Providing the best experience for your viewers is a worthy goal that all YouTubers should strive for, and one that can take many different forms.
There are times when it is blindingly obvious what steps you should take. For example, if you are recording your audio using a built-in laptop microphone and the results are fuzzy, tinny, and a whole host of other adjectives you don’t necessarily want to associate with your audio, a decent microphone is a clear step in the right direction.
There are more subtle steps you can take, however, and one of those is the bitrate you upload your video at. Finding the right bitrate is a balancing act between quality and viewing experience. Fortunately, YouTube makes things easier by processing your video to ensure that the content being delivered to your viewers is up to scratch. That being said, as a general rule, the less work you leave YouTube to do, the better. Any time YouTube has to make changes, be it to the volume levels, the bitrate, the resolution, or any aspect of your video, there is a chance the results will not be to your liking.
So, what is a bitrate? And, more importantly, what is the best bitrate for YouTube? We’ll get to what it is below, but as for the best bitrate for YouTube (Source)
|Type||Bitrate (Standard Framerate)||Bitrate (High Framerate)|
|2160p (4k)||35-45 Mbps||53-68 Mbps|
|1440p (2K)||16 Mbps||24 Mbps|
|1080p||8 Mbps||12 Mbps|
|720p||5 Mbps||7.5 Mbps|
|480p||2.5 Mbps||4 Mbps|
|360p||1 Mbps||1.5 Mbps|
Please note that the above values are applicable to SDR video only. If you want the numbers for HDR, check that link above the table.
Uploading videos at these bitrates will ensure you are giving your viewers the highest quality you can while not hitting YouTube’s bitrate cap, which will cause them to lower the bitrate in processing. If you’d like to know more on this topic, however, keep reading.
What is a Bitrate?
Bitrate is the name given to the measurement of data encoded in a unit of time which, for video, is typically Mbps, or megabits per second.
As you might expect, the higher the bitrate, the better the quality of the video.
However, that higher bitrate comes with additional bandwidth requirements, which can mean a lousy viewing experience for people whose Internet connection (or computer hardware, for that matter) isn’t up to the task. They will be getting choppy, stuttering playback which is not fun for anyone.
A variety of factors affect how much bandwidth is necessary. For example, a video running at sixty frames per second will need twice as much bandwidth as a video running at thirty frames per second that is otherwise identical. Another significant factor is the codec used since that will alter the amount of data an individual frame requires.
And if this sounds like a foreign language, don’t worry, we’ll go over codecs in a little more detail shortly.
What Happens if I use a Bitrate that is too Low?
Using a low bitrate will result in a lower quality stream for your viewer. Now, whether or not this is a bad thing is subjective; if you are happy with the quality of the video at a particular bitrate, it doesn’t matter if it is low by any other standard.
In fact, the lower you can get your bitrate without bringing the quality down too far, the better since it means a smoother experience for your viewers.
Even if a viewer has the connection for a high-bitrate video, it doesn’t hurt them to view it at a lower bitrate if the quality is good enough.
What Happens if I use a Bitrate that is too High?
Higher bitrates will result in more bandwidth requirements for your user, which, may be necessary for certain video qualities. For example, streaming 4K at 60fps in anything approaching a decent quality is going to result in a lot of bandwidth; there’s no getting around that fact.
In cases where the bandwidth requirements are higher than your viewer’s connection can handle, they will get choppy, stuttering, buffering playback.
Unlike having your bitrate too low, we do have an objective consequence for having it too high. As you increase the bitrate of a video, you will reach a point of diminishing returns where the bump in bitrate results in a barely noticeable—or completely indistinguishable—improvement in quality.
In this case, the increase in demand on your viewer’s Internet connection is not worth it for the minimal improvement it grants them.
As we mentioned above, anytime you force YouTube to make changes to your video, you run the risk of them doing so in a way that you are not happy with.
It is better to aim for YouTube’s preferred properties wherever possible, which in the case of bitrate, can be found in the table above.
That being said, YouTube put a lot of effort into making their platform work as smoothly as possible. The fact that the processing stage could alter your video in a way you are not happy with doesn’t mean it will. It is also worth noting that YouTube will be making more significant changes to your video at other resolutions, so this is something you will have to make peace with one way or another.
For example, you could upload a 4K video with the encoding settings so perfectly aligned with YouTube that it needs no processing whatsoever… to display in 4K. YouTube is still going to have to process a 1080p version, and that will be the version that most YouTube viewers see—though 4K is gaining traction.
