As a movie lover who's seen the complete evolution of home video, from Betamax and VHS and Laserdisc, through DVD and Blu-ray and UHD Blu-ray, plus the birth and growth of streaming, I've spent countless hours pondering video formats and how to achieve the best blend of timeliness, convenience and high-fidelity media playback at home.
The concern about timing versus quality is especially acute when watching a movie for the first time! My teenage, formative moviegoing years occurred in the 1980s. That was when missing the theatrical presentation meant that you were in for a long wait before you had a shot at renting a VHS cassette to watch the film on a 19-inch Trinitron CRT equipped with a single, tiny little speaker. Ouch! Forget about buying a movie, at first, that was not even a thing but eventually, that concept caught on.
With movie sales on physical media came a flood of titles on LaserDisc and VHS, and on a weird record player-based video format that RCA marketed and called SelectaVision. You may be surprised to find out that globally, 35,000 titles were released on the now long-defunct and anachronistic LaserDisc format!
The DVD and Blu-ray eras were only marginally better when Blockbuster was a big deal. Those of us who are of a certain age are emotionally scarred for life by all the unpaid late fees that snuck up on us when we excitedly found the movie that we wanted to rent on the first date was available and finally made it to the cash register only to discover that the $5 rental will actually cost $20 (and more like $40 in inflation-adjusted dollars). Now, of course, in some cases, you can rent an "early access" title to stream for $20.
The giant streaming service we know as Netflix started out as a disc rental by mail service, once upon a time their red envelopes littered my home. The main frustration? Mishandled discs that would not play properly! But the quality and variety of HD Blu-rays—especially as compared to the now quickly "going out of business" Blockbuster chain—made it a movie lover's delight, and of course no more late fees! Quality and selection were solved, but reliability and timeliness remained issues. Movie theaters were still safe.
A scratched Netflix disc that would not play was just as bad as an interrupted stream, but what streaming did, of course, is bring a huge catalog of titles directly to consumers for on-demand playback. And some platforms even offer downloads so that you can enjoy content when off the grid, for example on flight. The only problem with streaming is at first, it was not so good. Even with full HD streams, which ostensibly are 1080p, the actual detail was more like 720p, with Blu-ray looking much better.
With HD streaming, it was not uncommon to see movies exhibit gross compression artifacts like macro-blocking and banding. During that era, I still went to the occasional movie in a theater, and I made an effort to buy movies on disc and redeem the code for the digital copy, rather than buy the digital copy online. I feel this era was highly formative in terms of the opinions video enthusiasts have about discs versus streaming today.
I used to do articles with screenshot comparisons of disc versus streaming for AVS Forum, and watched as the services slowly but surely caught up to standard Blu-ray discs. But then, UHD Blu-ray created a new (and rather huge) gap in quality.
And then, a few years ago, with the advent of UHD streaming, I stopped worrying so much about streaming picture quality. Or more accurately, the picture quality of new releases improved to the point where I was rarely distracted by any shortcomings, so I stopped sweating the difference between the streaming and disc, even though I will grant that Ultra HD Blu-ray is quite spectacular and is the format that finally brought true parity between commercial cinema and home cinema quality.
So, I know there is a difference between a UHD stream and disc, but especially when it comes to paid UHD streams of Hollywood titles, we're in an era where the "good enough" 4K quality, plus convenience and earlier availability, combine to become greater factors in the decision of what format to watch. Even in a home theater, and especially with a TV at normal viewing distances, the resolution of today's premium streamed UHD often suffices. Case in point, last week I watched Spider-Man: No Way Home as an iTunes rental on an Apple TV 4K, using a Hisense PX1-Pro 4K UST projector. From the first frame to the last, it had cinematic cadence, 4K detail, and not a single visible artifact! Awesome.
At least where I live, reliability issues have also been resolved, primarily as a result of Internet speeds increasing to the point where it's now possible to download a full UHD Blu-ray title from a Kaleidescape server in a matter of minutes. With that much speed, it's obvious that the bandwidth is also there for extremely high-quality streaming, well beyond what's offered today.
