A Look at Superbit
by Geoffrey Kleinman
There will undoubtedly be a great deal of disagreement in the DVD Community over the release of Columbia Tristar's new Superbit line which launches on October 9, 2001 with Superbit versions of The Fifth Element, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Air Force One, Desperado and Johnny Mnemonic. It's an easy bet that people will split off into two camps - Superbit lovers who swear that the new DVDs are amazing, and those who just can't see much of a difference.
In truth, the Superbit line is targeted at the 'high end' Home Theater owner, who at minimum has a system capable of playing DTS DVDs, can connect a progressive scan DVD Player to a TV through high end component cables, and may even own a 16:9 widescreen TV. Columbia Tristar is pretty clear about this fact and if you look at the marketing site for Superbit you'll see how they've oriented their marketing towards the high end consumers. The truth is that not everyone thinks about average bit rate when they are watching a DVD and that's OK, Columbia Tristar is betting that there will be enough people who do care to make their new Superbit line a success.
We took the new Superbit DVDs and compared them with the original releases of each title. We watched them all on a Toshiba 'Theater Wide' 16:9 Rear Projection TV, on a progressive scan Toshiba SD-5109 DVD Player connected to the TV with high end component cables from Better Cables. We ran our audio through an Onkyo 575 DTS/DD Receiver to Infinity Reference Standard Series Speakers.
Now before I get to the comparisons, I have to say I've never really thought that any of the original releases were lacking. Fifth Element was a DVD I used early on to show the brilliant colors that you can see on DVD, and the hijack scene in Air Force One was a demo scene I used to show off my system.
The Fifth Element
The first film I compared was The Fifth Element, a movie that is a favorite of mine, and which I've owned for quite some time. I flicked through several of the chapters looking for a good scene to compare between the two. I wanted a scene that had a lot of variations of light, had long shots and close ups and had some sort of action or movement. For The Fifth Element the scene that gave a clear comparison was when Leeloo jumps off the building and lands into Korben Dallas' taxi. On first pass I was hard pressed to see a dramatic difference between the two versions. They both looked very good, but nothing jumped out at me right away. Then I ran the scene back and forth over the two versions. As I watched the scene again and again differences began to come clear:
When Leeloo jumps into the sea of cars, you can see many of the cars which are further down more clearly. This results in a clearer feeling of depth.
Once you begin to spot the differences, it's easy to see that throughout the film the colors look richer, the picture is sharper, and the skin tones look better. The differences in audio are much more dramatic. The Dolby Digital tracks on both the original and the Superbit version of the DVD sound very close to each other, with possibly a slightly fuller sound on the Superbit; however, both tracks are easily eclipsed by the DTS track which provides a dramatically richer sound. To compare the sound I moved to one of the chapters where a space ship fires into the black mass. The DTS track on the Superbit was noticeably richer and the sound felt a lot stronger when coming from the surrounds. Also towards the end when the light passes through Leeloo, the DTS was significantly richer.
With the original release of The Fifth Element, there weren't many special features, so really the only thing you don't get with the Superbit release is the Full Frame version of the movie. The menus for The Fifth Element - Superbit are the Superbit standard, which are pretty uniform across the line. In the case of The Fifth Element, this is really no loss as the menus on the original release we're not really noteworthy.
If you're thinking of buying The Fifth Element Superbit DVD, I'd recommend it only if you can play DTS DVDs. The picture on this Superbit DVD is sharper and more vibrant, but it's the DTS audio that makes the case to pick this one up.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
The next movie I compared was Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Since a great deal of the film takes place at night, I was interested to see how the two versions would compare. Again, as with The Fifth Element, I chose a key scene in the film that had a lot of variance and action. In the case of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon I picked the fight scene between Yu Shu Lien and Jen Yu, which also happens to be one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Additionally I decided to check out the night scene where Yu Shu Lien chases the sword thief across the roof tops on both of the discs. As with The Fifth Element, the differences between the two didn't jump out at me, I had to really sit down and run the two a few times. Some of the things I noticed:
The blacks in the night scenes are much deeper and a blacker black. The separation between the characters who are in black and the black background is more clear and you can make out the action more clearly.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is an example of the fact that Superbit DVDs aren't 'perfect': the are a few specs and marks that appear and at least one long shot outdoor scene showed pretty strong edge enhancement on both versions of the DVD. As with The Fifth Element, the Superbit DTS audio track is an improvement over the Dolby Digital track of both the Original and the Superbit. Of all the Superbit titles I looked at the DTS and Dolby Digital tracks on Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon are the most similar, and while DTS sounded better, I really had to listen to hear the differences.
