Blu-ray vs. Streaming and Avoiding the Pre-Packaged Media Apocalypse

Join me in the WayBack Machine for a trip to 1995. Somewhere in North America a Stereophile Hi-Fi Show is in progress, and the writing staff is gathered for an Ask the Editor’s session. A question arises about the then fledgling music downloading technology. I recall I answered that, “We’ll be able to do it before we can do it well.”

As it turned out that was correct, though I’m no soothsayer. It was simply a matter of following the money. The Internet was coming into its own, so using it in some way to sell music was a no-brainer (and probably changed Apple, just one of many home computer companies at the time, from a struggling enterprise into a media powerhouse). But this required drastic data compression Enter the MP3 music compression format and the rest is a history. MP3 downloads now dominate the music sales business.

Sad, yes, but only audiophiles seem to care about the way MP3 savaged the audio quality of music. Fortunately, a silver lining appeared: the appearance in the past few years of high resolution audio downloads promising audio that’s superior to what you’ll find even on uncompressed CD, much less on MP3.

Back to today. The Internet now can easily carry both audio and video. While audio-only over the net is generally in the form of a download (stored by the buyer for playback later, and as often as desired), video is generally “streamed”—that is, it’s played back immediately, or nearly so.

Even more so than audio, video in any consumer form must be highly compressed. An HD movie on Blu-ray operates at a variable data rate depending on the needs of each scene, but most seem to average somewhere just above 20 Megabits per second. I’ve occasionally seen this top 30Mbps or higher. A useful source for this information, though I can’t vouch for its accuracy, is It’s an older site, but has obviously been updated since its launch.

But a streamed movie must use a much more restrictive bandwidth. Netflix, one of the major streaming services, typically drops the data rate to under 10Mbps, or even 5Mps). Movie streaming can be affected by other bandwidth-robbing variables as well, including whether your connection is wired or wireless, the quality of your Internet Service Provider (ISP), and even the time of day (with more demand for bandwidth, the available data rate inevitably goes down, and along with it, the quality). At least one streaming service, Amazon Prime, streams at 720p, which requires less bandwidth than 1080p. And since the available bandwidth varies depending on where you live, the source provider can’t simply choose the bandwidth offering the highest possible quality but rather must go lower (often much lower) to serve the most customers.

Audio for video can suffer as well. On Blu-ray we nearly always get either DTS-HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD—both offer lossless compression. But the best offering on most of the movie streaming services is lossy Dolby Digital Plus. DD+ can provide slightly better quality than plain vanilla Dolby Digital, depending on how the streaming service sees fit to employ it. But potentially enhanced audio quality wasn’t why DD+ was originally created. It was designed to offer quality equivalent to DD, but at roughly half the data rate. Streaming services, of course, lapped it up. While it’s likely that improvements to it have been made since then, do you really think that the movie streaming services are using it for anything other than the minimum audio quality they think you’ll tolerate, particularly since many if not most users under 30 were raised on MP3?

I’m highly prejudiced toward Blu-ray. I want packaged media to survive, and not only because it’s the only source good enough to provide repeatable real-world material for testing HDTVs.

I’ll readily admit that I’m highly prejudiced toward Blu-ray. I want packaged media to survive, and not only because it’s the only source good enough (and free of the unpredictable bandwidth issues mentioned above) to provide repeatable real-world material for testing HDTVs. It’s also a great format for multichannel music, an application for which it’s been sorely underused so far.

Blu-ray vs. Streaming
I admit that my personal experiences with movie streaming have been limited. So recently I tried comparing a movie streamed from Netflix with the Blu-ray equivalent. The display was my Panasonic TC-65ZT60 plasma, viewed from about 10-feet away. (At 8 feet the differences might have been more pronounced, but I found 8 feet to be uncomfortably close, as most viewers might. Oddly I don’t have a problem at 11 feet from my 96-inch wide projection screen, but the latter hasn’t yet been installed in my new home theater room).

