The video quality of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Video, VUDU, and M-GO has come a long way in recent years. Better compression techniques and faster broadband speeds allow users to enjoy better-looking video with fewer compression artifacts and less buffering and other playback issues. All of the services I just mentioned now stream at 1080p quality and, if you own compatible 4K devices, at Ultra HD quality. I still say that, at its best, streamed Ultra HD maybe looks as good as 1080p Blu-ray, but hey...that's still pretty good. And now, these services are adding HDR capability to the mix, too.
Unfortunately, while things are progressing nicely on the video side, we're not seeing as much progress on the audio side of the equation when it comes to streaming movies. It's hard to believe that roughly six years have passed since Netflix and VUDU first announced plans to upgrade their soundtrack quality from basic Dolby Digital 5.1 to Dolby Digital Plus, which features less compression and higher data rates than basic Dolby Digital 5.1 and does allow for up to 7.1 channels (although most streaming services max out at 5.1)--but it's still a compressed format. At the time, we took the embrace of DD+ as a positive sign for the future of streaming soundtracks, but here we are, six years later, and service providers like Netflix, Amazon Video, and HBO Go haven't announced any plans to upgrade beyond Dolby Digital Plus.
Dolby Digital Plus is certainly good enough for the vast majority of consumers. Let's face it, most people probably feed their streaming media device directly into their TV or, at best, a two-/three-channel soundbar--or they're streaming from within the TV itself--so stereo audio is all they need. But we at HomeTheaterReview.com don't speak for "most people." We speak for enthusiasts. Those of us who remain committed to physical discs in the Blu-ray and upcoming Ultra HD Blu-ray formats do so in part because we value audio quality as much as video quality. Blu-ray movies generally come with uncompressed Dolby True HD and/or DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, and a growing number of discs now offer Dolby Atmos 3D audio soundtracks (you can view the current list of all Atmos Blu-ray discs here). DTS:X is also starting to accompany Blu-ray films like Ex Machina and The Last Witch Hunter.
Still, even enthusiasts appreciate the convenience of streaming from time to time, based on feedback we get from our readers. I know I do. I'll choose Blu-ray for the blockbuster action film I want to see; but, for casual movie watching, streaming is fine, and so is Dolby Digital Plus. The concern is, if Ultra HD Blu-ray really is the last hurrah for the physical disc format, then the option to rent or buy a higher-quality soundtrack like Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio may disappear entirely in the near future. "Good enough" may be our only audio quality option.
"But wait," you say, "I've seen reports lately of services like VUDU and M-GO embracing Dolby Atmos or DTS-HD. That means it's possible, right?" That's what I thought, too. When I sat down to write this piece, my intent was simply to highlight the small handful of service providers that have embraced higher-quality soundtracks, but the more research I did, the more I realized that these offerings aren't what you might expect. Yes, you can find labels like Dolby Atmos and DTS-HD attached to some streaming soundtracks. However, the implementations are different from you get on a Blu-ray disc and are often so limited in availability that the majority of users, even enthusiasts, may not be able to access them. Read on to see what I mean.
Back in 2013, DTS teamed up with CinemaNow to offer DTS-HD soundtracks. A CinemaNow rep tells me that a "vast majority" of the site's HD titles now comes with a DTS-HD soundtrack option. But there are two caveats. First off, when you hear the term DTS-HD, you probably think DTS-HD High Resolution Audio or Master Audio as implemented on a Blu-ray disc. That's not quite right. CinemaNow uses the DTS-Express codec to compress and stream DTS-HD, so what you're getting is something along the lines of Dolby Digital Plus--higher quality but still compressed. You can read more about DTS-Express here and here.
The second issue is device compatibility. The CinemaNow rep told me that there are "over 300 different device models that are DTS-HD capable. The major brands include Xbox One, Samsung (including Samsung 4K-enabled devices, home theater systems, and BD players), and Toshiba TVs." A new HTML5-based CinemaNow app is in the works that will add compatibility for LG products. Unfortunately, no device that I had in-house was able to stream DTS-HD via CinemaNow--I tested it on a Roku 4, an NVIDIA Shield, and a Samsung BD-J5900 Blu-ray player. The CinemaNow rep informed me that my specific Samsung player was not compatible and that Roku is "working on" updating its players to be DTS-HD compatible.
