If you’ve read my other blog articles, you already know I’m a big proponent of avoiding lossy compressed audio and video sources at all costs. Lossy compression algorithms are fine for squeezing audio and video files down to fit on your cell phone, but they have no place in your home system! You should always use lossless formats whenever possible!
However, I’ve probably never told you about the dangers of reduced bandwidth from your audio and video streaming providers. Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transferred in a given amount of time. A simple analogy would be a garden hose - the bigger the hose, the more water that can be transferred. You can, of course, also control the amount of water you send through the hose. Similarly, did you know that your streaming provider can control the amount of audio and video data they send you? In peak use times, they can turn it down to a trickle. This can cause large variations in the quality of both the audio and video that you receive. If this bothers you, please read on!
When we talk about streaming systems (Roku, Apple TV, Fire Stick or just your own smart TV with built-in streaming apps), we’re always talking about lossy compressed data formats to begin with. Compressed means they are squeezing the data down so it fits in their water hose, or in other words, their bandwidth. Lossy means that not everything fits when they squeeze it down, so they have to remove some of the data. You don’t get everything. The more they compress it, the more you lose.
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll focus on video content in this article. Most streaming content is shown in Dolby Digital+ these days. The average streaming video and audio bit rate is compressed down to about 4Mbps (4 megabytes per second) for HD content (high definition, or 1080p resolution) and 12 Mbps for 4K content (3840 x 2160 resolution).
Lossless formats, however, are Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD and DTS:X. For these formats, the bitrate is up to 24.5Mbps. Your streaming system simply can’t handle that much bandwidth. Furthermore, when there are a lot of people watching at the same time, the streaming service providers have the capability to reduce the bandwidth even more, in order to support so many people simultaneously using their system. They might drop it down to, say 10Mbps or even 8Mbps or lower. The lower the bandwidth, the more data they’re taking out, and the worse the movie looks and sounds!
What Can You Do?
The first step is just being aware. If you’re watching movies or TV shows on a streaming box or using your built-in TV apps, you’re getting reduced-quality images and sound. For certain programs, such as TV series that are only available on streaming services, you may have no other option. But for movies, and even many of the current TV series, you do have better options. One alternative is to buy or rent a disc of the movie. This will give you the full, uncompressed audio track, which will sound significantly better. Plus, it will give you additional bandwidth and therefore better quality on the video track as well.
As an example, I conducted a fun experiment recently. I was watching a Blu-ray movie but was upset that I only had the HD quality version of the disc, so I decided to see if there was a 4K version on Netflix. I was in luck – they had the 4K version, so I streamed it while simultaneously playing the Blu-ray version, so I could switch back and forth between the two. I expected the uncompressed sound of the Blu-ray movie to be superior, which it definitely was. But I was shocked to find that the HD Blu-ray video quality actually looked sharper than the 4K streaming movie! Compression and data rate definitely makes a difference!
Your last and best option to avoid low-bitrate movies is to use a Kaleidescape movie server. These systems are very expensive, but, like many well-made, high-quality products, they are definitely worth it! If you’ve spent any significant amount of money building up a nice movie-watching system in your home, you simply owe it to yourself to try out a Kaleidescape! Arizona Sound & Light keeps a loaner system, so just contact us and we will be happy to let you try it out!
Since we’ve been talking about bandwidth and bit rate above, let’s take a look at the superior numbers that Kaleidescape offers, even compared to a Blu-ray player. As you can see in Figure 1, below, the average bit rate for video on a Kaleidescape system is over 60Mbps, compared to under 10Mbps for a streamer.
Figure 1 – Average Bit Rate Comparison
For a review of the Kaleidescape system, as well as some excellent videos and still images that clearly show the visual differences between low-bandwidth streaming and high-quality, unlimited-bandwidth movies, please see the excellent review by Phil Jones at Projectorreviews.com:
When you spend good money to put together a system for listening to music and watching TV and movies, it’s important to consider the sources that you’re sending to that system. If you’re using lossy compressed, low-bandwidth, low data rate sources like streaming movie systems, you’re really doing yourself a great injustice. You’re preventing your system from performing the way that it truly can. Instead, you should be looking for high bandwidth, uncompressed sources, which will really make your system shine!
So, now that you’ve been educated on the differences, please go out and see and hear them for yourself! If you have any questions, remember that our team at Arizona Sound & Light is always happy to talk about quality audio and video!