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Key Takeaways

  • YouTube Enhanced Bitrate is a premium feature that offers better image quality in 1080p videos, addressing the criticism of poor visuals and compression.
  • Lower bitrates lead to worse image quality, causing issues like macro blocking, color banding, smeary motion, and washed-out colors.
  • Enhanced Bitrate is worth enabling for videos where image quality matters, especially for fast-action or visual arts content, but consider data usage and subscription cost.

YouTube is the largest source of steaming video on the web, but with that quantity comes a lack of image quality. YouTube videos are often criticized for poor visuals and nasty compression, but with YouTube Enhanced Bitrate things clear up.

What Is Enhanced Bitrate?

YouTube Enhanced Bitrate is a special quality tier for (as of this writing) 1080p videos offered as a premium paid feature. The bitrate of a video is (as the name suggests) the number of bits that are available per second to store the frames that make up a moving image. All the digital footage you watch, whether streamed or from an optical disc, is compressed in some way. Just like a JPEG image is compressed compared to a Bitmap image, for a much smaller file that maintains most of the detail of the original.

If you have two copies of a video at the same resolution using the same compression algorithm, the one with the lower bitrate will have worse image quality. This is because it has to apply a more aggressive level of compression and throw away more image detail in the process. Common artifacts of lower bitrate include:

  • Macro blocking: The image exhibits visible solid "blocks", especially in dark areas of the image or where there are lots of small details.
  • Color banding: You may see visible bands of color in scenes with the sky, oceans, or other colors that have a fine gradient. The video doesn't have enough bitrate to show the subtle shift in color, so it ends up reproducing the image with crude color bands.
  • Smeary motion: In a video with lots of action and high motion, where one frame is very different to the next, the lack of bitrate can turn any motion into a smeary mess.
  • Bad colors: apart from color banding, the general quality of the colors in the image may look washed out and not at all what the original creators intended.

These aren't the only side effects of having low bitrate, but once you've seen the difference between a high and low bitrate video you'll have a good intuitive idea of the impact it has in general. It's thanks to high bitrates that 1080p Blu-ray movies can look better than their 4K streaming versions.

How to Get Enhanced Bitrate

Sadly, at the time of writing the only way to access Enhanced Bitrate is to be a YouTube Premium subscriber. Even then, not all videos will have this option enabled, and YouTube seemingly doesn't select this quality setting automatically even when it's available. Luckily you can simply activate Enhanced BItrate in the same place you manually choose your YouTube quality level already.

For the mobile app, this means going to the settings cog and to Quality > Advanced, and in a web browser just click on the cog icon and choose your quality level.

YouTube Enhanced Bitrate Option

When to Enable Enhanced Bitrate

In truth, the vast majority of YouTube videos don't really benefit from having a better bitrate. It really only matters when the nature of a video means that its image quality is important. So, for example, if you're watching fast-action film, or videos about the visual arts, you'll want to enable Enhanced Bitrate to get the best colors and highest level of fine detail in motion and in static images.

However, a higher bitrate comes with significantly more data usage. So, if you're on a slow connection or on a limited data plan, you may want to think twice about turning on this fancier, premium version of YouTube's video stream.

Is Enhanced Bitrate Worth It?

As I mentioned above, the benefits of a better bitrate really depend on the type of content you're watching, but where it is available and it makes sense for you to enable it, the difference in quality is definitely worth turning the feature on. With YouTube now playing host to content made with bigger budgets and better production values, it's often worth it, especially on larger format screens.

However, that's only true if you're already a YouTube Premium subscriber. It's debatable whether it's worth paying for YouTube Premium just to have access to Enhanced Bitrate, but if you're already sold on the ad-free YouTube experience, then Enhanced Bitrate is a worthy additional perk.