Perhaps you’ve recently upgraded to a new Ultra HD-capable television or immersive surround audio system, or are thinking about doing so in the near future. The best gear in the world is always going to be limited by the quality of the media sources that you play through it. In this short article, we hope to provide you with the tools to help get the most out of your investment in high-performance audio and video equipment.
With streaming music and video services being the preferred method of content acquisition for the vast majority of our clients, we thought it important to detail an issue that most people don’t seem to be aware of, but is critical to getting the best experience out of your private cinema, media room, or music systems. Most people are now subscribers to at least a few different media streaming platforms. Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video, Hulu, HBO Max, and Apple TV (the channel, not the device) are the major players in video. Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Pandora are the most common music platforms we see people using. What many people don’t understand is that almost all of these services offer multiple tiers, some free and most paid- for their services which offer not only omission of advertisements or additional features, but in many cases can have dramatic impacts on the picture and sound quality they provide.
For example, as of this writing, Netflix offers four different plan options:
For the purposes of this blog, we’re only concerned with the audio/video differences between the different plans, which are pretty dramatic. The “Basic” plans only support 720p resolution video, which falls somewhere between DVD and Blu-Ray quality for picture; the “Standard” tier bumps up to 1080p video, which is close to the quality of a Blu-ray Disc picture; only once you get to the “Premium” tier do you actually get full “4K” video quality with HDR color on certain content.
Most all current model TV’s beyond the most basic models support 4K and HDR color, and it makes a dramatic improvement in picture quality compared to the lower resolution options. However, if you’re not paying for those higher-level tiers with the video services you subscribe to, you’re not going to get any better picture than what you could have gotten from a system 10 years ago.
If we look at the music-focused services: Apple Music currently has 4 different plans, Spotify has 2 plans, and Amazon Music has 3. In all cases, you need to subscribe to the upper-tier plans to be able to play your music in sound quality that even matches what we were used to with CD’s. Most services now offer an HD-audio tier that provides a sound quality that is higher than what was offered via CD…if you’re listening through the earbuds that came with your phone or a portable bluetooth speaker it probably won’t benefit you at all. But if you’ve invested in some better quality audio gear at home, or higher-end headphones, the benefit is worth the extra couple bucks.
Cable and Satellite Service
Most of our clients still utilize cable or satellite TV service in some degree. Both of those delivery methods are having some growing pains with delivering content in full UltraHD quality, and for most people it is worth checking to verify that your cable or satellite receivers can support the better quality signals. Odds are good that if you haven’t changed out the cable or satellite boxes in the last 4 years, you probably don’t have a box that supports the best quality possible.
The best movie experience: Kaleidescape
If you truly love movies, nothing beats Kaleidescape for quality. Kaleidescape is the only download-based product that provides true reference-quality picture and lossless audio. The audio and video have bitrates that are 10x higher than most streaming services, providing truly identical quality to the studio masters of the movies. Kaleidescape actually downloads the entire movie to it’s own storage before starting playback, so there is never any chance of “buffering” or downgraded quality due to internet speed fluctuations.
Discs still provide a great experience, and they also still work if your internet service is out. UltraHD Blu-Ray provides the finest quality picture and sound available (equal to Kaleidescape and better than any streaming service). For many people, the ritual and warmth of vinyl is a great way to enjoy music, and modern turntables have never been easier to get a great experience out of.