Is This the Videodisc Apocalypse?

The recent decision by Samsung to cease selling Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray players (at least in the U.S.), reported elsewhere on this site, has been taken by many as foreshadowing the death of video on physical media. Add in Oppo’s cessation of player manufacturing last year, and the statistically significant falloff in disc sales (confirmed locally by a recent, dramatic reduction in the shelf space devoted to video discs at my nearest Best Buy), and, the news certainly isn’t encouraging.

But the imminent death of the disc isn’t yet in sight. The disc market is still profitable, and the studios haven’t yet slowed down churning out both new and older titles. Check out The Digital Bits website for their weekly lists of releases and then tell me that video discs are on life support. They may be limping, but as a wise man once said, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”

Streaming is appealing, convenient, and (so far) relatively economical for the buyer. Several sites, taken together, offer a huge variety of movies and other programming, some of it original. The major players, so far, are Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube, and iTunes. None of these are free apart from YouTube, which specializes in shorter fare but does post the occasional movie.

But the streamed content industry is highly fractured, and if you shell out $15.00/month or so for each possible site (with more coming) it can add up fast. Subscribe to all of them and you might find yourself with a monthly tab of over $100, not counting the add-on cost charged for some content over and above the monthly fee (here’s lookin’ at you, Amazon).

I’ve recently spent (too much) time on these sites, mostly Netflix and Amazon. So far my streamed viewing has been on a 65-inch OLED using the set’s internal Apps; I’ve yet to experience streamed movies on my projector and big screen. I can’t say that the image quality equals what I see from 2K or 4K discs, but the on a flat screen of that size, so far, it’s been far closer, and better, than I had feared. Streamed 2K typically looks good, but streamed 4K hasn’t looked consistently better than 2K, unless it also includes HDR (which not all streamed 4K does). And there are duds out there. When I sampled the classic film Zulu on Amazon, for example, it looked like a badly worn VHS tape. But so far such disappointments have been rare.

As for the audio side of streamed video, it’s always lossy. Some argue that at least streamed audio is Dolby Digital Plus. But DD+ isn’t necessarily better than vanilla Dolby Digital. Dolby Digital Plus was developed over 10 years ago when streaming video was a mote in Dolby’s eye. While in theory DD+ could stream at a somewhat higher rate than plain Dolby Digital, its primary function was to offer the same quality as Dolby Digital at half or less of the standard DD data rate. The need to conserve bandwidth was clear even then. And while even the best audio streaming occupies only a fraction of the bandwidth that the video requires, saving even a few bits here and there is vital. Do you imagine that content providers are streaming DD+ at the highest rate it can achieve, or the lowest offering reasonable quality for the masses who happily stream lossy music? At its best lossy DD+ isn’t bad; it satisfies most viewers, particularly those who hear it over their set’s built-in speakers (the vast majority). But it isn’t lossless like Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD-Master Audio.

As a reviewer I use discs as my main source for evaluating video displays. I would never, at least not yet, rely on streamed video (or cable…eech!) to make critical judgments about a display—or for that matter audio on film. The best picture and sound quality is still available only on disc. Streamed video is highly competent, but given the burgeoning demand for content, and the slower rate at which the bandwidth capacity of the streaming pipeline grows, I don’t anticipate the balance to shift in streaming’s favor anytime soon.

I often re-watch parts of movies for pleasure, not just for reviews. There are innumerable scenes worth seeing many times over, without the need to sit through the entire film again from beginning to end. These scenes often move me on their own, even if the movie itself is far from a classic. They include great action scenes, scenes with spectacular cinematography or sound, scenes brilliantly written and acted, or sequences that are magnificently scored (either with songs or simply an instrumental score). But I’ve found it much more difficult to find a selected scene from a streamed video than from a disc. And if the movie in question commands a separate-from subscription fee from the provider (as with Amazon, mentioned earlier), re-watching part or all of a one-time “rental” several times over can quickly exceed the cost of a disc. The movie studios, of course, see this as pure gold, particularly with films aimed at kids who never tire of Frozen, even after the 10th viewing. Let It Go!

There’s a lot more that can be said in defense of the video disc, even for its continued existence side-by side with streaming. This won’t be the last time we revisit the topic. And check out our survey elsewhere in this site. But if, like us, you want to see the video disc survive, you’ll continue to buy as many discs as you can afford. If not, the format could die just as did the vinyl LP. Oh, wait….

brenro's picture

My current TV is a Samsung KS8000. I bought it to dip a toe into 4K and it got good reviews, especially on When HDR 10+ was announced there were several press releases from Samsung stating all of their 2016 SUHD TV's would be getting a firmware update to enable it. Not only did it never happen Samsung's stance was to quietly remove all the press releases and pretend they never said it would be supported and to offer no explanation to their customers. That's the kind of customer support that makes me an ex-Samsung customer.

rjmedich's picture

Is there any word yet of a service coming that will offer video quality equal to discs? I know there's the movies at the Kaleidescape store—they're supposed to offer quality nearly identical to discs. But these movies are purchase only and just as expensive as physical discs. Do you know of any coming services that will offer disc quality at rental prices? Download or streaming?

MrBond's picture

My family is 100% online for all media, and it works really well for us with a vast selection and reasonable quality. But, I'd certainly like access to the higher bitrate BluRay delivers, especially as we transition to 4k.

The obvious choice would be overnight downloads, when bandwidth and file size is less of an issue.

