I’m one of those dinosaurs who still buys Blu-ray discs of my favorite movies. I don’t do it for the video quality, though—I do it because discs sound so much better than streaming. (Yes, I listen to CDs and vinyl for the same reason. Call me T-Rex.) For me, the sound of a movie is just as important as the way the it looks. I love the way the floor rumbles during an intense action sequence, and the music behind an emotional scene makes as big an impact on me as does the way the actors show how they’re feeling.
That’s why I was excited to hear that Netflix recently updated the way it handles the audio part of its streaming. Just like with video, Netflix compresses the sounds that go with the picture to make it possible to send all those bits of entertainment over the Internet. But until the change, sound wasn’t handled as elegantly as the video.
They’ve made two changes that should improve what you hear. First, they upped the quality of the audio. The sound used to be encoded at 192 Kbps, which is the equivalent of a decent MP3. It now comes down the pipe at up to 640 Kbps (that’s DVD quality). Think of it as the difference between listening to an MP3 versus a CD. An MP3 sounds fine, but you don’t realize until you hear the CD that you were missing details in the high end and low end, and those details really do make a difference.
The other improvement they made is called adaptive streaming. Netflix already used this for video—it’s what makes it possible for you to stream even when you’ve got a poor Internet connection. Previously, audio was always sent at a constant bit rate, regardless of the quality of your connection. Now audio quality will adjust based on conditions, meaning that when you have a lot of bandwidth available, you’ll get the best sound; when your signal is weak, it downgrades to a lower bitrate. That way you can still hear something when you’re out in the wilderness.
Does It Make a Difference?
To hear how good the new audio is, I queued up the Diva Dance scene from the sci-fi classic The Fifth Element. The scene will put the best sound system through its paces, with the impossible high notes, well-mixed music that uses all the speakers in a 5.1 set up, and explosions (what more could you ask for?). I also watched the scene in Avengers: Infinity War when Thor arrives in Wakanda, throws his axe around and brings the lightning—along with great floor rattling low-end audio effects.
What it as good as the disc? No, but it was better than I expected. The Netflix audio wasn’t quite as sharp or defined as the Blu-ray disc. While the new Netflix audio can match DVDs in terms of audio quality, Blu-ray discs use better audio—like DTS Surround Sound and Dolby TrueHD—which lose a lot less sound information than regular DVDs.
Will You Hear The Difference?
It takes the right equipment to notice the change. You won’t hear any improvement if you’re using your laptop’s weak speakers (please don’t do that to yourself). You might hear more detail if you’re using some good headphones.
If you find yourself struggling to understand the dialogue in...
But to really experience the better quality, you want a system that can handle 5.1 audio—whether that’s a soundbar that knows what to do with the signal or a full home theater system with separate speakers for center, left, right, surrounds, and a subwoofer (highly recommended). Even better, use a system that can play Dolby Atmos, which features height channels in addition to typical 5.1 surround sound.
While it can’t match Blu-ray, the new audio is better, and even an audio enthusiast like me can recognize it’s still a lot more convenient to stream a movie than trying to remember where I left a disc after I played it last time. I’ll still buy the best sounding movies on disc, but maybe now I won’t buy quite as many.
Michael Gowan impatiently waits for somebody—anybody!—to stream the complete Moonlighting series. You can follow him on Twitter @zebgowan.