For this test I picked out a couple of favorite recent Blu-rays with stunning visuals, Oblivion and Prometheus, but couldn’t find their equivalents on Netflix (Netflix’ streaming titles are apparently less extensive than those available from its still up-and-running mail service). So I chose an older title from the Netflix list that I knew to be an excellent, detailed transfer: Enemy at the Gates. I watched several key scenes, though because of the time required to switch from the Panasonic’s Apps menu to its Blu-ray input and back this was not as direct an A/B comparison as I’d prefer.

The results surprised me. The streaming version was totally watchable. It did not, as some have suggested, simply look like upconverted standard definition. The color was hard to criticize, there was no noise, and I didn’t spot any artifacts. It was clearly softer and less deeply detailed than the Blu-ray, but not in an obvious, “Wow, look at that” way. If I didn’t know the Blu-ray existed, I would have been happy to watch in this streamed version. Perhaps on a bigger screen, not so much, but on a 65-incher from a reasonable distance, yes.

But I do know that Blu-ray exists, and despite statements to the contrary, studios are not yet losing money selling them. I was a little alarmed recently to see that my local Best Buy was having a summer sale on BDs and DVDs, some of them at enticing prices. These included even newer movies and TV shows, but mostly catalogue titles. I was concerned because I feared at first that Best Buy was unloading their stock and planning to get out the Blu-ray / DVD sales business. But there were still many new titles on the shelves.

Many movie fans are collectors, and a movie that streams and then disappears, or even gets downloaded to some sort of storage for future viewing, doesn’t have the same collectable cache as a disc in its cover sitting on a bookcase. The question is, will the market for such packaged media, long term, remain big enough to survive.

With more plentiful, streamed Ultra HD sources coming soon, can UHD Blu-ray, which we expect to see late this year or early next, prolong the life of packaged media, perhaps pulling conventional Blu-ray along by its coattails? I sincerely hope so. The early days of streamed UHD are likely to be ugly. It will require even more compression than 1080p, particularly if they add enhanced color and high dynamic range to the mix, and the quality of the new, more efficient HEVC codec planned for UHD is still something of an unknown quantity. And as many have found with high res audio downloads, what you get is not always what you expect. Too many high res audio downloads don’t make optimum use of the format, and a few are even reportedly CD quality that’s been “upconverted.” That could happen with streamed UHD as well. In any case, even if done properly, it’s very possible that some titles not only won’t look like UHD after they leave the streaming pipeline, but might not even equal the quality of 1080p Blu-ray. Unfortunately, most of the public won’t notice; if it’s advertised as 4K, they’ll likely accept it.

That’s where UHD Blu-ray just might carve out its own place in the sun. I certainly want UHD Blu-ray to succeed (and hope the industry realizes that for it to do so, they can’t charge boutique prices—we don’t need another LaserDisc business plan). Even now I like the idea of being able to pull out any title from my extensive collection to sit down and watch either the whole thing or (in the case of already watched titles) favorite scenes. I want to do that in UHD as well. But one way or another, with a 1000 disc collection (just over half of them Blu-rays) I’ll at least be ready for any pre-packaged media Apocalypse.

javanp's picture

So I was recently checking out the new season of Hannibal on Vudu, my first experience with the service, and, at first, the picture quality seemed absolutely incredible. But then I realized that blacks were being absolutely crushed. The image in dark scenes was pretty much unwatchable. At first I assumed it was my projector as its "auto" mode on color space isn't always the best but the results were the same when I switched to my plasma. The video settings for the app were pretty much non-existent and I tried changing some things around on my PS3 but no luck.

I'm used to that sort of difficultly when I'm watching movies on plex but for a streaming service to have that problem was pretty frustrating. I mean, I had just paid $25 for the season in HD and I could barely watch it.

