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What is Bitrate? A Beginner’s Guide to Livestreaming and Bitrates

If you’re ready to start streaming audio or video, you’ve undoubtedly come across the term, “bitrate.” But it’s hard to evaluate and decide between gear and/or streaming platforms if you aren’t sure what the specs mean. So what is a bitrate, and what does it mean for audio and video quality? This article is here to help answer those questions.

Once we’ve established the fundamentals, we can take it a step further and answer questions like, what is adaptive bitrate streaming, and how does adaptive bitrate streaming work? In this beginner’s guide to streaming bitrate, we’re going to answer these questions and more. Let’s break it all down together.

What is a streaming bitrate?

Let’s start with the fundamental question: what is a streaming bitrate? When you stream (either audio or video), your stream shares data through the internet so that it can be picked up and seen by an end user. 

Your camera and/or mic pick up an image or sound, and an encoder translates that file down into bits so it can be transported. It is then distributed and decoded in chunks (i.e., turned back into a picture, audio, or video) by your viewer’s device on the receiving end.

A bit is the most fundamental and basic unit of digital information: the logic behind a binary digit (either 0 or 1). Each 0 and 1 in a sequence is a bit of information. It takes 8 bits to make a byte. And there are 1 million bytes in a megabyte. (Source)

So the streaming bitrate is the density (ex., the number of megabytes) of information, usually measured by transmission speed (ex., per second).

For further clarification, “information” in a bitrate encompasses everything. It’s a more universal term for digital information measured by the speed at which it travels. It does not distinguish the type of information (audio vs. text vs. video, for example).

So let’s take our understanding of a streaming bitrate and apply it.

Is a higher bitrate better for streaming?

As a general rule, the higher the bitrate, the better the quality of the stream. That’s because a higher bitrate means that more information is included and transmitted. However, it’s important to recognize and weigh the higher bit rate against the implications of using more data. 

At some point, the required bandwidth to process the data becomes more important than the quality improvement gained from additional data. Put differently, too high of a bitrate can have diminishing returns on the overall cost to stream and end-viewer experience. 

Bitrate vs. resolution

If you’re now wondering what the difference is between bitrate vs. resolution, you’re not alone. The difference comes down to one thing: they each measure a different aspect of a video. 

  • Bitrate measures the video’s information and the speed at which it travels (usually in Kbps or Mbps).
  • Resolution measures the video’s size (i.e., height and width – usually in pixels).

So the question isn’t about which is more important. Instead, the two work in tandem. As the bitrate goes up (available information), the resolution (video’s ideal playback size) goes up. You’ll need to find an effective arrangement between the two to ensure video quality.

Here’s how they correlate* to create a certain video quality:

Name Ultra-Low Definition (ULD) Low Definition (LD) Standard Definition (SD) High Definition (HD) Full High Definition (FHD)
Video Bitrate (kbps) 350 350 – 800 800 – 1200 1200 – 1900 1900 – 4500
Resolution Width (px) 426 640 854 1280 1920
Resolution Height (px) 240 360 480 720 1080

(Source) *Note: the codec configuration is another influential aspect that we will not address in this article.

What is adaptive bitrate streaming?

Now that we understand what a bitrate is and how it affects video, what about adaptive bitrate streaming? What is it and how does it work? Let’s explore.

Put simply, adaptive bitrate streaming is a form of smart streaming. Adaptive bitrate streaming looks to optimize streaming over HTTP networks by creating and encoding several versions of the same video file at different bitrates (essentially, creating progressively smaller file size versions of the same video) to encode. 

Then the video player will look at the end user’s device type and available bandwidth and select the highest-quality file that the device can handle (i.e., ensuring that it doesn’t have an unreasonable amount of buffering) to decode for the end viewer. In other words, adaptive bitrate streaming allows smooth (as possible) playback for viewers anywhere in the world, regardless of their device or Internet speed.

How does adaptive bitrate streaming work?

To decide on the best version for the end user’s device, the video player starts with the smallest file size and works its way up. It’s similar to learning a language – you start with a few words and work your way up as you gain confidence. This is why sometimes you’ll notice that some videos you play start out at a lower quality and work their way up over the first minute or two. If your network conditions change partway through, the stream will readjust.

How to do adaptive bitrate streaming in 3 simple steps

If you’re interested in streaming, adaptive bitrate streaming is clearly the way to go for continuity of experience for your audience. This is especially crucial in a livestreaming environment, where there isn’t time for video buffering. The stream needs to display in real time or entire chunks of the content will be lost/skipped over for the end viewer once their device catches up.

Step 1: Find a platform to host your content

To get started with adaptive bitrate live streaming, you’ll need a platform that supports it. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Livery – for an affordable, easy-to-use, one-stop-shop interactive live video platform, Livery is our personal favorite.
  • YouTube – for a free place to start a live video stream today, YouTube is a great choice.
  • Twitch – for a livestream-focused free platform, Twitch is another solid option.
  • WebRTC-based platforms – for one-on-one streaming (like a video chat), WebRTC is a perfect choice.

Step 2: Configure your stream 

The configuration will be more or less complicated than this depending on your equipment and/or platform of choice (for example, Livery and social platforms don’t require a separate encoder, you can just connect your camera and go. WebRTC-based solutions or DIY options may have additional steps).

To configure your livestream, you’ll need to:

  1. Connect the device that captures content for livestreaming (usually a camera, mic, cell phone, or webcam) to your streaming device (personal desktop or laptop).
  2. Log into your platform and test your connections.
  3. Set up any additional features (like interactions).

Step 3: Go live!

You can host an adaptive bitrate stream with as little as a cellphone, and as much as your own dedicated server environment. The best thing you can do is give adaptive bitrate streaming a try, then adjust your setup over time. You’ll learn much more by simply giving it a try than any article could ever teach.

Click here to schedule a free demo to learn more about interactive livestreaming with Livery.

What is Bitrate? A Beginner’s Guide to Livestreaming and Bitrates

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