If you know you need an encoder, but you’re not sure what live stream encoders are, you’ve come to the right spot. We’ll tell you all about encoders so you can choose the best one for your unique needs.

Let’s get started!

How do live stream encoders work?

Encoders convert the data from your camera into data that’s usable for live streaming by compressing and decompressing large amounts of video data as quickly as possible.

How Live Stream Encoders Work

Are all encoders the same?

There are many different live stream encoders that are built for unique purposes. Here’s a quick breakdown of the key differentiators:



Hardware Live Stream Encoder


Hardware encoders are devices that are purpose-built compress and decompress video data for live streaming. All of their processing power is dedicated solely to encoding – which means they don’t buffer or lag when streaming.

Hardware encoders are usually a little pricier than their software counterparts, and they’re very hard to update or modify. It’s very important to purchase the correct hardware encoder because updating codecs can be a pain.



Hardware live stream encoder


Software encoders are downloadable programs that run on a computer device. They’re highly customizable, easily updated, and often priced very affordably.

The major drawback of software encoders is their speed. Since they’re running on an already busy computer, they can’t use as much processing power as hardware encoders.

Video Data Format

Whether hardware or software, live stream encoders use codecs to get your video data into the desired format. A codec is a tool that processes video data and places it in a stream of bytes. Codecs compress the size of a video file and then decompress it when into the stream.

There are many of different kinds of codecs and each of them does the job a little bit differently. For our streams, we use the most popular codec, “RTMP” or Real-Time Messaging Protocol. So we always make sure our encoders are capable of encoding in RTMP.

Depending on the codec, the process will result in either a “lossless” or a “lossy” compression (pictured below). To put it as simply as possible, “lossy” (right) means the quality of the stream has gone down from the original quality from the camera. “Lossless” (left) is when your stream has not lost any quality.


Lossless or Lossy Compression By Live Stream Encoders


Audio Data Format

There are really only two popular formats when it comes to audio encoding: AAC (Advanced Audio Encoding) and MP3 (MPEG Audio Layer III).

Some viewing devices can’t decode MP3, so we always recommend using AAC.

How do I know which one I need?

Know what your streaming service requires

It’s important to check with your live streaming service to see which encoders are compatible.

Most of the time you’ll be left with a lot of options, but sometimes streaming services use their own specific codec. That’s why it’s very important to check before you buy.

Evaluate the importance of portability

Most hardware encoders today are portable enough to take anywhere. It’s still important to understand just how portable the encoder needs to be, though.

Will you be willing to lug around a 15-pound box to every event? Or would you prefer a software encoder that’s weightless and easy?

Whichever option you choose, keep streaming speed and quality in mind.

Create a list of features and functionality you’ll need

Sometimes you’ll need certain features to take your stream to the next level.

Some important options to consider are:

  • Multi-bitrate
  • Advertisements
  • Closed captioning
  • Multi-camera switching
  • Graphics
  • Live replays

Stick to your budget

Above all else, stay within your means.

It’s not necessary to spend thousands of dollars on a professional encoder when a free software encoder would work just fine.

Which live stream encoder should I choose?

Now that you know the basics of encoders and have an idea of what you need, it’s time to take a look at some options that could work for you.

Before you make a decision, though, do your research! Our list may not have the perfect encoder for you, but, to give you a place to start we listed some encoders that we think you should consider.

Hardware Encoder Examples

  • Teradek
  • VMIX
  • NewTek
  • Haivision’s Makito
  • Boxcast
  • XSplit

Software Encoder Examples

  • Telestream Wirecast
  • Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder
  • VMIX
  • XSplit
  • Wirecast
  • Open Broadcaster Software


You’re now all brushed up in encoder 101.

Now go out there and find the perfect encoder for your live stream!

If you’re filming sports, take a peek at these 13 tips for filming sports games.