Unbiased Coverage Of All Things HD: HD-DVD, Blu-Ray and Beyond
2006 High Definition in Review
Notes from the Next-Generation Video Disc Format War
What a crazy, exciting year it's been for home theater. As we started 2006, DVD was still the best game in town for pre-recorded home video media. Now we have not one but two separate High Definition video disc formats vying to be its successor, both of which easily leave DVD quality in the dust. HD DVD came out of the gate strong, with a reasonably priced player (the Toshiba HD-A1) and an excellent selection of high-quality movie releases. Then Blu-ray stumbled during its launch; the Samsung BD-P1000 player was both a mediocre performer and vastly overpriced, and the initial slate of movie releases were hit or miss for quality, with far too many misses for a new product's first impression. As the year progressed, Blu-ray has worked hard to catch up. New players from Panasonic, Sony, and Pioneer have upstaged the Samsung model (though are still quite overpriced), and software quality has been steadily improving.
As 2006 comes to a close, both formats stand about neck and neck. Neither has quite caught on with the average consumer yet, but both are poised for exciting developments in 2007 and beyond. We don't yet know who's going to win this format war, if anyone. But rather than dwell on the negatives, let's embrace all the fun new High-Def toys the year has given us. If anything, between the two formats and hundreds of High Definition movie discs, home theater fans are suffering an embarrassment of riches. So without further ado, here are DVDTalk's picks for the Top 10 High Definition Releases of 2006.
HD DVD Exclusive
Seabiscuit - There was certainly some crowded competition in this field, and we're sure that HD DVD fans will have their own favorites, but in our estimation Seabiscuit pulled ahead of the pack. The disc's video transfer approaches perfection in every conceivable way: its colors are rich and vibrant, black levels and contrast are both robust, and every object in the frame -- from rolling hillsides deep in the background to each hair on Seabiscuit's hide -- is startlingly detailed. This is what High Definition is all about!
Ice Age: The Meltdown - Perhaps it's a bit unfair to pick a digitally-animated cartoon feature in a category like this. This type of movie always looks great, no matter the medium. But it's hard to argue with such popping, vibrant picture quality as we get here. The colors are simply magnificent, and detail is so fine you can make out the individual hairs on each character. This is a disc you'll want to show off to all your friends.
Mission: Impossible III (HD DVD / Blu-ray) - No matter which format you pick, M:i:III looks amazing, and will no doubt become the new default show-off demo in many home theaters. Its sharpness, detail, and eye-popping colors are just stunning, on a level that seems to go beyond even previous "reference" discs. This video transfer is just fantastic.
HD DVD Exclusive
Superman Returns - OK, so the movie didn't live up to the hype and its photography is bizarrely flat and bland, but the HD DVD's lossless Dolby TrueHD soundtrack provides some of the most exceptional sound available for home theater. The incredibly aggressive mix immerses the room as effects whir from channel to channel. Clarity and detail are uniformly stunning, and the track's dynamic range is remarkably expansive. Superman Returns sets a new benchmark for home audio. While Warner Bros. is supporting both High-Def formats, their TrueHD tracks are still exclusive to HD DVD, allowing Supes to take this category.
Black Hawk Down - The uncompressed PCM 5.1 audio track on Ridley Scott's war drama is nothing short of demo worthy, and easily our pick for best Blu-ray sound. Between the magnificent dynamic range and consistently active discrete surround effects, this sound mix creates a truly enveloping experience that places you right at the heart of the battle. You'll feel it in your stomach, and we mean that in the best possible way.
We Were Soldiers (HD DVD / Blu-ray edition available early 2007) - Even without a lossless or uncompressed audio track, the plain Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix on the We Were Soldiers HD DVD is one of the finest audio experiences we've heard at home. The soundstage is immersed in the sounds of pistols, machine guns, mortars, and grenades from every direction. Helicopters circle through every speaker, fighter jets rip through the air above you, and the bass during all the explosions can be downright punishing. Even in the midst of all this, dialogue is never drowned out by the cacophony. We expect the upcoming Blu-ray disc's DD 5.1 audio to be every bit as good.
HD DVD Exclusive
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift - While few would mistake this third entry in the lame-brained Furious franchise for a good movie, it sure makes for swell home video. In addition to its fabulous picture and sound, the HD DVD was the first to incorporate Universal's U-Control interactive feature and is still the best implementation of it to date. Anchored around picture-in-picture video overlays, Tokyo Drift's U-Control is a marked improvement over the "In Movie Experience" or "Instant Access" features on other High-Def discs by virtue of its extensive customization abilities. You the viewer decide what options to enable at what time via an intuitive menu interface. Discs like this provide a glimpse at the future of HD interactivity.
Mission: Impossible III (HD DVD / Blu-ray) - Although the content of its supplemental features may not be particularly innovative otherwise, M:i:III scores plenty of points for being the first 2-disc special edition on either HD format, and for providing most of its making-of featurettes in true High Definition video. The HD DVD gets extra credit for its exclusive Enhanced Commentary picture-in-picture feature, while the Blu-ray has three additional easter eggs hidden in the menus.
Honorable Mention: World Trade Center.
None - That's right, none. Since the format was first announced, the Blu-ray camp has been boasting of the amazing interactive abilities their discs can provide, features that would go well above and beyond anything available on the competing HD DVD format. Yet to date we've seen precisely nothing of the sort. In fact, the majority of Blu-ray discs have been bereft of any bonus features at all, usually dropping featurettes, documentaries, and commentaries available on the old DVD editions. Those discs with any High Definition extras have been primarily dual-format releases, with the same or better supplements on the corresponding HD DVD. And as for interactive features, forget it. Warner's In Movie Experiences haven't made the transition to BD. The closest thing to an exclusive interactive feature on a Blu-ray disc has been the "Search Content" option on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which allows you to jump to a pre-selected spot in the movie related to an alphabetical list of topics. Whoop-de-doo. Guess what, Blu-ray? The Chronos HD DVD can do the same thing. So much for the innovative capabilities of BD-Java. Better luck next year.
The Searchers (HD DVD / Blu-ray) - As much as we enjoy the whiz-bang features of our new electronic gizmos, in the end the quality of the movie and the loving care and attention put into its presentation are what matter most. John Ford's masterpiece The Searchers is a substantial work of art, a masterfully composed, well-acted film that's as entertaining as it is thoughtful. It's one of the best films available on the new HD formats. What's more, it's been given a simply beautiful restoration that should put to rest the misconception that only recent movies can look good in High Definition, and it comes with a substantial assortment of informative bonus features. A movie of this age looking so spectacular leaves The Searchers easily ranking among the most impressive High-Def releases to date.
All right, so it wound up really being a Top 9 list, but this is just a small sampling of the High-Def goodies released in 2006. Our apologies to all the other great releases from the year that we've missed. It's a good time to be a home theater fan. We look forward to even better things to come in the new year.
Previous High-Def Revolution Column
Index of All HD DVD Reviews
Index of All Blu-ray Reviews
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player Review
Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray Player Review
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