Argo: iTunes vs. Vudu vs. Blu-ray - AVS Forum
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post #1 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 11:24 AM - Thread Starter
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Argo is a political thriller based on a true story that takes place during the Iranian revolution in 1979. Directed by Ben Affleck, it received seven Oscar nominations and won three, including Best Picture. In this comparison, I will examine the iTunes 720p, iTunes 1080p, Vudu HDX, and Blu-ray versions of this exceptional movie.




Argo earned three sound-related Oscar nominations: best mixing, editing, and score. The Argo Blu-ray utilizes DTS-HD Master Audio with 5.1 channels. iTunes implements Dolby Digital 5.1, while Vudu encodes audio with Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 on dedicated devices running the Vudu app. Vudu on a computer is limited to 2-channel audio, and the sound quality is not comparable to 5.1 audio in any way. No deep bass, no surround sound, no impact.

When comparing sound quality, I used the Vudu app on a PS3, which supports up to 7.1-channel audio. iTunes playback was on a Windows 8 PC, a 2012 DIY build that is capable of uncompressed 7.1-channel output (DTS-HD). Total system power is close to 5000 watts, calibrated to play flat from 16-20,000 Hz at reference levels and beyond.

It was difficult to hear any difference between the Vudu and iTunes versions. I level matched within 1 dB and found nothing to complain about in either mix. It is possible that the deep bass in the Vudu version was deeper by just a hair. It is also possible that I heard a bit more pinpoint rear-channel panning in the iTunes version. If there are differences between Vudu and iTunes when it comes to 5.1 soundtracks, they were extremely subtle. There was no difference in the soundtrack between the two iTunes versions.

Blu-ray audio is another story. DTS-HD MA is essentially a bit-for-bit copy of the studio master. I heard superior dynamics, but the most obvious difference was deeper, tighter bass. The fidelity and discreteness of the surround effects increased, with a greater sense of the space and ambience. Blu-ray dedicates as much bandwidth to audio as Vudu and iTunes do to video—no wonder it sounds better. Both Vudu and iTunes should consider using better and higher-bitrate compression for their audio.

The iTunes and Vudu 1080p versions looked very good. I used my 55" Vizio M3D550KD to view each version. Argo is not a "digital-slick" looking movie—it's a genuine film shot on varied stock including 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm formats. Analog film grain is part of Argo's aesthetic, so that needs to be preserved. You do not want a digital algorithm mistaking the grain for compression artifacts. In this regard, both iTunes versions manage to look better than Vudu HDX, with the iTunes 720p version frequently doing the best job. In some spots, Vudu failed totally, resorting to macroblocking in the shadows. The iTunes 720p copy surprised me with its image quality, often it looked better than the iTunes and Vudu 1080p version. The 1080p streaming versions inadvertently created a more modern looking movie by taking away the film grain that Blu-ray managed to preserve, while the iTunes 720p version fell somewhere in between. Since pictures are worth so many words, I'll let some screen grabs do the talking.

But before I do, I wanted to explain a bit about the screen images. When I did a similar exercise with Skyfall, I used photographs to compare image quality since I had no way of performing a screen capture on a PS3. I used a PS3 to play back the Vudu HDX file because, on a desktop or laptop, Vudu HDX is limited to 2-channel sound.

But in this Argo comparison, I used real screen grabs. The reason for the switch—still photography adds a degree of loss and variability to the comparisons, while screen capture is a 100% pixel-perfect representation of each frame. In order to guarantee the image-quality comparisons are as accurate as possible, it is better to use screen capture, which in turn requires playing the files on a desktop or laptop. My solution: Obtaining screen grabs from the Vudu HDX stream using a PC, then watching the movie using the Vudu app on the PS3 to judge sound quality.



Much of Argo was shot on grainy film, which presents a serious challenge to compression algorithms. Film grain is easily mistaken for noise and also consumes bandwidth in the same way digital noise does. In this frame, Vudu HDX loses the most contrast and detail as a result of compression, all of film grain is treated as noise and eliminated. The iTunes 720p and 1080p versions look nearly identical, preserving more detail and texture than Vudu HD was able to. Unfortunately, iTunes also tends to treat the film grain as noise, just like Vudu. Of the three non Blu-ray formats, iTunes 720p had the fewest problems dealing with film grain.


