For the casual observer – and listener – they may look and sound the same, but in a home theatre environment with a calibrated display and sound system, there is no contest.
I love the Xbox – it is a great gaming device – but my opinion is that it butchers both video and audio. While I was aware of this to a point, it wasn’t until I connected up the Apple TV 4K that it became clear just how much.
So you ask – what is wrong with the Xbox and what does Apple TV give you?
Let’s start with the audio side. Unless you select uncompressed PCM, the Xbox will re-encode audio from streaming services. What is even more infuriating is that it doesn’t automatically switch between 2.0, 5.1 or 7.1 PCM. Instead, it embeds two channel audio into the 5.1 or 7.1 container, making it impossible to use Dolby Pro Logic II(x/z) or Dolby Surround to upmix the audio. What this ends up doing is pushing the dialogue into the left and right speakers. So every time you switch audio types, you need to go into the settings. It does get old very quickly.
However, even though PCM is uncompressed, it is a lot more prone to jitter than the packetised audio formats such as DTS and Dolby – as those are rebuilt at the decoding end using a clock – jitter or no jitter. However, if you select DTS or Dolby in the Xbox dashboard – a cycle of decoding and re-compression will happen degrading the audio. If you select PCM, the audio doesn’t quite come out pristine. You don’t know the difference until you hear what the Apple TV 4K sounds even when sending PCM data!
Xbox has never quite matched the amazing video output of Sony’s consoles. Since the PS3, every one of them had pristine video – and audio – output that follows the standards to the letter.
Unfortunately, Xbox has always had sub-par video output. This is mainly to do with the lack of gamma precision in the low end crushing blacks. To get around this, some streaming services will lift near black gamma somewhat. So now you have lifted blacks or crushed near black detail. While this may not be as noticeable on a flat-panel TV, it is very obvious and frustrating on a projector, where this messes up your contrast on a display that’s already contrast limited.
If this wasn’t enough to butcher the video, everything from streaming services is frame rate converted to 60hz, giving 24hz content – which is 99% of movie content – a bit of a jerky appearance. This is because the Xbox doesn’t allow developers to do frame rate switching on the fly. This could be solved by switching to 120hz – if your display supports this. Still, things don’t ever look quite right.
Apple TV 4K
Switching the to Apple TV 4K is immediately obvious. Sound isn’t only switched automatically, but it is delivered using the original bitstream – either in Dolby MAT format (which looks like PCM to your receiver) or Dolby Atmos.
The sound is tight, controlled and pristine – as much as the source content allows. Even YouTube’s sound has weight to it. Well done, Apple!
But it is the video side of things where things really start to fly. Gamma is now delivered to the standard, making near-black detail perfectly delivered and delineated. No more lifted blacks or crushed near-black detail messing with contrast performance of the display. Dolby Vision streams are delivered to perfection and even HDR to SDR tone mapping – or as is the case with streaming more like extraction from the stream – is delivered with finesse.
The Apple TV also has the ability to match both the frame-rate and the dynamic range of the signal being played so you get the most ideal stream delivered to the display. Alternatively, you can fix both if your display prefers a specific combination of settings – with the ability to transcode everything to Dolby Vision, HDR10 or SDR.
The video looks output looks pin sharp and chroma upscaling above average.
UPDATE: 28 May 2022
Since the article was written, I have noticed two issues with the Apple TV’s video output. The first one is that it is not colour accurate in YCbCr output mode when in SDR. This is rather curious as most playback devices are more accurate in this output mode.
The other issue is that near-black detail can flicker. This is most obvious on high-contrast displays (such as OLEDs and JVC X 7 and 9 series projectors).
Thankfully, both of these issues can be eliminated / reduced by putting the Apple TV into RGB High output mode for SDR playback. This mode delivers much more accurate colours (under 1dE) and greatly reduces the flicker in darker areas of the image resulting in a more accurate and more stable image.
The Xbox is an AMAZING console. The video and audio output for games are really awesome. In fact, for gaming the developers have been taking into account the less-than-stellar near black gamma and adjust their games on the platform. However, you do question whether this extra step would be necessary if Microsoft had fixed this to begin with.
Audio from games sounds amazing too, simply because there is no re-encoding happening.
However, streaming and media has very different requirements from games. With Microsoft putting so much focusing on gaming, media playback has taken a second fiddle, and unfortunately it shows.
This is rather disappointing because the new Xbox consoles would have the ability to become the best media playback devices if focus was put on this with the best 8K AI upscaling and the best chroma upsampling making detail and colours pop delivered at the correct frame-rates, dynamic range and tone mapped to perfection.
Until Microsoft gets the memo, do yourself a favour and get an Apple TV 4K. You won’t regret it.