark Waters is both frightening and powerful, and stands alongside the best of its genre like Silkwood, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich. It’s so scary, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after seeing it, you find yourself going through your kitchen cabinets and throwing out some of your non-stick pots and pans. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Glenn Bassett

Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. Most recently, he
was set designer for a production of
On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts
Center in Connecticut and for the Salt Marsh Opera’s 
production of Pagliacci. He was production
designer on the upcoming independent shorts 
Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner and
designed and illustrated the poster and album 
cover for Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation.
Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical
thriller, 
Dig a Little Deeper.

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Let’s be honest about something for a minute: While many of us love Netflix as an alternative or supplement to cable or satellite TV, its user interface is awful.

 

To be fair. Netflix isn’t alone. In a previous (and now woefully outdated) post, where we dug deep into the various content providers of the day and stratified them according to quality of delivery and quality of content, we outright ignored user interfaces, simply because most of them are abysmal. That’s ironic, given that the screens you use to navigate your content 

libraries or search through the trove of on-demand shows and movies in an attempt to find something worth watching are an incredibly important part of the movie-watching experience.

 

The original plan for this post was to rectify that by parsing all the major platforms and arranging them from best to worst on the design of their interfaces.

 

And then Disney+ happened.

 

Disney’s new subscription-based streaming service has been the talk of the entertainment industry for the past few weeks, for a number of reasons. For the purposes of this rant, though, Disney+ shines a very bright light on the fact that the user experiences for most other content delivery systems are so woefully lacking that a ranked list simply doesn’t make sense anymore. Because when you get right down to it, the home video industry currently has exactly two good examples of functional, attractive, and easily navigable UIs: Disney+ and Kaleidescape.

 

So instead of asking you to slog through a list of all the rest, complete with everything they do wrong, I thought I would instead focus on what Kaleidescape and Disney+ do right with their UIs in relation to the also-ran efforts from everyone else.

 

Before we get to a discussion about what makes these two UIs so good, I should point out that I don’t consider all of the digital video services to be in direct competition with one another in terms of their user experiences. That’s because there are two quite distinct ways in which we consume home video these days in the digital domain.

 

Disney+ and similar services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and the upcoming HBO Max and Peacock, just to name a few, function as subscription-based on-demand libraries, where you don’t own anything but rather have access to a wealth of revolving-door content for anywhere between $4.99 and $16.99 per month.

 

On the other hand, services like Vudu, iTunes, and 

Kaleidescape offer à la carte sales of movies and TV episodes (along with bonus features) that are either added to an online library of streaming content you ostensibly own in perpetuity or downloaded to local hard disks or servers for viewing at any time.

 

There are, of course, services that offer a hybrid of these two approaches, like Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+, both of which feature a library of on-demand content 

for a monthly subscription fee, as well as access to films and TV shows that can be purchased individually. This does muddy our discussion a bit. But for the most part, I’ll attempt to keep any comparisons apples to apples.

 

In this first post, I’ll be digging into Kaleidescape and what it does right compared with other buy-it-and-own-it services like Vudu, iTunes, and to a lesser degree Amazon Prime. In Part Two, I’ll take Disney+ for a spin and highlight all the reasons it stands out in the realm of subscription-based streaming UIs.

 

 

What Other Digital Movie Retailers Can Learn from Kaleidescape

I’ve long contended that Kaleidescape has the best user interface in the entire home video industry, and I stick by that. The thing is, though, I often focus on aesthetics when talking about what makes the Kaleidescape home screen so appealing, and that’s really only half the story. It’s true, the beautiful layout of cover artwork is slick and inviting, and the way titles flitter on 

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

and off the screen just never gets old in terms of wow factor. But none of this would really matter if the Kaleidescape UI wasn’t so well-organized and easy to navigate.

 

All of that animation is really in service of helping you figure out what you’re in the mood to watch. Gravitate toward something like Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope

and the onscreen layout of cover art rearranges to fill the screen with similar titles—other Star Wars movies, of course, but also other action/adventure fantasy films. Pick one of those titles instead, and suddenly it becomes the center of a new universe, with similar titles orbiting outward toward the edge of the screen.

