I hear, from time to time, that physical media like CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray are technological dinosaurs, that their K-T event has already happened and that streaming services like Netflix are the scurrying little mammals ready to take over.
I remain unconvinced… for the moment.
However, before one accepts my authority as any sort of technological prognosticator, let me be honest in saying that my track record is not what one would call impeccable. That’s a guarded way of saying I’ve been wrong before.
Back in 1996-ish, when DVD was just half a license plate number and a theoretical video format, I went on the record to say that we shouldn’t be so quick to write off the dominant laser-optical video format of the day, that being Laserdisc. The shiny 12-inch platters had some life left in them.
Remember Laserdisc? A few of us old farts do, which should give you an idea of just spectacularly wrong I was. In my defense, there was a scenario in which I could have been right (or at least would have delayed my wrongedness). Before DVD actually hit the shelves, there were actually two incompatible DVD specifications that were both heading for market, once supported by Toshiba and the other by Sony and Philips. One was called “Digital Video Disc” and the other “Digital Versatile Disc.” If this had persisted, and both formats had reached the store shelves, it was entirely possible that DVD could have failed, or at least succeeded somewhat less spectacularly. Instead of being “HDDVD vs. Blu-ray” a decade early, however, the interested parties worked out their differences. The letters “DVD” now officially stood for nothing at all, but the discs entered our homes and hearts as a single, unified, monolithic, VHS-and-Laserdisc-crushing video format and relegated me to tech prognostication failure and ignominy. At least no one was paying attention back then.
And since that debacle, my track record has improved. I spotted DIVX early on as the loser it was. This was not DivX, the more recently popular video streaming format, but rather DIVX, Circuit City’s ill-advised, landfill-unfriendly, so-called “competitor” to DVD, launched in 1998. If you’ve forgotten (and how we’ve tried), DIVX discs were cheap but you had pay up every time you wanted to watch one again, which is why you had to keep your player hooked up to a phone line and enter your credit card number. If you didn’t want to watch them again, they were cheap enough to throw away, raising the spectre of our landfills bulging with millions of non-biodegradable plastic discs. Unsurprisingly, the format had crashed and burned before 1999 had called it a year, earning Circuit City a mountain of bad karma that I would like to think circled around the sun and smote the company out of existence when it returned to Earth a decade later.
So we’ve established that I’m not infallible (and I’m sure some of you were stunned to learn that). So why am I still bullish on shiny discs and not sold on what everyone thinks is the wave of the future?
This is another way of saying that when I buy something, I prefer to have something in my hand that I can call mine. That being said, I’m certain that streaming services will ultimately take the place of “renting” a movie. I am dubious about the idea of “buying” the right to watch a movie that may suddenly become unavailable at the studios’ whim or when the company I “bought” it from goes belly-up. Once a Blu-ray disc crossed my threshold, it is mine, all mine, mine own, my precioussss. Um, sorry about that, but I was watching the extended version of The Lord of the Rings over the last couple of nights.
No Blu-ray disc or DVD has ever told me that I didn’t have enough bandwidth to watch it at full quality. They’ve never stuttered because the web browser was a memory hog running on a Windows machine trying to do 64 other things in the background. They’ve never stopped playing because my neighbor decided to microwave some noodles.
As long as streaming is subject to the vagaries of internet connectivity, physical media will always have the advantage of “press play and forget it” reliability. Another factor that no one talks about is how streaming is still trying to gain traction just when the ISPs are trying to throttle the internet access of heavy users. So if you like your streaming movies, you may find yourself exceeding your bandwidth cap every month and paying a premium for the privilege.
Let’s be blunt, despite the number of Blu-ray players, televisions and set-top boxes with built-in networking, wiring your entertainment center to the tubes is still a geeky thing to do. Geeks think it’s normal because they hang around with other geeks and everyone they know does it. Once you get outside that cloistered world, however, it’s not so obvious that’s the only way to get your movies.
