Not long ago, I heard from an integrator with whom we’ve worked on a number of successful home theater projects. “We’ve got a situation with a client,” he said. “He’s not happy with the sound. I’ve sent my guys back there over and over again, but they can’t find anything wrong! Now he’s withholding the final $35,000 balance. You tuned the room. Maybe you can find something we missed. Please get down here and see what’s up!”
So I went. I checked and rechecked everything. Most of it looked great. I tweaked a few minor settings–a millisecond delay here, a half dB there– but nothing that a client is likely to notice. Finally, I asked the client to join me and played one of my favorite demo clips from a Blu-ray. His response was immediate. “Oh wow! This sounds amazing! I love it. What did you do?!”
The hope is that increasing internet bandwidth will solve the current ills, but that doesn’t help us today.
Well, honestly, not really that much. On a hunch, I asked, “What were you watching or listening to before?”
“Oh, man,” he replied, as he took the remote from my hand. “It was these music videos here on this streaming box!”
For a good while now, Blu-ray has been the gold standard at home. We know to use Blu-ray for demos, and we reach for them when it’s time for a great experience ourselves. More and more, though, our clients are switching over to instant delivery–Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu for “bulk watching” or iTunes and Vudu for special “on demand” occasions. While these may be fine for mobile devices, there’s a huge dip in quality compared with optical discs that’s going to be highly noticeable in a high-end home theater. The responsibility falls on us to educate our clients. If we don’t, then we risk situations like music-video guy.
So why is sound quality for streaming services so inconsistent? It primarily comes down to bitstream throughput. The hope is that increasing internet bandwidth will solve the current ills, but that doesn’t help us today. What I can tell you are some of the more common issues that affect quality and consistency.
The bit rate is low. Most streaming uses Dolby Digital Plus, but it’s not all the same bit rate. Some providers, like Vudu, use higher rates, while others, like Netflix, crank it down. They’re all in the dirt compared with Blu-ray, and they can even sound worse than Dolby Digital on DVD! How? DD+ is a more efficient compressor, but you can use that to push the bit rate lower rather than to get higher sound quality.
The volume isn’t the same. There’s this tricky thing in Dolby streams called “Dialog Normalization.” It lowers the volume automatically based on metadata flags (originally devised to level the volume across DTV broadcasts). Most of the time, it’s turned off for Blu-ray tracks. However, seemingly random DialNorm values are creeping into streaming content. Check the same movie from different providers and see DialNorm values that drop the level as much as 13dB. Even if you carefully calibrate levels and show your clients how to set reference level, some clients may have an experience that is substantially less powerful.
The stream claims to be 5.1 but isn’t. There was a known issue a while back with CinemaNow, which claimed to be sending 5.1 audio through its app on certain devices, but the stream was, in fact, 2.0. It was output in a 5.1 wrapper, so most clients wouldn’t realize that only the L/R speakers were working. They’d just know the sound sucked. This type of issue isn’t limited to CinemaNow.
The hardware is downmixing to 2.0. Satellite and cable are not immune to the above problems, but this one in particular applies to them. A lot of boxes come set for 2.0 to make them compatible with every TV, so remember to enable 5.1/bitstream output. Also, watch out for networked TV distribution devices that serve content on demand around the house. The remote locations may only get downmixed 2.0 or even mono.
People usually respond well to analogies, so try this one on your clients: When you have a fine race car, you put high-grade fuel in it. If you use cheap gas, the car’s not going to perform. The same is true for home theaters. If you play cheap content, it’s not going to sound good. This is just as important a part of the client education process as which button to press to turn the thing on. If you aren’t thorough, it could cost you money.
So, what do you do with the hip younger client who says, “Disc? Man, that’s old school. Not the good kind. It’s not me, I don’t care what the quality is!” That is a topic for another time...
Chase Walton contributed to this column.