Jan 252017

H.265/HEVC logo1.) Introduction

After doing a [somewhat proper comparison between x264 and x265] a while back, I thought I’d do another one at extremely low bitrates. It reminded me of the time I’ve been using ISDN at 64kbit/s (my provider didn’t let me use CAPI channel aggregation for 128kbit/s), which was the first true flat rate in my country. ‘Cause I’ve been thinking this:

“Can H.265/HEVC enable an ISDN user to stream 1080p content in any useful form?” and “What would H.264/AVC look like in that case?”

Let me say this first: It reaaally depends on how you define “useful”. :roll:

Pretty much nobody uses ISDN these days, and V.9x 56kbaud modems are dying out in the 1st world as well, so this article doesn’t make a lot of sense. To be fair, I didn’t even pick encoding settings fit for low-latency streaming either, nor are my settings fit for live encoding. So it’s just for the lulz, but still! I wanted to see whether it could be done at all, in theory.

To make it happen, I had to choose extremely low bitrates not just for video, but audio as well. There are even subtitles included in my example, which are present in Matroska-style zlib-compressed [.ass] format, so compressed text essentially.

For the audio part, I chose the Fraunhofer FhG-AAC encoder to encode to the lowest possible constant bitrate, which is 8kbit/s HEv2-AAC. That’s a VoIP-focused version of the codec targeted at preserving human speech as well as possible at conditions as bad as they get. And yes, it sounds terrible. But it still gets across just enough to be able to understand what people are saying and what type of sounds are occurring in a scene. Music and most environmental sounds are terrible in quality, but they are still discernible.

For video, I picked a 2-pass ABR mode with a 50kbit/s target bitrate, which is insanely low even for the Anime content I picked (my apologies, Mr. “[Anime is not what everyone watches]”, but yes, I picked Anime again). Note that 2D animated content is pretty easy on the encoders in this case, so the results would’ve likely been a lot worse with 1080p live action content. As for the encoder settings, you can find those [down below] and as for how I’m taking the screenshots, I’ll spare you those details, they’re pretty similar to the stuff shown in the link at the top.

Before we start with the actual quality comparison, I should mention that my test results actually overshot their target, so they’re really unsuitable for live streaming even in the ISDN case. I just didn’t care enough for trying to push the bitrate down any further. Regular streaming would still be possible with my result files, but not without prebuffering. See here:

$ ls -hs *.mkv
2.6M Piaceː Watashi no Italian - Episode 02-H.264+HEv2AAC-V50kbit-A8kbit.mkv
2.0M Piaceː Watashi no Italian - Episode 02-H.265+HEv2AAC-V50kbit-A8kbit.mkv
 76M Piaceː Watashi no Italian - Episode 02.mkv
$ for i in {'Piaceː Watashi no Italian - Episode 02.mkv','Piaceː Watashi no Italian - \
Episode 02-H.264+HEv2AAC-V50kbit-A8kbit.mkv','Piaceː Watashi no Italian - \
Episode 02-H.265+HEv2AAC-V50kbit-A8kbit.mkv'}; do mediainfo "$i" | grep -i "overall bit rate"; done
Overall bit rate                         : 2 640 kb/s
Overall bit rate                         : 88.6 kb/s
Overall bit rate                         : 69.2 kb/s

The first one is the source (note: From [Crunchyroll], legal to watch and record in my country at this time), the second my x264 and the third my x265 versions. Let’s show you the bitrate overshoot of just the video streams in my versions:

$ for i in {'Piaceː Watashi no Italian - Episode 02-H.264+HEv2AAC-V50kbit-A8kbit.mkv','Piaceː \
Watashi no Italian - Episode 02-H.265+HEv2AAC-V50kbit-A8kbit.mkv'}; do mediainfo \
--Output="Video;%BitRate/String%" "$i"; done
71.1 kb/s
51.6 kb/s

So as you can see, x264 messed up pretty big, overshooting by 21.1kbit/s (42.2%), whereas x265 almost landed on target, overshooting by a mere 1.6kbit/s (3.2%) overall. And still… well… Let’s give you an overview first (as usual, click to enlarge images):

2.) Quality comparisons

Note that the color shown in those thumbnails is not representative of the real images, this has been transformed to 256 color .png to make it easier to download (again, if your browser supports it, .webp will be loaded instead transparently). This is just to show you some basic differences between what x264 and x265 are able to preserve, and what they are not. Also, keep in mind, that “~50kbit/s nominal bitrate” means 71.1kbit/s for x264 and 51.6kbit/s for x265!

