Mark Henninger compares three online-delivery formats to Blu-ray, but there's an issue with one of the streaming services.
This article is my first comparison of a Marvel Entertainment movie, and my plan was to follow the template of my previous reviews. Typically, I use my PC as a playback device and to capture screenshots for comparison. This time around, I discovered that Vudu only offers its second-highest quality tier via PC—HD as opposed to HDX. It's the first time I've seen this limitation imposed on a new release.
My first viewing of Captain America: The Winter Soldier was via Vudu HDX stream using my Sony BDP-S5100 Blu-ray player. My second viewing was the 3D Blu-ray version, using the same player, which looked spectacular on my Samsung PN64F8500 plasma TV. In 2D, the movie's muted color scheme results in an image that—to my eyes—can look flat at times; in 3D, the depth is always there. Since 3D is a Blu-ray-only option and impossible to compare via screenshots, I'll leave it at this: The 3D version of Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the one to watch. For this comparison, the 2D Blu-ray serves as a reference.
Since I couldn't include Vudu HDX screen shots in this comparison, I watched individual scenes and analyzed how they looked on my calibrated PN64F8500. I've written enough comparisons to know that still frames don't adequately convey the differences between formats. For example, only Blu-ray offers 24p, which my TV supports. True 24p translates to a superior cadence that none of the online-delivery formats could match. Besides, scenes with a lot of motion tend to tax compression algorithms, giving Blu-ray a visible advantage in motion resolution when it comes to action movies.
The Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack put the online-delivery versions to shame. Ralph Potts gave the audio a perfect score of 100
, and I agree with his assessment. The 7.1 mix took full advantage of all seven channels, which added a heightened sense of envelopment and immersion. By contrast, the streams from iTunes, Vudu, and Amazon were all limited to compressed 5.1 audio.
With streaming, there are also issues with bandwidth. I usually find Vudu very reliable, but sometimes it takes Amazon a while to lock into a HD stream. I have fast downstream speeds—most of the time it measures over 120 Mbps—and yet that is no guarantee of smooth streaming. Apple's iTunes HD offers a download option, but it tends to lag behind Vudu HDX in quality, although not always.
The image quality of the 2D Blu-ray was notably high. I found no noise or artifacts to speak of, and I truly enjoyed the perfect 24p cadence it offered. The film's color palette is somewhat muted, but it crammed each and every scene with texture and detail. It's a real treat to watch a movie that seems able to "do anything" when it comes to realistic CGI effects, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is such a movie. Once again, Blu-ray delivers a reference-quality picture.
Amazon's video quality turned out to be the best of the three online-delivery formats; during my viewing, I experienced no streaming hiccups. It closely matched the Blu-ray in terms of color, and it managed to stay sharp during scenes with a lot of motion. The most notable difference between Amazon HD and Blu-ray was the quality of the motion. Amazon's version suffered from noticeable judder. Ultimately, Amazon's presentation was not quite as smooth, clean, or sharp as Blu-ray. But it came closer to that quality level than I've seen in the past.
Vudu HDX looked softer than usual, almost like it was 720p instead of 1080p. While I thought Vudu exhibited the best motion among the three online-delivery formats, it suffered from visible banding in shadows. Also, I had issues with HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) that prevented the HD version from playing on my PC. It was as if Murphy's Law was in full effect when I tried to view the movie from Vudu.
iTunes performed well, if not quite up to Amazon HD's quality level. It had the sharpness of an actual 1080p presentation, and it was mostly free of artifacts. I saw some loss of detail compared to Blu-ray, and there were some cadence issues. The iTunes version beat the other two online formats when it came to rendering shadows. Dark areas, and especially night scenes, looked natural and artifact free compared to Amazon and Vudu—but not versus Blu-ray.
Here are some screenshots comparing the Blu-ray, Amazon HD, and iTunes HD versions of the movie:
This scene contains a lot of detail and movement. Amazon renders detail that comes remarkably close to Blu-ray quality, iTunes looks a bit softer.
Taken from the same frame as the above comparison.
While both iTunes and Amazon HD look sharp, Amazon HD comes closer to Blu-ray when reproducing subtle gradations.
This dark scene tests how each format handles shadows. It's hard to see any difference.
Using Photoshop, I brightened the previous image to reveal shadow details. iTunes avoids blocking artifacts but Amazon comes closer to Blu-ray quality.
In this screenshot, Blu-ray quality really shines through. Captain America's skin looks fake in both the Amazon and iTunes versions.
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