Thanks to faster, more reliable Internet, UHD streaming has legit worked perfectly day after day. It's been a few years since I have had any notable issue streaming, in fact, I can't even recall it. Years! Of course, it helps to have gigabit Internet service, strong Wi-Fi, and to live close to Comcast headquarters and a huge data center in an urban environment with buried cables. When I lived in the suburbs, a fallen tree limb could in theory interrupt a movie, so if that's your reality, you do have my sympathy. Nevertheless, I find streaming is more reliable than discs used to be during the Blockbuster and Netflix disc rental eras.
It's fair to say that as of today, streaming still follows discs in quality. And, I suppose that could continue to be the case ad infinitum if new disc-based formats are released. But will they ever be? Can one hope for an 8K disc-based consumer video format? I have my doubts. The future of ultra-high fidelity video is either streaming, or downloads.
This brings us to downloads versus streaming, and the unique offering of Kaleidescape. If you are wondering "what's a Kaleidescape" it's a system that evolved from one centered around ripping and archiving DVDs and playing them back through the highly programmable, proprietary, and easy to use Kaleidescape software. It ain't cheap, but neither is a dedicated home theater and if convenience plus quality are paramount and you are willing to pay, there's little else to compete.
Today, Kaleidescape focuses on digital delivery, and the company argues that some of its 4K titles even have distinct advantages over what's available on disc, namely the use of less compression for titles that might otherwise not fit on a disc, or presenting movies like Lawrence of Arabia uninterrupted, whereas on UHD Blu-ray they are split between two discs. As long as you can live without Dolby Vision support—which is mostly useful for TVs, and a few USTs, but unnecessary for home theater projectors that do not support it.
So, the cool thing about Kaleidescape is you get at least the UHD Blu-ray's quality, and it's a download so you are not depending on the Internet for it to play uninterrupted. And since Klaeidescape systems include a server, you can store a collection of movies for instant access.
Today, there are major movies released in theaters on the same day they are available to stream, whereas for Kaleidescape you'd have to wait for the UHD Blu-ray release to come out before you'd see the title in the Kaleidescape store. And then there's the reality of 4K UHD shows and even exclusive movies on Amazon, HBO Max, Apple TV+, and yes, Netflix. These are arguments for putting the focus on streaming above all, and for that, I have settled on the Apple TV 4K as the "home base" for my entertainment (aside from gaming where an Xbox Series X takes care of business).
And even with more entertainment options than ever, the fact is shows and movies are not as dominant as they once were—at least not in my entertainment ecosystem. Console gaming, live TV (sports), social media and a phone, a VR rig, and lossless streaming music through good headphones all compete for my attention, as does getting outside and riding around on a Onewheel (if it's a nice day). I used to dedicate a whole room to a blacked-out home theater just for movies, which I'd watch on disc, first. Those days are past.
For someone much more deeply into movies, the value equation will clearly be different. Personally, I put the dollar equivalent of a Kaleidescape system into a gaming PC and into upgrading my game console to the latest generation. I am thrilled with what I am getting out of it!
Ultimately, there are practical limitations to how much resolution you need for an image to appear seamless and detailed—beyond what the eye can see, even if you have 20/10 vision and sit close to a large screen. At some point, streaming will surpass the threshold where it is visually compromised. It's inevitable. And I'm guessing the same to be true for soundtracks. Just as audio did with lossless streaming, it's really a matter of having more than enough bandwidth to support higher bitrates and that's about it.
So, when will steaming cross this threshold and surpass today's UHD Blu-ray, exactly? I'm not sure... but it's not like this stuff is moving at a snail's pace. And the gap in quality vs. disc is simply is not objectionable like it used to be. I truly believe we are witnessing the end of discs as a viable format for video distribution.
