As we sit at the end of 2019, reflecting on the current state of home cinema and the likely changes that will impact our hobby in the coming decade, it's hard to deny that streaming video is the future. Yes, many of us here at HomeTheaterReview.com still use UHD Blu-ray discs as reference material in reviews, and we've even dedicated an entire article recently to the best silver-disc players currently on the market. But for day-to-day viewing, many of us here on staff have migrated almost entirely to streaming consumption.
And it only takes a quick glance at the comments section here and on our accompanying Facebook page to see that this fact infuriates the most vocal amongst our commentariat.
That's fine, really. We are a site for enthusiasts, after all, and enthusiasts can get quite boisterous when discussing their hobbies of choice. What doesn't sit well with me, though, is the outright ignorance I see in many of these comments. Off the top of my head, the silliest comments have come from those who claim--and I'm not making this up, simply paraphrasing from memory--that any given standard-definition DVD from 20 years ago is far superior to the Netflix 4K HDR today. Needless to say, that's not even worth responding to.
There's a pernicious but harder-to-dismiss argument from some less-silly commenters, though, that I simply cannot ignore. And it mostly boils down to this argument: "Well, UHD Blu-ray delivers generally 80 to 100 Mbps or more, and streaming is only 16 Mbps, so that makes UHD Blu-ray six times better."
It may seem hard to argue with that math. The problem is, that math ignores and obscures an important point, because it's based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the way modern video codecs work. In the era of MPEG-2 up through even MPEG-4, this argument had some diminishing merit, even if the relationship between bitrate and SSIM (structural similarity index) wasn't quite that linear. In the era of HEVC (aka MPEG-H Part 2 or h.265), it's downright ludicrous.
By that flawed "more bits is more better" logic, the image on a UHD Blu-ray is only half as good as the picture at the cineplex down the street, since commercial cinemas can deliver an image at more along the lines of 250 Mbps. For that matter, the image at your local cineplex must be outright garbage to begin with, because that 250 Mbps absolutely pales when compared to the 7,166 Mbps bitrate that would be required to deliver truly uncompressed 4K video with 12-bit color.
In other words, if the "bitrate is everything!" naysayers are to be believed, the jump from 16 to 128 Mbps crosses the divide between dumpster fire and perfection, but the jump from 128 to upwards of 7,166 Mbps is inconsequential.
The simple truth is that without gargantuan amounts of compression, we wouldn't be able to enjoy 4K video at home at all, because even the highest-capacity UHD Blu-ray disc would only be able to hold about 111 seconds' worth of video at 24fps, if my math is correct. But, of course, home video and commercial cinemas use entirely different types of compression with different levels of efficiency, so comparing the two wouldn't be a relevant argument even if we did accept that lower bitrate video automatically means perceptually poorer quality video. So, let's get back to the discussion of HEVC just to keep this from going completely off the rails.
I won't bore you with all of the details of how HEVC works. For that, I recommend the excellent white paper by Gary J. Sullivan, Jens-Rainer Ohm, Woo-Jin Han, and Thomas Wiegand. Is it necessary reading if you simply want to enjoy your home cinema system? Not really. But it is if you want to understand why the "less bits necessarily means worse image quality" argument falls apart in the modern era. Yes, there is a limit to how much you can compress any video with any codec and still get perceptually good results. But that limit isn't as intuitive to estimate as you may think.
The following, by the way, is not a perfect analogy, and anyone who's read the above-linked white paper will understand why. But just to get a rough understanding of what I mean, consider this. What's the difference between "1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1" and "1 + 3 x 4"? In reality, nothing. But functionally, the second equation is more efficient. It's also interestingly more prone to error, especially if you don't remember PEMDAS.
To put it another way, HEVC's use of coding tree units and vastly increased reliance on intra-prediction means that it's a hell of a lot harder to decode than older forms of compressed video. And that can have significant consequences that we'll touch on in a bit.