Here is the same image, brightened in Photoshop by shifting the gamma in order to analyse what's going on in the shadows.



The camera does not move in this shot, giving the iTunes 1080p and Vudu HDX versions time to fill in the details. When compression algorithms can draw from past and future frames, they do much better at preserving details. The Vudu version looks the sharpest, but it is also the least authentic reproduction of the original. Treating the film grain as noise makes the iTunes 1080p and Vudu HDX versions look cleaner than Blu-ray and makes fine details easy to see. The iTunes 720p version has less detail than the 1080p version but preserves some of the original film grain. The Blu-ray version renders the most accurate colors and also properly preserves the film grain.



This scene was shot handheld, likely on 16mm film stock, it is very grainy and blurry on purpose. Vudu HDX and iTunes 1080p try to process the grain, the result is ugly artifacts in the skin tones that look like smooth patches, as if it was airbrushed. Vudu HDX exhibited significant macro blocking in the shadow regions. The iTunes 720p version reduces the film grain but does so in a smooth, natural looking manner. Blu-ray preserves the character of the original film, although it also exhibits some very minor compression artifacts.



In this close-up we see the destructive effects of Vudu's algorithms in full effect, the film grain is wiped out. iTunes 1080p manages to preserve a lot of the details, but there are unnatural-looking smooth patches on the woman's face. The iTunes 720p version loses some fine details but manages to preserve enough of the film grain to look authentic, and it is free of artifacts. Blu-ray renders the scene perfectly preserving all of the film grain, as is appropriate.



This is of the most difficult frame grabs to judge, each version has issues. Vudu HDX looks the most detailed thanks to noise reduction, but the sky picks up some artifacts as a consequence. The iTunes 1080p version does a great job of preserving details and film grain with only a few artifacts, it looks like a modern digital photo. iTunes 720p compression produces the softest looking image, but it is actually more faithful to the original film, as seen in the Blu-ray. The Blu-ray screen grab reveals a lot of grain, in a blind test it might even be singled out as having the worst quality of the bunch.



This frame grab is almost certainly from 8mm film footage. The grain structure is so large, Vudu and iTunes don't even see it as noise. Vudu HDX attempts to re-create the grain as detail and is mostly successful, although there is some macro blocking. Both iTunes versions attempt to smooth the noise to no avail, leaving a patchy mess. I see no real difference between iTunes 720p and 1080p in this scene. Blu-ray reveals the raw nature of 8mm footage, compression algorithms don't know what hit 'em.



In this dark action scene, both the iTunes 1080p and Vudu HDX version convert the out-of-focus background - an effect is known as "bokeh" - into colored blobs. The iTunes 1080p version suffers from the most noise-reduction artifacts while the iTunes 720p remains more faithful to the original, preserving some film grain and introducing no artifacts. When it comes to reproducing actual film, especially gritty grainy film, Blu-ray is superior by a significant margin.



Vudu does well in this scene. The camera and the subject are both static and the film used to shoot the scene has a relatively fine grain structure. The end result is Vudu preserved a lot of fine detail even though it processed all the film grain away. This scene demonstrates the one fundamental weakness of iTunes 720p - the overall sharpness in static scenes is reduced compared to the 1080p version.

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post #2 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 01:45 PM
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I wonder if you are aware that these comparos -- which are fantastic by the way -- are serving as a great commercial for streaming? It's basically telling me, "Hey, don't worry about those iTunes 1080 streams, they are really, really quite good."

Often, we rent BluRay from Redbox, but honestly, that's mostly because it's so cheap and (for us) ridiculously convenient.

