Entertainment

Now’s the Time to Try “Critical Role”

Now's the Time to Try "Critical Role"

I’ve written many times about my favorite TV show, Critical Role, in which “a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons.” I wrote about this internet phenomenon when the company staged the most successful Kickstarter campaign for a video project, smashing the previous record set by MST3K. I’ve written about how this group of eight best friends represents a serious challenge to the media status quo and a legitimate threat to more traditional forms of home entertainment.

 

But I’ve always written about the show with a bit of hesitation—not for fear of being branded a geek, mind you, and not out of concern for venturing too far from the mainstream. That’s hardly applicable, since more people watched the Campaign 2 finale of Critical Role earlier this year than watched the Season 10 finale of The Walking Dead. (Comparing the numbers directly is tough, but Critical Role got some 3.3 million views across Twitch and YouTube vs. Walking Dead‘s ~2.9 million viewers on AMC. How many of CR‘s online “views” account for multiple viewers isn’t clear.) 

 

No, the reason it’s tough to evangelize this amazing show is that there’s just so darned much of it. If we ignore all the ancillary series and spinoffs, all the one-off specials and after shows, Critical Role has, to this point, created over 1,000 hours of content, which is about 12 times the runtime of the entire 10-season run of Friends and about 15 times the total runtime of Seinfeld. 

 

I can’t even begin to guess how many people I’ve turned onto this show, only to have them utterly hooked then completely crestfallen when they realize exactly how long it would to take to catch up. And I sympathize with that. By the time Critical Role came crashing into the mainstream in 2019, the gang was already more than 200 hours into their second campaign. 

 

And it occurs to me that I should probably stop and define what I mean by “campaign.” In D&D lingo, a campaign is an ongoing, self-contained story with a unique set of characters. When Critical Role launched in 2015, they were already halfway through a campaign they had started around their own kitchen tables some years before. They didn’t start over from scratch

and create new characters and situations, because they couldn’t conceive of anyone actually wanting to watch them play their game and only agreed to play on camera as a favor to Felicia Day. So Campaign 2, in which they did create entirely new characters and launched a whole new story guided by Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, was really the audience’s first opportunity to see this group tell a tale together from the very beginning.

 

So why should you care about any of this? Well, as I said, Campaign 2 came to a conclusion earlier this year but a

new campaign is starting this month. New characters, new settings—a whole new beginning. Which means that if you’ve missed out on this phenomenon until now, or sat on the fear that it was all just too much, now’s your perfect opportunity

to hop on the Critical Role train.

 

Of course, it has to be said that there are some people who simply scoff at the notion of watching a bunch of friends sit around and play a game for three to five hours every week. For some, that crosses a line into dweeb territory. Or maybe you’re just not interested in D&D.

 

Whatever reservations you might have, I implore you to set them aside and give the new campaign a shot when it airs

this month because, when you get right down to it, the real draw of this show isn’t the Dungeons or the Dragons. There are plenty of live-play D&D games out there, and none of them have achieved the success of this show.

 

The biggest reason for that is the fact that those shows were created to sell tabletop roleplaying as a product. They had casting calls and auditions. Some cat-petting executive somewhere said, “Hey, people are watching other people play D&D on the internet—let’s get a slice of that action.” 

 

What makes Critical Role unique is that the game they’re playing is secondary. The real draw is that we, the audience, get to watch eight best friends—who now own a corporation and small media empire together—take a break once a week, sit around a table, and give one another their full attention. They put down their phones, ignore their email inboxes, look each 

other in the eye, and do their level best to entertain the heck out of each other for a few straight hours.

 

There is, of course, a parasocial aspect to all of this in that it’s nearly impossible to become invested in a friend group without feeling like you’re a part of said group. Watching Critical Role doesn’t feel like tuning into an episode of Loki or Squid Game. It feels like hanging out with your buds.

 

And that’s ultimately a crucial element of the success of this show, because Critical Role isn’t intended to be passively 

consumed; it is, in many ways, a call to action. They aren’t merely saying, “Hey, come watch us have fun and love one another.” They’re saying, “Hey, you can do this, too. Go grab your own best friends or your family, sit around a table, and make each other laugh, cry, celebrate, and commiserate.” And audiences have listened. Fully half the people I know who watch Critical Role have gone on to start their own D&D campaigns and are rediscovering the joys of actual human interaction.

 

Call me a weirdo but I think the world needs more of that, now more than ever. It needs this weekly example of wholesome face-to-face collaboration and—more importantly—the vulnerability required to sit with the people you love most in the world and make a complete goober of yourself for their amusement. 

 

If all of that sounds like something you could get into but you’ve held off for all the reasons listed above, here’s your chance to give this magical show a try. Campaign 3 begins on October 21, live on Twitch and YouTube, or you can wait for the VOD to hit YouTube on October 25. 

 

Or, if you want to experience the insanity of watching Critical Role with a crowd, the first episode of the new campaign will also debut in select Cinemark cinemas around the country. As for me and my wife, we’ll opt for the comforts of our own home cinema, thank you very much. But if we had a Cinemark a little closer to home, I think we’d both be tempted to buy a ticket and skulk at the end of the theater for the first few minutes, if only to hear an auditorium full of Critters sing the show’s theme song, “Your Turn to Roll,” once again after months of anticipation. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Arguments Against Streaming Just Don’t Cut It Anymore

The Arguments Against Streaming Just Don’t Cut It Anymore

It never fails. Every time I reference a streaming video service in the course of a hardware review for other publications or review a film via streaming for this publication, I’m met not merely with skepticism but outright hostility from videophiles who ought to know better.

