Streaming vs. Blu-ray: What are Your Friends Hearing?

I’m just putting together HT’s February Letters section, and one letter really stood out to me. A reader who’s Blu-ray centric and has built a quality surround sound system around lossless audio wrote in lamenting that streaming from Netflix and other platforms is gaining momentum even though the sound is not only lossy, but often limited to stereo instead of discrete 5.1. He wondered whether sound quality is going to continue to go by the wayside or whether, as bandwidth increases, these platforms will offer improved sound quality. Even the Vudu platform, which offers the highest quality streams I’m aware of, offers 5.1-channel surround at 640kbps lossy Dolby Digital at best. These are excellent questions, even if for now we’re ignoring the video quality issues (Apple’s iTunes movie downloads are limited to 720p, the high-def minimum). In the future, if bandwidth improves, it seems possible that high quality streams or downloads could be offered with lossless surround sound. But it would probably be at a cost premium, and people will have to be willing to pay more. To be willing to pay more people need to be educated that not all 5.1-channel surround sound is created equal, and be taught to aspire to lossless. HT’s readers are sophisticated on subjects like these, but I wonder, what about your friends and family? How many of them have component based home theater systems that would allow them to hear the difference? How many of your friends are using the speakers built-in to their TVs? Are these people into streaming? When they come to your house, and hear and see Blu-ray in its full glory does it make a difference? Do they ask you questions that suggest they’re interested in learning more and maybe elevating their experience at their house? I’m just curious, because for high quality options to exist in the streaming ecosystems, there needs to be demand.

Roy's picture

With Netflix announcing a streaming-only plan today, I fear for the future of Blu-ray. I'm going to stick with my 1-disc per month plan, only because I love Blu-ray's better sound and visual quality.Honestly, though, none of my friends or family care about Blu-ray at all. They think streaming is just fine and virtually none of them, with the exception of those with small children, even buy many DVD's anymore. None of them want Blu-ray players. Even my friends with PS3's don't care about Blu-ray. It's unfortunate, but I think the format is going to follow the path blazed by MiniDisc, DVD-audio and SACD. In other words, it's probably going to become a niche audiophile and videophile format.I hope I'm wrong, but the future doesn't look promising.

Ron W's picture

The operative words in the article "if bandwidth improves" are important here since generally the people I know that work in the industry indicate because of the demands in other more profitable areas of the telecommunications business, it is highly unlikely bandwidth will reach the level required to approach BR disc quality, at least for the foreseeable future. And then there is the issue of 3D and its potential. HDTVs and BR players that are 3D compatible are critical to its success or failure so there will continue to be a "blitz" of marketing from the mainstream companies.A positive point about BR players that never existed with the "one off" formats described above(SACD/DVDA), along with regular price reductions, more and more players provide the ability to stream video such as Netflix and other providers, that is, of course along with other features and the ability to play the discs themselves. This is a versatility that up until now, never existed with other hardw

Ryan's picture

All of my freinds and most of my family use blu-ray. But almost none of them use it in a dedicated Home Theater like me, let alone surround sound. They unfortunate listen through their TV's. This bothers me for the exact reason Shane Buettner stated, demand drives features. And high definition audio is a feature not many around me are inquiring about. :( I do believe it will arrive eventually when the masses start getting the larger bandwidth packages and blu-ray really takes off (price drops). We shall see.

Claude's picture

My Netflix subscription for one DVD/Blu-ray plus streaming is going up a buck a month. That's ok as long as I keep getting blu-ray discs. If they drop blu-ray and go to streaming only, I will look elsewhere. Streaming is very nice for immediate satisfaction and for content that doesn't have to be the best quality. I like it as a supplment to my plan. I want the best quality video and audio out there and that currently is blu-ray. In order for streaming to provide the same quality, the internet itself will need to be revamped, or the software gurus will have to come up with a super compression scheme that limts bandwidth and at the same time produces top level AV. I don't see either happenning anytime soon.

Bill's picture

Streaming would be okay I spose if we could do Japans 50MbS. I live in the boonies and my phone company has exclusive rights to the lines. I had to wait years to get DSL. 1.5MBs is the very best they offer and make me pay 70 bucks a month for it. President Obama should look into fixing that, but thats another story. For now, I cherish my Bluray players. I buy plenty of discs and can even borrow some for free from the library. Also, do not discount DVDs. They are presently dirt cheap. Heck I jsut gave a dozen brand new movies on DVD to my 80 year old father yesterday for his birthday. I doubt he will ever want BR, he still clings onto his VHS player! (Physical media makes a great gift, unlike a download.) Both DVD and BR offer great extra features that don't come with a download, not even a directors commentary. No deleted scenes, nutt'in kids. Tell Hollywood to speed up the price drop of players and BR discs. Get enough people into it, and they will have a chance, esp in the countryside.

Stephen's picture

I think I am one if many people who have helped put our local rental shops out of business. We used to go and walk or drive over once or twice a month. Last year I got the older apple tv and we pretty much stopped completely. The iTunes 720 dolby digital 5.1 is great with a 720p tv and some psb images hooked up to a cheap onkyo. I'm thinking about the cheaper oppo, but will I ever buy a video disc? The only time I worry is for presents - giving a download sucks. So am I the problem?