Of course, as I alluded to above, there are sometimes undeniable advantages to upping the bitrate of video in the UHD/HDR era. To a point. Higher bitrates can help with scenes with heavy rain, or similarly chaotic imagery. Those special cases aside, once you reach a certain performance threshold, any other advantages aren't always perceivable from any reasonable seating distance unless you pause your video and inspect it on a pixel-by-pixel basis with a magnifying glass. And that may well be the way you enjoy your home cinema system, but I'm in this to enjoy films without distraction, not analyze bandwidth. The simple fact of the matter is that in the era of HEVC (and beyond), counting the number of data packets leaving your network switch or router isn't a valid measure of how good the image will look when it reaches your eyes. You have to, y'know, actually use your eyes.
Granted, a valid counterargument to this is that not all streaming video services use HEVC or equivalent codecs. And that's true. Very true. But that's one of the main reasons why simply railing against "streaming" in general is a bit like discussing "video discs" without clarifying whether you mean SVCD, DVD, Blu-ray, or UHD Blu-ray.
Yes, as recently as this year, we've seen debacles like the Game of Thrones episode "The Long Night," which was plagued by compression issues due to a confluence of factors: heavy server load, overly dark cinematography, and perhaps most importantly, HBO Go's reliance on an older, less-efficient compression codec.
Image courtesy of John Higgins/Cineluxe
Suffice to say, when Jerry and I and the few other streaming evangelists here at HomeTheaterReview.com talk about streaming, at least in terms of high-performance home cinema, we're not talking about HBO Go or CBS All Access or other, similarly low-quality services that don't support the latest in video encoding (including, sadly, The Criterion Channel, which I so desperately want to love). We're talking instead about Netflix (in its UHD/HDR form), Vudu, Apple TV+, and the like.
That caveat I hung on Netflix is important, by the way. I've talked to a few commenters in recent months who simply didn't understand that 4K and HDR make a huge difference when it comes to streaming quality. And it seems to me that they didn't know this because they saw the best that Netflix had to offer in 2015, rightfully recognized that it was seriously lacking, and never bothered to upgrade their subscriptions to include UHD access, assuming that trend would continue (or get worse).
But it's important to point out that the vast increase in streaming picture quality in the 4K era is not merely about having more pixels. It also comes down to the fact that having 10 bits per color channel to work with, as opposed to 8 bits, can ameliorate or even completely compensate for some of the more common flaws that can occur even when using a high-efficiency coded like HEVC at lower bitrates: issues like crushed blacks or banding. It may seem counteractive to claim that cramming more data into a smaller pipeline can lead to significant improvements, but such is the case with HEVC and similar codecs.
The other thing you can assume is that when we at HomeTheaterReview.com reference streaming in the home theater, we're talking about doing so on better-quality streaming devices. And yes, this can make a big difference. Again, that wasn't necessarily always as significant a concern with lower-efficiency codecs such as those that took us through the DVD and Blu-ray eras. But as I alluded to above, HEVC can be a bear to decode. All things being equal, it takes twice the processing power to decode HEVC as compared with AVC. And as we know, all things aren't equal when comparing 1080p 8-bit video to 2160p 10- or 12-bit video.
Simply put, the price we pay for cramming so much high-quality video down a pipeline that won't clog the average modern internet connection is that a whole lot more number crunching has to be done on the receiving end. And the more powerful your number-cruncher (aka, the better the device you're using as your streaming source), the better HEVC-encoded video can look. (Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the less powerful the device you're using as your streaming source, the worse HEVC-encoded video can look, but potato/potahto).
Jerry and I were recently accused in the comments section of shilling for Roku, despite the fact that we've never received a penny from that company. Let's clear the air on that front once and for all: The reason we recommend Roku so frequently, and provide links to that device at every opportunity, is because in our personal experience it delivers better picture quality than the other streaming devices we've owned (despite the fact the platform still lacks Dolby Vision support for its standalone players), and we honestly want y'all to have the best experience you can in your home cinema systems.
Putting These Claims to the Test
Not convinced by that claim? OK. Maybe you'll be convinced by these pictures (you can click on the images to blow them up for closer inspection). What you're seeing in the top image below is a tightly cropped DSLR photo of a few inches' worth of screen real estate on my 75-inch UHD TV, playing Netflix's Our Planet via my Roku Ultra, with the scene chosen for its difficult-to-compress imagery: a leopard accelerating in pursuit of its prey.