IMO, just like UHD streaming is really like HD Blu-ray in equivalent quality, 8K streaming is likely to be the match for UHD Blu-ray, etc., and it'll be more than enough for most applications, period. IMO, even 4K UHD streams satisfy what most people want out of their display. So what I wonder is, what's the plan when streaming passes the threshold? People who argue disc will always be better ignore the fact it stops mattering at some point. The point when both streaming and disc are more than good enough.
If there's one thing I've learned over the years in the AV business, it's that performance alone is a commodity. If you want maximum bang for the buck, shop accordingly! Build out a NAS, use Plex, source some discs and go to DIY media distribution heaven. Or, if you are immune to sticker shock, get a quote on a Kaleidescape system for a turnkey, best-in-class movie player. How media is presented (the user interface), the totality of the functions of the system (scripting, a deep movie database), ergonomics, programmability, and general ease-of-use—these things define luxury and Kaleidescape is the definitive luxury media player.
Or... just get an Apple TV 4K, or a Roku Streaming Stick 4K+, or a Chromecast with Google TV, or an NVIDA Shield, or an Amazon Fire TV 4K Max. Or a 4K gaming console like the Xbox Series S or X that can do it all, just remember to add a media remote so you don't have to struggle with the game controller when you are watching a movie!
If need be, upgrade your router, make sure your Internet service can handle UHD streaming. If you do all that, you can stop worrying about how exactly you should source your media. Find what you want to watch, using the device you want to watch it with, and be done with it! Maybe keep a basic UHD Blu-ray player in the rack just in case you need to spin a disc. The best thing is that any way you do it, today's TVs and media are so far beyond what I grew up with, that what's been obsoleted is the movie theater itself.
Here's what I'm ultimately getting at. It's 2022, and you can buy a flagship-class 85" Samsung QN90A for about $3000 right now, an amazing price and a remarkable turn of events for TVs, because the leap to 85" used to command a huge premium, but now 75" to 85" pricing follows the same logic as 55" to 65", 65" to 75". The big leap in price now exists when you go from 85" to 98".
But here's the thing... the 98" TVs now cost what 85" TVs cost just a few years ago. And 98" is truly cinematic. But, so is 85"! 75" is sorta cinematic, 85" (in most homes) definitely is. And that's one of the keys to home theater, simply having a big enough picture that you experience cinematography with an appropriate sense of scale and immersion. Yes, projectors give an even bigger picture, but the value offered by today's 85" options is unprecedented.
Want an even bigger picture in the living room? Here's what I do instead of owning a TV. There's a new display type that's growing fast in popularity, the UST (ultra-short-throw) projector. Now you can put a 100" or even 120" screen in your living room and light it up with a compact projector that sits just beneath the screen, perhaps on a credenza or TV stand. The cost? Somewhere between $3000 and $6000 will get you a rather amazing big-screen experience that can withstand some ambient light and looks fully cinematic with lights off, even in rooms with white walls. The Hisense PX1-Pro and L9G, the BenQ V7050i, LG's HU715Q and HU85LA, and Samsung's LSP9T are all recommendable, with the Hisense models likely offering the strongest value proposition at this time. Just add a decent Atmos system—could be a premium Atmos soundbar, or if circumstances permit, an AVR plus subwoofer & speakers—to complete the experience.
Here at Home Theater Review, we will focus on what's possible in the living room with today's AV tech, while also covering the world of dedicated home theater. But the days when the gap between a dedicated room with a Sony or JVC or Epson long-throw projector plus a disc player and a living room with a TV and a soundbar and streaming was insurmountable, are just about over. Yes, dedicated home theater kicks ass, but you can also now legit call what's possible in living rooms and family rooms "home theater" so long as you set the mood and dim the lights, and have a comfy couch in the right spot, take care to ensure your Internet is fast and reliable, and crucially, have an appropriately high fidelity system through which to appreciate your home AV experiences.
In summary, please enjoy and appreciate how far we've come, we're in the golden era of home theater right now.