Blu-ray vs. HDTV Streaming Services: A Quality Comparison Review

September 2nd, 2013 · 7 Comments · Blu-ray Discs, Blu-ray Titles, Digital Media Receivers, News, Product Reviews, Streaming Services


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Video streaming is overtaking physical media. Here are the numbers to prove it: In 2012, an estimated 3.4 billion movies were streamed by households in the U.S., while only 2.4 billion Blu-rays and DVDs were watched during the same period — a dip from the year before.

Ultra HD displays providing 4 times the resolution of current HDTVs are now on the market, but there’s no native Ultra HD content to watch on them. While it’s possible that content will arrive in an updated disc format, it’s equally possible that it will arrive via streaming services. But how good are the various services at streaming HD, let alone Ultra HD? To see what kind of picture quality they deliver — and get a sense of what we can expect when they start to stream in the Ultra HD format — I watched a movie on Blu-ray and compared the picture quality of the same titles streamed in HD from the three major services: Netflix, Vudu, and Amazon. Read on for the results.

The title I chose for my comparison was The Hunger Games  (The forest fire scene from this film was selected by DTS for its annual Demo Disc in 2013.) Spoiler alert: The clear winner was Blu-ray. The full DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray disc sounded clearer and more dynamic, with better surround usage and deeper bass. Compared with the streaming services, the image looked much more detailed, with no macroblocking or posterization artifacts. There were differences to be seen between the three services, however.

Blu-ray vs. VUDU

The Hunger Games looked best when streamed via VUDU. (The Ultraviolet redemption code included with The Hunger Games Blu-ray allows access to the HDX version from VUDU.) Provided you have a fast Internet connection, VUDU HDX’s higher bitrate allows for better audio and video than what you get from the competing services. Even so, it’s still not Blu-ray: Fine textures in skin looked flat in comparison with the image on the disc version, and the audio paled next to Blu-ray’s lossless soundtrack.

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 Blu-ray vs. Amazon on Demand

The next best quality came from Amazon on Demand. Audio was still reasonably dynamic, but the picture was of a lesser quality — it was like looking out of a foggy window instead of a clear one. Faces appeared patchy, and fine details like hair came across as dark blobs of color.

Blu-ray vs. Netflix

Netflix did even worse than Amazon on Demand. The audio was much less dynamic than with either of the other two services, and the image contained even less detail. Overall, the picture quality was less like HD and more like a DVD upscaled to HD by your TV, while audio quality was DVD-level or worse.

Another streamed title I compared with its Blu-ray version was Amélie, which is available through Amazon on Demand. There was no comparison between the streamed version from Amazon and the Amelie disc. Fine textures in a child’s jacket looked clear and distinct on the Blu-ray, while I could barely see the textures on the same jacket with the streamed version. A shot of a concrete curb was flat, dull, and lacking fine detail on the Amazon version, while I could see textures and tiny cracks in the Blu-ray one.

Worse yet, the 2.35:1 aspect ratio image seen on the Amélie Blu-ray has been reformatted to 16:9 for streaming via Amazon. This meant that not only were the black bars gone, but picture content had been cropped from the sides of the image.

All streamers are not equal

Streaming quality also varies from device to device. The best quality I’ve seen is from the Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player, which has a video processing chipset that was specifically picked because it enhances the quality of streamed content. In comparison, the Roku 3 makes films look noticeably softer. A 32-inch HDTV Sony TV I also used to stream content yielded similar picture quality to the Roku. But even when watched on that TV’s small screen, the quality difference between Blu-ray and streaming was clear.

The future of streaming

In addition to having increased resolution over current HD signals, the Ultra HD format will likely have greater bit-depths for color as well. But because it uses the new High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) codec, which allows for 40-45% more efficient compression, UltraHD streaming will have an advantage over current technology.

The verdict

The disappointing outcome of this test was that the picture quality of HD movies watched via the top three current streaming services is roughly equivalent to an upscaled DVD. But the good news for HDTV owners is that the soon-to-arrive HEVC codec promises to bring HD streaming quality closer to Blu-ray. Will that be good enough going forward? Much better than Blu-ray quality will be required in order to fully reap the benefits of an Ultra HD display. I’m sure that many people will find Blu-ray quality to be good enough, but for those who want to get what they paid for from their Ultra HD TV or projector, streaming isn’t going to cut it.