Overall, x264 fucks up big time. There are frames with partial macroblock drops and completely blank frames even! Also, a lot of frames lose their color either partially or completely as well, making them B/W. And that’s given that x264 even invested 42.2% more bitrate than what I aimed for!

x265 has no such severe issues, all frames are completely there in full color, and that at a bitrate reasonable close to the target. Let’s look at a few interesting cases side by side:

Scene 1 (left: x264, middle: x265, right: source file):

There are some indications of use of larger CTUs (coding tree unit, H.265s’ replacement for macroblocks) in x265s’ case, which is supposed to be one of its strong points, especially for very large resolution encoding (think: 4K/UHD, 8K). While larger blocks can mean loss of detail in that area, it’s ok for larger areas of uniform color, which this Anime has a ton of. H.264/AVC can’t do that so well, because the upper limit for a macroblocks’ size is rather low with 16×16 pixels. You can see the macroblock size pretty clearly in the blocky frame to the left. You need to look a bit more carefully in x265s’ case, but there are a few spots where I believe it can be seen as well. In my case the CTU size for x265 was 32×32px.

Hm, maybe --ctu 64 would’ve been better for this specific case, but whatever.

Lets look at two more mostly color-related comparisons:

Scenes 2 & 3 (left: x264, middle: x265, right: source file):


In the first case it seems as if x264 is trying to preserve shades of green more than anything, but in the second case, something terrible happens. There is a lot of red in the scene before this one, and there is quite some red on those can labels as well. It seems x264 doesn’t know where to put the color anymore, and the reds bleed almost all over the frame. And it stays like that for the entire scene as well, which means for several seconds. The greens and browns are lost. Block artifacts are excessive as well, but at least x264 managed to give us whole frames here, with some color even.

Well, the color kinda went everywhere, but uhm, yeah…

Two more:

Scenes 4 & 5 (left: x264, middle: x265, right: source file):


I really don’t know what’s with x264 and the reds. Shouldn’t green have priority? I mean, not just in the chroma subsampling, but in encoding as well? But red seems what x264 drops last, and it happens more than once. Given the detail and movements in that last part, even x265 fails though. Yes, it does preserve more color, but it doesn’t come remotely close to the source at this bitrate.

And that other frame with the cuteness overload? There are a lot like those, where x264 just kinda panics, drops everything it has and then frantically tries to (re?)construct the current frame, sometimes only partially until the next I-frame arrives or so.

So that’s it for my quick & dirty “ultra low bitrate” comparison between x264 and x265, at pretty taxing encoding settings once again.

3.) Additional information

x264 encoding settings:

$ mediainfo Piaceː\ Watashi\ no\ Italian\ -\ Episode\ 02-H.264+HEv2AAC-V50kbit-A8kbit.mkv | grep -i \
"encoding settings"
Encoding settings                        : cabac=1 / ref=16 / deblock=1:-2:0 / analyse=0x3:0x133 / \
me=umh / subme=10 / psy=1 / psy_rd=0.40:0.00 / mixed_ref=1 / me_range=24 / chroma_me=1 / trellis=2 \
/ 8x8dct=1 / cqm=0 / deadzone=21,11 / fast_pskip=0 / chroma_qp_offset=-2 / threads=18 / \
lookahead_threads=4 / sliced_threads=0 / nr=0 / decimate=1 / interlaced=0 / bluray_compat=0 / \
constrained_intra=0 / bframes=16 / b_pyramid=2 / b_adapt=2 / b_bias=0 / direct=3 / weightb=1 / \
open_gop=1 / weightp=2 / keyint=250 / keyint_min=23 / scenecut=40 / intra_refresh=0 / \
rc_lookahead=60 / rc=2pass / mbtree=1 / bitrate=50 / ratetol=1.0 / qcomp=0.60 / qpmin=0 / qpmax=81 \
/ qpstep=4 / cplxblur=20.0 / qblur=0.5 / ip_ratio=1.40 / aq=1:0.60

x265 encoding settings (note: 10 bits per color channel were chosen, same as for x264):