 

I’m berated for daring to claim that Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, et al. have their place in a luxury home-entertainment environment. I’m belittled for claiming that such relatively low-bitrate services often offer a level of audiovisual excellence that’s practically indistinguishable from their equivalent UHD Blu-ray discs (assuming there is a disc equivalent.) 

 

Rather than simply yelling “Yuh huh!” into the void, though, I thought it might be constructive to rebut the arguments of these bitrate hardliners, to respond directly to their claims that streaming is inherently subpar. And I’ll start with the most common:

 

But discs have more bits! And mo’ bits
equals mo’ better! Right?!

It’s easy to understand why this perception persists. Back in the bygone days of DVD, with its relatively rudimentary MPEG-2 video compression, if you purchased two different releases of a film on disc, the one with the higher bitrate almost always looked noticeably better.

 

But that was then and this is now, and it’s time to drop this outdated notion once and for all. In the modern era of digital video, once you’ve reached a certain threshold for transparency, throwing more bits at a video encode isn’t necessarily a guarantee 

of higher quality. It’s simply indicative of less efficiency.

 

Mind you, that’s a pretty recent development. Even as recently as the Blu-ray era, video compression couldn’t do a great job at bitrates low enough to pump out across the information superhighway. The AVC codec most commonly used for Blu-ray (and for HD streaming) can often struggle at lower bitrates, and as we saw with the Game of Thrones debacle a couple years ago, when bandwidth gets too low, AVC can get really ugly really quickly.

 

But streaming services don’t use AVC for 4K video—they rely on the more advanced HEVC codec. And it’s worth noting what those letters stand for: High Efficiency Video Codec. HEVC wasn’t designed to deliver superior video quality—it was designed to deliver equivalent video quality using fewer bits. To do 4K with AVC, you need a minimum of 32 Mbps bandwidth. To do 4K justice with HEVC, you need as little as 15 Mbps. And it’s telling that most streaming video services start at 16Mbps for 4K and go up to 30Mbps or more.

 

Am I saying there’s never any reason to encode 4K video 

at higher bitrates? Of course not. As I pointed out in my recent review of The Green Knight via Vudu, there was, collectively, a little less than one second of footage in that film that could have benefited from a higher bitrate than Vudu is capable of delivering. Let’s pause and underline that: Out of a two-hour film, there was about a second of footage, spread across multiple scenes, that would have looked better at much higher bitrates. It’s literally a blink-and-you-miss-it situation. And in my recent experience, that’s a worst-case scenario for higher-quality streaming platforms. What’s more, I own UHD Blu-ray discs with far more egregious compression artifacts.

 

For the most part, using a higher bitrate with HEVC simply means that the video is encoded less efficiently. I know I’ve used this example before but it bears repeating: UHD Blu-ray discs aren’t that much less compressed than Netflix. So, if your argument is that compression is bad, then by all rights, you should think that the best optical media format available today is trash.

The Arguments Against Streaming Just Don’t Cut It Anymore

Let me break down the numbers again to demonstrate why: Fully uncompressed 4K video with 12-bit color would require 7,166Mbps of bandwidth. That’s 7,166,361,600 bits per second. UHD Blu-ray is capable of bitrates up to 128Mbps. Better streaming services these days max out at somewhere around 30Mbps.

 

Let those numbers sink in. What you’re telling me is that you’re seeing a world of difference between 30Mbps and 128Mbps, but no real difference between 128Mbps and 7,166Mbps? Something doesn’t add up there.

 

But . . .

Hang on a second—I’m not done. I recently ran two single-blind tests. In one, I was the subject, and I tried my absolute best to spot any meaningful differences between the Vudu stream and the UHD Blu-ray of one of my favorite films. Not only could I not spot any meaningful differences—I couldn’t tell them apart!

 

In the second test, I had my hands on the remote and switched back and forth between the Apple TV+ stream of a popular ‘80s film, recently remastered in 4K, and the disc-equivalent version thereof. I asked two guinea pigs to identify which was which and tell me how they knew. Both consistently picked Version A over Version B, explaining that A had a more organic

Reference-Quality Movies
on Streaming

Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)

“HBO Max’s presentation is further evidence of just how good streaming has gotten in recent years. On Roku Ultra, at least, the Dolby Vision presentation is absolutely reference-quality home theater demo material. What flaws there are in the imagery can’t be pinned on the high-efficiency streaming encode, at any rate.”

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

“If there are any significant shortcomings in Apple’s encoding of the film, aside from perhaps that bit of noisy smoke in the intro, I can’t see them. The bottom line is that the iTunes version in Dolby Vision makes the previous Blu-ray release look like hot garbage in every respect.”

Black Widow (2021)
DISNEY+ | BLACK WIDOW

“[Black Widow‘s] presentation on Disney+ far surpasses the quality of any commercial cinema I could reasonably reach in a half-day’s drive. . . . Fine detail abounds, not merely in closeups but also in long shots. Colors are gorgeous and the high dynamic range is employed spectacularly.”

Life in Color (2021)
NETFLIX | LIFE IN COLOR

“There’s one shot, in which a peacock bristles its plume in slow motion, that’s such a kaleidoscope of fine detail that I would expect it to be riddled with some digital ookiness even at 100 mbps. And yet, with my nose on my screen, I couldn’t see any of the telltale signs of HEVC reaching its breaking point. I can only assume Netflix recently adopted a new encoder because otherwise I just cannot make sense of why this imagery looks this pristine.”

