Redbox Renters Beware: Mystery of the Missing Audio Track

When you buy a Blu-ray Disc for $25, you expect the very best quality. When you rent a Blu-ray for $2, do you still expect the best? Or would the budget pricing lower your expectations? Do you simply assume that the bits comprising a rental movie are the same as the retail movie? You might be surprised to learn that not all bits are created equal. And therein lies a mystery.

It’s not uncommon to have bonus materials deleted from some rental discs. That seems reasonably okay as long as the feature film is untouched. However, some rental discs have audio tracks that are degraded from the retail versions. If you read AV forums, you’ll find enthusiasts outraged to discover that a rented title occasionally has a lossless audio track (like DTS-HD Master Audio) replaced by lossy audio (like DTS 5.1). Those getting finger-pointing: rental giants Redbox and Netflix, and movie studio Lionsgate.

According to one forum post, Redbox purportedly responded to his complaint: “We’re sorry that the Blu-ray you rented did not have the audio that you like. Please understand that to keep rental cost low, Redbox has made agreements with studios to provide Dolby Digital 5.1 audio on some of our Blu-ray Discs. We just ask that going forward you keep this in mind, so not all the Blu-ray Discs you rent will have the audio you are asking for.”

Exactly how does inferior audio quality help keep rental costs low? Well, a movie studio might want to subtly cripple discs intended for the rental market to protect the value of their retail discs. That makes perfect business sense and seems like a legitimate practice. In return for that advantage, the studio could sell rental versions at a lower price.

It’s not uncommon to have bonus materials deleted from some rental discs. But some rental discs have audio tracks that are degraded from the retail versions.

Another possibility: It’s cheaper to manufacture discs with fewer data layers. The whole sirloin of a movie might need, for example, two data layers, but a more thinly sliced version might need only one. The one-time costs of rewriting the files and making a new disc master may be less than the multiplicative cost of pressing dual-layer discs instead of single-layer discs. Thus, lossless audio gets replaced by more data-efficient lossy audio. The rental company pays less for the cheaper downgraded discs.

It’s hard to blame movie studios for protecting their product, and if retail sales are more profitable than rental sales, then it’s simply good business to manufacture lesser discs and sell only those to rental companies. And the rental companies? They want to buy discs at the lowest possible price. But they also want Blu-ray titles to be as good as possible, at least so they can charge a premium for them over DVDs. On the other hand, if rental companies mislead consumers about content, that seems very unsportsmanlike.

And that, I think, is the heart of the problem: the possibility of false advertising. If your rental disc arrives in a generic sleeve without labeling, you might not know what you are getting. And even if the rented disc doesn’t specifically state the audio format, even if there is nothing deceptive, there is an expectation that a premium-priced Blu-ray Disc will deliver premium performance. And a dumbed down audio track doesn’t do that.

The question has recently moved from the blogosphere to the courtroom. Plaintiffs in Miami have filed a lawsuit against Redbox claiming that Redbox engaged in deceptive advertising. Whatever the merits of the case, it might at least uncover what’s going on here. Meanwhile, it seems that some bits are mysteriously missing. Vast conspiracy, tempest in a teapot, or simple misunderstanding? We’ll find out.

kevon27's picture

I watched the Mockingjay PT 1 this weekend and the standard Dolby 5.1 tracks were available and no lossless options..
Strangely, I did not miss the lossless track. Believe it or not the standard Dolby and DTS 5.1 lossy is not that bad. And my system is a pretty good system.
Besides, when you are renting and not owning the disc, I don't think it's a really big deal if they decide to remove the Lossless tracks. It's stupid but not life changing.

prerich45's picture

I rented the Expendables 2 a few years ago and I just couldn't fathom what was wrong! I went and checked my subs - everything was ok - I had signal, checked my wiring, everything was fine. My wife wondered why I was in such a tizzy. I told her that this can't be a lossless presentation it just sounded bad! I then looked at the receiver to see I stopped the film and went to the menu to pull up the DTS-HD-MA 7.1 - only to find that it wasn't there!!!

From that moment I refused to rent another movie (unless it was a "chick flick"). I used the rental market as a try it before you buy it method. I hate to buy movies that I will only view once. If there's a question on whether its good or not, I would rent t movie, and if I liked it - I would buy it. However that experience with The Expendables soured me - I still didn't know how good the lossless track was - so I never bought the movie. If I pay a premium to rent BD disc - it's not only the picture that's important - the sound is just as important (if not more) to me.

However - my said after all of this, "Baby, you really can tell the difference, can't you?" she was impressed!