streaming 580

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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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