Lucas (2021)
DISNEY+ | LUCA

“One thing you can’t fault Pixar on is the technical presentation, as Luca just looks gorgeous. I watched it the first time on my 4K projector in HDR10 and then again on a new Sony OLED in Dolby Vision, and the colors are just straight-up eye candy throughout.”

Soul (2020)
DISNEY+ | SOUL

“Image quality is fantastic and reference-quality throughout, with Soul being beautiful and just pleasing to look at.”

grain structure, better detail, more lifelike colors, less digital noise, and a generally more film-like look—although they admitted that Version B looked fantastic, and they would be perfectly happy with it if they hadn’t been looking at such a direct comparison.

 

Neither believed me when I revealed that Version A was the low-bandwidth streaming version until I backed out of the film and showed them the user interfaces of each source.

 

But Dennis, you’re watching on a 75-inch TV, which is fine for streaming. But on my massive projection screen, even Disney+ simply isn’t good enough.

This is another argument that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Screen size, in and of itself, doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t.

 

What matters is the relationship between screen size and your seating distance. In my media room, my wife and I sit roughly 6.5 feet from our 75-inch display. That means our TV takes up 45.5 degrees of our horizontal field of view. That’s roughly equivalent to sitting about a third of the way back from the screen in a THX-certified commercial cinema.

 

If you’re sitting 12 feet from a 10-foot projection screen, guess what? The image is only taking up about 39.9 degrees of your field of view, which would put you smack dab in the middle row of your local THX cinema auditorium. So my 75-inch TV is “bigger” than your 120-inch projection screen, as far as our eyes are concerned.

 

Of course, I have to give the necessary caveats: My media room setup is only good for two people—three if we’re really cozy—if we all want an ideal viewing experience. If I wanted to invite more friends or family over for movie night, I would need a larger screen and would need to sit farther from it. But that’s not the argument I’m making. We need to stop prattling on about screen size as if it’s all that matters. If Netflix is good enough for my 75-inch TV from 6.5 feet away, it’s good enough for your 10-foot screen from 12 feet away.

 

But if I pause my Apple TV . . .

Wait. Stop. Let me cut you off right there, because there are two problems baked into that truncated retort.

 

Video codecs like HEVC aren’t designed the way single-image compression codecs like JPEG are. HEVC relies on both intra-frame and inter-frame compression, and as such it’s intended to be scrutinized in motion. Yes, if you pause the image and compare a high-efficiency stream to a higher-bandwidth encode of the sort you would find on UHD Blu-ray, the backgrounds in the streaming version may not look as fully resolved. Fine textures may suffer a bit. There may be some color banding in a still frame that won’t be apparent in a picture running at 24 frames per second. So, if you’re interested in watching your films one frame at a time, streaming probably doesn’t suit your purposes.

 

The second problem is with the Apple TV. I’m sorry, but it’s simply not a high-quality video-playback device. That’s somewhat ironic since Apple 

TV+ is one of the best-quality streaming video services out there. It’s capable of truly reference-quality playback—but, oddly enough, not via Apple’s own hardware, in my experience. If you want to see what streaming is truly capable of, you need either a Roku Ultra or Nvidia Shield, both of which deliver video performance far better than the Apple TV 4K. (I generally opt for Roku since its integration with high-end automation systems is vastly superior.) Some higher-end smart TVs also do a fine job with streaming, but most don’t.

 

OK, fine, maybe the picture quality is good enough,
but streaming sound sucks!

I mean, sure, if you want to argue with science, go ahead. Extensive testing performed by both Netflix and Dolby Labs has demonstrated that Dolby Digital+, the audio codec employed by most streaming video services, is perceptually transparent at 640kbps. You know what audio bitrate Netflix and Disney+ use for Atmos? 768kbps.

 

The problem here isn’t bitrates. It’s sound levels. I’ve done extensive A/B testing between streaming and disc-based versions of the same films, and not once have I found the two to be mixed to the same levels. Streaming audio is generally anywhere between 1dB and 4.5dB quieter than the disc version or its equivalent. There are exceptions, but that’s a good general rule in my experience. 

 

The thing is, it’s nearly impossible to compare the audio quality of two audio sources that differ that much in terms of loudness levels. For scientific A/B testing, levels between two sources are usually matched to within 0.1dB. Is that overkill? Probably. 

But when you get to differences as much as 1dB or more, the louder sample will almost always be perceived as richer, better tonally balanced, with more robust bass—even if the listener can’t identify it as being the louder of the two samples.

 

Again, I want to be completely clear 

The Arguments Against Streaming Just Don’t Cut It Anymore

here: I’m not arguing that there’s no merit to lossless audio codecs like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. If you have the bandwidth for lossless audio—as do discs and high-bitrate downloads—then, of course, go with the bit-perfect delivery mechanism. I’m simply saying that if you think Netflix or Disney+ or Vudu or Apple TV+ audio is perceptually inferior, you can’t possibly make that assessment unless you level match them perfectly.

 

The same goes for video. If you have the space for 128Mbps, why wouldn’t you make use of that space? I’m not saying higher bitrates are bad. I’m simply saying that, beyond a certain point, they’re largely unnecessary.

 

But I watched X movie on X streaming service
and it looked/sounded terrible!

That’s probably valid. I’m not saying streaming is perfect, and I’m certainly not saying that all streaming services are built equally. I’m merely saying that most arguments against streaming as a legitimate source of luxury home-cinema content are invalid.

