Netflix, arguably the most popular video streaming service in the world, is upping the game again. The company has announced that they are now bringing high quality audio to the content on the platform, and they claim it is “studio quality” sound. To not complicate matters with technical jargon, here is the simple description of how this will work—Netflix will be able to stream the new high-quality audio feed up to a maximum bitrate of 640 kbps for a 5.1 channel audio stream, and up to 768kbps for a Dolby Atmos mix. This means significantly better audio experience with the TV shows and movies that you stream, as long as you have a TV or an audio system capable of actually reproducing the extra details that Netflix will now be able to offer.
However, the crucial bit is perhaps the adaptive streaming feature, which will automatically keep adjusting the stream’s bitrate according to the internet speed on your broadband connection at that time. Till now, the bitrate for the audio stream on a Netflix TV show or movie was determined by the internet speed at the time you started the playback of whatever it is that you were watching. This meant you had access to a static bitrate. In fact, there was no option to adjust the audio quality manually, in case you wanted to increase or decrease the audio stream quality for whatever reason. Occasionally, that meant you could run into one of these two problems—either you were forced to listen to lower quality audio even if your internet bandwidth increased in the meantime, or you started out with a better bitrate initially but struggled with buffering videos if the internet speeds reduced at some point.
While Netflix will now alter the audio bitrate according to your internet speed at regular intervals, the company confirms that it can now go as low as 192 kbps to prevent the annoyance of buffering videos if the internet speeds are lower than expected.
The reason for being able to do this is purely with how Netflix is now treating audio as data, more importantly, as smaller chunks of this data. Each of these chunks carries a few seconds worth of audio, and the adaptive streaming engine works constantly to decide the quality of your internet connection and then sources the next chunk of audio accordingly. The idea is to not have a pause in the audio, to not have the video buffer and also to not saddle you with lower quality audio when the internet bandwidth may be able to handle better audio streams. Netflix does say that they believe these algorithms will improve significantly over time.
That brings us to the question of “studio quality” sound. Netflix themselves claim that a typical studio recording is usually done at 48KHz and is 24-bit audio with bitrate of about 1 Mbps per channel. However, they say, “Our high-quality sound feature is not lossless, but it is perceptually transparent. That means that while the audio is compressed, it is indistinguishable from the original source. Based on internal listening tests, listening test results provided by Dolby, and scientific studies, we determined that for Dolby Digital Plus at and above 640 kbps, the audio coding quality is perceptually transparent.” They assert that if they are to send audio to your TV higher than 640 kbps, it would purely take up more bandwidth and not necessarily enhance the viewing experience.
Netflix has also updated the Dolby Atmos audio quality. The highest it can now go to is 768 kbps.
The audio experience that you now get with the visual treat that is a standard fare of watching content on Netflix will significantly depend on the audio hardware between you and Netflix. Whether these are the TVs built-in speakers or a soundbar or a full-fledged home theatre system that you may have hooked up to your TV or projector, they need to be able to play back the higher quality audio streams and the accompanying sparkle of details.
This latest upgrade for Netflix comes just after it has reported a strong start to the year, putting it in a great position to tackle the current rivals such as Amazon Video, Hulu, HBO Now and Hotstar as well as the upcoming challenges from streaming services including Apple’s Apple TV+ and Disney’s Disney+.