What you're seeing in the next image is the same scene (perhaps a frame or two earlier or later; it's hard to tell because Netflix doesn't allow for precise transport controls on a frame-by-frame basis) viewed via the Netflix app built into my smart TV, which features wonderful picture quality overall, but a less-powerful processor than the one built into the Ultra.
And there you have it: all of the artifacts that people complain about when it comes to streaming video are in full display via one source (my smart TV's built-in Netflix app), and virtually non-existent via another (my Roku Ultra), viewing the same source material from the same service.
A few caveats: ignore differences in color. My Roku is outputting HDR10 and the Netflix app built into my TV is outputting Dolby Vision. And 8-bit JPEGs on the web aren't capable of reproducing the color space or dynamic range of either. Viewing the screen with the naked eye, there's not nearly as much difference between the color of the two as these secondhand captures make it seem. Ignore, too, the fuzziness of the edges of those spots; again, you're looking at a few inches of the screen blown way up. Each of those spots is less than half-an-inch wide in reality, and they're in motion, so some blurring is to be expected.
The one thing that's clear, though, and what I want to demonstrate, is that while my Roku Ultra is delivering a practically artifact-free representation of the image, the Netflix app built into my smart TV is riddling the picture with glitches.
Not to get overly pedantic on you here, but I'm just trying to fill some troll holes: Yes, I gave both apps time to ramp up to full bitrate (with Roku, it took less than three seconds; with my smart TV, it took about 48 seconds, attached to the same network switch via the same brand and length of Ethernet cable). And yes, I bypassed my Marantz AV8805 and ran the Roku directly into an HDMI port on my TV to remove any external video processing. This is as pure and honest an attempt as I can make at comparing the quality of both, apples to apples.
Here's that second image again with the most egregious artifacts highlighted. And let me be abundantly clear here: I'm not saying that all smart TVs do this poor a job of decoding HEVC. Heck, I'm not even saying that this one does a really poor job overall, when you get right down to it. There are other, less-complex scenes from this same episode that exhibit virtually artifact-free performance via my smart TV when viewed from a few feet away (although, to be clear, every shot containing running leopards is an artifact-infested mess). Nor, for that matter, am I saying that Roku is without question the best device for decoding Netflix UHD/HDR streams. I haven't tested every single device capable of delivering Netflix in 4K.
I'm simply saying that based on this N of 1, it's abundantly clear that the device on which you do your streaming can make a substantial difference. Scroll back up and look back at that first image again. I've taken a tiny patch of a 75-inch screen streaming 16-Mbps video and blown it up to mimic what you'd see with your face mere inches from the display. And there's barely an artifact to be seen via the Roku. In fact, during the entire eight-episode run of Our Planet, I only noticed one visible artifact via Roku at all when viewed from 6.5 feet away: a bit of very minor banding for a brief moment in an underwater scene in one early episode. That aside, it's literally reference-quality home theater demo material from beginning to end. And quite frankly, I've seen much worse banding on discs, even in recent years, and yes, even in the era of HDR.
So, for those of you who claim that Netflix is simply too artifact-plagued to be taken seriously, it's not that we're doubting what you're seeing; it's simply that we're doubting the quality of the device on which you're doing your viewing. And we're asking you to place the blame where it belongs: with the decoder, not the number of bits.
Streaming Will Keep Getting Better at an Increasingly Rapid Pace
Of course, all of the above is relevant as pertains to streaming in late 2019, which is an entirely different landscape as compared with streaming in early 2016. Yes, it's utterly staggering just how far we've come in terms of streaming picture quality in just a few short years. As we look into the future, things will evolve even more and even more rapidly, to the point where this rant will likely be woefully out of date sooner rather than later. Newer, even more-efficient codecs like AV1 will further improve streaming quality while reducing bandwidth more significantly. But even AV1 relies on current conventional thinking in terms of video compression. I mentioned above that HEVC makes some significant departures from the way earlier MPEG video codecs worked, especially in its abandonment of macroblocks in favor of coding tree units, not to mention its ability to use 35 intra-picture prediction directions, whereas AVC only has nine to work with. But it too is still a block-based hybrid encoder, even if it eschews macroblocks.
