Dreams of 4K HDR are fading into 1080p realities

A year ago, I criticized Netflix for gatekeeping their highest quality video and audio content behind a premium tier. Max, Prime Video, and Disney Plus have since added similar pricing structures. If you want 4K HDR and Dolby Atmos movies from the biggest four streaming sites, you’ll have to pay more, anywhere from $3 to $7 a month. On a practical level, it ensures the majority of the home movie-watching audience will do so capped at the same 1080p and Dolby Digital 5.1 streams we’ve had for over a decade.

As someone who wants the home movie experience to be great, this is depressing news, especially when the pipeline of high quality audio and video has never been better. Modern capture tech ensures that most film productions, regardless of budget, record in a 4K HDR-friendly format. As home internet bandwidth improves, more households can stream higher quality content without stuttering. Also, practically every TV sold today, including entry level models, supports 4K HDR, while Atmos-ready soundbars and sound systems are more affordable than ever.

It’s obvious why this tired gatekeeping is happening now; most streaming sites are financial black holes, the mega corporations behind them desperately seek profitability, and price discrimination works. In locking away high end video and audio behind premium plans, Netflix and friends have (correctly) assessed most of the viewing public won’t notice or won’t care enough to churn. The committed audience that insists on higher audio and video quality will open their wallets and pay more.

As part of the ongoing enshittification of streaming, I expect streaming quality gatekeeping will spread to more services. But there’s a practical way we, as watchers, can buck the trend. For film enthusiasts with the hardware to support it, consider investing in 4K Blu-rays. As I wrote earlier, Blu-ray’s picture and sound quality easily beat streaming. It also ensures watching your movie is as simple as grabbing a disc off the shelf instead of searching across streaming libraries whose contents change frequently.

However, I realize for most, the convenience and availability of streaming trumps any form of physical media. Also, sometimes, a physical 4K option is either widely expensive or doesn’t exist. In these instances, buy a la carte digital rentals and purchases from sources like Apple that deliver high bitrate 4K, HDR, and Dolby Atmos streams. Admittedly, at a glance, the investment may feel costly when new PVOD titles can start at $20 and rarely dip below $5 or $6 a rental. It may even sound contradictory, given my complaints about streaming price gouging; one regular monthly rental would pay for that high quality streaming tier.

However, as more streaming services make questionable decisions, it is overdue to cut back from some entirely. Today, for the same monthly cost as a typical streaming platform, you can rent three or four movies. Cutting a service you check in with only occasionally in favor of watching several films in higher quality, often weeks or even months before they come to your service of choice, can be a worthwhile tradeoff. Also, use tools like CheapCharts to find deals. Most digital 4K HDR movies go on sale for $5 or less several times a year.

On a practical level, the ideal home viewing mix for most won’t be purely HD or 4K HDR but a mixture of both. If you’re capping yourself to HD and 5.1 and have the hardware and budget to support more, you’re missing out on a much better viewing experience. Conversely, mindlessly upgrading all your streaming plans for better audio and video will be unnecessarily expensive. Besides, there’s still a lot of fabulous HD only content on smaller services like Criterion Channel, Shudder, and Mubi.

Above all, shift your mindset around what you subscribe to and buy from passive to active. The streamers are betting on their customers idly hanging on to their subscriptions, caving in for that high quality stream, or waiting months for exclusive content. By investing in digital rentals and physical media while being selective with your subscriptions, you get to watch what you want at higher quality while still saving money.