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Riding the Video Stream

I heard it again today.

Understanding the Pros and Cons of New Streaming Services

Anthony Grimani ([email protected]) is president of Performance Media Industries, with offices in Novato and San Anselmo, California.

I heard it again today. Someone said that CEDIA-type custom integrators would become obsolete now that TVs and iPads stream Netflix. Where do people get this stuff? Let’s just call that kind of thinking what it is: false. Streaming video does not replace integration–they’re apples and oranges. Custom integration is about many things, including whole-house system design, aesthetically pleasing installation, ergonomically friendly control programming, and expert tuning of equipment.

Streaming video is just another facet of what you provide to your clients–but that doesn’t mean you can rest on your technological laurels.

So relax; you’re not about to lose your business. Streaming video is just another facet of what you provide to your clients, but that doesn’t mean you can rest on your technological laurels. Integrating streaming video into your business will demand a higher level of technical acumen across more fields than anything that has come before it, so you need to get started right away.

Don’t Abandon Blu-ray Disc

Anyone can stream Netflix on an iPhone, but is that really watching a movie? Those people are not–nor have they ever been–your clients. Your clients get juiced over 120-inch screens and powerful sound systems. Bluray Disc still represents the gold standard for quality in that kind of system. Streaming sources start breaking down when you go beyond 50-inch TVs and soundbars. Regardless of the special-sauce compression techniques streaming providers use, they simply can’t make up for transfer rates that are less than half of BD. Don’t toss the BD player from your installations just because you’re hooking into streamed sources.

Watch for Technology Pitfalls

Problemo numero uno for streaming video is that you’re totally dependent on the internet service provider at a client’s house. If your client doesn’t get sufficient internet bandwidth, then the quality of streaming video will suffer. It falls short of BD’s quality even at the very highest speeds, so what do you think happens at low speeds? Sufficient internet bandwidth can be a tricky thing to determine, too.

One especially important area to watch is Wi-Fi, because it is really convenient, and speeds have improved considerably with 802.11n. However, you could be in for a rude awakening if you start streaming wireless HD everywhere.

There are other technological pitfalls as well. Some services use 720p resolution for their HD streams, and it has to be upscaled for 1080p displays. Poor scaling can introduce video artifacts, and many streaming players lack a “source-direct” mode to output native resolution to a highquality external scaler. In other cases, the native audio format in the transport stream gets transcoded into another format before it leaves the player. (Note that I am not talking about simple decoding to PCM, unless the sampling frequency and/or bit depth are altered.)

Perhaps most troublesome are issues related to the content production itself. Filtering the video bandwidth prior to compression is a common trick employed to reduce the overall size of files. The lost detail might not be visible on a 50-inch TV, but it certainly is on a 120-inch projection screen. We’ve worked for so many years to ensure that the production chain gets things right that it’s discouraging to see these slips and shortcuts resurfacing.

Streaming is Still a Threat

I won’t lie; streaming does pose a potential danger to our business. When the victrola was first introduced, people who heard it claimed that it sounded just like the real thing. If the mad rush to streaming video causes high-quality sources like BD to go away, then people no longer have a benchmark for quality. Were people to become complacent with lowquality video–much like they did with music a decade ago–then highquality systems like we install would be in danger. We are nowhere near that point yet; plus, people are pickier about what they see than what they hear, so I wouldn’t be too concerned. Don’t let your clients be swept away in the hype surrounding the convenience of instant access and huge libraries.

There has never been a time when home media systems were more complicated and involved. Your clients simply cannot stay abreast of the latest developments in quality and convenience. That’s why you have to stay on top of this roller coaster called streaming video. It’s already a wild ride, and this is just the beginning.

Chase Walton contributed to this column.