So one of the downsides of streaming... lack of standards and/or compatibility.

darealest1's picture

Vudu is for picutre quality the best one out there, but its not as good as blu ray. On my 60 in LED, it looks about identical, but on my 70 in, i can see a loss of sharpness and detail clearly, but its still pretty good.

canman4pm's picture

I, too hope for the survival of physical media. For both reasons you stated: I prefer the higher quality picture and sound AND I take pleasure in my 700+ (and growing) collection. Just as I still do with my music collection. And my book collection.

IronManFan's picture

Great article, share your hope for social media. But for the love of all things holy, please don't spell 'losing' as 'loosing.'

"...studios are not yet loosing money selling them."

You're better than that.

Thinker's picture

We are all slow to realize that, media is dead.
The “device” is the present and the future.
Right now, for super users like here, streaming is just not good enough.
But, in a few years, it will be as fiber becomes faster and faster.
For most regular users, they are less picky. So, right NOW, the device and the stream are great for them.
CDs rot, hard drives crash, clouds are not perfect either, LPs age and wear, the rest are too low rez for audio or screen.
The device is the prince now, and a darn good one, but will one day rule the kingdom.
Yes, you will be able to “own” the better stuff but, it will be downloaded. No plastic or paper boxes.
Just, give it time…

Thomas J. Norton's picture
IronManFan: Fixed. I know better, but fast writing isn't always your friend! Thinker: Fiber may get faster, but will it get fast enough to satisfy the increased demand? Or will we just stay where we are in the demand/capacity ratio, or even fall behind despite the higher capacity? Moreover, fast fiber networks aren't universal throughout the country. We don't have FIOS, for example, in my neck of the woods, and likely never will. But I can get the same top quality from my Blu-rays as can anyone, anywhere—in 1080p now, and soon, hopefully, in UHD.

CD rot? I've heard of LaserDisc rot, but not on a 5-inch disc, audio or video. Not saying it can't ever happen, but I haven't experienced it. A hard drive crash, taking a complete music and video collection with it, is far mote likely. Then there's the holy grail of movie and music providers, always lurking in the shadows: "selling" you a download for only a limited time, after which it will self destruct, Mission Impossible style! But not to worry, you can download it again in 7 years (like an escapee from Vault Disney).

Streaming and downloading do fill a need; most consumers only buy the occasional movie for home viewing. That's aways been true and won't change, In the past it was rentals, then Netflix by mail. The new digital paradigm merely replaces the video store.

But I like to think that collectors will always exist. The only issue is whether an infrastructure will remain to supply the eventually smaller demand for hard copies of our favorite films.

Oreo's picture

The only movies we currently purchase are typically Disney for our kids, but I've started buying and requesting the combo packs with BD, DVD, and Digital Copy, even though I have yet to get a Blu-ray player. I'm going to get one, but the choice is stand-alone or Xbox One, and I haven't quite made up my mind. I don't get as much time to play games now, so the actual use of the console is the main issue.

The reason for DVDs is to watch in the car. As far as I know none of the manufacturers are selling BD players as an option in the car.

The digital copy is for my Disney Movies Anywhere or Google Play Movies accounts, so I can download it to my Galaxy S4 or future tablet for when the internet is unavailable.

mwelters's picture

I prefer blu-ray, but I now consume most videos through streaming. This isn't really by choice. There simply are no options for renting blu-rays in Canada any more. There are no video rental stores, Bestbuy closed down its kiosk rentals, and Redbox recently pulled out of Canada. I will continue to buy certain movies on blu-rays, but most movies I just want to rent. To rent I have to stream.

Facing the reality of streaming, I found a website that did a screen comparison of blu-ray, itunes, and Vudu (an example is here: Obviously blu-ray was the best. But interestingly the quality of iTunes was very close. Based on my research (more accurately, based on others' time and effort to produce such comparisons) I have opted to stream from iTunes rather than CinemaNow (Vudu is not available up here), and for the most part find the results satisfactory. The audio is not as good, unfortunately (although some websites attribute the difference mostly to the volume levels), but video wise its pretty darn good. Fortunately.

mwelters's picture

Forgot to mention: there are no mail-rental services in Canada any more, so that option is out too.