 

I desperately want to subscribe to The Criterion Channel since their catalog appeals to me more than words could convey. But every time I dip in and sign up for a month, I’m let down by their reliance on outdated video codecs and insufficient audio bitrates, and quickly cancel again. When I claim more bits don’t necessarily equal better quality, there is of course a limit to that. The Criterion Channel streams its audio soundtracks at 256kbps, which is a little over a third of the bandwidth necessary to deliver truly transparent audio quality.

 

And in terms of video, a lot of streaming HD still looks pretty bad by comparison, largely because many services still use AVC for 1080p video. There are exceptions. Disney+ does a great job with HD—so does HBO Max; and although Amazon used to be the worst in terms of 1080p streaming, its HD stuff is starting to look entirely acceptable.

 

So, again, I’m not saying streaming always looks and sounds as good as discs or full-bitrate downloads. But at its best, streaming is fully capable of delivering a home cinema experience that’s perceptually indistinguishable from physical formats or their bitrate equivalents.

 

And as we move into the future, that’s only going to become truer. UHD Blu-ray is almost certainly the last optical media format with any sort of mass appeal. As far as discs are concerned, HEVC is as good as it gets for video compression. But over the next five years or so, we’re going to see codecs developed for the streaming domain that make HEVC look as archaic as MPEG-2 looks now—codecs that deliver reference-quality 4K video at bitrates in the neighborhood of 3 or 4 Mbps.

 

Long story short, streaming is where all of the meaningful innovation is happening in terms of digital video. I’m not saying you have to like that fact. But maybe, just maybe, you should stop pooh-poohing it.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Movies to Deny Reality By

Movies to Deny Reality By

I was recently at a dinner party where most of the other guests were in their late twenties and early thirties. Halfway through the evening, the conversation turned, with an odd inevitability, to psychopharmacology, with everyone at the table jockeying for bragging rights based on how successfully they were being sedated.

 

Status was determined, in part, based on your success at straddling submission and resistance—admitting you needed the drug, but asserting your individuality by never quite taking the full dose or exactly following the doctor’s instructions. There were many tales of people bravely trying to ween themselves from their dependencies. Funny thing is, no one had ever completely made it there.

 

Pot then reared its head. All involved indulged in weed on top of their stupor-inducing medications; nobody seemed to have a problem spending their existences constantly holding the world at arm’s length—or farther. Another refrain—seemingly unrelated, but actually very much joined at the hip—was that they were all in some way victims engaged in a heroic struggle against some nebulous form of The Man—that their underdog status somehow made them powerful—missing the irony that they all undeniably derived solace from their subservience to authority figures.

 

There’s so much I could say about this, but, at its heart, it’s no different than all the elaborate bragging, insecurity, and denial that used to be associated with cigarettes. Massive industries push essentially oppressive products with steep downsides by

Movies to Deny Reality By

suggesting they’re romantic (i.e., cool) and (feeding off that most corrosive of contemporary fads) empowering, and the sheep bleat in unison having been convinced they won’t be complete without them.

 

The big difference is that all cigarettes can do is kill you—they can’t steal your soul.

I realized as the AA-like confessionals wore on that this was my missing link, the thing I’d been searching for to explain the appalling current state of the movies. Simply put, movies are now created for an audience in a trance, with the purpose of jolting them out of their stupors but in a way that always safely returns them to the sleep of reason at the end, their heads full of empty dreams of power, without ever even hinting that there’s a larger, more complex, nuanced, and ultimately more satisfying reality to explore.

 

It explains the blind addiction to fantasy, to action films, to pornographic levels of violence, to horror comedy—which is becoming all comedy, the giggly adolescent fascination with obscenities, the infantile scatological fixation, wall-to-wall sarcasm, the obsession with constant cutting, shock edits, pounding noise—wrecks, and crashes, and other destruction, zombie films and the graphic portrayal of the degradation and annihilation of the body, the masochistic fetishization of darkness, the mad embrace of fascist armoring, weaponization, and fictions of unbridled power, of vengeance, killing sprees, and torture. The rabid, numbing list goes on and on. These aren’t movies—they’re shock generators, not dissimilar from the notorious “Danger: Extreme Shock” machine at the center of the singularly defining Milgram experiment. 

 

But all of this way predates Milgram and his attempts to fathom the Nazi within us all. The parallels with Plato’s cave are inevitable. It’s been all but a given of society since Altamira that, presented with the choice between pretty pictures and 

reality, most people will opt for vague shadows that lose all meaning the second somebody snuffs out the light. The big difference is that there’s nothing remotely pretty about contemporary films, which tend to be relentlessly and sadistically nasty and brutish—but, sadly, not short.

 

We’ve allowed ourselves to be yoked 

Movies to Deny Reality By

to a cinema fit only for inhuman consumption, for keeping the emergent generations of pod people both quiescent and sated. Inherently desensitizing and degrading, the movies have become an assault on any meaningful sense of individual self. Finding something worth watching, in the human sense, has become like tip-toeing through a minefield where practically every square inch of turf is primed to go off.

 

But what if you haven’t bought into the lie that there’s power in being pummeled, if you happen to believe aggressive action should be deployed only rarely, judiciously, and as a last resort, that life is meant to be something more than constant bloodsport and a dehumanizing feeding frenzy? That there’s something to be said for restraint, sensitivity, and, yes, wit?

 

Society still needs canaries—in fact, those cheeping sentinels are perched at the very tipping point of the culture, their piffling weight the only thing keeping us from slipping completely into the corporately engineered, politically sanctioned nihilistic void. But they’re now being snuffed out almost as fast as they come into existence. The day the last one keels over will be the day the wheels come off for good. 

