“What are you doing?”, asked my partner at the sight of me fiddling with cables underneath the TV. “We’re going to watch Dune (opens in new tab)… on Blu-ray. 4K Blu-ray.”
Maybe it’s not something I should admit in my position but, like lots of people, it has probably been a few years since I dusted off the Blu-ray player. It’s there underneath the TV but for a good while now has been playing a distant third or fourth fiddle to Netflix, Disney+, and the rest.
For I am only human, and the convenience of streaming services has most certainly turned my head. All that content at the touch of a button and for a relatively low, sign-up-and-try-and-forget-about-it monthly fee.
What’s more, those of us who care about quality now needn’t worry unduly that we’re getting short-changed, with 4K, HDR, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos and more, all making their way to streaming services. So why would anyone bother with a disc?
The devil is in the detail. Aside from the whole argument for the value of physical media over streaming - which, in the case of vinyl, I'm very much on board with - 4K Blu-ray discs have still clung on in my mind as the superior choice when it comes to performance. For not all 4K pictures, nor all next-gen audio formats, are equal.
See, 4K Blu-ray discs run at up to 128Mbps. This is the amount of data sent to your screen every second. By contrast, streaming services tend to top out at around 17Mbps. And this will drop further depending on the speed of your internet connection and demand on the wider network. So 4K on disc should be better than 4K via your favourite streaming service.
What about sound? It's a closer call but there's still an edge for Ultra HD Blu-ray. Yes, you can get Dolby Atmos pretty much everywhere, but streaming services deliver it in the compressed Dolby Digital+ format while discs generally carry it in full-fat Dolby TrueHD. As for DTS:X, you need to be watching on a disc. And of the two next-gen audio formats, DTS:X is a bit more flexible. It works with standard surround sound set-ups and doesn't require extra overhead speakers the way Atmos generally does. You can also manually adjust sound objects, meaning you can crank up the volume of voices on a soundtrack making it easier to hear dialogue (a common gripe).
Ultimately, my old Blu-ray player should still deliver a better picture and sound performance than the same thing via a streaming service. Hurrah. I knew I should have been buying more 4K Blu-rays. So now, having finally decided to soak up those extra megabits, why was I left disappointed?
Well, for the most part, the experience. Sure, the sweating and fiddling with cables was my fault but the subsequent wait for the disc to load was not – and it seemed like an eternity. While I was somewhat prepared for this and doing my best to act unperturbed, despite being shocked by quite how slow it seemed, my partner was incredulous. “We could be half way through a film on Netflix by now…” With a sleeping baby upstairs, every second counts in our household.
I gripped the remote and stared straight ahead, waiting for the disc to load – the stunning picture and sound about to enter our eyes and ears would soon have her convinced, I thought.
Once I’d checked the sound options and marvelled at the “old school” menu screen, we were off. Lights dimmed, sound turned up loud, we were ready to immerse ourselves in a true home cinema experience… But hang on, what was that noise? Was there a car outside with the engine running? A light aircraft overhead? Is the boiler overheating? Ah no... that whirring noise was the Blu-ray player’s fan.
Memories of Group Tests of Blu-ray players came flooding back, wondering which player was quieter, and whether this particularly unit merited a "noisy fan" in the Against column. To be fair, my Sky Q box is no shrinking violet, and I also couldn’t rule out that my Blu-ray player really was literally as well as metaphorically dusty and old, and this could be spurring the fan into action. But regardless; loud mechanisms on disc players is definitely a thing. And another reason to feel somewhat deflated at the Blu-ray experience.
But, ultimately, the epic sandscapes and trademark stirring Hans Zimmer soundtrack had us hooked. Of course there was no buffering, no drop in quality, just 59.80Mbps of 4K HDR10 goodness complete with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. What’s not to like?
And herein lies the real disappointment: we're simply not getting the full-fat, best-possible AV experience from the streaming services that so many of us are watching 99% of the time.
There’s no arguing with the content, from great documentaries to brilliant TV shows, and many blockbuster films now going straight to streaming, but that only makes it more depressing that we're not getting to enjoy this content in the best possible quality.
Alright, if you don't have the latest TV, you're watching on a smaller screen or you don't have much of a sound system, you may not notice these differences, but for those of us eager to be getting our TV and films "as the director intended", we don't want to miss out on so much as a smidgeon of AV information.
We've been here before of course, when low-quality MP3 downloads and then streams replaced CDs, despite being far inferior sonically. The good news is that we did eventually get lossless and high-resolution audio from streaming services. The quality did catch up with the convenience. And it's fair to say the gap between Netflix and 4K Blu-ray is already much (much) closer than MP3 and CD.
So we could all keep (or start) buying more 4K Blu-rays. I know plenty of people who do, whether for the reasons above or because they love physical media (and steelbooks). But for those who have left discs behind and have no desire to go back, there is hope.
Both Apple TV+ and Disney+ now boast up to 40Mbps and 30Mbps top data speeds respectively, though your experience will depend on your devices and network. Sony's Bravia Core service, meanwhile, offers genuine 4K Blu-ray-baiting data rates but is exclusive to Sony's flagship TVs. Bravia Core does point to the future of streaming, though, and of course the beauty of software is that it can be upgraded and improve over time.
But until then, you might want to remember to splash the cash on a 4K Blu-ray disc from time to time – you soon get used to the fan, after all.