 

And, hey, if you know exactly what you’re in the mood to watch, you can skip this animated wall of cover art and skip straight to an alphabetical list of movies you own. It’s a different-horses-for-different-courses approach to digital library management 

that none of the other collection-based services seem to understand.

 

Buying new movies is also as easy as navigating over to the Kaleidescape Movie Store, a wholly separate area of the UI that features yet another unique interface designed to suit its purposes. You can navigate the Store by genre, by collection (for example, Marvel 

Interface Faceoff, Pt 1

Cinematic Universe or 2019 Oscar Nominees) or jump straight to new releases or pre-orders. If nothing less than 4K HDR presentation will do, you can also easily filter the store to just show titles available as such.

 

Contrast this with something like Vudu, which is probably Kaleidescape’s best competition, at least in terms of how it functions. Like Kaleidescape, Vudu allows you to purchase films in the digital domain outright, rather than paying a subscription fee to access an ever-changing body of on-demand content. It also comes with bonus features like audio commentary, deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes documentaries, when they’re available.

 

No matter the device, though, navigating Vudu is an absolute nightmare. In addition to its outdated look and feel, simply making your way to the library of content you own is unintuitive, to put it kindly.

 

A few weeks back, my wife was itching to re-watch a documentary we own about the history of Dungeons & Dragons art, so I told her to cue it up while I powdered my nose. I told her the name of the movie (Eye of the Beholder) and the service on 

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1
Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Vudu’s home (top) and “My Vudu” (bottom) screens

which we owned it (Vudu), and walked out of the room. When I came back a few minutes later, she was still futzing around on the home screen simply trying to figure out how to get to our library of previously purchased content.

 

This is largely due to the fact that every screen in Vudu looks the same: A wall of static cover artwork against a bleh blue background. There’s no real indication that, to get to content you already own, you have to navigate all the way up to the top of the screen, scroll over to My Vudu, go down from there, and toggle to the right to find Movies. There aren’t multiple roads to the same destination the way there is with Kaleidescape. There’s no visual or navigational difference

between content you own and content Vudu is trying to sell you. And as for the latter, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, Vudu’s organizational structure is an embarrassment.

 

You could say the same for services like Amazon Prime, too, especially when it comes to purchasing new films instead of waiting for them to hopefully show up on-demand. And Amazon makes it doubly difficult to find content in 4K HDR, especially in the way it treats the 4K release of a film as a wholly different title from the HD release.

 

There are things that could be better about the Kaleidescape user experience, to be sure. I grow aggravated that I often have to download both the 4K HDR and Blu-ray-quality versions of a film if I want to access all the bonus features, for example. But in its layout, navigation, operation, aesthetic design, and overall intuitiveness, Kaleidescape is so far ahead of all the other “build your own library” video services that it’s hard to knock it for the fact that there is a bit of room for improvement.

 

To be clear, I don’t expect other digital cinema retailers to mimic Kaleidescape’s flowing animations or speed-of-thought responsiveness. We’re talking about a dedicated media server with tons of processing power versus apps meant to be installed on sub-$200 devices. But Vudu and others could learn a lot from the way Kaleidescape uses varied graphics and navigation, along with an intuitive layout, to make the process of buying, organizing, selecting, and navigating a growing movie library such a slick experience.

 

In the next post, I’ll be digging deeper into Disney+ and all the things it does well compared to similar subscription-based on-demand streaming services.

 

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.

Who Does Content Delivery Right?

Earlier this year, we did a quick guide to all the various sources of video entertainment, prioritized by the quality of presentation from worst to best. In light of recent developments, though—the Game of Thrones debacle, the discovery that not all steaming devices deliver the same quality, and the emergence of services like YouTube as providers of exceptional content—we thought it would be a good time to revisit the most common methods of accessing movies and TV shows with an eye toward not just the quality of presentation but also the quality of content they provide. Because those two criteria don’t always align. As the general public recently found out (the hard way, unfortunately), some of the most enticing content is being delivered in less-than-enticing ways.