The idea of playing a piece of physical media is a familiar concept even to your great-grandparents who still remember their first gramophone. Compact Discs succeeded partially because they extended concepts that that were common to vinyl records and cassettes. DVD’s were just CDs for movies. Blu-ray is just DVD, only more so. Sometimes my parents have problems figuring out the intricacies of their entertainment system, but putting a disc in a player is the part they always get right.
I suppose when you’re watching your movies on your iPhone or notebook screen, this is a non-issue, but when it comes to watching a Blu-ray disc or a Netflix movie on your 46-inch plasma TV, it is very much an issue.
Relatively few streaming movies are available in HD and most of those are 720p, meaning that the picture is made up of 720 lines of pixels. Blu-ray movies are always 1080p, with 1080 lines of pixels. Again, on a phone, a tablet, or a notebook, the correct answer is “who cares,” but once you get up to living room-sized LCDs and plasmas, it’s a noticeable difference. And why anyone would drop a thousand bucks, give or take, on a big honkin’ new TV if you’re just going to watch something that looks okay on your 4-inch smartphone screen?
I would rather the best quality video available, but maybe that’s just me.
Again, if you watch movies on a phone, using ear buds to listen, then this is going to sound like a foreign language. By definition, streaming movies cannot have the same level of sound quality as a film on Blu-ray, even when the streaming movie is high-def. It’s not possible. To send that video and audio down the pipes, they have to compress the hell out of both. That means that the sound quality on streamed movies is comparable to the sound quality of the MP3 files on your smartphone. Of course, if you’re happy with those, then you don’t care and you’re reading this out of sense of masochism and self-flagellation.
Blu-ray uses what’s called “lossless” compression, which shrinks the sound files as much as possible without compromising sound fidelity, making Blu-ray audio the rough equivalent of FLAC or Apple Lossless. This means that the sound quality is effectively the same as if it were completely uncompressed and the sound is often at a higher resolution than audio CDs. I could throw some numbers on the page but they probably won’t mean anything to a lot of you. Let’s just stay that the numbers for Blu-ray are bigger than both DVD and steaming and bigger is very good.
I will tell people, if they ask, that the sound difference between DVD and Blu-ray is even more striking than the video difference. Of course, you have to have a fairly up to date sound system to appreciate that difference, but all but the most bargain basement equipment available today is up to the challenge.
So how big is that difference? Instead of throwing numbers around, let me give you a real world example. In Mel Brooks’ classic Young Frankenstein, there is an early scene in which Gene Wilder awakes to hear faint violin music. Well, he did back in 1970s when I saw the film in the theater. It seemed that once the film hit VHS and ultimately DVD, that violin music had vanished. Was it a mixing error? Or was my hearing just compromised by decades of listening to the devil’s rock’n’roll? Well, then a couple of years ago I watched Young Frankenstein on Blu-ray for the first time and, when I reached that scene, I almost screamed, “Holy crap, the violin music is back!” For the first time in around 30 years, I could hear the music I remembered.
My inability to discern the music before was probably a combination of my own less-than-perfect hearing and the limited fidelity of VHS and DVD sound. The music in question was quiet and high-pitched, just the sort of thing that falls victim to compressed or low-fidelity sound. Blu-ray sound is equal to the playback technology in theaters today and vastly superior to what was available in 1974. That’s why Blu-ray could scrape every last nuance out of the soundtrack of a 35-year-old movie and deliver it to my Van Halen-damaged ears.
I fully concede that streaming services have their place and not just as replacement for disc rental. For a while now, probably since before Netflix even offered steaming, I’ve believed that it is a viable alternative to over-the-air television. Why should I have to wait until the Discovery Channel says it’s time to watch the Mythbusters, if I want to watch some myths being busted right now, damn it? They can still sell me detergent if they want, but I wanna watch a cement truck explode.
My real issue is with the idea that seems to prevail with some that Blu-ray must fail for streaming to succeed, or vice-versa. I think there is easily room for both paradigms to flourish and complement. My unscientific survey shows that a few people I know who were once solidly in the “Blu-ray is dead; long live streaming” camp are now in the “Let’s not be hasty” camp. I think an evening of watching streamed movies, dealing with interruptions, slow connections and occasional hiccups, will make one appreciate just what Blu-ray delivers all the more.