The Arguments Against Streaming Just Don’t Cut It Anymore
It never fails. Every time I reference a streaming video service in the course of a hardware review for other publications or review a film via streaming for this publication, I’m met not merely with skepticism but outright hostility from videophiles who ought to know better.
I’m berated for daring to claim that Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, et al. have their place in a luxury home-entertainment environment. I’m belittled for claiming that such relatively low-bitrate services often offer a level of audiovisual excellence that’s practically indistinguishable from their equivalent UHD Blu-ray discs (assuming there is a disc equivalent.)
Rather than simply yelling “Yuh huh!” into the void, though, I thought it might be constructive to rebut the arguments of these bitrate hardliners, to respond directly to their claims that streaming is inherently subpar. And I’ll start with the most common:
But discs have more bits! And mo’ bits
equals mo’ better! Right?!
It’s easy to understand why this perception persists. Back in the bygone days of DVD, with its relatively rudimentary MPEG-2 video compression, if you purchased two different releases of a film on disc, the one with the higher bitrate almost always looked noticeably better.
But that was then and this is now, and it’s time to drop this outdated notion once and for all. In the modern era of digital video, once you’ve reached a certain threshold for transparency, throwing more bits at a video encode isn’t necessarily a guarantee
of higher quality. It’s simply indicative of less efficiency.
Mind you, that’s a pretty recent development. Even as recently as the Blu-ray era, video compression couldn’t do a great job at bitrates low enough to pump out across the information superhighway. The AVC codec most commonly used for Blu-ray (and for HD streaming) can often struggle at lower bitrates, and as we saw with the Game of Thrones debacle a couple years ago, when bandwidth gets too low, AVC can get really ugly really quickly.
But streaming services don’t use AVC for 4K video—they rely on the more advanced HEVC codec. And it’s worth noting what those letters stand for: High Efficiency Video Codec. HEVC wasn’t designed to deliver superior video quality—it was designed to deliver equivalent video quality using fewer bits. To do 4K with AVC, you need a minimum of 32 Mbps bandwidth. To do 4K justice with HEVC, you need as little as 15 Mbps. And it’s telling that most streaming video services start at 16Mbps for 4K and go up to 30Mbps or more.
Am I saying there’s never any reason to encode 4K video
at higher bitrates? Of course not. As I pointed out in my recent review of The Green Knight via Vudu, there was, collectively, a little less than one second of footage in that film that could have benefited from a higher bitrate than Vudu is capable of delivering. Let’s pause and underline that: Out of a two-hour film, there was about a second of footage, spread across multiple scenes, that would have looked better at much higher bitrates. It’s literally a blink-and-you-miss-it situation. And in my recent experience, that’s a worst-case scenario for higher-quality streaming platforms. What’s more, I own UHD Blu-ray discs with far more egregious compression artifacts.
For the most part, using a higher bitrate with HEVC simply means that the video is encoded less efficiently. I know I’ve used this example before but it bears repeating: UHD Blu-ray discs aren’t that much less compressed than Netflix. So, if your argument is that compression is bad, then by all rights, you should think that the best optical media format available today is trash.
Let me break down the numbers again to demonstrate why: Fully uncompressed 4K video with 12-bit color would require 7,166Mbps of bandwidth. That’s 7,166,361,600 bits per second. UHD Blu-ray is capable of bitrates up to 128Mbps. Better streaming services these days max out at somewhere around 30Mbps.
Let those numbers sink in. What you’re telling me is that you’re seeing a world of difference between 30Mbps and 128Mbps, but no real difference between 128Mbps and 7,166Mbps? Something doesn’t add up there.
But . . .
Hang on a second—I’m not done. I recently ran two single-blind tests. In one, I was the subject, and I tried my absolute best to spot any meaningful differences between the Vudu stream and the UHD Blu-ray of one of my favorite films. Not only could I not spot any meaningful differences—I couldn’t tell them apart!