 

 

Cable & Satellite

DELIVERY  Really starting to show their age

CONTENT  Offer some cutting-edge programming, but without being able to show it to its best advantage

You could argue we’re living in a golden age of television, at least in terms of writing, directing, acting, and cinematography. Game of Thrones (minus the last season or two), ChernobylBillions, and American Gods are all beautifully-crafted fare. But the creators of these shows tend to suffer from “Cable Channel Syndrome,” often biting off more than their delivery platforms can chew. As such their efforts can look downright terrible.

 

Unfortunately, that poor presentation can follow these shows from broadcast to streaming, since so many premium cable networks offer online apps based on technology that’s not quite as outdated as cable and satellite, but close enough. At the very least, they all seem to be stuck in the cable-delivery mentality, mostly broadcasting their shows in HD, not Ultra HD (aka 4K), aside from the rare (and much later) release on UHD Blu-ray and/or Kaleidescape. Simply put, a lot of what’s being created for cable these days deserves a much better presentation than what it’s getting.

 

 

Internet TV

DELIVERY Slightly better than satellite or cable

CONTENT  Virtually identical to cable or satellite

Services like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now, which attempt to replicate the experience of cable and satellite via the internet, and use cloud servers instead of hard drives for DVR storage, also tend to have the same content as satellite and cable. The delivery quality is generally a little better, although not always, since most of these services rely on outdated compression codecs and generally offer little or no 4K programming.

 

As for the quality of the content, it’s basically what you’d find on cable or satellite, with the same advantages and disadvantages. Most of these services provide the basics, like TNT, TBS, FX, USA, etc., but also let you add a subscription for HBO, Showtime, and other premium offerings for about the same upcharge you’d see on your monthly cable bill.

 

 

Over-the-Air Broadcast TV

DELIVERY  Pretty darn good—but we’re talking HD, not 4K

CONTENT  What you’d expect from broadcast networks

The tried-and-true TV antenna is making a comeback, especially with cord cutters, and in some markets it gives you access to potentially dozens of free channels offering programming from the major broadcast networks as well as some local shows you can’t get anywhere else.

 

These broadcasts almost always look better than cable, satellite, or internet TV because they’re less compressed. The quality of content, though, really depends on where you live. But chances are good that no matter your locale, you can access The Good Place—one of the most innovative and intelligent shows you can findvia an antenna of one sort or another.

 

 

Standalone Studio Streaming Apps

DELIVERY  Good enough HD for now—but the Disney+ service could help change that for the better

CONTENT  All over the place—but that should improve, too

The streaming marketplace is growing at an unsustainable rate, with new services popping up on a regular basis, dangling the promise of exclusive content in front of potential viewers for an extra however-many bucks per month. Some of these shows are actually quite good, like Doom Patrol from DC Universe and Star Trek: Discovery from CBS All Access. Unfortunately, for now, such services are mostly limited to HD, with outdated video codecs, and many offer stereo sound at best.

Who Does Content Delivery Right?

That will change quite a bit when Disney+ launches later this year. With a movie library including Disney Classics, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and more, this will likely be the No. 1 must-have streaming service for most families. Disney is also developing a ton of new app-exclusive shows for the platform, like The Mandalorian (Star Wars—shown above) and Loki (Marvel), and the company has promised to deliver applicable content in 4K with HDR.

 

 

Hulu

DELIVERY  HD at the moment—although they might decide to offer 4K again

CONTENT  Some standout original shows like The Handmaid’s Tale

In addition to providing on-demand access to a good number of broadcast and cable TV shows, Hulu actually has some excellent original programming, headlined by The Handmaid’s Tale. But the quality of presentation doesn’t stack up against bigger streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. For about two years, Hulu quietly offered some of their shows (including The Handmaid’s Tale) in 4K, but just as quietly removed all support for 4K last year. There have been some hints they might offer 4K again, but as of now there’s no official timeline for that to happen.

 

In other words, if you ignore the handful of compelling originals, most people should probably look at Hulu as a replacement for cable or satellite (unless you’re a sports fan). The good news is, the picture and sound are vastly better than what you’re likely to get from Comcast or Dish Network. But that’s a pretty low bar, to be honest.

