How to Choose the Best Bitrate for Live Streaming
With that said, if you want your business to leverage live streaming for marketing or as a revenue stream, be aware that the technical aspects of streaming are often a challenge. This isn't just because your use case may differ, but also because your location, equipment, and bandwidth can vary widely depending on the day.
In spite of these challenges, video quality is more important than ever for engagement. The overall clarity and stability of your stream will reflect on your company brand, so it's an absolute must for you to choose the best bitrate for live streaming.
Here's a guide to walk you through the process!
What is a Bitrate?
Before we talk about how to set things up, let's define the term "bitrate."
First, there's the "bit" – a unit of data – and second, there's the "rate" – the speed at which this data is transmitted. As soon as you start a new live stream, your equipment has to capture all of the data every second, encode it, and transmit it to your viewers' devices. The bitrate your stream can handle is dependent on the upload speed of your network connection.
Technically, the bitrate applies to both audio and video, but with audio generally locked at a consistent 128 kbps stereo, most of the bitrate settings we talk about here will be focused on video.
Measuring Video Quality
The fundamental unit of a bitrate is the "bit per second" – though more commonly these days, you'll see "kilobits per second (kbps)" and "megabits per second (mbps)," where 1000 kbps = 1 Mbps.
Generally, a higher bitrate means better quality, because there's more data being transmitted to your viewers. The live stream's video resolution and frames per second are also important factors, which we'll cover in more detail later in this post.
Setting a Proper Bitrate
We all want to produce a quality live stream, but this depends on having the right settings. So, how do you come up with the ideal bitrate for your live stream?
In order to set the ideal input bitrate, we recommend that you start by looking at your uplink connection performance. There are plenty of tools out there that can help you see your total upload speed (Mbps) – one tool we recommend is Speedtest.
The goal is for your live video bitrate not to exceed upload speed. Ideally, your connection's upload speed will be 3x the bitrate you set for your live stream.
For example, if you have an upload speed of 16 Mbps, you should be able to set a live video bitrate up to approximately 5 Mbps.
This buffer or margin of safety is especially important if you're going to be sharing the same wireless network with a lot of other people, or are relying on cellular data in a large crowd.
The Importance of Adaptive Bitrate Streaming (ABR)
No matter what settings you choose for your live stream, you can't control exactly what your audience sees, because they all have different devices, network conditions, and locations.
However, if you use a quality video hosting platform like Flowplayer that offers adaptive bitrate streaming (ABR), you'll deliver the highest possible video quality that your users can accommodate at any given moment, without any delays or interruptions in the live stream.
When you consider live stream quality, it's ultimately about user experience on the other end of the stream. You need to strike a balance between a sharp, crisp image and smooth playback for your viewers – something ABR helps you do automatically.
NOTE: If your primary goal is to achieve the highest possible video quality, Flowplayer also offers passthrough streaming, but this requires a faster connection.
Frame Rate, Video Resolutions, and Encoder Settings
So far, we've covered bitrate settings, but these are only part of the total picture!
It's also important to set the right frame rate and a resolution that's high enough to reproduce a quality video without overwhelming your internet connection.
We have some suggested encoder settings for each of these below to help you maximize video quality and eliminate any hiccups or outages during your stream.
Choose an Ideal Frame Rate
The term "frame rate" refers to how many frames per second (fps) will appear in a stream.
Keep in mind that a higher fps may mean sacrificing video resolution to maintain an ideal bitrate. Here are our recommended frame rates:
- 24 fps
- 25 fps
- 30 fps
- 48 fps
- 50 fps
- 60 fps
Be sure to match the frame rate to the content you're displaying. A live stream of fast-motion sports or action-heavy events will be better at 60 fps, but for a talking head video, 24 or 25 fps should be plenty.
Also, note that if you're playing any pre-recorded video on your live stream, make sure the live stream frame rate isn't higher than the video to avoid artifacts!
Choose an Optimal Video Resolution
The term "resolution" refers to the total number of pixels in an image or video. Like with bitrate, a higher resolution means better quality.
You have three main options for video resolutions in live streaming:
- Standard resolution - 480p
- High definition (HD) - 720p
- Full HD - 1080p
For maximum video quality, you'll want the 1080p resolution, as long as you have the bandwidth to support it. A 4k resolution generally isn't practical for live streaming yet.
Here are some typical ranges for bitrates at different resolutions:
- 480p: 2-3Mbps
- 720p: 4-6Mbps
- 720p High bitrate: 5-7Mbps
- 720p passthrough: 3-6Mbps
- 1080p: 5-7Mbps
- 1080p High bitrate: 7-10Mbps
- 1080p passthrough: 5-10Mbps
Choose the Best Live Encoder Settings
Once you have a general sense of the bitrate, frame rate, and resolution you want, you can finish selecting the rest of the settings.
Here is our list of recommended encoder settings that you can use for your live stream:
- 720p: H.264 High Profile, level 4.1
- 1080p@30fps: H.264 High Profile, level 4.1
- 1080p@60fps: H.264 High Profile, level 4.2
- Frame rate: up to 60 fps (no variable frame rate)
- Keyframe frequency: Recommended setting 2 seconds
- Frame types: Progressive Scan, 2 B-Frames, 1 Reference Frame
- Entropy coding: CABAC
- Codec: AAC
- Audio sample rate: 48 KHz
- Audio bitrate: 128 Kbps stereo
You can see more of our recommended live stream settings here.
How to Improve Live Stream Quality
As we've discussed, the type of content you're streaming and your bandwidth availability will determine live stream quality.
But these video codec settings aren't the only factor that matters. Here are a few additional concrete steps you can take to ensure an optimal viewer experience!
1) Get Better Streaming Equipment
The equipment you use is key. Even if you aren't broadcasting live in 4K, a professional Full HD or 4K camera will ensure that you capture a high image quality to start. From there, you can expect some degradation in image quality due to compression of data, which is why it's important to use the best streaming equipment you can buy.
In a pinch, you can get away with a smartphone camera, especially for a breaking news live stream, but it's worth investing in a professional-grade camera for scheduled live events for a better viewer experience.
2) Upgrade Your Network Connection
The speed and reliability of your network connection play a significant role in your live stream quality. There's a direct relationship between your uplink connection and how high you can push your bitrate, frame rate, and resolution settings.
Sometimes, improving your connection is as simple as plugging into the wired Ethernet port or moving closer to the WiFi router for your signal. You can also free up bandwidth by closing out of other applications on your streaming device.
If these steps don't lead to the quality you want, consider purchasing a faster internet plan.
3) Find the Right Live Streaming Platform
There are many different platforms out there for live streaming, and they aren't all created equal. If you're serious about leveraging the power of live streaming in your business, make sure your chosen online video platform has the following features:
- A powerful content delivery network (CDN) for maximum speed
- A wide range of customization and monetization options
- In-depth live stream analytics
- Multi-bitrate streaming
Flowplayer includes all of these options and more for companies looking to maintain maximum control over their live streaming.
Best Bitrate for Live Streaming Conclusion
Setting the best bitrate for live streaming can be a difficult and technical process, but it doesn't have to be! That's why Flowplayer has worked to simplify live streaming for our enterprise customers.
We offer deep encoding functionality that you can customize to your liking, but setup can also be as easy as selecting one of our pre-configured streaming profiles and clicking the button to go live. As an added benefit, Flowplayer enables you to record your live stream and automatically turn it into a video asset for future viewing.