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Solving “There Was A Problem Playing This Item” Error in Plex

April 2, 2024

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Unexpected Plex playback failures can quickly ruin your movie night. But before rage quitting the app, try these proven troubleshooting tips that I’ve compiled as a longtime Plex expert to get your media working smoothly again.

In my experience, a “there was a problem playing this item” error or other cryptic playback failure in Plex generally boils down to one of three root causes:

  1. Transcoding issues – File formats/codecs beyond your Plex server’s capabilities trying unsuccessfully to be converted on-the-fly. If you are looking for Plex alternatives that handle transcoding better, consider Emby or Kodi.
  2. Quality/capability mismatch – Client device hardware unable to directly play back certain media formats, levels of compression, subtitle types, etc. Plex buffering can also happen from capability issues.
  3. Connectivity problems – Local network congestion or remote access port forwarding misconfigurations preventing smooth streaming. Plex audio out of sync can stem from network latency.

We’ll explore all three categories in detail below, along with specific solutions to have you back to binge-watching your favorite content in no time.

Rule Out Transcoding Problems First

Transcoding refers to Plex’s attempt to convert media files into a format compatible for playback on your device. But this process requires significant server CPU/GPU resources.

If your Plex Media Server hardware can’t handle certain files, playback failures with frustratingly generic errors will result. To rule out transcoding issues:

  • Check processor usage during attempted playback – if pinned at 100%, transcoding is likely failing
  • In Plex settings, manually disable any quality switching and enable original/maximum quality
  • On the server, downgrade libraries to disable GPU encoding
  • As a test, try playing original quality media formats known to direct play such as H.264, AAC, MP4, etc.

If disabling transcoding allows problem files to play correctly, insufficient server resources are confirmed as the issue.

Upgrade Server Hardware to Enable Transcoding

While it’s best to optimize media for direct play, transcoding will always be necessary in some use cases. If your CPU can’t keep up, consider upgrading:

  • Processor – Intel QuickSync or NVIDIA GPUs ideal for hardware acceleration
  • RAM – 8GB minimum, allow 300 MB per concurrent 1080p transcode stream
  • Storage – SSD cache for metadata speeds up library scanning

Or simplify by switching to a dedicated Plex box like a Nvidia Shield or NAS. I’ve had great results with these for reliable 24/7 operation.

Force Direct Play as Workaround

When transcoding is underpowered or unsupported, you can also force direct play compatibility:

On Player Device:

  • Disable auto quality adjustments
  • Set video/audio to maximum/original quality
  • Increase max level for H.264 (Android only)
Plex Play Original Quality

This accepts the small risk of playback issues in return for avoiding cryptic errors.

On Media Server:

  • Disable GPU encoding in library settings
  • Limit remote stream bitrate
  • Lower default quality level
Plex Limit Simultaneous Video Streams

Tradeoffs here include mobile data usage and video quality.

Investigate Format Incompatibility Issues

Separately from transcoding, “there was a problem playing this” errors can also occur when direct playing media your Plex client hardware doesn’t support.

Factors like H.264 level, subtitles, number of reference frames and audio codecs/channels can cause cryptic failures despite no attempted conversion.

Fix Direct Play Back Errors By:

  • Checking file information metadata for compatibility red flags
  • Overriding max level limits in app settings
  • Burning in problem subtitle formats
  • Switching problematic audio tracks
  • Converting media with Plex optimizing tools

For example, while the Xiaomi Mi 11 officially supports up to H.264 level 6.1, disabling this limit entirely avoided playback issues without needing transcoding.

For mobile devices, also consider Plex on Amazon Fire Stick or Plex on Nintendo Switch which may have fewer capability issues than tablets/phones.

Resolve Networking & Connectivity Issues

Smooth Plex streaming relies on uncongested networking between media servers, local networks, ISP connections and remote devices.

Playback failures or buffering can result from:

  • WiFi deadzones and interference
  • QoS or bandwidth throttling
  • Port forwarding problems
  • ISP traffic shaping

Improve Connectivity With:

  • Wired connections when possible
  • Quality routers like mesh systems
  • Confirming remote access port forwarding
  • Enabling Plex Relay as workaround
  • VPN tunneling to bypass ISP throttling

While less likely than transcoding or file compatibility triggers, don’t overlook networking fixes for error prone Plex setups.

Additional Plex Troubleshooting Steps

Before pulling your hair out over intermittent Plex problems, also try:

  • Restarting media server and client devices
  • Deleting and readding problematic libraries
  • Scanning libraries to refresh metadata
  • Downgrading Plex Media Server version
  • Checking logs for specific error events

9 times out of 10, the solutions above will have you happily watching again. But if issues persist across media, devices and networks, underlying problems in libraries, databases and installations may require advanced troubleshooting steps.

Key Takeaways on Fixing Plex Playback Failures

  • Cryptic Plex playback errors generally stem from transcoding, file compatibility or network issues.
  • Confirm root cause first then apply targeted solutions – don’t shoot blindly.
  • Adjust quality and restrict transcoding to force direct play compliance.
  • Check H.264 levels, subtitles, codecs for direct play conflicts.
  • Upgrade server hardware to enable full transcoding capabilities.
  • Improve local and remote connections to avoid buffering and throttling.

While frustrating in the moment, most Plex problems have straightforward solutions. Methodically rule out potential culprits until you regain smooth streaming.

Hopefully these troubleshooting tips save you from rage quitting your next movie night! Let me know in the comments if you have any other questions on solving Plex playback issues.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Why does Plex keep saying there was a problem playing this item?
    A: This error usually indicates transcoding failure, file format incompatibility, or network connectivity issues preventing smooth playback. Methodically troubleshoot each potential cause.
  2. How do I fix Plex playback issues?
    A: First check if the server CPU is maxing out, indicating transcoding problems. Try disabling transcoding and forcing direct play. Then look for file compatibility red flags like unsupported H.264 levels, subtitle formats or audio codecs. Finally, improve networking fundamentals like using wired connections and enabling port forwarding.
  3. What are some Plex alternatives that handle transcoding better?
    A: While Plex is the most popular media server, alternatives like Emby and Kodi offer robust transcoding support that may work better for certain use cases and server hardware. See our full Plex alternatives comparison.
  4. Why is Plex buffering so much?
    A: Plex buffering issues often stem from server hardware struggling to keep up with transcoding, client devices unable to handle the streaming quality, or network bandwidth/connectivity problems. Use the troubleshooting steps above to isolate the cause.
  5. How do I fix Plex audio being out of sync?
    A: Plex audio sync issues are frequently caused by audio format incompatibility with the playback device. Try switching audio tracks, limiting transcoding, or adjusting A/V sync in player settings. Improving network performance can also help.