 

 

YouTube

DELIVERY  Can be first-rate—but how many vloggers do you really want to see in 4K HDR?

CONTENT  Only as good as the people producing & posting it—but a lot of it is innovative & excellent

Once the bastion of cat videos and puerile vlogs, these days YouTube sort of breaks all molds of content creation and delivery. Yes, you can buy or rent major studio movies and TV shows there, but the real appeal is that anyone can create 

content for the site. In any form. At any quality. And as such, it’s a wild and wonderful mixed bag.

 

You’ll find innovative programming like Critical Role, alongside goofy (but utterly watchable) larks like Jelle’s Marble Runsstuff the likes of which you just won’t find anywhere else. There’s also wholly entertaining but undeniably educational programming like Smarter Every Day and Physics Girl. And while it’s true that some amateur content creators still upload videos that look like they were shot on a potato, many of the best of them have adopted high-quality prosumer gear that makes their clips look as good as anything you’ll see anywhere else.

 

Really, only the top-tier streaming platforms like Vudu, Netflix, and Amazon look better than what YouTube is capable of at its best, mostly because the service’s owner, Google, is blazing trails in terms of compression codecs. YouTube is also one of the very few providers already offering up content in 8K-and-greater resolutions. And it’s home to some of the most stunning 4K/HDR AV demos you’ll find anywhere.

 

 

Amazon Prime Video

DELIVERY  Has a ways to go to catch up with Netflix

CONTENT  Has a ways to go to catch up with Netflix

Amazon is, in many ways, playing catch-up to the streaming leader, Netflix. But you could argue that, at least with the quality of their original shows, they’re not far behind. The past couple years have seen an influx of stellar content like The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselTransparent, and HomecomingAnd with a billion-dollar-plus Lord of the Rings-inspired TV series in the works, the company’s commitment to being taken seriously as a major content creator is undeniable.

 

Unfortunately, Amazon’s support for Dolby Vision and Atmos for its own content is extremely limited, and the Prime Video search engine is atrocious via any device other than Amazon’s own Fire TV. Somebody (who has hopefully been fired) decided it was a good idea to list 4K versions separately from HD, and oftentimes the 4K versions don’t even show up in searches within the app.

 

In other words, at its best Amazon Prime may look as good as what you’re getting from the average Netflix original these days. But finding new content to watch can be a struggle, and finding it in the best available quality can be a snipe hunt.

 

 

Netflix

DELIVERY  Unmatched for a provider of original content

CONTENT  Nobody does it better when it comes to fresh takes on existing genres

Netflix is really leading the way when it comes to delivering top-notch video programming with high-quality picture and sound. The service is spending gobs of money to produce some of the most critically-acclaimed movies and series, most of which can’t be viewed anywhere else, like Roma, Our Planet, and Stranger Things, just to name a few. And as we discussed in a recent episode of the Cineluxe Hour podcast, Netflix has also developed a reputation for taking more creative risks than other content creators, which likely plays some role in the buzz that surrounds so many of its originals.

 

What many people may not realize is that, although Netflix is known for giving writers and directors a long creative leash, the service has some of the most stringent audio and video quality standards around. 4K and HDR (including Dolby Vision) are the norm for any new movies and shows, and the service even offers a decent smattering of titles in Dolby Atmos. What’s more, it recently introduced adaptive studio-quality sound that’s only available to viewers with surround sound or Atmos systems—just one example of the company’s commitment to audiovisual excellence. Granted, the quality of presentation can depend on how you’re accessing the app. But apart from UHD Blu-ray discs or Kaleidescape, Netflix is at the top of the quality mountain for presentation, and arguably for content.

 

 

Vudu & iTunes

DELIVERY  Consistently excellent

CONTENT  No original programming—traditional Hollywood fare instead

Vudu and iTunes don’t create original content—at least not 

yet—but they do offer access to a gigantic catalog of movies and TV shows from most of the major studios. Also, unlike most streaming services, they work primarily on an à la carte purchase model, meaning you don’t pay a monthly fee, but rather pick and choose what you buy or rent (an option Amazon also dabbles in).

