HD and Surround Sound on Streaming Services

March 21, 2011

Given the recent announcements from Netflix and Amazon, there’s been a lot written about video streaming services lately. One thing not thoroughly covered is the audio and video quality of streaming services. It’s ironic that you’ve invested all of this money in your home theater system–large HD screen, receiver and speakers–and you end up watching content that would not look different on your old 25″ RCA tube set.

Tech of the Hub has done its own comparison of video streaming services with a focus on picture and sound quality. Specifically, the Hub sampled the offerings from Amazon, Hulu Plus, iTunes, Netflix and VUDU.

The comparison chart is below. The quick answer is that VUDU offers the best selection and quality for streaming movies. New movies are typically available the same day as the DVD release. VUDU offers the most HD movies for rental and plans to expand into television series later this year. Their HDX format supplies video in 1080P at 24 frames per second. The audio is Dolby Digital Plus surround sound (regardless of which quality you pick). While it’s not as good as Blu-ray, it comes closest of any of the streaming services. To take advantage of VUDU’s high quality picture, you will need a steady 9 MBps connection unless you have the VUDU box, which downloads the movie. There’s a price for quality: it costs $5.99 to rent a new release. VUDU does offer a “movie of the day” in any quality at 99 cents and some other special deals. If you sign up, they will give you a $6 credit to try out the service.

Updates bolded (April 11th, 2011)

Amazon Instant

Hulu Plus





All you can watch for select catalog with Prime Membership; rental or purchase for larger catalog

All you can watch for monthly fee

Rental on Apple TV. Purchase available on computer with iTunes

All you can watch for monthly fee. Send DVD/Blu-ray in the mail for additional $$$

Rental in a variety of qualities. Purchase per titles







Best Video Quality




1080P on PS3 / 720P on others

1080P / 24 fps

Best Audio Available

Dolby Digital 5.1

Stereo only

Dolby Digital 5.1

Dolby Digital 5.1 on PS3 and Apple TV only

Dolby Digital 5.1

Number of HD Titles

399 movies / 757 TV seasons for purchase; 24 movies and 27 television seasons on Prime streaming

456 movies and television seasons (mostly TV)

1863 movies, 663 TV seasons

2,173 titles in HD (at least 720P). Of those, the vast majority are in 1080P

4,000 titles in HD (720p) and HDX (1080p/24) quality

Surround Sound Titles

Vast majority of streaming titles in stereo. Purchase/rental titles are available in Dolby Surround


Most are in Dolby Digital 5.1

450 to 500 titles available in Dolby Digital 5.1. Remainder in stereo

4,000 in Dolby Digital


234 movies with English subtitles

6,706 TV episodes, 15 movies. 

589 movies / No TV shows

1146 titles; not on all devices (Wii, Boxee, PS3 and new Panasonic  BD players support)

Only on non-English movies

Rental Window

2 days after rental is purchased


30 days to start / 24 hours once watching begins


30 days to start / 24 hours once watching begins


Streaming Library included with Amazon Prime $79/yr; $3.99 to rent new movies; $2.99 to buy TV episodes in HD. $1 less in SD. Amazon also runs specials on select films

$7.99 per month for unlimited viewing

.99 cents for TV episode rentals, $2.99 buy HD TV episodes, $4.99 to rent new HD movies (also $1.99 HD movie rental specials)

$7.99 per month unlimited viewing. Additional $2 per month for DVDs mailed to home; Another $2 for Blu-ray

New movies $5.99 to rent in HDX, $4.99 in HD, $3.99 in SD. Specials run on select movies $1 less with 2 night rental.  99 cent movie of the day


Almost 200, including Roku, Google TV, Vizio and Samsung TVs, Panasonic and Sony Blu-ray and HDTVs, GoogleTV, TiVo (future for streaming)

PS3, Roku, WD TV, Samsung, Sony and Vizio Blu-ray and TV, PC/Mac, Coming later this year: LG, Panasonic, TiVo Premier, Haier and Xbox