 

I’d like to believe we can do better than this, that we’re still, in core and meaningful ways, somehow better than the selves we see reflected on our screens, the crude and dispensable beings we’re defined as in pop culture. But, as with the canaries, with each day the evidence of those better selves becomes harder and harder to discern and the vile, blind phantasms take on more palpable form. 

 

Just because this is what they want to serve us doesn’t mean we have to accept it. Unthinkingly lapping up manipulative fictions, we’re eating ourselves alive.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

The Last Blu-ray Disc

The Last Blu-ray Disc

I had a bit of an epiphany this week. In case you haven’t heard, the long-awaited 4K HDR home video release of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is upon us. It’s available now on Kaleidescape and iTunes. It hits UHD Blu-ray and Vudu on July 6. 

 

The choice of where and how to purchase this one weighed way more heavily on me than any movie-buying decision should, if I’m being honest about it. Ultimately, I decided on the UHD disc for a handful of reasons. For one thing, the disc comes with a MoviesAnywhere code, so I’ll have access to a high-quality digital stream no matter where I am. 

 

But perhaps more importantly, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of those movies I occasionally need access to no matter the circumstances. I’m not saying it’s my favorite film or anything. I’m not saying I think it’s even the best of its decade. I’m merely saying that there is a handful of movies—this being one of them—I turn to for a pick-me-up when nothing else is doing the

trick. The unique, quirky jubilance of this ironically ironic comic-book adaptation just makes me happy in a way few other movies do.

 

And sometimes I need that fix even when the internet is down (especially when the internet is down!). Or when I’m sick in bed, three rooms removed from my Kaleidescape system. And the only way to fill that specific need is with a good old disc-shaped polycarbonate sandwich.

 

But something occurred to me as I was adding Scott Pilgrim to my Amazon shopping cart: I think this may be the last of that sort of movie ] I don’t already own in physical form. I 

bought the big 27-disc Star Wars UHD Blu-ray collection when it came out, and I swore that would be my last movie disc purchase. Then The Lord of the Rings came along and proved me wrong. I have The Wizard of Oz on 4K disc. The Big Lebowski too.

 

If I bothered to sit down and make a list of all the movies I could potentially find myself needing to watch even in the throes of an internet outage or a period of convalescence, I’m starting to think Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the only bullet-point on the list that doesn’t already exist in disc form on the shelves of my media room.

 

And, hey, I reserve the right to change my mind. It’s entirely possible some filmmaker will come along in the next few years and make a movie that scratches a similar itch, as unlikely as that seems given that I’m approaching the age where people stop liking new things. For now, though, I’m feeling pretty confident July 6, 2021 will mark the end of an era for me. That date will (probably) be the final time I purchase a movie on disc.

 

It’s weird. That’s realization feels simultaneously momentous and inconsequential.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Black Widow (2021)
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Life in Color (2021)
Luca (2021)
Sweet Tooth (2021)
The Cineluxe Hour

EPISODE 20 | THE STATE OF THE STREAMING ART

Demo Scenes: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Demo Scene: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
(Chapter 1, 0:00–14:12)

If you’re a fan of old movies, you’ve probably figured out by now that 4K HDR can be a hit-or-miss affair for films actually shot on, you know, film. Without access to the original camera negatives, HDR remasters of these old flicks can look dodgy and inconsistent—often worse than the old HD releases. Thankfully, though, the new Indiana Jones trilogy (yes, trilogy!—I said

what I said) is an example of older films being brought into the modern home video era with stunning success.

 

All of the films have been fully restored from the original negatives, with subtle applications of computer wizardry just to clean up things like bad compositing and wires and errant reflections. And each successive film looks better than the one before it.

 

Here’s the thing, though: If you’re looking to pop in some archeological action-adventure as a home cinema demo scene, finding a self-contained clip within the movies isn’t easy. Once the ball starts rolling (literally and figuratively), the action just keeps cranking along until the closing credits.

 

But one of the most spectacular demo scenes comes right at the beginning of the third movie, The Last Crusade. It’s basically a self-contained short film with an inviting beginning, rousing climax, and rip-roaring conclusion, all within a span of 14 minutes. It’s also some of the consistently best-looking and -sounding material in the entire franchise.

 

The scene opens in 1912, with a young Indiana Jones (played by River Phoenix) riding through the Utah desert with his Boy Scout troop, when he stumbles upon grave robbers and manages to abscond with the precious artifact they’ve stolen. There’s a thrilling chase on a circus train. There’s a pit of snakes. There’s a lion. Then there’s a flash-forward to 1938, where a grown Indiana (Harrison Ford) is yet again trying to get his paws on the same crucifix. 

You’ve seen the movie. You know how it goes. But here’s the thing: I don’t think you’ve ever seen it look (or sound) like this. Compared to the old Blu-ray release and digital HD version, this new 4K HDR remaster of The Last Crusade doesn’t look like an oversaturated cartoon. The color palette is more subdued, but also richer, more nuanced, more natural. Still, it’s punctuated by splashes of color far beyond the capabilities of Blu-ray. Indy’s scarf, the rich saturated colors of the illumination his father is studying—these hyper-color elements give the imagery the punctation it needs to look vibrant and dimensional without looking like a toddler got ahold of the Hue and Saturation knobs of your projector.