 

Both Vudu and iTunes give you the option of downloading movies, but most people simply stream them in real time. If you have a decent-enough internet connection, they can deliver quality on par with Netflix (meaning nearly as good as discs), and both offer tons of movies in 4K/HDR with Dolby Atmos sound.

 

These services do have a very Hollywood-driven mindset, though, so expect to see very traditional offerings, with the latest Hollywood blockbusters put in front of you on a regular basis. Whether or not that floats your boat is entirely subjective, of course.

 

 

UHD Blu-ray & Kaleidescape

DELIVERY  Unrivaled

CONTENT  No original programming, but extremely deep catalogs

While the very best streaming services like Netflix and Vudu may be pushing audio and video quality to the point of diminishing returns, UHD Blu-ray discs (if you have a lot of free shelf space) and Kaleidescape downloads (if you’re done with discs) are still the only way to ensure the absolute best in compromise-free audio and video presentation. Streaming at its best gets close, but for some, “close” just isn’t good enough.

 

Both Blu-ray and Kaleidescape mostly serve to deliver major-studio content. But Kaleidescape in particular makes it very easy to find the best of this content thanks to its curated collections. Want to buy all of 2019’s Golden Globe nominees? They’re just a single click-and-a-download away. The Kaleidescape store also has nearly 80 of AFI’s Top 100 Movies of all time, and nearly 75 years’ worth of Best Picture Oscar winners. Frankly, none of the streaming services comes anywhere close to that. What’s more, Kaleidescape’s innovative user interface makes it easier than ever to find exactly the right movie to scratch your current itch, even if you’re not sure what that itch is.

John Higgins & Dennis Burger

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.

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.

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 2

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I wondered if you could hear any differences in Dolby Atmos surround sound on the various movie streaming services and movies downloaded from Kaleidescape, and decided to do a comparison between Vudu, Apple TV, and Kaleidescape to find out.

 

After an afternoon of listening tests, here are my results.

 

I have a pretty high-end audio system, consisting of the new Marantz AV8805 flagship preamp/processor, two Marantz seven-channel amplifiers, and a 7.2.6-channel speaker configuration that includes Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L tower

speakers, a Definitive Trinity Signature Reference sub, and an SVS SB-16Ultra sub. I watched all of the movies at the same volume setting: -15 dB.

 

For source material, I used my Kaleidescape Strato to handle the Dolby TrueHD audio on movies downloaded from the movie store, a Microsoft Xbox One S to stream content from Vudu, and an Apple TV 4K to play movies from the Apple Store.

 

I mined my movie collection to find multiple titles I owned across all three services that featured Dolby Atmos soundtracks. This allowed me to cue up the scenes on all three devices and fairly quickly listen to each scene in the different formats.

I watched a number of scenes from six films I’m familiar with: Ready Player One, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, Gravity, Venom, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. After A-B-C’ing each scene multiple times, I can definitively say two things: 1) the TrueHD audio mix always sounded better, and 2) audio from the Apple TV 4K sounded substantially quieter and more compressed.

 

By far the most readily noticeable audio differences were in the low frequency range. Consistently, film after film, scenes with low-frequency activity were far more dynamic and impressive in TrueHD. The low end had more physical impact, producing frequencies I could feel, as well as pressure waves that rattled doors and windows.

 

The opening “Bell Bottoms” scene from Baby Driver is a perfect example, where the bass notes in the song were thin and indistinct with the Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) on Apple TV and Vudu, and the shotgun blasts had little weight. With TrueHD, the bass was articulated, and the shotgun plumbed far lower and louder.

 

The bass-heavy Blade Runner 2049 also offered multiple scenes that showcased the superiority of the TrueHD soundtrack. The pistol Deckard uses in his fight with K in old Vegas had far more impact, as did the rushing water, thunder, and air vehicles flying at the pump station. The fantastic Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer soundtrack also sounded richer, producing notes that were more musical and real, with better tone and decay.