In truth, the benefits of making your video match YouTube’s desired encoding settings apply more to other aspects, such as audio levels. But that doesn’t mean there are no benefits to making sure your bitrate lines up with what YouTube wants.
Bitrates don’t just apply to video, of course; there are audio bitrates to consider as well. In terms of what these are and how they behave, for simplicities sake, just think of them as exactly the same as video bitrates but applied to audio.
The primary difference here is the amounts we are dealing with. Audio is considerably smaller than video, so the bitrates are also smaller. For video, we typically measure bitrates in megabits. For audio, it is kilobits. If you are not familiar with the naming system of “kilo” and “mega”, a kilobit is a thousand bits, and a megabit is a million bits. That makes a megabit a thousand times more bits than a kilobit.
Using the same link that we supplied above regarding YouTube’s preferred video bitrates, we can tell you that their preferred audio bitrates are as follows;
Codecs, Wrappers, and More
There are a number of other terms to deal with when talking about encoding a video, some which we have mentioned already in this article. We could probably fill an entire post on each one, but it’s worth touching on them here since they are important terms to get familiar with when dealing with video encoding.
Container or Wrapper
The container of your video is a type of file that allows multiple streams of data to be stored in a single file. Typically, a container will include metadata that can tell a player information about the file, such as the title. There are many examples of container files outside of the world of video and audio, but the important information that is contained in a video wrapper is the video and audio data. Different combinations of audio and video codecs can be embedded within the wrapper file.
YouTube’s preferred container is MP4, though the codecs you use will play a more significant role in how well YouTube processes your video.
Codecs (Audio and Video)
Codecs are the method by which a piece of video or audio is compressed. This is necessary to reduce the size of the data so that it can be more feasibly streamed across the Internet.
I have a full deep dive in the best codecs for YouTube and the surprising differences in my blog.
Compression—and, as a result, codecs—work by reducing the data in a video or audio stream as much as possible. As an example, a stretch of video that is just blank screen and silence, if left uncompressed, will take up the same amount of space as a stretch of video of the same length that has plenty of action going on onscreen. With compression, that stretch of blank, silent screen can be significantly reduced in size since there is no need to store hundreds of frames of identical data.
Different codecs handle this compression in different ways. For example, some focus on preserving as much detail as possible, which gives the best results visually, but doesn’t necessarily achieve a great reduction in data size. Other codecs might focus on getting the size down but, in the process, lose a noticeable amount of fine detail.
As with many things in life, choosing the right code is about finding a good balance between those two aspects. That being said, YouTube’s preferred audio codec is AAC-LC, and their preferred video codec is H.264.
The framerate is the number of frames of video that are shown per second. A single frame is essentially a still image at the resolution that the video is processed in. So, for a 1080p video that is running at thirty frames per second, you are looking at a slideshow of thirty 1920 x 1080 images every second. No wonder video takes up so much data!
The more frames your video has, the smoother a viewing experience it will be. That being said, it is not always a case of more is better. There are certain stylistic elements to consider. For example, twenty-four frames per second are the standard in cinema, and so video in this framerate tends to have a more cinematic look. If the video is footage of a video game, on the other hand, you would probably want sixty frames per second where possible.
The most common frame rates are 24, 25, 30, 48, 50, and 60, though YouTube does not limit you to one of these options.
Resolution and Aspect Ratio
The aspect ratio and resolution of your video are not quite the same things. The resolution is fairly straight forward, and even those with little knowledge in this area are usually familiar with the concept. The resolution of a video is the number of pixels being shown on screen, displayed as width and height. For example, 1080p video is 1920 x 1080, or 1,920 pixels across and 1,080 pixels down.
Aspect ratio, on the other hand, is the ratio of width to height, which describes the shape of the video screen. For example, the above mentioned 1920 x 1080 is a 16:9 screen ratio, which is the most common aspect ratio used on YouTube, but any resolution where the ratio of horizontal pixels to vertical pixels is the same is classed as 16:9. For example, 4K, which is 3840 x 2160, and 240p, which is 426 x 240, are both 16:9.
For comparison, a square video, where the width and height of the resolution are the same, would have an aspect ratio of 1:1.
Bitrates are one of those things that can be a significant problem, but probably shouldn’t be. By keeping your bitrates around the numbers suggested by YouTube, you shouldn’t have any issues with the quality of your video.
Granted, there will always be some special situations where YouTube’s recommended defaults just don’t work for you, but if you are encountering that kind of situation, you are probably knowledgable enough to figure out the best course of action. For the rest of us mere mortals, the best bitrate for YouTube will often be the one that they suggest.