Tuesday, March 2

Netflix adds new feature that improves audio quality

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Netflix has announced that it is upgrading the Android version of its popular streaming app to make audio sound clearer and easier to hear over noisy background noise. The streaming giant explained in a blog post that this is possible with the adoption of the Extended HE-AAC (xHE-AAC) codec. It will be made available on devices running on Android 9 and newer.

The Los Gatos based company said this was its latest effort to deliver quality audio to its subscribers as it began streaming content with 5.1 channel surround sound in 2010, Dolby Atmos in 2017 and adaptive bitrate audio in 2019.

The company explained that the new codec should “improve intelligibility in noisy environments, adapt to variable cellular connections, and scale to studio-quality.”

Just to recap, xHE-AAC is a newer version of the HE-AAC codec that Netflix has used so far. It was introduced back in 2012 by Fraunhofer IIS. It was primarily designed for use in online streaming and broadcasting services due to its high compression ratio and efficiency. It is a variable bit-rate codec that can change based on the connection strength and bandwidth.

Simply put, you should experience less buffering when watching shows while enjoying better audio quality. Netflix went on to say that xHE-AAC uses metadata to solve different audio problems people encounter when watching shows on a mobile device.

When we watch a movie or listen to music while on the move, there is the inherent problem of background noise that can interfere with our listening experience, making it difficult to hear. This is worsened by the fact that some users may use the tiny built-in speakers on their mobile device, forcing them to turn up the volume to the max.

There is also the problem of inconsistent dialogue levels between shows across different genres. This usually results in you having to constantly adjust your volume up and down between shows.

According to the company, the xHe-AAC codec offers some key features to address these challenges. The first is Dynamic Range Control (DRC), a technology that reduces the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of a show. Essentially, this makes quiet content sound louder, so you can hear it over background noise. At the same time, it brings down the volume of loud content to prevent clipping while maintaining audio quality.

Netflix claims that the biggest benefit of this feature is that it will keep the volume of spoken dialogue consistent between different shows. So regardless of whether you are watching a drama, action movie, live concert or documentary, you can hear what actors are saying or the lead singer in a band is singing. Viewers will no longer need to constantly adjust the volume of their phone when they switch to another show.

The other big feature of the code is that it supports “seamless bitrate switching”. In theory, this allows for streaming content to work better in environments with inconsistent internet speeds. Netflix had introduced a similar adaptive bitrate feature to its TV apps back in 2019. This allowed increases the maximum bitrate of its audio and allows it to adjust based on the speed of a user’s internet connection.

The streaming giant said it had conducted user testing, and it found that most people preferred the audio quality of the new codec. According to the company, volume changes between different shows was “noticeably down” with the new codec. It also noticed that people were less likely to switch to using earphones when watching on their phones as the compensation applied through the phone speaker was clear enough to be heard.

For now, the new codec is only available on Android, which has become Netflix’s favourite platform to experiment new features. The company said it will be bringing the new codec to other platforms that support it. Considering most platforms like iOS, macOS and Windows already support xHE-AAC, we probably won’t have to wait too long for Netflix to roll out the feature.