There is no difference in HDMI cables. If you can see the picture without visible dropouts or sparklies, the cable is working at 100%. No other cable will display a better version of that picture. You're simply wrong if you think there is a better digital cable than one that is already working. (Oh, and plasma didn't die because of logistics problems, nor does OLED ship in big boxes because it comes from Korea.)
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post #3 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 01:57 PM
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Once again 720p itunes preserves more detail/film grain because the 1080p is bitstarved. Are you absolutely sure you are getting the full quality Vudu HDX? Some of those shots look really bad, especially the close up of the womans face. 1080p@9mbps shouldn't look worse than itunes 1080p@5mbps. Especially after hearing about how great Vudu HDX is...
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post #4 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 02:00 PM - Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by rogo View Post

I wonder if you are aware that these comparos -- which are fantastic by the way -- are serving as a great commercial for streaming? It's basically telling me, "Hey, don't worry about those iTunes 1080 streams, they are really, really quite good."

Often, we rent BluRay from Redbox, but honestly, that's mostly because it's so cheap and (for us) ridiculously convenient.

It depends on who you are. For other readers they confirm the supremacy of Blu-ray, for others they demonstrate that streaming files are more than good enough. I am in the latter camp, I had no issues with watching any of the versions. I slightly preferred the iTunes 1080p version for the extra glimpses of sharpness it offered. I was really surprised at how well 720p holds up and it is true that the lower pixel count makes life easier for the compression algorithms. I wish Apple would dedicate just a a bit more bandwidth to their 1080p files, they could be so sweet... so very close to Blu-ray with just a bit more data. I also wish Vudu would stop blasting everything with maximum noise reduction. I'm sure that works well for CGI-driven movies, but it is a disaster when applied to actual film, grain and all.

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post #5 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 02:03 PM - Thread Starter
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Quote:
Originally Posted by StinDaWg View Post

Once again 720p itunes preserves more detail/film grain because the 1080p is bitstarved. Are you absolutely sure you are getting the full quality Vudu HDX? Some of those shots look really bad, especially the close up of the womans face. 1080p@9mbps shouldn't look worse than itunes 1080p@5mbps. Especially after hearing about how great Vudu HDX is...

I have full frame grabs for every single shot with the HDX meter pegged at max...





And my internet was particularly fast that night...


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post #6 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 02:17 PM
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I've actually been relatively impressed with iTunes PQ-wise (Netflix sucks bad, imho), but no streaming service has come even close to what my blu-rays can produce in terms of sound. I don't have equipment to quantify that statement, but I'm just going with what my ears hear. I'd love to have someone do some AQ comparison tests.

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post #7 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 02:22 PM - Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by blastermaster View Post

I've actually been relatively impressed with iTunes PQ-wise (Netflix sucks bad, imho), but no streaming service has come even close to what my blu-rays can produce in terms of sound. I don't have equipment to quantify that statement, but I'm just going with what my ears hear. I'd love to have someone do some AQ comparison tests.

I wish I had a way to quantify it as well, I agree with you 100% regarding Blu-ray's superior sound.

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post #8 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 03:06 PM
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Great comparison Mark.

I wonder if in your testing you've ever encountered video stuttering problems with the Apple TV. I've seen this on 3 different 3rd Gen ATV units, and a quick Google search shows a lot of other people seeing it as well.
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post #9 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 03:13 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by blastermaster View Post

I've actually been relatively impressed with iTunes PQ-wise (Netflix sucks bad, imho), but no streaming service has come even close to what my blu-rays can produce in terms of sound. I don't have equipment to quantify that statement, but I'm just going with what my ears hear. I'd love to have someone do some AQ comparison tests.

I couldn't agree more. While I love my apple TV for those nights that we want to watch a movie that I don't own or don't want to go out and rent, I am always disappointed with the audio. I feel that even for television shows Apple TV is disappointing in this regard. I guess the same would go for all streaming. I know the future is in streaming and internet movies, but I sure love my hard copy collection for the audio, knowing it is the best picture quality (currently available), and just to have it to show off.

Streaming has its place, but it isn't a major part of my viewing habits.
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post #10 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 03:29 PM
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I'm a huge Blu Ray and Apple fan, but need lossless audio before I'd consider streaming for most titles - iTunes quality is getting quite good, and more than good enough for less than "must-have" titles.

What I do notice occasionally, and not reflected in these examples, is posterization/banding, and elevated black levels at times in iTunes, or any streaming content for that matter...that needs work.
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post #11 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 03:35 PM - Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by thrang View Post

I'm a huge Blu Ray and Apple fan, but need lossless audio before I'd consider streaming for most titles - iTunes quality is getting quite good, and more than good enough for less than "must-have" titles.