 

Textural sounds also had far more dimension and realism with TrueHD. The first challenge race from Ready Player One was a perfect example, featuring a lot of different vehicles with unique-sounding engines. The multi-layered sounds of the engines, crashes, crunches, and explosions had more detail and separation, being less distinct in the DD+ version. The motorcycle chase in Venom exhibited this same sonic loss in DD+, as with the sounds of the drones flying, or the details of bullets striking. It was similar with the crunching and thrashing from the hippo attack in Jumanji.

 

As mentioned above, the audio levels on Apple TV were significantly lower across every film—often 10 dB or more. This was obvious on everything, but especially noticeable on Gravity, where the opening dialogue chatter between Stone and Houston was virtually inaudible, making it completely unintelligible when played at the same levels as the Vudu and Kaleidescape versions.

 

Even with volume levels raised to compensate, the Apple versions of the films just seemed far more compressed, lacking dynamic range. This was similar to what I experienced on the Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour streamed from Netflix, making me wonder if there is some issue with the way the Apple TV 4K handles Atmos audio. 

 

Now, while the TrueHD mix was definitely better, that doesn’t mean the streamed mix was bad. Just not as good. This was especially noticeable when played back to back, where the TrueHD audio had a wider, airier, more natural presentation. Outdoor scenes like in the jungles of Jumanji just felt more open and like you were in the actual environment, while the DD+ audio felt more centered on the screen.

 

For luxury cinema owners who’ve invested in getting the best experience possible, there are definite, noticeable audio improvements to be had by purchasing content in the lossless format.

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.

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

For years, audiophiles have bemoaned the lackluster quality of MP3 audio files, saying they compress the life out of the music. Yet people still buy, stream, and enjoy MP3 (or similarly compressed) music files by the billions, so are they really that bad?

 

The music analogy of lossy, compressed MP3 files versus lossless, high-resolution .WAV (or similar) files is a great starting point for discussing the audio quality of streaming movie services. Without getting too deep into the weeds, streaming sites like Vudu, Netflix, and Apple deliver an audio bitstream using Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) while Blu-ray and UltraHD discs and titles downloaded from the Kaleidescape movie store use Dolby TrueHD. (We could also have a discussion of DTS versus DTS-HD Master or DTS:X, but since no streaming services yet provide or supports these, we’ll table that for later.)

 

A lossy codec like DD+ compresses the original full-resolution file, discarding information the encoder deems the listener won’t miss or wouldn’t have heard to begin with. This significantly reduces the original file size, making it easier to stream. But a lossless format like TrueHD retains all of the original information, resulting in a much larger file, which creates a problem for streaming services but isn’t a factor for a disc or for content downloaded from Kaleidescape.

According to Dolby, “Digital Plus provides up to twice the efficiency of Dolby Digital while adding new features like 7.1-ch audio, support for descriptive video services, and support for Dolby Atmos. Dolby Digital Plus is widely used by streaming and broadcast services to deliver surround sound audio at lower bitrates. 5.1-ch audio in Dolby Digital Plus is typically encoded at bitrates between 192–256 kbps.” (My emphasis.)

 

Dolby also says, “TrueHD is a lossless audio codec used widely on HD and UHD Blu-ray Discs. Dolby TrueHD supports up to 24-bit audio and sampling rates from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz. Dolby TrueHD supports up to 7.1 audio channels as well as Dolby Atmos immersive audio. As Dolby TrueHD is a lossless audio codec, the data rate is variable. For example, Dolby TrueHD bitrates average around 6,000 kbps for Dolby Atmos at 48 kHz with peak data rates up to a maximum of 18,000 kbps for high sampling rate content.” (Again, emphasis is mine.)

 

So, what does this mean?

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

Well, if you take the highest DD+ encode rate—256 kbps—and compare it to the average for Dolby TrueHD—6,000 kbps—you’ll see that the TrueHD audio stream has more than 23 times more data allocated to it.

 

Fine. But can you actually hear and appreciate the difference? In Part 2, I’ll give you the results of my comparison of the same movies streamed on Vudu and Apple TV and downloaded from Kaleidescape.

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.