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The Best of Tiny Desk

The Best of Tiny Desk

Given how quickly people are burning through entertainment at home right now, we’re hoping to open up some new avenues to explore by highlighting less mainstream content that’s readily available online and will look and sound great on a luxury entertainment system. First up is Dennis Burger’s quick tour of some of the most intriguing musical performances from NPR’s acclaimed Tiny Desk series.

—ed. 

 

 

I guess I just assumed that NPR’s Tiny Desk would be one of the first casualties of the pandemic. After all, this long-running series—in which artists and bands cram behind the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and jam their hearts out—doesn’t quite work in this era of social distancing. Turns out, though, like most things these days, Tiny Desk just reinvented

itself as Tiny Desk (Home), with artists from around the world and across all musical genres shooting intimate little shows from the comforts of their own living rooms or garages. I stumbled upon this almost by accident, when the latest Tiny Desk (Home) concert, by nuevo flamenco/rock duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, popped up on my YouTube homepage.

 

If you’re not already hip to Tiny Desk, you’re in for a treat, since over 

the past 12 years more than 800 of these mini concerts have been recorded and uploaded to YouTube. And there really is something for everyone, whether your musical tastes lean more toward roots and folk or rap and rock.

Part of the fun, though, is that since each concert typically runs less than 15 minutes, it’s easy to step outside your comfort zone and explore music you may have not been drawn to otherwise. That’s how I discovered what would end up being one of my favorite bands, Buke and Gass. (Now known as Buke & Gase to make the pronunciation a little easier to grok, I guess.) The duo’s 2011 turn at the tiny desk remains one of my favorites to this day.

If you’re looking for something a little more traditional, check out the amazing 2016 performance by Tedeschi Trucks Band. I’ve seen Derek Trucks live more times than I care to count (starting when he was just a wee 16-year-old playing honkytonks here in Alabama), but I’ve never heard him or his band sound better than this. The controlled environment and lack of screaming crowds put the focus right where it belongs—on the music and the performance.

Speaking of sounding great, if there’s any single Tiny Desk concert that makes the case for listening in a proper media room or home theater instead of hunching over your phone or laptop, that would be Andrew Bird’s incredible show, also from 2016. The performance is stunning, but it’s the recording quality that really makes this one a standout. It’s punchy, dynamic, in-your-face, and incredibly detailed. I’ve seen Bird in concert nearly a dozen times now, 

and I’ve never enjoyed this level of clarity and intimacy in person.

Another fantastic-sounding fav is the 2018 performance by jazz/hip hop/R&B-fusion supergroup The Midnight Hour, formed by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest and composer Adrian Younge (whom you may know from his work on the Luke Cage score). There’s not much to say about this one other than turn down your lights, turn up your sound system, open up your favorite bottle of wine or cognac, and get ready to groove.

I mentioned above that stepping outside your comfort zone is one of the best things about Tiny Desk. But the series is also at its best when it pushes the performers themselves out of their comfort zones. Take the 2016 performance by Blue Man Group, for example. A cramped little office space is probably the last place you’d expect to see this performance-art group playing their percussive contraptions these days, but this set is every bit as weird and wonderful as any of the 

stadium shows I’ve seen them play over the past couple decades, mostly due to the ways the group is forced to adapt to such an intimate environment.

 

Again, that’s just a tiny taste of what’s available behind the tiny desk, and if you’re a longtime fan of the series, I’ve almost certainly left off 15 or 20 of your favorites. And if you’re new to the series, consider this as more of a jumping-off point for your own exploration than a definitive best-of list.

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.

How to Train Your YouTube

How to Train Your YouTube

When my wife and I cut the cord around this time last year, we both went into the process expecting very little change in terms of our viewing habits. We had Hulu and CBS All Access. We had Netlix and Amazon Prime. We were already looking toward Disney+ on the horizon. Best I could tell, practically every traditional broadcast show we still cared to watch would be 

covered by our streaming-media subscriptions for something like 30% of the cost of the most basic satellite package. And with better picture quality to boot.

 

Fast-forward to 2020, and we’ve landed in a place I don’t think either of us would have ever predicted. While we still check in on a few of our favorite broadcast shows (one fewer now that The Good Place has ended its brilliant run), that old tether to traditional media unravels more and more every week.