Last year M-GO announced a partnership with DTS to offer DTS-HD soundtracks with select 1080p and Ultra HD movies. Since the initial announcement in March 2015, we haven't heard anything further. I reached out to both M-GO and DTS to try to get a list of specific titles--and to confirm whether it's the same DTS-HD used by CinemaNow, based on the DTS-Express codec. I got no response. I tried searching through M-GO titles on the Roku 4 and Samsung UN65HU8550 TV, but the M-GO interface does not include any soundtrack info to point you in the right direction. At least CinemaNow puts a nice little "DTS-HD" logo next to any title where that option is available.
VUDU has long been a quality leader in the streaming arena, so it comes as no surprise that VUDU is the first service to bring Dolby Atmos to the table. While the majority of VUDU's SD, HD, and HDX quality movies are offered with Dolby Digital Plus soundtracks, some of the new UHD movies come with an Atmos soundtrack. As I write this, there are 14 titles in all: The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mad Max: Fury Road, The Gallows, San Andreas, American Sniper, Man of Steel, Jupiter Ascending, Edge of Tomorrow, Into the Storm, Pacific Rim, Pan, We Are Your Friends, Entourage, and In the Heart of the Sea.
Again, though, two caveats. First, VUDU's Atmos soundtrack is not built around uncompressed Dolby TrueHD as it is on Blu-ray; instead, it's built around compressed Dolby Digital Plus. Second, availability is currently limited to owners of the Roku 4 and Dolby Vision-enabled TVs like VIZIO's Reference Series (LG, TCL, and Philips will introduce Dolby Vision TVs this year). Current owners of VIZIO Reference Series TVs can enjoy those 14 titles with both Dolby Vision HDR video and Dolby Atmos audio. Roku 4 owners don't get the HDR, but they do get the Atmos soundtrack if they rent/purchase the UHD version of the movie. Obviously, in both cases, you also need an Atmos-capable AV processor and the extra speaker channels.
I applaud VUDU for even considering Atmos as an option, but I would love to see them do the same for Dolby TrueHD. VUDU has long shown a willingness on the video side to provide multiple quality tiers for those who are willing to pay more. Maybe at some point they'll do the same with audio.
Is that an unrealistic expectation? Is it unrealistic to hope for uncompressed audio quality with streamed movies, as we're starting to see from music streaming sites like Tidal? Probably. After all, that's stereo audio by itself. We're asking for uncompressed multichannel audio accompanying high-resolution video. Streaming video services rely on compression. Period. If they didn't, most of us wouldn't have the bandwidth to use them.
That's why we probably must look away from streaming and toward downloading as the future for home theater enthusiasts. Kaleidescape has set up a great, albeit pricey, model from which others can build. The company's Movie Store offers downloads with Blu-ray-quality video and uncompressed Dolby TrueHD and/or DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks...and it has recently added the first crop of UHD downloads for its newest assortment of players and servers. Sony has the video part right with its Video Unlimited 4K download store and FMP-X10 4K player (although I haven't heard any plans to add HDR support yet), but it hasn't taken the extra step on the audio side, offering basic, compressed multichannel PCM soundtracks for its movie downloads.
Does a download provide the instant gratification of streaming? Nope. Can it provide the source quality upon which our entire hobby is based? Yep. As someone who values the complete audio/video experience and wants to see it thrive in a disc-less future, I'm hoping to see the download approach gain more traction, although I think I'd prefer to see Ultra HD Blu-ray be a raging success that delays the need for a high-quality, disc-less solution.
• Will Ultra HD Blu-ray Delay Our Disc-Less Future? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Questions Remain About Ultra HD Blu-ray After CES at HometheaterReview.com.
• Six AV Trends We're Thankful For at HomeTheaterReview.com.