The thing is, we've gotten so used to the adoption of new video codecs being tied to new optical media platforms that we often forget something crucial: streaming services aren't held back by that limitation. They can continue to tinker with and adopt new and better codecs and roll them out more quickly (well, as quickly as steaming boxes can add support for them, anyway). It's very likely that in the foreseeable future, we'll move beyond block-based hybrid encoding altogether, and see the development of codecs that can handle incredible levels of complexity at even tinier bitrates.
And when that day comes, we likely won't even be able to make direct comparisons between relatively low-efficiency discs and relatively high-efficiency streaming at all, because we'll have moved past the physical media model pretty much entirely.
Think that's outrageous? The fact of the matter is that we're already seeing the first hints of this. As I write this in mid-November, Disney+ recently launched, and one of the biggest surprises for cinephiles on the day it went live is that all of the Star Wars films are presented in 4K HDR (HDR10 or Dolby Vision, depending on your device) with Dolby Atmos sound. That's doubly significant when you consider that, for now, Disney+ is literally the only way to access the films in this quality.
"Meh," I hear some of you scoffing. "It's still streaming. I'll stick to my 1080p Blu-rays." Fair enough. That's your prerogative. But over the past couple days I've done extensive frame-by-frame comparisons between the 1080p Blu-ray versions of Episodes IV, V, VI, and VII and their UHD/HDR streaming counterparts, and the streaming versions are objectively superior in every meaningful way. Even in the most complex snowy scenes on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, the streaming 4K exhibits no more artifacts than the 1080p disc. Color is better, details are better, textures are better, the grain structure is more organic... There isn't a single meaningful metric by which the Star Wars Blu-ray discs look better than the Disney+ streaming versions.
"Ah ha!" I also hear you exclaiming. "But what about the crappy low-bitrate Dolby Digital+ audio?! Checkmate." Okay, that argument also had some merit once upon a time, but not so much these days. Dolby has done extensive listening panels and firmly established that, at the bitrates now employed by Netflix (starting this year, as I understand it), Vudu, and Disney+ (up to 768 kbps), Dolby Digital+ is perceptually transparent. And they did so on a sound system that's better than yours, I assure you. It seems to me that most of the detractors made their minds up about DD+ via streaming back when it was still piddling around in the 192-kbps range (like, I dunno... a year ago?).
Getting back to the Star Wars comparisons: It's true, the audio levels often don't match perfectly when comparing disc to streaming, which can give the Star Wars discs a perceived edge in overall impact, dynamics, and quality of bass. But level-match them perfectly and there's no perceivable difference on my reference quality AV system. And I'm sitting here anticipating the "If you can't hear it, your ears suck" comments. Okay, well, you do your blind testing and publish your results and then we'll talk. Otherwise, we're just arguing about the color of the Emperor's bowtie.
Granted, it's true that we're not making a completely equivalent comparison here when it comes to disc-based Star Wars and streaming-based Star Wars. I'm comparing an HD disc to a 4K stream. The thing is, what's relevant as I pen this is that the best-looking version of the Star Wars films by 12 parsecs isn't available on disc at all, so we can't make an equivalent comparison. All I can say is that if you want the absolute best-looking version of the original Star Wars trilogy, streaming is where it's at. Will the original trilogy eventually appear on UHD Blu-ray? Of course it will. When? Likely 2020 or 2021. Will it look even better than the Disney+ presentation? It's entirely possible, especially if Lucasfilm goes back and does a new HDR grade for the OT with a little more peak brightness, especially during the ligthsaber battles. (The transfers used for Disney+ are from a 2012 remaster and restoration effort completed for the abandoned 3D theatrical re-releases of the films.)
Fast-forward to 2025 or 2026 and I strongly suspect that we'll see more and more instances where there isn't a disc release to compare with the best-quality streaming version of any given new film, though, and none in the works.