Demo Scene: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The new Atmos mix is also simply fantastic, especially in the 1938 sequences, where Indy has been captured on a vessel at sea in the midst of a raging storm. The crashing waves, the whooshing wind—all of it is given extra dimension by the new mix. It feels like you’re in the movie. Hell, it kind of feels like you’re in a theme-park ride, but that works for this franchise. The fact that they managed to add a third dimension to this aging mix without adding new sound effects is astounding. It doesn’t sound like a modern film—that would be stupid. But it does kind of sound like Atmos would have sounded like if it had been around in the 1980s. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Ep. 20: The State of the Streaming Art

The Cineluxe Hour logo

Mike, Dennis, and John look at how far the streaming world has come from the Game of Thrones disaster two years ago, with HBO Max now offering reference-quality video—a standard more and more services are now able to meet. They also consider whether the affordable day & date model the studios adopted during the pandemic is likely to last, the problem of subscription overload, and wonder why Hollywood even bothered with the Oscars this year.

 

Highlights

 

  1:39   a brief description of the progression from Game of Thrones‘ lousy video to the reference-quality images in              Those Who Wish Me Dead

  2:38   streaming codecs can now handle chaotic images, like of a forest fire, without distortion

  4:24   the paucity of 4K HDR titles on HBO Max

  5:14   the increasing number of streaming services capable of reference-quality playback

  5:53   how even HD now looks better on Netflix and Disney+

  7:16   Amazon and The Criterion Channel need to improve their HD playback

10:11   how streaming quality is determined by the quality of both the service and the hardware

10:30   Roku vs. Nvidia Shield vs. Apple TV vs. TV apps

11:20   John expresses concerns about streaming’s audio quality

13:04   Dennis discusses Dolby Labs’ tests that show streaming is capable of reference-quality audio

14:04   Apple TV+ vs. Disney+ vs. Netflix vs. HBO Max vs. Amazon vs. Hulu vs. The Criterion Channel

16:12   will streaming soon become the only home-video format?

19:12   the increasing problem of too many subscriptions

21:31   Sony distributing its films on Netflix and elsewhere instead of setting up its own channel

25:05   will streaming continue to do day & date or will big movies go back to debuting in theaters first?

29:21   will the strength of streaming coming out of the pandemic doom movie theaters?

33:20   was there any real value in doing the Oscars during the year of a pandemic?

34:33   the Oscars don’t adequately take streaming into account, especially streaming series

39:30   John talks about the promise of Sony’s new Bravia Core streaming service 

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CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MORE EPISODES OF THE CINELUXE HOUR

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

HBO Atones for Its Streaming Sins

HBO Atones For Its Streaming Sins

It may seem like eons ago (and hey, maybe we can blame the pandemic and its time-warping effect for that), but it’s only been a little over two years now since the entirety of the entertainment press was consumed with discussions about HBO’s inability to effectively stream its most popular show in anything approaching acceptable quality. Reliance on older, inefficient streaming codecs combined with insufficient server capacity made the Game of Thrones episode “The Long Night” an unwatchable nightmare of lackluster contrasts, blocky artifacts, and excessive banding for many viewers—especially those

tuning in on HBO Go or HBO Now, the company’s streaming apps du jour. And that’s all the ammunition the “Streaming sucks!” crowd needed to continue their crusade against the future of video content delivery.

 

Fast-forward to 2021, and both Go and Now have been shelved in favor of HBO Max, a newer platform that’s home to all manner of WarnerMedia content, not merely its premium-cable offerings. But perhaps the most significant side effect of all this app shuffling is that HBO seems to have finally gotten its act together in terms of streaming video quality.

 

This really hit home for me when I was watching the theater-at-home release of Those Who Wish Me Dead. Not to dig too deeply into the substance of the movie (what little there is), but the TL;DR version is that it involves a political hit-job and manhunt that’s all an overly elaborate setup for a heart-pounding chase sequence in the middle of an out-of-control wildfire in the Montana wilderness.

 

Right near the action-packed climax, a stray thought struck me and I couldn’t let it go: This movie must be absolute nightmare fuel for a video encoder. Even with the benefit of 4K Dolby Vision, there’s so much going on in the picture that maintaining the intense contrasts of a fire raging through a forest at night and rendering all of the detail from the soot and sparks blowing in the air couldn’t have been easy. What’s more, many scenes were shot with relatively shallow depth of field, which can be tricky for even the best video codecs to handle consistently. 

 

As soon as I glommed onto all that, the question for me wasn’t whether there were compression artifacts. It was how close I would have to get to the screen to see them. So I stood up and walked about half the distance from my seat to my screen. The image still looked incredible. So I took another step and halved the distance again. I still couldn’t see any of the telltale signs of video compression.

 

To make a long story short, in complete defiance of Zeno, I eventually ended up with my nose practically on the screen, and I still couldn’t see the glitches and misplaced pixels and posterization that result from HEVC (the video codec used for 4K HDR video material) reaching its breaking point.

 

Mind you, HBO Max still doesn’t have a lot in the way of Dolby Vision content to stream. Most of its offerings are in HD (despite the fact that 4K HDR masters exist, many of which have been released on UHD Blu-ray), and by and 

large the service still relies on the same AVC video codec that caused all the problems with Game of Thrones. True, it’s operating at around 2.5 to 3 times the bitrate of HBO Go and HBO Now, proving that WarnerMedia has decided to invest a bit more in server storage. The result, though, is that much of what you’ll find on HBO Max looks very good, but not quite reference quality.

 

But Those Who Wish Me Dead proves that HBO Max is at least capable of delivering a practically flawless home cinema experience. The company whose name was, just a few years ago, synonymous with the nadir of video quality has now proven it can deliver a level of visual excellence matched by perhaps 200 cinema screens worldwide, at last count.