I'd love for Netflix to offer this as part of their 4k tier, and it would likely lower costs for them as peering and the associated network costs can be bypassed. Even if downloads wete time limited (like a Google Play rental) I'd be more than happy. This could be a huge win/win, and give Netflix an edge against Disney etc.

drny's picture

Unfortunately true hi-res quality video streaming and purchase downloads will follow the pattern established by audio. Remember the glorious sounds of Flac, MP3, WAV downloads. It has only been within the last three years that Tidal, Spotify and now Quboz have delivered true hi-res audio.
4k streaming on Netflix, Amazon Video, and Youtube is decent, but no where near UHD bluray level. The pipeline for delivering high quality video streaming and download is simply not yet available (at least not in USA).
I myself have slowed down in my purchases of UHD movie releases (I own 45 and have rented another 100 or so). Yes, I am weaning myself of my videophile addiction. If I survived the demise of SACD (believe me that was the toughest yet), I will survive the end of Hard media.
Now, bring on 8k (really, just upscale compress 4k).

true audio's picture

What a sad thought. First no more blockbusters. It was my favorite weekend store. Then all the original Magnolia AV stores here in Seattle bought up by Best Buy. When you've known 30-40 AV people and became personal friends with a lot of them it sucks. Then Pioneer Kuro..gone. Oppo...gone. Technology is taking the fun out of living. Everything is on line and I'm SICK OF IT ! WE LOVE ARE AUDIO,VIDEO AND SHOPPING IN A STORE ! Make great sacrifices to improve on all of our equipment and spend tens of thousand of dollars to do so. I picked up an apple 4k Tv just for the hell it. Had a ton of points at Best Buy. Cost me like $60.00 big deal. Unfortunately my Epson 6030 isn't 4k but decided to give it a try. Feature of the night (The Meg). The audio and video was mediocre at best. So I went and picked up the blue Ray. Wow what a night & day difference. I watched a couple of more movies and back in the box it went. I still have an Oppo 205 in the box with an unbroken seal. I plan on buying up everything I can if there is one word about quitting.

dejrfan's picture

I’ve yet to be happy with audio on any streaming service and I believe if physical media disappears they will lose the true home theatre enthusiasts. Not trying to open another topic but I firmly believe when Sony neglected to put a 4K UHD capable optical drive in the PS4 Pro they did a real disservice to viability of physical media. The PS3 drove Blu-Ray sales.

Puffer Belly's picture

There are new titles being released on SACD nearly every week. Many are stereo and multichannel on hybrid discs. Maybe you meant the demise of DVD-A or BD-A? There are still new releases on BD-A, but not many.

mwelters's picture

No question Ultra Blu-ray is the best option. The reality is that a lot of streaming is happening and will increasingly be the main source. What I would love is a detailed review of quality as between the different rental sites - how does iTunes compare with Google Play in terms of rental streaming quality? That kind of comparison would really help viewers, and could provides a means to pressure providers to increase quality. Granted, there are multiple factors that affect quality, not all of which are in the hands of the provider (speed to house, wifi quality if streaming device is not hard-wired, etc.), but some quality control could be put in place to minimize that concern.

mwelters's picture

... also, Amazon Prime Video app used to indicate the video quality and audio quality of each show before you viewed it, so you knew whether to expect HDR or not, surround sound or not. The latest version of the Apple TV app for Amazon Prime Video removed all of that. Anyone else notice that? Did it change for their app on other platforms too?

barfle's picture

I’ve been collecting media for over half a century. Yeah, that makes me a dinosaur, and probably not the target audience of those movie companies bringing comic-book characters to life, but I have the money and the inclination to continue with my hobby. I have purchased a few hundred bucks worth of downloads, but there’s nothing like getting a disc off the shelf and putting it in your player. You don’t have to worry about Internet hickups (had a movie rendered unwatchable yesterday), and if you’re reasonably organized, you won’t spend half an hour going through websites looking for the movie you want to watch. Not to mention the security of knowing when you have the media, you’re not subject to someone else going out of business or having no renegotiate copyright licences.

I know that technology doesn’t stand still. I even made some of it change myself. But I don’t see this as an improvement.

talkaboutsv's picture

My bread and butter for the past 2 years has been resubscribing to Netflix service. Nearly everything is Blu-Ray, not DVD at this point. The breakthrough was last summer when I realized I could get TWO accounts to keep a stack of discs going to watch rather than waiting for mail. It costs me $30/month for both accounts and I average well under $2/title. I can even watch the stuff blacklisted for streaming like all the Star Wars films in order without regard to "content" squabbles.

I only stream 1 or 2 nights a week and frankly the quality is great - but I'm disappointed by the selection and the amount of work it takes to find something decent.

Bosshog7_2000's picture

I'm a long time AV enthusiast and the slow death of physical media is a major bummer. I guess I'm part of the problem though...although I own an XBox One X I have only one UHD disc in my possession, everything I watch is on my Apple 4K TV.

I appreciate the increase in quality from physical media but in canada decent UHD titles are $40-45 which is absolutely ridiculous...I refuse to pay it. I woud rather pay $25 for a 4K HDR title on Apple TV.

What I would really like is a premium streaming service in UHD quality. I have a 300Mbps internet connection so for me bandwidth is not an issue.

John_Werner's picture

I have 2 Oppo BD players, their first ones actually and I still love them. I should have bought one of their last capable of BD-HD...But, I didn't. Judging by the prices on the ubiquitous big E site I should have. Oh well. sometimes last call is really final I guess. I do lament the whole industry exiting anything I've become accustom to. I still have a reel to reel that works and a turntable so I'm a A/V curmudgeon it would appear.