Without a doubt, some of the most quality-sensitive individuals are to be found in pirate communities and they aren’t scared to make their voices known when release groups fail to come up with the best possible goods.
This week there’s been a sustained chorus of disapproval over the quality of pirate video releases sourced from Amazon Prime. The anger is usually directed at piracy groups who fail to capture content in the correct manner but according to a number of observers, the problem is actually at Amazon’s end.
Discussions on Reddit, for example, report that episodes in a single TV series have been declining in filesize and bitrate, from 1.56 GB in 720p at a 3073 kb/s video bitrate for episode 1, down to 907 MB in 720p at just 1514 kb/s video bitrate for episode 10.
Numerous theories as to why this may be the case are being floated around, including that Amazon is trying to save on bandwidth expenses. While this is a possibility, the company hasn’t made any announcements to that end.
Indeed, one legitimate customer reported that he’d raised the quality issue with Amazon and they’d said that the problem was “probably on his end”.
“I have Amazon Prime Video and I noticed the quality was always great for their exclusive shows, so I decided to try buying the shows on Amazon instead of iTunes this year. I paid for season pass subscriptions for Legion, Billions and Homeland this year,” he wrote.
“Just this past weekend, I have noticed a significant drop in details compared to weeks before! So naturally I assumed it was an issue on my end. I started trying different devices, calling support, etc, but nothing really helped.
“Billions continued to look like a blurry mess, almost like I was watching a standard definition DVD instead of the crystal clear HD I paid for and have experienced in the past! And when I check the previous episodes, sure enough, they look fantastic again. What the heck??”
With Amazon distancing itself from the issues, piracy groups have already begun to dig in the knife. Release group DEFLATE has been particularly critical.
“Amazon, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to start fucking with the quality of their encodes. They’re now reaching Netflix’s subpar 1080p.H264 levels, and their H265 encodes aren’t even close to what Netflix produces,” the group said in a file attached to S02E07 of The Good Fight released on Sunday.
“Netflix is able to produce drastic visual improvements with their H265 encodes compared to H264 across every original. In comparison, Amazon can’t decide whether H265 or H264 is going to produce better results, and as a result we suffer for it.”
So what’s happening exactly?
A TorrentFreak source (who tells us he’s been working in the BluRay/DCP authoring business for the last 10 years) was kind enough to give us two opinions, one aimed at the techies and another at us mere mortals.
“In technical terms, it appears [Amazon has] increased the CRF [Constant Rate Factor] value they use when encoding for both the HEVC [H265] and H264 streams. Previously, their H264 streams were using CRF 18 and a max bitrate of 15Mbit/s, which usually resulted in file sizes of roughly 3GB, or around 10Mbit/s. Similarly with their HEVC streams, they were using CRF 20 and resulting in streams which were around the same size,” he explained.
“In the past week, the H264 streams have decreased by up to 50% for some streams. While there are no longer any x264 headers embedded in the H264 streams, the HEVC streams still retain those headers and the CRF value used has been increased, so it does appear this change has been done on purpose.”
In layman’s terms, our source believes that Amazon had previously been using an encoding profile that was “right on the edge of relatively good quality” which kept bitrates relatively low but high enough to ensure no perceivable loss of quality.
“H264 streams encoded with CRF 18 could provide an acceptable compromise between quality and file size, where the loss of detail is often negligible when watched at regular viewing distances, at a desk, or in a lounge room on a larger TV,” he explained.
“Recently, it appears these values have been intentionally changed in order to lower the bitrate and file sizes for reasons unknown. As a result, the quality of some streams has been reduced by up to 50% of their previous values. This has introduced a visual loss of quality, comparable to that of viewing something in standard definition versus high definition.”
With the situation failing to improve during the week, by the time piracy group DEFLATE released S03E14 of Supergirl on Tuesday their original criticism had transformed into flat-out insults.
“These are only being done in H265 because Amazon have shit the bed, and it’s a choice between a turd sandwich and a giant douche,” they wrote, offering these images as illustrative of the problem and these indicating what should be achievable.
With DEFLATE advising customers to start complaining to Amazon, the memes have already begun, with unfavorable references to now-defunct group YIFY (which was often chastized for its low quality rips) and even a spin on one of the most well known anti-piracy campaigns.
TorrentFreak contacted Amazon Prime for comment on both the recent changes and growing customer complaints but at the time of publication we were yet to receive a response.
Update April 20: Still no response from Amazon’s PR department but our source reports that changes have been made since the article was published yesterday. Here’s his report from this morning.
“As I understand, there are often multiple encodes of the same show depending on which site it is being served from. Primevideo and Amazon could be considered as two separate streaming sites, as the files they serve tend to differ a tiny amount. Often it’s not an obvious difference, but the with the change over this last week, the differences were more pronounced.
Amazon appear to assign a version or profile to the published encode being served to the end user. The past seven days, this value has changed for newer streams compared to the older streams. As of a few hours ago, the profile assigned to streams released in the past week now returns the same value as the older streams. This is also reflected in the overall size of the files.
There is still a chance Amazon will do further changes and manipulate the bitrate further, but for the moment, quality has been restored.”