 

That’s assuming, of course, you have an AV system capable of delivering on such quality. Most people don’t. It’s also assuming you’re doing your streaming via a high-quality source device. Most people don’t. 

 

But still, my recent experiences with HBO Max—for all my complaints about their abysmal user interface and lackluster search tools—proves the company that was once the laughingstock of the streaming world now at least has the potential to deliver video quality that’s a massive step up from the average screen at your local multiplex. And if nothing else, that shows just how far streaming has come, even in the past two years alone.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The 75-Inch Revolution

The 75-Inch Revolution

I’m going to mention some things here that are probably pretty obvious to anyone who hasn’t spent the past couple of years wandering the Himalayas with their sherpa. But beyond those more commonplace facts lies a larger truth—that in just the past couple of years home entertainment has changed in ways that go well beyond even the unbridled crowing of the most rah-rah marketing hype.

 

No matter where you live, it’s impossible to ignore that the new entry level for TVs is 75 inches. Even if that screen size is way too big for many people’s homes, it’s still the size they hunger for. And sets like that have become readily affordable, making 42-inch sets seem as quaint as 19-inch screens seemed at the dawn of the HDTV era.

 

Here’s the more important point: Many of those models can provide reference-quality image reproduction, even toward the lower end of the price spectrum. This has never happened before. We are rapidly reaching a point where a good chunk of the 

An unprecedented number
of people now have video
displays that can beat the
previous gold standard of
the movie theater

American populace has sets that can create a better-than-movie-theater experience at home. And with relative ease. And for a relatively small investment.

 

But . . .

 

Just because somebody’s set is capable of that kind of performance doesn’t mean they have it set up to take 

advantage of that, or they even know their set can do that. And it doesn’t mean they have it placed properly in the room or even have it in an appropriate room—chances are, they don’t. It also doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of their system is up to snuff—again, it’s probably not.

 

But one thing that’s more than likely true is that many of them also have at least one signal source that’s capable of besting their local movie theater. That has also never happened before. Streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, and HBO Max are reaching the point where only trained viewers can perceive differences from reference-quality playback. And even that gap is closing rapidly.

 

So, an unprecedented number of people now have displays that can beat the increasingly irrelevant gold standard of the movie theater. And an unprecedented number now have access to content delivery that also exceeds that standard.

Again, that doesn’t mean they have their systems set up to take advantage of that, but the potential is there nonetheless.

 

So what does this all mean, and what does it portend?

 

First off, to take aim squarely at the gorilla in the room: Why the hell do we continue to think we need movie theaters? If 

Just because reference quality
has gone mass market
doesn’t mean there’s nothing
left for the luxury market
to call its own

your system can do it better, and you don’t have to drive there, and your investment in every evening of movie-watching doesn’t have to hover near $100 (at a minimum), and first-run content is showing up day & date on streaming, and you don’t have to watch ads if you don’t want to, and you can instantly switch to another film if your first choice sucks, and you’ve got the option of taking anybody who talks during the movie and locking them up in the basement, why would you think of theaters as anything other than the quaint, and mostly unpleasant, relics they are?

 

Second, things will inevitably get better from here. As more people become aware of what their systems can do, it can only lead to better viewing environments, better gear for those environments, and even better content being pumped into those environments. If there’s a downside to any of this, I’m not seeing it. (The whole “movies have to be a communal experience” argument is usually promulgated by Hollywood types who haven’t sullied themselves with The Great Unwashed in years, if ever.)

 

But just because reference quality has gone mass market doesn’t mean there’s nothing left for the luxury market to call its own. The list is long, but just to tick off a few things: Video walls will remain hugely expensive for the foreseeable future, but represent all but unexplored territory in the home environment. It takes a custom-designed, -built, and -tuned room to consistently have a reference-quality experience. Nobody’s figured out how to commodify that, and chances are no one ever will. And good luck trying to integrate a full-blown Atmos system into a typical middle-American living room without having it look like a CIA black site.

 

You get the point. It’s great that better-than-movie-theater is becoming as common as Kleenex. But not all rooms or systems—or viewers—are created equal. 

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die

I seem to have misplaced that well-worn piece of cardboard with the pinhole in it that I usually keep by my side. But from my very oblique vantage point, it looks like Joel Hodgson is once again suckering the legions of Mystery Science Theater 3000 addicts to pony up money to create another round of episodes nobody needs except those pathetic and ridiculous lost souls who are content to spend the rest of their lives hermetically sealed in an echo chamber. If Hodgson has proved nothing else, it’s that people will greedily lap up large, fetid piles of horse dung as long as they’ve got the MST3K logo stamped on them.

 

Of course, he’s far from alone. Sometimes the entire culture feels like an exercise in keeping franchises on life support that should have been left to die a quiet death a long, long time ago. 

 

For those of you who don’t know, a few years back, Hodgson & associates staged the most successful Kickstarter campaign until that time to get a season of new MST3K episodes made. The shows, which ultimately landed on Netflix, were awful—terribly cast, lazily made, fundamentally unappealing. But the greatest sin of all was that, for all the money thrown at them, they just weren’t funny. Netflix fulfilled its obligation but, even though they’ll apparently re-up for just about any series this side of video of my uncle taking a nap, they decided to take a pass on another season.

 

But that apparently wasn’t good enough for the MST3K cult, which is now throwing a few million dollars more at creating another set of episodes that only they’ll watch. Of course anybody should be free to put out whatever kind of stiflingly unfunny self-congratulatory twaddle they want as long as there’s an audience for it, no matter how wretched and small. But MST3K once had some worth, and it’s kind of sad to watch Hodgson and friends and hangers-on continue to beat this particular pantomime horse well past the point of death and into dust.