In the second test, I had my hands on the remote and switched back and forth between the Apple TV+ stream of a popular ‘80s film, recently remastered in 4K, and the disc-equivalent version thereof. I asked two guinea pigs to identify which was which and tell me how they knew. Both consistently picked Version A over Version B, explaining that A had a more organic
“HBO Max’s presentation is further evidence of just how good streaming has gotten in recent years. On Roku Ultra, at least, the Dolby Vision presentation is absolutely reference-quality home theater demo material. What flaws there are in the imagery can’t be pinned on the high-efficiency streaming encode, at any rate.”
“If there are any significant shortcomings in Apple’s encoding of the film, aside from perhaps that bit of noisy smoke in the intro, I can’t see them. The bottom line is that the iTunes version in Dolby Vision makes the previous Blu-ray release look like hot garbage in every respect.”
DISNEY+ | BLACK WIDOW
“[Black Widow‘s] presentation on Disney+ far surpasses the quality of any commercial cinema I could reasonably reach in a half-day’s drive. . . . Fine detail abounds, not merely in closeups but also in long shots. Colors are gorgeous and the high dynamic range is employed spectacularly.”
NETFLIX | LIFE IN COLOR
“There’s one shot, in which a peacock bristles its plume in slow motion, that’s such a kaleidoscope of fine detail that I would expect it to be riddled with some digital ookiness even at 100 mbps. And yet, with my nose on my screen, I couldn’t see any of the telltale signs of HEVC reaching its breaking point. I can only assume Netflix recently adopted a new encoder because otherwise I just cannot make sense of why this imagery looks this pristine.”
DISNEY+ | LUCA
“One thing you can’t fault Pixar on is the technical presentation, as Luca just looks gorgeous. I watched it the first time on my 4K projector in HDR10 and then again on a new Sony OLED in Dolby Vision, and the colors are just straight-up eye candy throughout.”
DISNEY+ | SOUL
“Image quality is fantastic and reference-quality throughout, with Soul being beautiful and just pleasing to look at.”
grain structure, better detail, more lifelike colors, less digital noise, and a generally more film-like look—although they admitted that Version B looked fantastic, and they would be perfectly happy with it if they hadn’t been looking at such a direct comparison.
Neither believed me when I revealed that Version A was the low-bandwidth streaming version until I backed out of the film and showed them the user interfaces of each source.
But Dennis, you’re watching on a 75-inch TV, which is fine for streaming. But on my massive projection screen, even Disney+ simply isn’t good enough.
This is another argument that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Screen size, in and of itself, doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t.
What matters is the relationship between screen size and your seating distance. In my media room, my wife and I sit roughly 6.5 feet from our 75-inch display. That means our TV takes up 45.5 degrees of our horizontal field of view. That’s roughly equivalent to sitting about a third of the way back from the screen in a THX-certified commercial cinema.
If you’re sitting 12 feet from a 10-foot projection screen, guess what? The image is only taking up about 39.9 degrees of your field of view, which would put you smack dab in the middle row of your local THX cinema auditorium. So my 75-inch TV is “bigger” than your 120-inch projection screen, as far as our eyes are concerned.
Of course, I have to give the necessary caveats: My media room setup is only good for two people—three if we’re really cozy—if we all want an ideal viewing experience. If I wanted to invite more friends or family over for movie night, I would need a larger screen and would need to sit farther from it. But that’s not the argument I’m making. We need to stop prattling on about screen size as if it’s all that matters. If Netflix is good enough for my 75-inch TV from 6.5 feet away, it’s good enough for your 10-foot screen from 12 feet away.
But if I pause my Apple TV . . .
Wait. Stop. Let me cut you off right there, because there are two problems baked into that truncated retort.
Video codecs like HEVC aren’t designed the way single-image compression codecs like JPEG are. HEVC relies on both intra-frame and inter-frame compression, and as such it’s intended to be scrutinized in motion. Yes, if you pause the image and compare a high-efficiency stream to a higher-bandwidth encode of the sort you would find on UHD Blu-ray, the backgrounds in the streaming version may not look as fully resolved. Fine textures may suffer a bit. There may be some color banding in a still frame that won’t be apparent in a picture running at 24 frames per second. So, if you’re interested in watching your films one frame at a time, streaming probably doesn’t suit your purposes.