-Chris Heinonen


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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott Hansen

    What I don’t get is why this is viewed as an either/or proposition.. Why can’t digital distribution/streaming and Blu-ray/optical disc co-exist in the future..? They co-exist now. Why do we need to abandon one in favor of the other? At any rate, it’s good to see in September 2013 someone arguing effectively for the superiority of Blu-ray from a qualitative standpoint. (Just purchased “The Conjuring” today from Best Buy for $22.99). Recall the average price for Laserdisc remained around $34.99 through the end of its life. So, I don’t mind $20 to $25 at all for something I can keep and that is of real tangible quality.
    Thanks again for your article!

  • Trevor

    It’s unfortunate that people don’t demand higher quality for their HDTV experience, but it’s not surprising. People always comment when I say that I don’t stream at home. Streaming is fine for small mobile devices, but any one can see the difference on a 50″ screen (if someone points it out to them).

    On the topic of cable service, I have had Cox and Verizon FIOS and both deliver an equally poor experience with heavy macroblocking and pixelization on all channels (including HBO, MAX, Showtime, Starz, Epix). I am using both their STB and cablecard in WMC and making this comparison to Bluray quality. The only TV viewing experience that looks decent is OTA (Over The Air). If you can receive OTA (antenna to your HDTV), and you have cable, do an A-B comparison on a sporting event. The quality difference is obvious.

    We are seeing the same thing in the cinema industry. 35mm film was abandoned in the name of cost savings even though current digital projection technology is lower resolution. I will concede that the digital presentation typically “looks better” but that is mainly because the 35mm presentation was so poorly done.

  • daarrid

    It would have been useful if you also compared the blu-ray to your Comcast cable service.

    I’d still welcome some remarks even if they were simply general impressions.

  • Tom

    Do you think it is possible, say next couple years, to get lossless quality sound from streaming?

  • Tim

    I agree with your conclusions. Blu-Ray movies almost always look and sound better. They ought to since the movies are often over 40GB.
    However, streaming TV shows is another thing. I use Comcast and it does allow SuperHD – which looks very good for streaming TV shows.

  • Don

    Where did you get your streaming vs. physical media numbers?

    The streaming vs. physical media numbers are from IHS:


  • Tony

    Such limited testing! First, how could you not test iTunes? They offer rentals which could be counted as streaming. As several more thorough comparisons have shown, Apple manages incredible quality despite apparently greater compression. Better in some ways than HDX on Vudu.

    Second, you neglect to mention that Netflix has an enhanced HD format of its own, delivered automatically depending on your cable provider. In those cases it’s clearly superior to Amazon and usually indistinguishable from Vudu’s HDX.

    Finally, though you mention differences across devices, you don’t mention the PS3, for a long time the most used Netflix streaming device and pretty much universally regarded as the most robust streaming device extant owed to its raw computational power and flexible architecture (note that PS3 is always the first device to get updated when Netflix rolls out a new version, interface, feature, or the like.)

    Unlike the tested services (Amazon, Netflix, and Vudu), iTunes does not exist in an open ecosystem. Any vendor is free to implement these streaming services on their device, provided they pay a licensing fee, which provides much better support. iTunes is stuck with the AppleTV.

    Apple does allow for very high peak bitrates with their recent processors, but the streaming average bitrate for 1080p is still set to 8 megabits/second maximum. Vudu HDX can utilize an average bitrate of 12 megabits/sec in comparison. As both are using H.264 for a compression codec, Vudu can allow for better image quality just from a raw data perspective.

    As far as Netflix SuperHD, many people, if not most, still can’t get it due to Comcast and other providers not supporting it. Netflix is free to offer it up to everyone if they want, but they’re choosing to require companies to enter into a distribution agreement to have access to it. If Netflix isn’t going to allow everyone access to it (including people like myself that only have Comcast as an option), I think it’s perfectly fair to not review that aspect. Most people can’t utilize it and that is no ones fault beyond Netflix.

    Finally, I don’t own a PS3. I used to own one and it is a great streaming device, but after not playing it for months after having kids, I sold it. I tested playback on a variety of devices (TV, Blu-ray player, Roku 3) but I don’t have every single device on the market on hand to use.


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