Can iTunes HD Replace Blu-ray?

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I clearly remember the moment I knew I would never buy another physical CD and would buy all my music online. Since then, I’ve been waiting for the moment when I would know that I could buy all my movies online. In November, Apple announced that it was adding Disney movies in high definition to the iTunes Store. I’ve spent the last few months debating with myself if this heralded the end of buying physical media for movies.

In a word: No

In two words: Not Yet

Why I Buy Music from iTunes (and Amazon MP3)

For music, once iTunes Plus was the standard on the iTunes Store, I knew that I didn’t need to buy physical CD’s any more. All I was doing was ripping my music to 256kbps AAC or MP3 anyways, so why not just buy them that way? And album prices on iTunes were the same or lower than brick-and-mortar prices on CD’s. Take Amazon MP3 into account, and it was an easy decision to switch to digital purchases.

Why I Have Not Been Buying Movies from iTunes

Basically, it comes down to the stereo sound. I can’t stand the idea of not using my surround sound setup and massive subwoofer (it literally shakes my whole house…I love it). With lower picture quality and lame stereo sound, I was not tempted at all to get movies from iTunes. I did try a few 99 cent rentals and found that to be just fine, but my $9 Netflix membership gives me access to tons of streaming movies at the same quality.

Now that HD movies sport surround sound, I was anxious to compare some familiar titles where I could spot the difference in picture quality and audio.

Disney/Pixar Makes Great HD Material

I have kids at home and we are therefore obligated to pay our annual Disney tax to stock our home with family-friendly, candy-coated entertainment from our media overlords in Burbank, CA.  Some of the Pixar movies make great reference material to show off your home theater and I focused on these titles to compare the difference between iTunes SD & HD, DVD, Handbrake encodes, and Blu-ray.

Picture Quality

Let me say up front that the difference in picture quality between the various formats is clearly visible on a big screen. Blu-ray has the best picture quality and was correctly identified by all the members of my family in a simple visual test. The surprise for me is how close iTunes HD is to Blu-ray. I watched several scenes in Wall-E over and over again looking at the differences between the iTunes HD file and the Blu-ray Disc (BRD), particularly the first 10 minutes and the interior shots of the ship. The iTunes HD file was quite a bit better than what I expected and makes a serious case for choosing to buy content on iTunes.

For SD content, I watched Monsters, Inc. and compared the iTunes file (what Disney calls a Digital Copy) with a Handbrake 0.9.3 rip I made using the Apple TV preset (0.9.4, the current version, should produce similar quality output). The quality is almost identical although the Handbrake rip was slightly brighter. The quality is slightly below DVD, but so close that most people probably won’t notice.

For my money, the image quality is close enough on the iTunes HD files that I could be tempted to just buy them on iTunes. If you’re watching on a 42″ screen or smaller, the quality is probably indistinguishable.

Audio Quality

My Blu-ray player is configured to decode all the lossless audio formats and send 7.1 analog sound to my receiver. It works great. I was really concerned about the audio here because I would not buy anything with only a stereo track.

The audio on the iTunes HD movies is good enough to consider buying them. The difference between Dolby Digital and the lossless audio tracks is noticeable, but 5.1 surround sound is enough to get me over the bulk of my previous objections.

Convenience

Convenience is a big deal for me. I actually prefer having movies on my Apple TV because I don’t have to endure any forced advertising or trailers. I can just start the movie. I also like that my kids don’t have to handle the discs, avoiding the possibility of scratching them. Combined with the amazing Apple Remote iPhone app, the Apple TV is a great movie jukebox — even better than the 301 slot DVD changer I used to have.

Now that Extras are available with iTunes HD files, I think iTunes movies actually win on convenience, with one big caveat — you really need an Apple TV or a Mac mini media center connected to your big screen TV to appreciate them. A 27″ iMac would get pretty close on its own though.

Why Movies are Different than Music

I was a weekend musician for a large part of the 80’s and 90’s and I love music. I owned a SACD player because I loved hearing the subtle details in Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and the sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s fingers sliding across the strings in Texas Flood. But I only really enjoyed the difference when I was sitting in the “sweet spot” of my two-channel system with perfect stereo imaging. I couldn’t really appreciate the difference in the quality of the recordings between SACD and CD when I had music on in the background as I was working around the house. Music downloads are successful for the simple reason that convenience and quality are sufficient. The difference in quality does not bother people because you typically are not giving your full attention to the sound quality while jogging, working, eating, etc. and the convenience is king because no one is willing to get up and change a CD anymore.

Movies are different because you are planted in front of the screen for about two hours and typically devote your full attention to the film while watching it. This makes all the difference in comparing incremental differences in the quality of Blu-ray and iTunes HD. If I’m going to give my full attention to something for two hours, I want the best quality. I would be tempted by the convenience of iTunes downloads, but at the same price point, I just want the best quality.

What Would It Take for Me to Buy iTunes Movies?

Lower prices. The quality is fine for the movies that I watched. But at the same price point, I’ll take the Blu-ray and deal with putting the disc in the changer and the possibility that my kids might scratch them. If I really want the movie to be easy to get to for my kids, I’ll make my own encode and put it on my Apple TV anyways.

I would say 1080p or higher bitrate to bring the video quality closer to Blu-ray, but 10GB (or higher) downloads seem unrealistic at this point. Maybe someday that comment will seem shortsighted when we all have fiber to the home, but for now I think the best compromise is to get $5 and $10 movies from iTunes and $15-25 discs in the store.

What about you? Is iTunes HD enough for you in terms of quality/convenience? If not, what would it take?

Equipment Used: I compared the files using an Apple TV (3.0) and a Pioneer BDP-51FD connected to a calibrated 57″ Sony KP-57HW40 with a Denon surround receiver with 5.1 speakers (Infinity L+R powered full-range towers, 3-way center, bookshelf surrounds + SVS 20-39PC subwoofer).

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Who Wins When Movies Are Available Everywhere?

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