 

So much so that if you take movies out of the equation, a full 60% of the TV we watch comes from YouTube, of all places.

 

Before you jump to any conclusions about cat videos shot on mobile phones or “Gangnam Style” (is that still a thing?), a few caveats are in order. My wife and I aren’t crowded around a laptop playing whack-a-mole with a mouse or trackpad. We’re watching YouTube on the same home entertainment system where we watch our Kaleidescape movie server. That means, of course, relying on a good video streamer. (Roku in our case, since none of the other major streamers support YouTube in its highest-quality 4K/HDR output.)

 

We’re also not zipping through a never-ending stream of three- or four-minute short-attention-span clips, either. I’ve talked at length already about our love of Critical Role, each episode of which runs about as long as your average Lord of the Rings movie (Extended Editions, of course). Another of our favorite channels as of late is Baumgartner Restoration, which features in-depth painting restorations, 

presented in 4K, performed by one of the foremost private conservation studios in the US. Julian Baumgartner’s videos often run upwards of 40 minutes each, and are often offered in two forms: One with narration and one aimed at the ASMR crowd, with little more by way of audio accompaniment than the subtle sounds of scraping and brushing.

Perhaps more importantly, though, my wife and I are not slave to YouTube’s willy-nilly recommendation algorithms. In fact, although it’s taken us the better part of a year now, we’ve actually trained YouTube to work for us, serving up content that suits our particular interests to the exclusion of nearly everything else. As eclectic as our proclivities are, that’s no easy task, but as a buddy of mine recently mused when he dropped by to hang out for the afternoon, “YouTube has got you two weirdos figured out. How?!”

 

He’s absolutely correct in his assessment. Scroll my YouTube feed on the big screen and you’re likely to see silly sports mockumentaries starring a cast of colorful marbles flanked by Irish people trying American food for the first time on one side and noob-friendly music theory on the other.

 

For every episode of Adam Savage’s Tested, there’s a lecture by Noam Chomsky or an old episode of Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr. or a rumination about the intersection of classical mythology and folklore with Dungeons & Dragons.

 

And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Eeesh, what a scattershot feed of videos! That’s exactly the sort of mess that has turned me off of YouTube thus far,” recognize that this hodgepodge is a stew of my own making. That’s exactly what I want my YouTube page to look like: A balanced mix of intelligent politics, fine art, comic book art, D&D, video games, 1970s and ’80s toys, engineering, and adorable frivolity. And no doubt your feed would look a little erratic to me if you spent the time to train it. That’s exactly the point. In terms of customization to one’s unique preferences, there simply aren’t any other streaming-video platforms that hold a candle to YouTube.

 

But back to my buddy’s most important question: “How?!” It’s simple, really. And it boils down to two words you’re probably sick of hearing if you’ve spent any appreciable amount of time in the new media landscape: Like and subscribe.

 

My wife and I have separate logins on our YouTube Roku app. We have spent ages now carefully curating a list of 

Baumgartner Restoration

What Makes This Song Great?

From the Drawing Board w/Dael Kingsmill

Biffa Plays Indie Games

channels to which we each subscribe. There is some overlap, of course, because we’re an old married couple. But what I’ve noticed is that every difference in our respective subscription lists is reflected in substantial differences in our homepages. What’s more, the relationships between our subscribed channels also seem to have a significant influence on what we’re recommended.

 

It seems to me that there’s some pretty sophisticated calculus going on here. Whereas Netflix seems to offer up recommendations along the lines of, “87% of people who watched what you just watched also watched this other thing,” YouTube’s thinking seems to involve a little more triangulation: “If you subscribe to A and B, maybe you’ll like C?” If not, YouTube eventually gives up and tries more of a “If you like X and Y, maybe Z?” approach.

 

My wife, on the other hand, seems to be getting equations more along the lines of “A + X = Purple.” Old married couple though we may be, her brain is still a mystery to me at times. In fact, it often feels like YouTube has her figured out better than I do.

 

In other words, YouTube’s recommendation algorithms appear to me to be an order of magnitude more sophisticated than those of Netflix. And you could argue that this is because YouTube isn’t spending hundreds of millions of dollars creating new movies and TV shows it must force down the throats of mass audiences in order to justify its investments and hang onto your subscription fees. You could also just as easily argue that YouTube is using this intimate model of your personality to serve you with more relevant ads, which Netflix doesn’t have to worry about. But, for whatever reason, YouTube has allowed my wife and me to hand-craft media portals that genuinely speak to our unique personal tastes.

Quantum OLED

So, if you’ve dabbled with YouTube in your home media system and found it to be a largely disconnected torrent of seemingly unrelated clips of little interest to you, do what we’ve done and spend a little time training it. There’s a wealth of reference-quality home theater demos on the service, but what’s more, there’s a ton of entertaining (and even informative) content the likes of which you’ll never find on more traditional service providers like broadcast television or even Netflix.

 

Spend some time teaching YouTube who you are, and you may just find that it completely changes the way you watch TV.

 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Highest Rated Series Isn’t on TV

The Highest Rated Series Isn't on TV

Times, they are a changin’, and nowhere else is this more evident than online. No, I’m not talking about streaming, for saying streaming is changing the game is so 2018. What I’m talking about is original content being created by people like you and me.

 

We’ve discussed the democratization of media on this site and on the podcast, so it should come as no surprise that I’m discussing it yet again, but something rather huge has just taken place on the tubes of you. A content creator by the name of Shane Dawson just created a video series, entitled The Beautiful World of Jeffree Star, that has garnered CBS-primetime-level viewership.

 

Let’s back up. For those of you who don’t know, Shane Dawson is a filmmaker, producer, and YouTuber. Notice I said filmmaker and producer first, for I feel that the title of YouTuber is seen as a negative in the eyes of older generations, and I’m

not here to take anything away from Mr. Dawson or his achievements. Dawson has been on YouTube for many years, arguably “growing up” on the platform before it became YouTube as we know it today. As a result, he has amassed quite a following—twenty two and a half million followers to be exact.

 

While Dawson may have risen to YouTube fame via 

the production of cheeky skit videos some years ago, it is his new, more personal work that has caught my attention. I say this with all due respect, but Shane has emerged as a sort of Oprah-esqe figure on the platform.

 

Dawson’s latest series, a collaboration with beauty mogul Jeffree Star, is the culmination of everything his past work has been building to, as he follows in Star’s footsteps in an attempt to launch his very own line of cosmetics. While the title of the series may seem like a bio piece on Star, it really is Dawson’s journey that proves the most compelling, for, like the audience, the wild ride that is the life of Star is all new to Dawson. Part One of the series aired this past Tuesday, October 1st, with Part Two set to bow Friday, October 4th, with more episodes to follow.

 

So what does all this have to do with anything?

 

While the reach and power of social media and those we call influencers is undeniable, Dawson’s latest effort has managed to do something few—if any—independent, self-financed, self-created content has managed to do on a free, public platform . . . garner more viewers than many primetime network shows.

 

Ratings darling The Big Bang Theory wrapped this year, and its final episode was viewed by 18 million people in its time slot. 18 million people. Another stalwart (and advertising favorite) Monday Night Football routinely draws about 10 million viewers. Game of Thrones’ final episode drew 13 million eyeballs.

 

In truth, most shows on TV or otherwise fail to put up these sort of numbers routinely, many often doing half on their way to being unabashed “hits.” I’m shining a light on these three figures as examples of extreme cases of overwhelming success

according to traditional media because Shane Dawson’s latest series bested all but one of them with 15 million views (and counting).

 

Now, I don’t pretend to know what Dawson’s overhead costs are, but they can’t be as high as the cast and crew costs of The Big Bang Theory’s final season—hell, its final episode. Moreover, Dawson uses off-the-shelf equipment obtainable by anyone within reach of a Best Buy or a laptop with an Amazon account, which only adds (I think) to his content’s appeal. For as produced as it may be behind the scenes, it’s still undeniably real.

 

While many of you reading this may look at YouTube and those who create content on it as little more than children

making videos for children, I assure you it is not. It’s big business, and the more viewers Dawson and others like him rack up, the more folks like you and I will have no choice but to take note. While it may be chic among Baby Boomers to be Team Netflix over CBS, know that it’s an old trope. The future of entertainment is being shaped not by those who presided over the old guard only to repackage it as something new, but rather by a group of individuals like Dawson who said to hell with it all and did their own thing.

Andrew Robinson

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

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.

Content Providers: Who Does It Right?

Content Providers: Who Does It Right?

For those of us who grew up in the days of three (maybe four) broadcast TV stations—before the advent of cable and home video, much less streaming—the wealth of available video content today can be a little staggering. 

 

But how much of it is actually worth watching? That depends largely on what you want to watch and how much you care about the quality of the presentation. But even figuring out which sources excel over the others when it comes to quality can be difficult, especially given that streaming video sources (once undeniably the bottom of the barrel) continue to get better and better.

 

For now (and it’s important to stress that this can and will change over time), the pecking order looks something like this, from worst to best:

 

Cable/Satellite
One of the biggest trends in the home entertainment market over the past decade—cord cutting—started largely as a backlash against draconian pricing models forced on consumers by big telecom conglomerates. Simply put, subscriptions to a streaming service like Hulu—or even buying shows à la carte via iTunes or Amazon—just made more financial sense for a lot of folks.

 

These days, though, that’s not the only consideration. Today’s high-performance displays—even cheap ones—are so revealing that watching Grey’s Anatomy via satellite or cable can be downright insulting to the eyes, leading many to switch to streaming just for the upgraded experience.

 

Of course, it’s hard to ditch your subscription-based linear TV service if you’re a huge sports fan—especially on the professional, national level. But there are alternatives.

 

Broadcast Streaming
If you still dig the traditional linear model of broadcast TV (in other words, everything is parceled up into channels and This Is Us comes on at 9E/8C on Tuesdays), but can’t abide the quality of satellite or cable, or just don’t want to pay for all of those channels you never watch, broadcast streaming might be a better choice. Services like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now allow you to cut the cord but leave it dangling. Most offer some form of cloud DVR so you can record your favorite shows, and most look at least somewhat better than the traditional alternative, assuming you have a decent-enough Internet pipeline.

 

Over-the-Air Broadcast
Yep, you read that correctly. The tried-and-true TV antenna is making its second comeback (its first being the early days of HDTV, when cable and satellite were struggling to catch up). These days, you can buy DVRs that allow you to record content straight from the airwaves, along with new antennas that aren’t as ghastly looking as the whale skeletons of bygone eras. And oddly enough, those broadcast images almost always look better than cable, satellite, or broadcast streaming thanks to less compression.

 

YouTube
Of all the non-linear streaming services on the Internet, YouTube demands its own spot on this list, but figuring out where to put it is a tough one. In addition to the glut of cat videos and Russian dashcams, you’ll also find some really nice-looking regular programming, as well as a wealth of nearly perfect-looking demo material that’ll put any 4K HDR display to the test. 

 

Hulu, Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Instant, iTunes, and the Like
Whether you’re looking for episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the latest Marvel blockbuster, or even compelling original content like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, streaming services are getting better and better all the time in terms of video quality. In fact, with certain content, it can be difficult to tell a good Vudu 4K UHD stream from the UHD Blu-ray disc. Granted, some of these services look better than others.

 

Some of them (like Netflix and Hulu) offer a vast collection of streaming content for one monthly fee while others are à la carte. And Amazon offers a bit of both. But chances are that no matter which pay model you prefer, you’ll be able to find tons of great-looking 4K HDR video just a few clicks (sometimes a few frustrating clicks) away.

 

UHD Blu-ray and Kaleidescape
While streaming services may be pushing video quality to the point of diminishing returns, there’s no denying that if you want the absolute best picture—and sound—for every movie or TV show you watch, you’re going to have to pick between UHD Blu-ray discs if you’re old-school or Kaleidescape downloads if you want to keep your shelves clutter-free. Granted, as mentioned above, streaming can come dangerously close to matching the quality of these full-bandwidth sources, but for some, “close” just isn’t good enough. What’s more, the Dolby Digital+ audio found on most streaming services usually can’t compete with the lossless Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks available only on discs or full-sized downloads, especially if you have a decent-enough sound system.

 

Again, the quality of all of these services is a moving target, and what’s true today may not be true a year from now. And when you look at the various streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, quality can vary quite a bit from one to the other, and even from device to device. So comparing them fully demands more scrutiny—a subject we’ll be digging into more in future posts.

Dennis Burger

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.

Glenn Gould on Bach

Almost everything that gains traction on YouTubeexcept for the seemingly endless parade of puppies and kittensis some form of tightrope walking, people doing outrageous, often obnoxious, and inevitably trivial things in an attempt to give their vast audience a cheap thrill before it moves on to the next act in the perpetual online freakshow. You get the sense of an entire culturean entire racejust looking for a way to kill some time. But, like Thoreau said, you can’t kill time without injuring eternity.

 

But in the midst of that vast, silly, and pointless circus, you can sometimes find acts of real dexterity, intelligence, creativity, and courage. This one might not seem to fit that bill, but, believe me, it doesand in spades.

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould was undeniably a geniushe was also undeniably insane. This 1962 program was made before his madness began to get the upper hand. And if you’re willing to appreciate it not by the current standards of brutality, masochism, and degradation but on its own terms, it is, in its seemingly modest way, an astonishing piece of work.

 

This is a bad recording of pretty primitive TV. Grainy image, awkward camera work, maddeningly bad sound. But everything Gould tries to convey manages to break free of those constraints and take you to someplace beyond the limitations of any medium anywhere, anytime, no matter how advanced.

 

In a mere half hour, he delivers a blistering attack on the Western fetishization of reason, uses Bach to reaffirm the essentially conservative nature of art, and conducts and performs a sublime performance of the Cantata 54 that exists only on this beyond abysmal form of playback.

 

But here’s the tightrope part: Watch the monologue he delivers at the beginningan 8-minute, one camera, no cue cards, no edits soliloquy, both highly intellectual and deeply felt, a quirky but spot-on chiding and evisceration of the culture, delivered in the affected cadences of a preening, supercilious prep-school lad. I’m sure it feels like fingernails on a chalkboard to most of the people who watch it. But for the few who can look past the program’s and Gould’s limitations, it’s truly astonishing. And all too rare. And now all but extinct.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

REVIEWS

The Astral Factor

The funniest MST3K ever isn’t even an episode from the series. It’s not even an official video but bootleg audio from a live show MST veterans Hodgson, Beaulieu, Conniff, Pehl, and Weinstein-understudy Allen did in San Francisco during their final tour under the Cinematic Titanic banner, synced by a fan to a copy—a workprint, no less—of an unspeakably bad TV pilot some misguided soul pumped up into a feature film (mainly by showing off Stefanie Powers’ butt crack).

 

So the video really sucks, and the audio really sucks. But it doesn’t matter because the quips and jabs from these nonpareil virtuosos of movie riffing are really f***ing funny.

 

The film Hodgson & Co. mercilessly bludgeon like a recalcitrant piñata really is about as bad as it gets—bad script, bad production design, bad editing, bad makeup, bad clothes, bad music, lame stunts, bad fonts, and criminally bad acting and directing. To paraphrase a line from MST3K‘s legendary Manos, there’s a buffet of loathsomeness here.

But The Astral Factor achieves a level most MST episodes could only dream of because there’s a whole bevy of has-been stars on the premises, including Elke Sommer, the aforementioned Powers (“with Stefanie Powers come Stefanie responsibility”), and, in a stomach-churning cameo, Sue (Lolita) Lyon, whose production company was apparently responsible for this flaming sack of dog poopie.

 

The pacing of the jokes is relentless, with the crew landing solid blows at least every 20 seconds, and sometimes releasing whole barrages that left the audience in San Francisco’s Castro Theatre breathless.

 

Don’t come here looking for 4K HDR or the perfect aspect ratio or perfectly calibrated sound or even surround sound, let alone Atmos. (Atmos?! On a policeman’s salary!?) This is about laughing your ass off—pure, and simple, and all too rare.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

REVIEWS