The second problem is with the Apple TV. I’m sorry, but it’s simply not a high-quality video-playback device. That’s somewhat ironic since Apple
TV+ is one of the best-quality streaming video services out there. It’s capable of truly reference-quality playback—but, oddly enough, not via Apple’s own hardware, in my experience. If you want to see what streaming is truly capable of, you need either a Roku Ultra or Nvidia Shield, both of which deliver video performance far better than the Apple TV 4K. (I generally opt for Roku since its integration with high-end automation systems is vastly superior.) Some higher-end smart TVs also do a fine job with streaming, but most don’t.
OK, fine, maybe the picture quality is good enough,
but streaming sound sucks!
I mean, sure, if you want to argue with science, go ahead. Extensive testing performed by both Netflix and Dolby Labs has demonstrated that Dolby Digital+, the audio codec employed by most streaming video services, is perceptually transparent at 640kbps. You know what audio bitrate Netflix and Disney+ use for Atmos? 768kbps.
The problem here isn’t bitrates. It’s sound levels. I’ve done extensive A/B testing between streaming and disc-based versions of the same films, and not once have I found the two to be mixed to the same levels. Streaming audio is generally anywhere between 1dB and 4.5dB quieter than the disc version or its equivalent. There are exceptions, but that’s a good general rule in my experience.
The thing is, it’s nearly impossible to compare the audio quality of two audio sources that differ that much in terms of loudness levels. For scientific A/B testing, levels between two sources are usually matched to within 0.1dB. Is that overkill? Probably.
But when you get to differences as much as 1dB or more, the louder sample will almost always be perceived as richer, better tonally balanced, with more robust bass—even if the listener can’t identify it as being the louder of the two samples.
Again, I want to be completely clear
here: I’m not arguing that there’s no merit to lossless audio codecs like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. If you have the bandwidth for lossless audio—as do discs and high-bitrate downloads—then, of course, go with the bit-perfect delivery mechanism. I’m simply saying that if you think Netflix or Disney+ or Vudu or Apple TV+ audio is perceptually inferior, you can’t possibly make that assessment unless you level match them perfectly.
The same goes for video. If you have the space for 128Mbps, why wouldn’t you make use of that space? I’m not saying higher bitrates are bad. I’m simply saying that, beyond a certain point, they’re largely unnecessary.
But I watched X movie on X streaming service
and it looked/sounded terrible!
That’s probably valid. I’m not saying streaming is perfect, and I’m certainly not saying that all streaming services are built equally. I’m merely saying that most arguments against streaming as a legitimate source of luxury home-cinema content are invalid.
I desperately want to subscribe to The Criterion Channel since their catalog appeals to me more than words could convey. But every time I dip in and sign up for a month, I’m let down by their reliance on outdated video codecs and insufficient audio bitrates, and quickly cancel again. When I claim more bits don’t necessarily equal better quality, there is of course a limit to that. The Criterion Channel streams its audio soundtracks at 256kbps, which is a little over a third of the bandwidth necessary to deliver truly transparent audio quality.
And in terms of video, a lot of streaming HD still looks pretty bad by comparison, largely because many services still use AVC for 1080p video. There are exceptions. Disney+ does a great job with HD—so does HBO Max; and although Amazon used to be the worst in terms of 1080p streaming, its HD stuff is starting to look entirely acceptable.
So, again, I’m not saying streaming always looks and sounds as good as discs or full-bitrate downloads. But at its best, streaming is fully capable of delivering a home cinema experience that’s perceptually indistinguishable from physical formats or their bitrate equivalents.
And as we move into the future, that’s only going to become truer. UHD Blu-ray is almost certainly the last optical media format with any sort of mass appeal. As far as discs are concerned, HEVC is as good as it gets for video compression. But over the next five years or so, we’re going to see codecs developed for the streaming domain that make HEVC look as archaic as MPEG-2 looks now—codecs that deliver reference-quality 4K video at bitrates in the neighborhood of 3 or 4 Mbps.
Long story short, streaming is where all of the meaningful innovation is happening in terms of digital video. I’m not saying you have to like that fact. But maybe, just maybe, you should stop pooh-poohing it.
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.