Because Netflix produced the show, it had total control over the release and distribution of House of Cards. The company surprised the entertainment industry by releasing all the episodes at once in recognition of the "binge viewing" trend that it helped make possible to begin with.
Last week, I spotted the first-season Blu-ray package while shopping at Best Buy. The multi-disc set included a free "cloud copy" of the series, courtesy of Ultraviolet. I bought it on the spot—Blu-ray has consistently delivered top-quality sights and sounds to my living room, plus Ultraviolet works with Vudu. In past comparisons, I've been impressed with the quality of Vudu HDX, and I was hopeful that it could beat Netflix in terms of streaming quality.
What I did not know was that a misadventure coordinated by Mr. Murphy himself lay ahead of me. You see, I recently sold my PlayStation 3. My intention was to rely on CyberLink PowerDVD 13 until the new PlayStation 4 console became available. Well, it turns out the menu structure used by this multi-disc set had other plans for me. Simply put, CyberLink could not access individual episodes through the menu. I found myself locked out of the disc, with nowhere to go.
I realized that I could not rely on PC-based software—the aforementioned Cyberlink PowerDVD 13—for Blu-ray playback for another four or five months, so I took another trip down to Best Buy and grabbed a new Blu-ray player—the Sony BDP-S5100. I am actually happy with the switch from the PS3, but that is not the topic of this article. For my review of the BDP-S5100, click here. The player was just a means to an end, although it does provide me with a platform for Vudu and Amazon playback as well as Blu-ray.
In past comparisons, iTunes has been a part of mix. Not so with House of Cards—Netflix produced the show, so it gets to choose who distributes the show, and Apple is not on that list. Thankfully, there are other online-delivery options for viewing HoC.
I've enjoyed watching content on Vudu HDX, and Amazon also offers episodes in high definition through its Prime video service. Naturally, Netflix offers the show to anyone who has a monthly membership, and the low cost of that membership was probably a driving force behind the recent increase in Netflix streaming subscriptions. After all, the cheapest way to watch the entire series is to join Netflix for one month.
House of Cards is a 4K production—in fact, it might become the first series to be released in 4K—and it has a look that can be described as "perfectly pristine." When watching the show, any anomalies in the encoding process become glaringly obvious due to the fidelity of the actual video, which is essentially free of noise or artifacts, from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlights. This video fidelity, and the way it highlighted flaws, was the reason I found the Netflix version difficult to watch; picture quality was one of the main reasons I got excited about the Blu-ray release.
My wife Danya is a good sport about my audio and home-theater obsessions, and she will even tolerate a bit of on-the-spot troubleshooting on a movie night. Unfortunately, I was in for a much rougher time in this case. The menu issue on the home-theater PC was insurmountable, and I was reluctant to watch the show on Netflix. Having had good experiences with Vudu in the past, I decided to give that a look.
The problem with both Vudu and Netflix on a home-theater PC is that audio is limited to two channels. I also found that playback of Vudu on the PC was not smooth—the 24P cadence was broken, it stuttered a little bit, resulting in noticeable judder during horizontal pans. It was time to try out the new Blu-ray player—and what a relief that was.
Blu-ray is a mature technology, but at this point, online delivery of HD content has also matured into a popular service. I expected the new Sony to play discs and stream content; I did not expect a tangible improvement in the quality of Netflix HD streaming. but that's what I got. The S5100 outperformed the PS3 it replaced as well as the built-in app on my Vizio HDTV—thanks to its superior streaming-video quality, the new machine changed the results of this comparison. I now know that Netflix is a viable alternative to Blu-ray, when viewed from the right device.
So what exactly happened when I compared House of Cards with the benefit of a new machine to stream? Here's what I saw and heard, from worst to best.
When played on a PC, Netflix is terrible. The video looks terrible—the quality is visibly worse—and the sound is 2-channel only. All of my comments here are about watching Netflix through an app on an A/V streaming device, in this case a connected Blu-ray player.
Despite looking better than it did on a PlayStation 3, the Netflix presentation was the worst of the four options I compared. The picture quality was perfectly acceptable, as long as the viewing distance was not pushed toward the THX optimum distance. The Netflix version of House of Cards would not hold up in a high-end home theater. The primary issue was artifacts in shadows—Netflix had significant issues rendering the deepest shadows, producing plenty of blocking artifacts.
What caused me to rank Netflix last was the amount of time it took for the stream to display full-quality 1080p content. The video looks the same as Vudu HDX, but the interface is clunkier, and it would often take between 10 seconds and a minute before the sharpest image became visible.
Sound quality was quite good when streaming through the Sony player, and it registered as Dolby Digital 5.1 on my receiver. House of Cards does not exactly push the limits of sound effects and mixing, so there's not much to say here. Video quality is the reason Netflix came in last.
Image Quality: 6/10
Sound Quality: 7/10
I've had good luck with Vudu in the past, especially when viewing relatively pristine, digitally captured content. Vudu HDX does a decent job with House of Cards, especially with bright scenes. Unfortunately, it is not as good a transfer as I have seen for some Hollywood films. Motion was not as smooth as true 24p Blu-ray, and dark scenes exhibited considerable macro blocking in shadow regions. There was little to differentiate Vudu HDX from Netflix—both formats were visibly flawed. As with Netflix, the artifacts in the HDX version are not all that important when it comes to casual viewing, but it is not acceptable quality for home theater-style presentations.
Sound quality was good, which is typical for Vudu HDX, which uses Dolby Digital Plus encoding. The main things to listen for are clarity of voices and off-screen placement of sounds. There were no issues with the audio here.
Vudu's video quality is the same on a PC as it is on a dedicated player, but on a PC, Vudu HDX is only capable of 2-channel sound. Stick with the Vudu streaming app on a compatible device if possible.
Image Quality: 7/10
Sound Quality: 7/10
The tables are turned! This is the first time I have seen Amazon HD video decisively beat Vudu HDX. Amazon's video was noticeably cleaner looking in the shadow regions. Motion was also smoother than Vudu HDX and Netflix—overall, quite an impressive performance—even if the video stream is only 720p.
Amazon's online offering was not truly Blu-ray quality, but it was a step up from Netflix and Vudu HDX, making it my preferred format for online delivery of House of Cards in a home-theater setting.
Once again, I found the sound quality was great with no issues.
As with the other online-delivery formats, Amazon on the PC was a disappointment. Streaming maxed out at 6Mbps, and audio was only available in stereo—in fact, Amazon HD video took the biggest hit in terms of quality when viewed on a PC.
Image Quality: 8/10
Sound Quality: 7/10
The quality of Blu-ray really shines with this show. The 4K cameras captured pristine, grain-free imagery. Blu-ray shows this quite clearly, and even excessive scrutiny (i.e., pixel peeping) failed to reveal any significant flaws in the video. Motion rendered perfectly; I never witnessed any judder, banding, macro blocking, or any other noticeable compression artifacts. House of Cards looks tremendous, and Blu-ray brings that quality into the home theater.
Of course, Blu-ray also has superior sound. That's well known, and it is apparent in the music more so than in the dialog. My sound system is extremely capable on the low end, and the soundtrack had more heft when played off Blu-ray versus the highly compressed online-delivery formats.
Image Quality: 9/10
Sound Quality: 8/10
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Edited by imagic - 7/21/13 at 7:51pm