$ mediainfo Piaceː\ Watashi\ no\ Italian\ -\ Episode\ 02-H.265+HEv2AAC-V50kbit-A8kbit.mkv | grep -i \
"encoding settings"
Encoding settings                        : cpuid=1049087 / frame-threads=3 / wpp / pmode / pme / \
no-psnr / no-ssim / log-level=2 / input-csp=1 / input-res=1920x1080 / interlace=0 / total-frames=0 \
/ level-idc=0 / high-tier=1 / uhd-bd=0 / ref=6 / no-allow-non-conformance / no-repeat-headers / \
annexb / no-aud / no-hrd / info / hash=0 / no-temporal-layers / open-gop / min-keyint=23 / \
keyint=250 / bframes=16 / b-adapt=2 / b-pyramid / bframe-bias=0 / rc-lookahead=40 / \
lookahead-slices=0 / scenecut=40 / no-intra-refresh / ctu=32 / min-cu-size=8 / rect / amp / \
max-tu-size=32 / tu-inter-depth=4 / tu-intra-depth=4 / limit-tu=0 / rdoq-level=1 / signhide / \
no-tskip / nr-intra=0 / nr-inter=0 / no-constrained-intra / no-strong-intra-smoothing / max-merge=5 \
/ limit-refs=1 / limit-modes / me=3 / subme=4 / merange=57 / temporal-mvp / weightp / weightb / \
no-analyze-src-pics / deblock=0:0 / no-sao / no-sao-non-deblock / rd=6 / no-early-skip / rskip / \
no-fast-intra / no-tskip-fast / no-cu-lossless / b-intra / rdpenalty=0 / psy-rd=1.60 / \
psy-rdoq=5.00 / no-rd-refine / analysis-mode=0 / no-lossless / cbqpoffs=0 / crqpoffs=0 / rc=abr / \
bitrate=50 / qcomp=0.75 / qpstep=4 / stats-write=0 / stats-read=2 / stats-file=265/v.stats / \
cplxblur=20.0 / qblur=0.5 / ipratio=1.40 / pbratio=1.30 / aq-mode=3 / aq-strength=1.00 / cutree / \
zone-count=0 / no-strict-cbr / qg-size=32 / no-rc-grain / qpmax=69 / qpmin=0 / sar=1 / overscan=0 / \
videoformat=5 / range=1 / colorprim=2 / transfer=2 / colormatrix=2 / chromaloc=0 / display-window=0 \
/ max-cll=0,0 / min-luma=0 / max-luma=1023 / log2-max-poc-lsb=8 / vui-timing-info / vui-hrd-info / \
slices=1 / opt-qp-pps / opt-ref-list-length-pps / no-multi-pass-opt-rps / scenecut-bias=0.05

x264 version:

$ x264 --version
x264 0.148.x
(libswscale 3.0.0)
(libavformat 56.1.0)
built on Sep  6 2016, gcc: 6.2.0
x264 configuration: --bit-depth=10 --chroma-format=all
libx264 configuration: --bit-depth=10 --chroma-format=all
x264 license: GPL version 2 or later
libswscale/libavformat license: nonfree and unredistributable
WARNING: This binary is unredistributable!

x265 version:

$ x265 --version
x265 [info]: HEVC encoder version 2.2+23-58dddcf01b7d
x265 [info]: build info [Linux][GCC 6.2.0][64 bit] 8bit+10bit+12bit
x265 [info]: using cpu capabilities: MMX2 SSE2Fast SSSE3 SSE4.2

Encoding & testing platform:

$ uname -sr
Linux 2.6.32-573.8.1.el6.x86_64
$ cat /etc/redhat-release 
CentOS release 6.8 (Final)
$ cat /proc/cpuinfo | grep "model name" | uniq
model name	: Intel(R) Core(TM) i7 CPU       X 980  @ 3.33GHz

4.) Answers

Q: “Can H.265/HEVC enable an ISDN user to stream 1080p content in any useful form?

A: It can probably stream something that at least resembles the original source in a recognizable fashion, but… whether you can call that “useful” or not is another thing entirely…

Q: “What would H.264/AVC look like in that case?”

A: Like shit! :roll: