Increasingly, when I mention the fact that I still receive discs in the mail from Netflix, people ask me, “They still do that?” Yes, indeed, Netflix is still in the business of mailing out its little red envelopes, and—at least for the foreseeable future—I hope the company continues to do so. Sure, I like to stream the occasional movie or TV show, but that experience will never compare to the quality and content of a rented or purchased Blu-ray disc.
Make no mistake: Streaming video has become a big part of my household over the past couple years. It’s convenient, cheap, and reliable—for the most part. It can be wonky on certain devices, and of course it’s dependent on the varying quality levels of our Wi-Fi connection. We have more luck where the connection is wired, of course, but that doesn’t exactly have a perfect record, either. Even so, given a few connection hiccups, Netflix (and Amazon, Hulu, and so on) streaming is a boon for convenience. My wife and I watch occasional TV shows at the click of a button on our Microsoft Surface, and our kids enjoy children’s programming Saturday morning on their Amazon Kindle Fires. Image quality is generally good, and viewing choices are wide and deep.
But when I really want to experience a piece of entertainment—whether a film or a TV series or a documentary or a concert video—I’ll opt for the Blu-ray. Every time. The decision is analogous to my preference for CD or LP over MP3 (at least at default recording levels). The physical-media experience is higher-resolution and higher-quality in a number of ways.
Video Quality Is Still Better
The quality of Netflix streaming has improved by leaps and bounds over the past 5 years. You can get video quality that approaches high definition. I say “approaches” because even though streaming services boast the fact that they can offer 720p and even 1080p high definition, what you actually get is a severely compromised version of that. Yes, in the best of times—say at 3 am, with no competing traffic—you will probably get a nice signal. But most of the time, compression introduces digital artifacts into the stream. Nothing I have seen so far approaches the reliable purity of a Blu-ray image.
There’s a reason for that. A Blu-ray disc can average bit rates of up to about 30Mbps. By contrast, streaming services need to keep bit rates much lower—around 5Mbps. That’s lower than DVD quality (around 7Mbps). Netflix itself aims for just 7Mbps for its highest-quality service and 5Mbps for its regular service. Bit rate has a lot to do with the broadband speed available from your ISP, and streaming services are slaves to those potentials. There’s only so much they can do. And that will be the case for a long while.
It is partly for this reason why we tend to watch Netflix streaming on the smaller displays in our house. The more diminutive screens are obviously more forgiving with image quality. The grown-ups watch streaming media on the Surface and occasionally on the comparatively small 42in. screen downstairs, and the kids watch their stuff almost exclusively on their mini tablets. For more serious viewing, we’ll watch Blu-ray discs on the 52in. living room display in the home theater.
Audio Quality Is Still FAR Better
An even more dramatic reason why I prefer Blu-ray to streaming is the audio presentation quality. Streaming services such as Netflix generally limit themselves to 2-channel stereo presentations, but I have seen some ho-hum Dolby Digital 5.1 soundscapes. Resolution is low, and sound quality is mostly tinny, lacking oomph. Comparatively, Blu-ray discs offer a plethora of booming sound choices, from Dolby Digital TrueHD to DTS-HD Master Audio to the recent 35-channel-capable Dolby Atmos.
In my home theater, I have side channels that are very rarely used to full effect by Netflix streaming, let alone the rear channels to which Blu-ray discs can devote discrete audio information. And on disc, audio resolution is top-notch, carefully encoded by audio engineers close to the film’s production. On a stream feed, the audio feels more like an afterthought: “As long as you can hear the movie, we’re good.”
Again, the comparison I make is with the lowly MP3—the audio format of convenience, not quality. The default audio resolution of the MP3 digital file is barely adequate for the average user. It takes up the least amount of space it can while communicating a passable audio quality to the listener. Such a presentation is okay for certain types of media: say, old TV shows or films whose audio presentations were merely adequate to begin with. But today’s programming is filled with multi-channel powerhouse audio fields, and I hate to lose any of that kind of benefit over streaming.
So, again partly for that reason, we listen to low-quality audio presentations on our smaller, more limited devices, and enjoy Blu-ray in our multi-channel home theater or living room.
You Can’t Stream a “Film School in a Box” on Netflix
One of the greatest components of laser discs, then DVDs, and now Blu-ray discs is that they often include copious bonus features for deeper appreciation of the movie or show on the disc. Being a long-time film buff, I consider bonus features to be very important to the media experience and therefore one of the reasons I will choose a disc for rental and especially purchase. I live for commentary tracks and behind-the-scenes documentaries/featurettes and outtakes/deleted scenes.
Yes, often the Netflix “for rental only” disc won’t contain these bonus features, but many times they will—particularly when they’re from smaller studios. Indy films, which I love, are typically offered on the same disc available for purchase, and so all the attendant extra features make it to the rental disc. As for the big studios, I’ve fallen into a pleasant groove of renting a film to enjoy its AV presentation first. If I consider the film worth owning, I go ahead and buy the Blu-ray for the “film school in a box” experience later.
Long Live Blu-ray!
Streaming media has become a permanent fixture in the Bovberg home, on many of our devices. It’s almost unbelievably convenient, especially for those times when we just want to consume some mindless entertainment for a short period. The kids love taking their cartoons with them wherever they go. But when we’re serious about our media and want the best presentation, there’s simply to substitute for the high-end A/V and bonus experience afforded by disc. Again, physical media carries the day!