If Apple Computer has taught us one thing about new media, it should be that if given the chance - people will often take media convenience over media quality. On iTunes, Apple sells music downloads for about $1.00 per song or close to $10 for an entire album but the sound quality is below that of a nearly 30 year old Compact Disc. Respectfully, CD is anything but high definition audio, but the 200,000,000-plus i-People using iPads, iPhones and i-Everything at this point have little to no options to buy better sound even at a higher price. Hell, they can't even get CD quality for their download dollar, which is why most audiophiles buy their music used and rip it to a hard drive over downloading from the likes of iTunes. The music download effect has been catastrophic for the record business as well as the specialty audio business.
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While stunning sounding 24 bit, 192 kHz audio exists via Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound and HD Tracks as well as on Blu-ray music discs from the likes of AIX and 2L records - major labels and mainstream download services have opted to pick the low hanging fruit (again) and sell poor quality in volume rather than offering a high end, copy-protected option. But after the follies of the music business, including the RIAA's many ill-advised consumer lawsuits, few are surprised at this course of action. What is surprising - and disturbing - is that the movie studios and movie rental houses are starting to go down the same path.
2010 was a major year for audio-video convergence. Most HDTVs and Blu-ray players are now packing HDMI 1.4 for 3D and copy protection as well as Internet connectivity for everything from Skype to Accuweather to Picasa to Pandora to Netflix to Blockbuster to Amazon Video on Demand to CinemaNow. A modern HDTV is not just paper-thin - it's a powerful convergence tool, especially when it comes to downloading and/or streaming movies. As seen with the Google TV, the fight for the right to sell you movies on your television is going to be a brutal one with the download companies currently staking claim to that real estate, in some cases over Red Box, Netflix (rental) or cable/satellite pay-per-view. With a modern TV and/or web-enabled Blu-ray player, it's now possible to stream movies "in HD" right to your HDTV with no waiting, at a modest cost and with no fuss or muss. It's easier than iTunes was for downloading music. Anyone who has tried this new access to media will admit that it's pretty impressive.
While impressive, streaming movies and/or pay-per-view movies from cable or satellite are not the same as watching a movie on a physical Blu-ray disc. But there are those (specifically DirecTV) who will tell you that their PPV is the "same as Blu-ray." Respectfully, that is utter bullshit. Streaming or PPV movies are easy to access but the compression of the distribution systems do not produce the same quality of video that you get from a physical disc. Streaming movies in my home over a very fast (30 MBPS down) Internet connection look pixilated with frequent ghosting, motion artifacts and drop outs of the "HD signal," thus leaving me with a standard definition feed. Audio-wise, DirecTV can provide 5.1 Dolby Digital which is nice for many home theaters but respectfully - that is more than 10 year old surround sound technology. When I want to watch a movie in a high end home theater, I want Dolby TrueHD or DTS Master Audio 7.1 surround sound - not Pro Logic 5.1. With the Internet and satellite pipeline sized the way it is now - via streaming or pay-per-view today, you simply cannot get the video or audio quality that Blu-ray has to offer.
Why are studios, streaming companies, rental companies and electronics companies pushing downloads? The answer is simple and includes lots of green paper with my boy from Philly, Ben Franklin, printed on the front. Netflix reportedly spends over $650,000,000 per year on US Mail to send discs. They also, according to a source close to HomeTheaterReview.com from Hollywood, are only really buying blockbuster films on Blu-ray. No indie movies or smaller movies. This comes as Netflix has increased the cost of renting movies with a subscription that allows for Blu-ray movies. Studios love selling Blu-rays because they are very profitable but electronics companies selling HDTVs alongside big boxes of Capt'n Crunch now can make a commission selling movies to you on your HDTV. That's a hell of a lot more profitable long term than the $50 to $100 profit they made in a Wal-mart, Costco-driven big box retail world. Pushing downloads to you, the consumer, is in their best interest even if it provides significantly downgraded video and surround sound.
In the end, the consumer rules in today's economy. Some movies are perfectly suited for streaming and download. Other situations make the convenience of downloading just too good to resist. But when that special movie comes along that the director and the studio went big to produce (think The Dark Knight, Inception, Pixar movies etc...) - consider what level of experience you want from your home theater. If you want the state of the art for 1080p video with the least commercial compression with master tape quality 7.1, uncompressed audio - your best choice is Blu-ray. Could downloads be just as good someday? That's very possible but that day is not here right now nor is the Internet bandwidth to suck such high volume data into your HDTV or home theater system.