What I do notice occasionally, and not reflected in these examples, is posterization/banding, and elevated black levels at times in iTunes, or any streaming content for that matter...that needs work.

I've noticed the same problems with iTunes, but I think Apple has recently improved the way they process their videos because the old problems were nowhere to be seen in either Skyfall or Argo. I remember "The Social Network" was nearly unwatchable on iTunes, I swore off their movies for over a year after buying it.

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post #12 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 03:57 PM
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great screen cap comparison... but is the movie worth watching?

Not so sure...

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post #13 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 04:08 PM - Thread Starter
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great screen cap comparison... but is the movie worth watching?

Not so sure...

It depends on what you want out of it. It tells a true story but embellishes it to a Hollywood level of elevated suspense and action. As a thriller it is well acted and it looks good, Ben Affleck has some directorial talent. If you want a real action movie, it might not be enough. Three out of seven Oscar nomination are sound-related and that was definitely a highlight of the Blu-ray presentation, but the quality of the mix was also quite evident in the streaming/download versions, except for Vudu on the desktop.

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post #14 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 05:18 PM
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Great comparison Mark. I really enjoyed the movie and I have to agree with you that Ben Affleck has done a great job directing. i've never been a big fan of his acting but his directing is great. He really knows how to create suspense and pull in the audience.

It's pretty cool to see the results from all four sources. I will always remain a physical media fan though. biggrin.gif

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post #15 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 08:04 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by imagic View Post

I have full frame grabs for every single shot with the HDX meter pegged at max...





Even on my iPad I can see the colour banding and macroblocking especially in the sky area of the 2nd screengrab.

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post #16 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 10:10 PM
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I always hear people say that vudu HDX is so great but from my experience I think its just so-so, and these screen grabs prove it. I mean its acceptable but not as good as some people make it out to be. I stated in the Skyfall comparison thread that I wish you could test the xbox video 1080p streaming quality compared to some of these. I'm almost blown away by the quality they somehow produce. But it would a lot easier to tell when compared side to side. I know you commented that you don't have an xbox, and I don't really have the resources to take screen grabs (wish I did).

Great job with these comparison though. I love seeing them. Keep up the good work.
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post #17 of 119 Old 02-22-2013, 10:13 PM
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iTunes video is great but I'm not going to give up the much better audio on blu ray, what a waste it would be if I did after buying all this home audio gear, but I can't wait till the day comes when iTunes in the cloud matches blu ray video(pretty much there now) AND audio and I can no longer worry about movie storage, maybe another 5-7 years away for that? So oppo doesn't need to worry yet. It's kinda funny that iTunes, built around music and audio, isn't trying to get the lossless audio formats for movies.
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post #18 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 12:12 AM
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Haven't read the whole thread, but have scanned a bit. Ideally any image comparisons would be done with direct screen caps into Photoshop (or whatever) and then exported to PNG-24 format for web display.

JPEG of any quality is a generational loss (unless cropping a pre-existing JPEG at the block boundaries). This applies to anyone wanting to present 'real' comparative images online (offline there are many other formats that are useable).
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post #19 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 01:14 AM - Thread Starter
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Haven't read the whole thread, but have scanned a bit. Ideally any image comparisons would be done with direct screen caps into Photoshop (or whatever) and then exported to PNG-24 format for web display.

JPEG of any quality is a generational loss (unless cropping a pre-existing JPEG at the block boundaries). This applies to anyone wanting to present 'real' comparative images online (offline there are many other formats that are useable).

Update - All of the screen grabs are now uncompressed PNG files.

For the sake of argument, I put up comparison images. In each pair, one side is from the original PNG screen cap and the other was first saved as jpeg and then reopened and pasted into the PNG. I must admit, I can tell the difference if I pixel peep. I'll swap out the images today, all the original screen grabs are PNGs. Anyone want to take a guess which is which?




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post #20 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 02:02 AM - Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by David Susilo View Post

Even on my iPad I can see the colour banding and macroblocking especially in the sky area of the 2nd screengrab.