Stephen's picture

I think I am one if many people who have helped put our local rental shops out of business. We used to go and walk or drive over once or twice a month. Last year I got the older apple tv and we pretty much stopped completely. The iTunes 720 dolby digital 5.1 is great with a 720p tv and some psb images hooked up to a cheap onkyo. I'm thinking about the cheaper oppo, but will I ever buy a video disc? The only time I worry is for presents - giving a download sucks. So am I the problem?

Eugen T's picture

I'll start with a remark: I built my home theater specifically to watch the movies with the highest quality video and sound. For sound, I have Onkyo TX-SR805 as my processor, Rotel RMB-1075 5-channel amplifier, B&W CDM-1SE mains, B&W CDM-CNT center, B&W CDM-1 rears, two NHT SubTwo subwoofers with separate controllers and Velodyne SMS-1 equalization; PS3 is used as a source for now. So yes, I care about the sound from my BluRays. BUT... We signed up for NetFlix streaming and love it. It's CONVENIENT. Most modern movies on Netflix have DD sound and 720p picture. I press a button on PS3 and the movie starts. It costs measly $8/month too! I will still buy BluRays now, but I will be much more selective and will only buy movies that we love.One important note: in Canada, we DO pay extra for high-def streaming, because most of our internet providers (i.e. Rogers and Bell hegemony) do not offer unlimited bandwidth or charge much more for the unlimited vs. set monthly cap.

Shane's picture

I think it's pretty apparent with the recent pricing increases at Netflix that they're planning on keeping Blu-ray more expensive and pricier. Does this have anything to do with providing the best quality for its customers or what's best for the Netflix bottom line?Is Netflix good enough that when Inception comes out you're going there instead of Blu-ray?

brad's picture

The BD sales are way up year to year for N America and Europe, and DVD are down. I argue that humans like a physical media, and streams simply do not compare to the BD quality, visual or audio. Not to mention the extras on discs that you cannot get with streams. BD is actually on course to displace DVD quite soon. Check you local best buy store who decided to officially phase out DVD this year. The industry knows that there is a benefit to a parellel business model - streams and BD

FiguredMaple's picture

My money will always be spent on the highest quality option for media, and at this time, I am only interested in Blu ray discs. I also prefer the fact that BD discs are a physical item that I can hold in my hand and play wherever I choose at full resolution.Sony has a couple models of 400 disc changers that keep the Blu ray disc superior in quality and convenience.

Kris Deering's picture

Actually I think Vudu uses DD+ for their streaming audio with HDX titles. Haven't had the chance to try it in the theater room yet though.

Snowmanick's picture

My wife and I have a library of over 600 DVD's and BR's and still add to it regularly. Personally I can barely watch a Netflix streamed movie. My wife watches them if the picture quality is reasonable, but frequently has issues finding the titles she wants to watch. For all the vaunted quantities of films and TV shows that Netflix has (over 20,000 last I saw) it is very difficult to find something we actually want to watch, or that is streamed in a decent enough quality to actually watch. Personally after the last price hike, and the poor selection and poor quality of streamed videos, I was ready to cancel my Netflix subscription.I for one enjoy the significantly better picture and sound quality of BR and even DVD. I don't see why people would want to spend a significant amount of money on a new ultra hi-def 1080P 50"+ TV and want to feed it a signal quality equivalent to VHS in some cases, with the audio quality to match.As for my friends and family, they tend to have simila

Kris Deering's picture

Netflix streaming is similar to MP3. You are taking a quality hit, but the convenience is comforting. Most people just don't have a problem with it. I use Netflix streaming for kid's shows but that is about it. For TV shows I use Apple TV. If I was going to rent a title I would use either Apple or Vudu, though I like Apple a bit more as I can download the film first then watch it. Streaming tends to have issues depending on the time of day with my internet (cable).

Mark  Hudson 's picture

you know,i try netflix this week on my bro's account.I have say is it looks "okay". But,i m a quality guy and i'll all way's spend my money on blu-ray's for both quality and audio. I guess these video streams services are for people who don't care for audio or both. If they do figure how to get full lossless audio codec i'll jump on board till then i won't. blu-ray ftw.

eric's picture

Even on my relatively high end audio system I can't tell a difference between DD 640k and lossless sound in blind tests. 384k yes, 640k no. This tells me that the differences are small enough not to matter for 99.9% of people. FAR more important is the proper setup of their home theater system and the quality of their home theater system if they have one at all. It is a constant battle trying to get friends to even set the levels, sound modes, and crossovers properly on their new systems, let alone try to convince them that lossless audio is worthwhile to them. I have an AppleTV and the audio and video quality is perfectly acceptable even on my 65" Panasonic Plasma. I can certainly see and hear a difference and I won't rent Ironman on it, but nobody else can especially on their smaller TV sets and TV speakers. The reality is that you will never see wide adoption of lossless audio in streaming because it just isn't worth it. There are much larger battles to be fought.

Matt's picture

I think most people are missing the point of the question. What do your friends and family think? Yes people who read home theater are going to prefer blu ray. Everyone else I know loves Netflix and just listens to it over tv speakers. Even when I show them blu ray on my home theater They say they love it but it is not worth the money to them.

Shane's picture

To Matt's points, what would it take to get people involved and interested enough to participate? Some of us with higher end, higher priced systems might seem inaccessible. I think if people were exposed to quality demonstrations of really good entry level and midrange systems they'd engage more.