Ask S&V: State of Stream­ing

Sound & Vision - - CONTENTS - Al Grif­fin

The idea of phys­i­cal me­dia go­ing away both­ers me be­cause video stream­ing qual­ity still seems so spotty. Even my wife—I’ll call her a home theater ap­pre­ci­a­tor, if not an en­thu­si­ast— no­ticed how bad the last sea­son of Game of Thrones looked when we streamed it on HBO Now. To be fair, that’s not the case with all stream­ing ser­vices. For ex­am­ple, Stranger Things looked great on Net­flix in 4K. With both ex­am­ples, how­ever, you will most cer­tainly get the de­fin­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence by watch­ing the show on disc. Here’s my ques­tion: Which of the video stream­ing ser­vices cur­rently of­fers the best pos­si­ble A/V qual­ity? Are there any ad­vances on the hori­zon?

Ja­son Acosta / via e-mail

It’s true that not all stream­ing ser­vices de­liver the same qual­ity. Net­flix and Ama­zon Video of­fer a fair amount of pro­gram­ming in Ul­tra HD (3840 x 2160p) res­o­lu­tion. And some pro­grams on both ser­vices are avail­able in the Dolby Vi­sion and HDR10 high dy­namic range (HDR) for­mats, which can have a greater visual im­pact than the res­o­lu­tion boost that Ul­tra HD pro­vides over reg­u­lar HD. Hulu also of­fers some shows in Ul­tra HD (but not HDR), though you’ll need to use a PlayS­ta­tion 4 Pro or Xbox One S con­sole to stream them.

Most à la carte stream­ing chan­nels such as HBO Now and Show­time, in con­trast, max out at HD res­o­lu­tion. As an HBO Now sub­scriber, I can con­firm that its video qual­ity is spotty. Net­flix, on the other hand, pro­vides con­sis­tently ex­cel­lent qual­ity, es­pe­cially on its Ul­tra HD of­fer­ings, which re­quire a $12/month, four-screen plan to ac­cess. I’ve also come to de­pend on Vudu as a source for video rentals, both for its con­sis­tent stream­ing per­for­mance and for its se­lec­tion of Ul­tra HD movies, in­clud­ing ti­tles with Dolby Vi­sion HDR.

While ex­am­ples like Net­flix and Vudu show that stream­ing is headed in the right di­rec­tion, I’d agree that phys­i­cal for­mats such as Blu-ray Disc re­main a de­fin­i­tive source. That’s be­cause Blu-ray, with its max­i­mum 40 Mbps video data trans­fer rate, pro­vides a con­sis­tent qual­ity level, and it isn’t af­fected by fac­tors such as your in­ter­net ser­vice provider (ISP) and the per­for­mance of your home’s Wi-Fi net­work.

While you can’t con­trol what’s hap­pen­ing with your ISP, you can take steps to en­sure that your home’s net­work is hum­ming along prop­erly. A key one is to up­grade to an 802.11ac wire­less router. The 802.11ac spec­i­fi­ca­tion boosts data through­put speeds sig­nif­i­cantly over the pre­vi­ous Wi-Fi ver­sion, 802.11n. Since it also trans­mits data on the 5-gi­ga­hertz band, it pro­vides a less con­gested con­nec­tiv­ity op­tion than the 2.4-GHz band, which is used by older Wi-Fi gear and de­vices in­clud­ing house­hold ap­pli­ances, baby mon­i­tors, and garage door open­ers. The reach of an 802.11ac wire­less con­nec­tion is typ­i­cally more lim­ited than 802.11n, how­ever, so if you have a large home, you may want to con­sider us­ing a mesh sys­tem. Such sys­tems use satel­lite units that con­nect wire­lessly with the main router to ex­tend Wi-Fi sig­nals. Some, like Net­gear’s Orbi, also use a sec­ond, ded­i­cated 5-GHz chan­nel that al­lows for sig­nals to be broad­cast to the satel­lite unit with­out com­pro­mis­ing speed.

As for stream­ing’s fu­ture, an al­liance of tech and me­dia com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Google, Mi­crosoft, Cisco, In­tel, Net­flix, Ama­zon, and Hulu are cur­rently work­ing on a next-gen­er­a­tion video com­pres­sion codec called AOMe­dia Video (AV1) to re­place the HEVC (High Ef­fi­ciency Video Cod­ing) codec used for 4K stream­ing. While it’s un­clear if the new codec will pro­vide A/V qual­ity ben­e­fits, we do know that it’s open-source (al­low­ing com­pa­nies to avoid pay­ing roy­al­ties as they must with HEVC) and will re­port­edly pro­vide up to 20 per­cent higher com­pres­sion ef­fi­ciency than cur­rent codecs.

I’m con­sid­er­ing buy­ing ei­ther an 82-inch Sam­sung LCD or a 65-inch LG OLED and am wrestling with the is­sue of TV pic­ture qual­ity ver­sus size. Hav­ing hap­pily owned a 50-inch plasma TV for the past 11 years, I’m won­der­ing how the new LCDs stack up against plasma mod­els when it comes to pic­ture qual­ity?

Gre­go­rio Lopez / via e-mail

Since plasma TV pro­duc­tion ended in the high-def­i­ni­tion era, a key dif­fer­ence be­tween old plas­mas and new LCDs is that LCD TVs now of­fer both Ul­tra HD res­o­lu­tion and an abil­ity to dis­play HDR con­tent. Both of those fac­tors could bring a qual­ity boost over your old plasma TV, es­pe­cially when view­ing on an 82-inch screen. Plasma, on the other hand, of­fered the ad­van­tage of an ex­tremely wide view­ing an­gle—a fea­ture you don’t get with many cur­rent LCD mod­els that OLED does pro­vide.

Since you’re a plasma fan, I ex­pect you’ll find OLED TVs more to your lik­ing since that tech­nol­ogy de­liv­ers the same rich, deep blacks and sub­tle high­light ren­di­tion plasma was known for. LCD TVs, in con­trast, of­fer a bet­ter bang for your buck than OLED mod­els when you make price com­par­isons based on screen size. For ex­am­ple,

LG’s 65-inch E7 se­ries OLED UHDTV costs around $3,500—the same price you’ll pay for an 82-inch Sam­sung LCD UHDTV.

Which stream­ing ser­vices of­fer the best A/V qual­ity?

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