One of the main reasons I chose Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, for this digital-format comparison was its use of a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, though the movie also has some short scenes in 2.35:1 and 1.85:1. In addition, Anderson uses a significant amount of color grading throughout the film, most often a warm, rose-colored tint.
It’s been a year and a half since I first started comparing online-delivery formats to Blu-ray. Most of the time, the format that came closest to Blu-ray’s picture quality was Vudu HDX. In those comparisons, iTunes HD would occasionally matchVudu HDX quality, but because iTunes HD uses a lower bit rate than Vudu HDX, Apple’s offering would often be one step below Vudu’s in terms of overall quality.
The first time I added Amazon HD to the mix of online-delivery formats, I was not very impressed. Its video was a step under both Vudu and iTunes. However, things have now changed. For the first time since I began doing these comparisons, there is a new champion among the cloud-based formats. Amazon’s streaming HD version of The GrandBudapest Hotel not only outperformed Vudu and iTunes, it often came remarkably close to Blu-ray quality. Furthermore, Amazon’s version was far closer to the Blu-ray reference in terms of color. In stark contrast, the Vudu HDX version was wildly inaccurate when it came to color. It almost looks like somebody attempted to remove the intentional tinting when he or she performed the conversion. I can only speculate about what resulted in such a significant shift in the movie’s hue. What’s important is that the color in the Vudu HDX version is grossly inaccurate and no longer represents the director’s vision.
Another area where Amazon HD managed to stand out among the cloud-based formats is how it dealt with film grain—Wes Anderson shot the entirety of The Grand Budapest Hotel on real film—Kodak Vision3 200T, to be precise. It’s a fine-grained film, and the look it creates is worth preserving. Among the cloud-based formats, only Amazon HD preserved that crucial detail. Both Vudu and iTunes blast the grain away with noise reduction, resulting in an artificial look. I was pleased to see all the online formats handle the aspect-ratio changes properly; I saw no errors in any of the formats.
When it comes to sound, the cloud-based formats are more than adequate in terms of fidelity. It’s not the sort of movie that tests the outer limits of a full-bore, subwoofer-equipped surround system. While Blu-ray features DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, Vudu HDX and Amazon HD both offer Dolby Digital Plus, and iTunes offers standard Dolby Digital. However, it is the differences in image quality that make the cloud-based formats stand apart from each other.
Let’s take a closer look at some individual frames from the movie. The top, uncropped frame grabs are from Blu-ray.
In this scene, Amazon HD comes closest to Blu-ray quality. Color is very similar between all four formats, but Amazon HD contains the most detail, including film grain. Blu-ray is a little bit sharper than Amazon HD, but not by much. Vudu HDX ekes out a tiny bit more detail than iTunes HD, and both are relatively sharp, but not as detailed as Amazon HD.
This dark scene proved to be the exception to the rule that Amazon HD looked the best. iTunes HD came closest to Blu-ray quality, while Amazon HD turned in the worst performance with a very noticeable loss in sharpness. Vudu HDX looks about as sharp as iTunes HD, but it exhibits a color error—oversaturated blues that obscure textural detail in the background. Dark scenes pose a particular challenge for compression algorithms; it’s interesting to see how this particular scene turned the tables on the typical performance of each format.
This scene is representative of the image-quality pecking order found in most of the movie. Blu-ray is on top, with a reference-quality rendering of the scene. Amazon HD comes in a close second, with precious little to separate it from Blu-ray. Both iTunes HD and Vudu HDX apply too much noise reduction, resulting in waxy-looking skin and an overall decrease in fine detail and texture. The Vudu HDX version sticks out like a sore thumb because the color balance is significantly different from the other three formats. Whereas Blu-ray, Amazon, and iTunes all nail the rose-colored tint,Vudu HDX renders it as yellow.
Thanks to the close-up of fabric in this scene, the degree to which Amazon HD approaches Blu-ray quality is easy to see. Both Vudu HDX and iTunes HD look considerably softer than the Blu-ray and Amazon examples.
In this scene, the film’s aspect ratio was 2.35:1. Once again, Amazon HD looks almost as good as Blu-ray. Vudu HDX andiTunes HD look very similar to each other, with too much noise reduction and loss of fine detail. Again, Vudu HDX gets the color wrong—what should appear rose-hued instead looks yellow.
Here’s a comparison from a brief moment in the movie that used a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It shows all the same qualities that keep cropping up—Amazon HD comes remarkably close to Blu-ray, while both iTunes HD and Vudu HDX suffer a loss of texture and detail due to noise reduction. In this particular scene, the iTunes HD version looks particularly blurry compared to the other formats. However, Vudu HDX continues to show the most color error.
In this scene, Blu-ray clearly comes out on top in terms of overall image quality. That said, Amazon HD still looks very good, as does iTunes HD. Once again, Vudu HDX struggles (and fails) to achieve accurate color; in this case, rendering what should be a rich and deep red as orange.