Vudu Tag

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.