Apple TV, PC, Mac

Many! Wii, PS3, Xbox, Roku, TiVo, Boxee, LG, Samsung, Vizio, Insignia, Philips, Panasonic, Sony and Phillips devices
Over 300 devices including PS3, Boxee, LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Toshiba, 2011 Sony, Sharp, Sylvania, PC, Mac and the VUDU box

Mobile Devices


iPhone, iPad and Android (coming soon)

iPhone, iPad

iPhone, iPad, Windows Phone, Android (soon)

iPhone, iPad for browsing catalog and purchase only

As far as the best value goes, Netflix takes the prize at only $7.99 per month. They have almost two thousand titles available for HD streaming. It appears almost five hundred of those titles are available in 1080P and Dolby Digital. At the moment, the PlayStation 3 is the only Netflix device that can both display 1080P and output Dolby Digital (unlike VUDU, which has the same interface and capabilities on every device). The good news is that other devices will gain the capability over time (Apple TV just added Dolby Digital to its Netflix client). While the movie selection could be a little better, there is no lack of television series to watch. If you’re interested in cutting the cable cord, this is probably the best place to spend your money. With the addition of original content, Netflix could even further dominate the market.

Amazon’s offering was very similar to a la carte models of VUDU and iTunes until recently. On the rental side, we rented “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and the sound quality from the Roku blew our socks off. Now Amazon Prime members also have access to a streaming catalog like Netflix’s, albeit much smaller. On top of this, few of the movies and TV shows are available in HD or in surround sound (“Amadeus” being an exception that’s awesome to watch). Since Prime members don’t have to pay extra for this service, the small library isn’t a problem at the moment. Since the release of their instant streaming offering, it does appear that Amazon’s service has been more reliable.

Amazon is one of the most interesting streaming services out there. It offers an all-you-can-watch streaming library as well as purchasing and rental options. Furthermore, as Dan Rayburn recently pointed out, they could extend the service to a future Kindle, which would allow them to control the device, the platform and the distribution (just like Apple would like to). That, combined with their deep pockets, could create a serious competitor for Netflix if they build up their library.

That brings us to iTunes. If you’re invested in the Apple eco-system, it’s a good choice. It has an impressive library of movies and TV shows in HD and Dolby Digital. The 99 cent price for renting HD TV shows is the best deal out there for watching a single show. While Apple TV is currently limited to 720P, one hopes they will either do a software update or offer 1080P with the next hardware revision of the box. The most important thing missing from the iTunes offering is an all-you-can-view subscription similar to Netflix or Amazon. Given what happened with the music industry, the studios are probably reluctant to open the door to Apple.

Of all of the options, Hulu Plus is a disappointment in terms of both selection and quality. In terms of HD titles, they have one of the smaller catalogs, with few movies. TV Shows are only available in stereo, rather than surround, sound. Oh, and there are also commercials! Hulu Plus is only compelling if you’re committed to cutting the cord and are interested in keeping up with a particular set of new TV series (check the listing to see if your favorite shows are there or not). Otherwise, just set the DVR.

Let’s not forget that the best home theater experience comes from Blu-ray. Blu-rays display in 1080P, are not subject to network issues and their soundtracks are typically in  a lossless format such as Dolby TrueHD or DTS Master Audio. A great Blu-ray player can now be had for $100 ( I recently picked up a LG BD550). Services such as Netflix and Redbox offer Blu-ray rentals. A Blu-ray rental at Redbox only costs $1.50 a night, whereas Netflix offers unlimited Blu-ray rentals for $11.99 a month. Not as convenient as these on-demand services but sometimes the best home theater experience requires a little planning.

Tags: Amazon, Blu-ray, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, streaming, VUDU

2 Responses to HD and Surround Sound on Streaming Services

  1. The Hub on June 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Just updated some of the Netflix and iTunes stats. Thanks to michaeltscott from avsforum for pointing out that most of the HD titles for PS3 are now in PS3 and not available on other devices. Also interesting is that the number of subtitled movies on iTunes has appeared to more than doubled.

  2. sirfergy on August 31, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Why no mention of Zune?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect to the Hub

Support the Hub