Stream Wars

In a server far, far away, ones and zeros are being crunched to work for human entertainment. Which is the best employer of them all?

There used to be a time when owning a Blu-ray player meant you were home-theatre royalty. That had its fair share of success.

But its successor, the UHD (Ultra high-definition) disc entered the world at a time when Netflix and Prime Video ruled the world. Anyone buying a UHD player wasn’t just showboating, but also a bit of a relic in modern terms. Still, there’s no denying that optical is best in terms of outright quality. Or is it?

What is bit rate?

In pure geek terms, it denotes the number of bits transmitted from point A to point B for a given signal. In everyday terms, it gives us a measure of how high or low is the quality of your streaming signal. To put things in perspective, optical disc mediums like Blu-ray discs typically have a video signal encoded at 20mbps (can go as high as 40mbps) and the audio could be anything from 648kbps for a 5.1 Dolby Digital codec to a massive 27mbps for a lossless PCM soundtrack. Take those numbers and you can safely double them for a UHD 4K Blu-ray disc simply because it has more storage capacity. Armed with that information, prepare to be shocked when it comes to how good Netflix looks with many times less…

What’s the scene?

While physical disc media ruled the 90s and 2000s, the introduction of premium OTT content delivery services like Apple TV+ and Netflix Premium might have tipped that balance. Netflix used to stream at 192kbps but has now upped it to 768kbps (640kbps for Dolby Digital 5.1) and even uses Adaptive Streaming for audio just like it does for video. So faster the connection, higher the bit rate and potentially, better sound!

Amazon Prime Video does support Dolby Atmos but it’s dependent on the streaming hardware. Currently, only its own Fire Stick 4K and Fire TV Cube support this immersive audio format, so don’t go rummaging through your smart TV’s audio options trying to unlock hidden gold. Hotstar until now only offered audio in stereo, but with the introduction of Disney+ into its fold, a lot of the newer shows are streaming in 5.1, including The Mandalorian. Their video quality has seen an upgrade too, but since the Disney+ addition is new, we are still in the process of listing down our favourites.

Hotstar has the advantage of HBO tie-ups too, and the Game of Thrones franchise was probably the one with most potential to outshine every other show when it comes to audio and visual splendor. A show like Game of Thrones does sound like you’re marching with the White Walkers but only if you buy the entire set on Blu-ray and even then, only S6 onwards is when your height speakers will get some love, courtesy of Dolby Atmos.

Apple TV+ is arguably the best looking and sounding streaming service of the lot currently. Ironically, it’s also the weakest in terms of content offering compared to its gigantic rivals. It’s proven by numbers too; with Apple TV+, the video bit rate tops out at about 26Mbps and audio at 768kbps if you’re streaming 4K with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. Compare that to Netflix, which keeps the audio the same after its recent update, but the video is down to 16Mbps. To put this in perspective, Apple TV+ is better than a regular Blu-ray Disc and about half as detailed as a 4K UHD. Technically, at least. In terms of visuals, it looks perfectly fine to spend the rest of your life watching 4K movies via streaming, but, of course, we have 8K calling.

Best of the breed

Here's a look at some of the best players of the streaming game and their offerings.

Apple TV+

The Elephant Queen: Shot over a period of several years, Apple TV+ chose a brilliant documentary to kick-start its innings. With spectacular visuals following a herd of elephants and a sound mix that puts you in the middle of the African savannah, this is a must watch, even for non-nature fans.

The Morning Show: From its opening credits that test your Dolby Vision display to its subtle and atmospheric use of the surround channels, The Morning Show is watchable for reasons beyond Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon. Then there’s the soundtrack that is worth watching the series all over again!

Amazon Prime Video

The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel: If you’re a fan of period productions, it rarely gets better than the dingy bars and speakeasy locations of Mrs. Maisel. In HDR, the always-perfect costumes look even more so and is a great test for HDR performance of that fancy TV or projector you may have just bought. The 5.1 audio is in sync with the video too, enveloping without being overbearing.

Panchayat: Produced by the bright wits at TVF, this slice of life series captures the colours and sounds of rural India supremely well. It might seem like a laptop watch, but don’t be fooled. On our 4K HDR projector and Dolby Atmos system, it simply shined with delicate sounds and pristine visuals, even though it’s “just” a 5.1 mix and “just” 4K without HDR.

Netflix

Stranger Things: The teenage supernatural phenomenon might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but its 80s throwback soundtrack, made-for-HDR visuals and great big creatures in the sky, mean it is the perfect recipe for a popcorn entertainer with floorboard shaking bass. It has binge written all over it, if you haven’t already devoured it.

Formula 1: Drive to Survive - So what if you’re not a motorsport fan; this series shot on racetracks and secret technical labs around the world is a look unlike no other behind the biggest travelling circus in the world. Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos make this already high adrenaline sport even more exciting and is a true test of your hi-fi systems capabilities.

Disney+ Hotstar

The Mandalorian: Fans of Star Wars won’t need any more coaxing, but if you’re on the fringes, maybe The Mandalorian’s spectacular VFX and sound design might change your opinion about the legendary intergalactic world where no one feels any G-forces. One of the only shows on the new platform to be available in 5.1 multichannel, it makes for a great watch, even though it’s only in HD.

Verdict

Sadly, not all movies, even on Amazon Prime Video, are listed or marked as Dolby Atmos even though they might be actually encoded with Atmos. Some of the local services like Zee5, Alt-Balaji, Voot don’t even have proper information on their delivery method, so in the end, if you’re a home-cinema fiend, you will have to find the time to curate your own library of go-to movies every time you want the HDR-Surround sound thrills. 

Some TV brands, on the other hand, have begun sporting a ‘Netflix Calibrated Mode’, which optimises dynamic contrast, colours and motion processing of original Netflix content to be as close to the director’s intentions as possible. Sony’s top-of-the-line Master Series and some Panasonic panels have it and more are likely to follow. In the meantime, use this list to get started and make the most of the quarantine time!