Yes, the iPad is actually quite revealing, especially if you turn up the brightness.

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post #21 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 03:42 AM - Thread Starter
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Don't judge Vudu HDX based on one movie. It does have its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Life of Pi is my next comparison. Vudu HDX looks much better applied to CGI and modern, digitally filmed movies. Vudu's compression scheme is not well suited to grainy analog film. iTunes has a better method of dealing with (preserving) film grain, that's not directly tied to the bit rate.
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Once again 720p itunes preserves more detail/film grain because the 1080p is bitstarved. Are you absolutely sure you are getting the full quality Vudu HDX? Some of those shots look really bad, especially the close up of the womans face. 1080p@9mbps shouldn't look worse than itunes 1080p@5mbps. Especially after hearing about how great Vudu HDX is...

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post #22 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 06:55 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by imagic View Post

Yes, the iPad is actually quite revealing, especially if you turn up the brightness.

I calibrated my iPad display using Spyder 4 and always turn the brightness at the lowest setting ( I use my iPad extensively, I need it to last 12 hours a day, hence the lowering of the brightness to the minimum level)

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post #23 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 06:59 AM
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Originally Posted by imagic View Post

Don't judge Vudu HDX based on one movie. It does have its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Life of Pi is my next comparison. Vudu HDX looks much better applied to CGI and modern, digitally filmed movies. Vudu's compression scheme is not well suited to grainy analog film. iTunes has a better method of dealing with (preserving) film grain, that's not directly tied to the bit rate.

More weakenss than strengths. I continually see posterization and colour banding in every scene of any movie that shows an area with gradations such as skies, shadows (such in all sci-fi and horror movies), and clothing.

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post #24 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 09:33 AM - Thread Starter
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More weakenss than strengths. I continually see posterization and colour banding in every scene of any movie that shows an area with gradations such as skies, shadows (such in all sci-fi and horror movies), and clothing.

We shall see, Life of Pi is only available as a digital download or stream for a full nine days after the Academy Awards are over, it's primed to sell as a digital pre-release. I confess, I do not even want to watch it in any format other than Blu-ray 3D, but as a public service I am going to ascertain which of the download/streaming versions looks and sounds best, in relative terms.
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post #25 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 12:19 PM
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Thanks for the comparisons. The streaming versions are truly compromised, as expected.

Not only are they using lower bandwidth, but they must be using encoders which prioritise speed over quality.
I woudln't be surprised if the same was true to some extent of the Blu-ray version (speed over quality) but that format has high bandwidth to protect against that sad reality of business.

I keep hearing from US sources how great Vudu HDX is. I wouldn't know because I'm in the UK and can't watch it (unlike my collection of imported US discs - that's another bad thing about streaming). Seriously? This is good? It doesn't look good at all from what you're showing here.

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post #26 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 01:04 PM
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Just curious but what about VUDU's HD stream? For Argo, is HD better than HDX?
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post #27 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 01:31 PM - Thread Starter
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Just curious but what about VUDU's HD stream? For Argo, is HD better than HDX?
Vudu HD is noticeably visually inferior to Vudu HDX, which is the top-tier quality level. I'll show an example of each Vudu quality level when I get a chance, likely in my forthcoming "Art of Flight" comparison. You can see for yourself by comparing an HD and an HDX preview on the Vudu website.

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post #28 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 04:41 PM
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What's the point of comparing a film that's PQ is already mediocre. One thing I'd like to see compared is the aspect ratio.
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post #29 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 05:19 PM - Thread Starter
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What's the point of comparing a film that's PQ is already mediocre. One thing I'd like to see compared is the aspect ratio.

The answer is, Argo was nominated for seven Academy awards including best picture and best film editing. That alone is justification for the comparison. Not everyone would agree that film, and grainy film to be specific, means the picture quality is mediocre.

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post #30 of 119 Old 02-23-2013, 06:47 PM
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Also, grainy movies are more difficult to compress. If you show me something simple such as Futurama, it will be difficult for me to see the difference between HuluHDX vs Bluray because there are a lot less to compress... less gradations, less subtleties, zero grain.

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