discs-vs-streaming.jpgMore and more people are getting their video content from the internet from streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.  There’s no doubt that these on demand type services are so much more convenient than the days of going to rent discs at places like Blockbuster when we had to deal with availability issues and late fees.  These streaming services have been especially good for supporting the new 4K Ultra HD standard by providing easy access to lots of 4K content to help make people feel good about their new TV.

With such great success from these online services, is there any place left in this world for movies on disc?  Should we declare this as the time of death for physical media and trade in our bluray players for FireTV sticks and Rokus?  If convenience is king, then perhaps these questions have already been answered.  However, knowing that there might be a real difference in the quality of the content between sources, I decided it would be worthwhile to setup a comparison between discs and streaming services to see if a few regular people (and myself) could really see any difference.BD vs 4KI arranged two tests.  In the first case I compared the same scene from the second season of the Starz series “Outlander,” a time traveling drama which takes place mostly in 18th century Scotland and France.  They shot the second half of this season using 4K cameras and the director places a priority on video quality.  That combined with the amazingly beautiful scenery and costumes makes it great for video demonstrations!  I setup a Samsung UBD-K8500 bluray/UHD player with a 1080p bluray copy of the episode and queued it up to match the 4K UHD (but not HDR) stream from Amazon playing on a Roku Premiere Plus player.  Once they were both playing at basically the same spot I cycled back and forth between them on an LG 65” B6 series 4K OLED TV and asked for opinions. (Note: Ahead of time I did a basic video calibration and made sure that the settings on both inputs were identical.)

This test had mixed results split right down the middle.  About half of the small group of people could see an improvement in clarity on the 4K stream compared to the 1080p bluray disc.  The other half couldn’t see any difference.  Color and contrast seemed pretty much identical between the disc and the stream, and even though it was hard to tell at times, I did notice an improvement in the clarity of the image on the 4K stream.

UHD vs 4KIn the second test I used the same equipment to compare a scene from the latest “Ghostbusters” movie.  This time I loaded a 4K UHD disc copy of the movie into the Samsung UHD player, and queued up the same scene in 4K (with HDR) from Amazon on the Roku.  Every person in the group could see the difference in this case, although opinions varied as to what they preferred.  This time the clarity seemed equal between the disc and the stream.  The biggest difference was in the contrast, especially black levels.  The black levels on the stream from Amazon were not as deep as they were on the disc, leaving the image looking flatter and colors less rich.  Some of the participants thought it made the overall image appear brighter though, which they thought was preferable.  I think that’s a bunch of hooey honestly, since contrast and color are the two most important aspects of picture quality – but they did notice the difference!

My conclusion from these tests is that it’s not quite time to let go of discs – at least for those of us who are looking for the best overall quality of experience.  Going in I knew all of the numbers and theory behind why the 4K UHD discs should look better than the streaming version (much higher bitrate), but I’d never actually seen it firsthand.  Every person could see the difference between the UHD disc and the stream, even without a “trained eye.”  Also, while these tests were only for picture quality, the sound quality on the discs would have been noticeably better, since the streaming services have lagged behind by not including lossless audio codecs that have been one of the big advantages on bluray discs for years.  Basically, if you have a good entertainment system and you like movies, you should get a UHD player – and don’t throw away your bluray discs.  The good ones still hold up.  On the flip side, if you just have your 46” black Friday LCD TV and (maybe) a soundbar, you can probably stick with streaming without feeling like you’re missing out (even though you are – but for other, more obvious reasons)!