And ultimately, that's the entire point of this whole rant. You can no more turn the tides of the changing video marketplace than you could change the actual tides by standing on the shore and barking at the ocean. There's also the fact that, as more and more movies are made exclusively for Netflix or Disney+ or Apple TV+, the typical cinema-to-disc-to-cable release cycle of movies will continue to fall apart.
At the end of the day, the point I'm trying to make is that, in terms of audiovisual performance, that fact isn't the travesty that some of our more vocal commenters make it out to be. As more and more streaming services catch up with the current state of the art in terms of video compression, and more and more devices catch up with the current state of the art in terms of decoding, we'll be in a pretty amazing place in terms of visual entertainment. Hell, the best of the streaming bunch already so far surpasses the quality of the very best that home video had to offer just a few short years ago (like, y'know, the long bygone era of late-2015) that it's perplexing why we're hollering about this at all.
Let me repeat that again for emphasis: the best-quality presentations on Vudu, Netflix, Apple TV+, and a handful of other streaming apps are objectively superior to the best performance we could eke out of a disc just four years ago. And I don't hear anyone complaining about how Blu-ray isn't good enough for a proper home cinema. Right now, the very best AV presentation of Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs is on Vudu. Ditto the Downton Abbey movie. Ditto all manner of other releases for which a 4K master exists, but for which a UHD Blu-ray release just isn't worth the effort for the studios.
To be clear, though: we acknowledge the potential downsides of streaming as the dominant form of movie distribution in the home. We recognize that even with streaming services where you ostensibly own a film, like Vudu, it's not quite the same as owning a disc you can hold in your hands, and the collectibility element is huge for some home cinephiles. That's totally valid. We also recognize that not all of our readers have a sufficient internet connection to enjoy streaming at its best, and we're super worried about you folks getting left behind as the marketplace evolves. Hell, we're worried that you're already getting screwed out of some amazing AV experiences. We acknowledge that quality of presentation can vary widely between the different streaming providers. And yes, we also recognize that movies come and go on most streaming services, which makes subscription-based VOD a less-than-consistent way to access the films you love the most. Finally, we acknowledge that as more and more subscription-based services vie for your $6.99 or $9.99 or $15.99 a month, Peak Subscription Saturation is becoming more and more of a thing.
But we want you, dear reader, to acknowledge that some of the most stunning home theater demo material in existence right now isn't even available on discs. And the farther we advance the calendar into the future, the truer that statement will become.
We at HomeTheaterReview.com exist as a publication to promote a better way of enjoying entertainment in the home, and that means both quality of presentation and quality of experience. It means championing and striving for a better AV presentation than most people are enjoying at home and a better way of engaging with it. But in doing so, we cannot cling to the past. We must embrace current reality and have the sense to acknowledge which way the winds are blowing. And right now, the reality is that streaming services like Netflix, Vudu, Apple TV+, and a handful of others already deliver video quality that's better than anything you were feeding your home theater the last time we had a presidential primary battle heating up. And they're only going to get better from here.
So, don't yell at Andrew when he mentions using Vudu to review a TV. Don't yell at Jerry when he tells you he sold his Oppo (especially when there are so many other valid things to yell at him about). And don't yell at me when I tell you that discs, as good as they've been to this hobby for decades, are teetering right on the edge of being a relic of the past, or, at best, a collector's item. We're not trying to insult anyone. We're not "settling for good enough." We're simply trying to make the future a bit less of a bitter pill to swallow for those of you in the back row who hold up your "Streaming Sux!" signs every time we mention Netflix in passing. We're trying to keep you in this hobby and turn you onto some of the amazing home cinema demo material you're refusing to embrace.
Streaming is the future of home cinema, full stop. Hell, in many ways it's already the glorious now of home cinema. All we ask is that if you rage against it, at least use valid arguments. And sorry to say, but "less bits" is not a valid argument anymore.
• Read One Thing We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Cord-Cutting at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Read The Real Reason AV Enthusiasts Are Clinging to Their Silver Discs at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Read Netflix and Amazon Are Killing Ultra HD Blu-ray (And I Feel Fine) at HomeTheaterReview.com.