 

Stop. Now. Please.

 

For those of you who really don’t know, MST3K was one of the few truly innovative TV series, a kind of stealth operation originally broadcast out of a UHF station in far-flung Minnesota. At its best, it brought a self-awareness of the mechanics and culture of TV- and moviemaking that had been absent from TV until then. And in the Hodgson era, it had a kind of dopey warmth that made it endearing.

 

The show only became successful because its initial small group of fans started sending around VHS tapes of the episodes, building a kind of clandestine viewership that, as mainstream TV began to fracture, developed a clout that would have been unimaginable in the era of the big networks. Unfortunately, that nerdy zeal, which had been one of the show’s strengths, has since become its curse.

 

To be really blunt, and cut straight to the chase, American culture has become fundamentally bankrupt, and it’s not hard to put a name on the cause: Narcissism. The best way to keep people from coming together for the common good is to appeal to their most selfish instincts, to create the illusion they’re being catered to in ways that inflate their sense of self-importance. I would be hardpressed to name an aspect of the contemporary world that doesn’t in some way exploit that inherently repressive divide-and-conquer strategy. And we all fall victim to it because we’ve all been trained to endlessly love ourselves, and no one else.

 

But it’s all just a stultifying exercise in exploitation. We think we’re being entertained but we’re ultimately just being played—a catch that always comes with the territory whenever you’re talking about franchises, which exist primarily to perpetuate their own existence and will do whatever they have to to survive. Actually pleasing any viewers runs a distant second.

 

Nerd culture, which stands quivering on the foundation of franchises, has been the death knell of entertainment. The tail of stunted emotional development now wags the dog of the larger culture, which no longer displays any nuance, maturity, or meaningful creativity but goes out of its way to pander in an effort (largely successful) to foster blind addiction. The frightening cycle of dependency embodied in MST3K is just the larger culture writ very, very small.

 

Mystery Science Theater 3000 has never been, and never will be, any better than it was in its earliest days when it was funny and new, and funny because it was new. It has since become another cornerstone of pop culture that exists solely to divert those terrified of the new, to be not funny but familiar. We need to begin breaking our addiction to the tried and true and deadening sometime. This would seem like the perfect place to start.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Disney+ Needs to Break Its Own Rules

Disney+ Needs to Break Its Own Rules

Throughout March and April, Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier positively dominated the pop-culture conversation. You might have noticed that we at Cineluxe weren’t part of that conversation, but that doesn’t really have much to do with the series itself. It’s a fine show—far from Marvel’s best work, but also far from its worst. The series deals with a lot of big ideas, and although it doesn’t give them all the thorough examination they deserve, it’s still a pretty solid continuation of the Captain America films just without the benefit of Steve Rogers, who hung up the shield at the end of Avengers: Endgame. 

 

So, why the radio silence? Because a discussion of what did and didn’t work about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in and of itself would sort of miss the point. Anyone who tells you they could really wrap their heads around the show before it was available to view in its entirety is lying. The biggest thing holding the series back was that it simply doesn’t hold up as weekly 

appointment television.

 

I’ve riffed on this subject in the past, about how Disney+ represented something of a revival of “water cooler” TV—how its weekly release schedule gave new shows some breathing room, and gave audiences an opportunity to discuss new episodes one at a time in chat rooms, message boards, and around the dinner table. 

 

That really worked to the advantage of the first two seasons of The Mandalorian, and it was practically baked into the premise of WandaVision. Of course, it wasn’t merely a creative decision to release those shows one episode at a

time over the course of a couple of months; it was a necessity, given that neither’s season finale was finished cooking when the first episode hit the table.

 

Forget the reasons for this anti-binging release strategy, though. The fact is that it works—except when it doesn’t. And The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the perfect example of how a “this is the way we do things” mentality and a dogged adherence to tradition (no matter how new that tradition may be) can hurt a property.

 

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is, at the end of the day, a pretty good five-hour-plus movie. And given its length, it’s nice to have it broken up into six chapters so you can consume it at your own pace over the course of a night or two or an entire week—whichever fits your schedule. But given that it’s effectively one cinematic experience chopped into six roughly equal parts, doling it out over a month and a half of real-world time reminded me of Bilbo Baggins’ famous quote from The Fellowship of the Ring: It feels thin . . . sort of stretched . . . like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.

 

When Disney+ launched, the weekly release schedules were part of its still-forming identity. At this point, though, its identity is pretty well established. It surpassed 100 million subscribers sometime last month. Soon enough, its subscriber base will eclipse that of Netflix (although I hesitate to predict when, since analysts keep moving the goalposts and Disney+ continues to defy their wildest expectations for growth). 

 

At this point, you have to acknowledge that Disney+ is, if not the leader in streaming, at least a leader. Good leaders adapt, though. They have a good sense of what works and what doesn’t. And while the appointment-TV approach certainly works for most of the service’s properties so far, we now have at least one example of every-Friday releases negatively impacting a show’s effectiveness.

 

There was literally no good creative reason to tease out The Falcon and the Winter Soldier over the course of six weeks. Six days, maybe? That could have worked. And the entertainment-industry headlines would have written themselves: “Disney+ Brings Back the Mini-Series with Special Falcon & Winter Soldier Event.”  

 

Disney+ has broken nearly every rule of the streaming marketplace. Surely it can break this rule when it makes sense, even if the rule is its own.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.