What you give up on the Superbit version of Crouching Tiger is pretty immense. The first things that struck me were that the intro to the original DVD (which I really liked) is gone, as is the really nice menu, replaced by the dull utilitarian one of the Superbit Series. More importantly you miss out on a phenomenal 'making of', an interesting interview with Michelle Yeoh, commentary by Ang Lee and James Schamus, and a 7 minute photo montage set to the score of the film. Also the original DVD had an optional English dub, not something that I would listen to, but I do realize that not everyone like subtitles. Of all the Superbit titles, the trade off with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is really too great, and even though it does look and sound slightly better, I'd have to recommend going with the original release.
Air Force One
Air Force One used to be a DVD I used to show off my home theater system. The gunfight and use of surrounds when Air Force One is hijacked is fantastic. So I was eager to check out the Superbit version and the new DTS audio track to see if there was much of an improvement. There was! The most striking thing about the Air Force One Superbit DVD is the DTS audio track. There was no question listening to the Superbit track that it was an improvement over the original Dolby Digital track. I actually jumped a little when the first round of gunfire went off in the right rear speaker. The DTS track is so clear and strong from all four surrounds that it's demo quality. Once I was done enjoying the DTS audio, I took a good look of the picture in the hijack scene. It proved to be a good scene to compare with some fairly noticeable differences:
The smoke in the Superbit version is much clearer and smoky. There is much better separation between the smoke and the people running through it.
Maybe because it was the third DVD I was looking at, but the Air Force One Superbit seemed to be a clearer improvement over the original than The Fifth Element or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Since I've long held the original Dolby Digital Audio Track in high regard, an improved DTS audio track is a convincing reason to pick up the Superbit version. What you're going to give up with Superbit is a Full Frame version of the film (which I glady would give up) and a commentary by director Wolfgang Petersen, which is a tough one but given the choice between the better audio and picture and the commentary, in this case I'd say go with the better picture and audio.
After closely comparing The Fifth Element, Crouching Tiger and Air Force One I was finally treated to what I had originally expected from the Superbit series: a clearly superior version. From the first scene in the movie on, the picture is remarkably improved over the original version. To give you an example of how big the difference is, when Steve Buscemi's character walks into the bar, it looks like it is lit in a murky brown light, whereas in the Superbit version the bar is clearly and evenly lit by a dark red light. I was like, "Oh, so that's what it's supposed to look like!" I found myself comparing a good number of scenes in Desperado, and clearly across the board the Superbit looked better. As with the other films, I picked a key scene to compare. In Desperado the scene I picked was Carolina (played by Selma Hayek) singing a song on the bed of El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas). Some of the notable differences:
Skin tone! Wow! In the Superbit version there's a dramatic difference in skin tone, it looks a lot richer and is a much truer color.
The DTS audio track is as dramatic a difference as the picture. Most noticeably is when El Mariachi jumps backward from the top of the building firing his pistols. In the DTS audio track you hear a thud as he lands, something I didn't hear in either the old or new Dolby Digital tracks. Desperado is the easiest to recommend as a 'replacement' DVD for someone who already owns the original version. The improvements in the Superbit version are significant enough to warrant a purchase and you don't give up anything going to Superbit, as the original release didn't have any special features. However, there was also a double feature release (yep, Superbit makes release #3), which had Desperado on one side and El Mariachi on the other, so that's a pretty huge special feature to give up (and the only way to own El Mariachi on DVD).
A side note: I didn't take a look at the Superbit version of Johnny Mnemonic, as I don't have the non-Superbit version of the movie. Since the heart of the issue here is paying money for better looking, better sounding movies, if the movie sucks, it's hard to recommend it even if it looks and sounds amazing.
Thoughts About Superbit
After comparing 3 of the 4 new Superbit releases, I find my self in a conundrum. On one hand I think it's great that Columbia TriStar/Sony has put the effort into developing a line of DVDs with improved picture and sound. But on the other hand they seem to be hanging their hats on the picture side of the equation. In the case of Desperado they are dead right, with Fifth Element and Air Force One they're sort of right, and with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon it feels like they're stretching a bit. The truth is that the real star of the Superbit series is the new DTS audio track, which should be trumpeted like Fox did in their 'Enhanced Widescreen' series.
As someone in their 'target audience' there are some things I really don't like about the Superbit series. First off, I'm really disappointed with their utilitarian menus. I'm not someone who rants and raves about menus, but they do add to the viewing experience of a movie. I know that Columbia Tristar wanted to focus miopically on the picture and sound, but I'd be surprised if nice title-specific menus would have detracted from that.
I'm also pretty disappointed that there isn't any form of home theater calibration on any of the Superbit DVDs. Since optimal picture and sound is the focus here, I am at a loss at why Columbia Tristar didn't do anything to help make sure your TV was as optimally set as it could be for the DVD. After all, a poorly configured TV will negate all the gains you get in the Superbit series.
It's interesting that Columbia Tristar put together the Superbit Series, and I commend them for their continuing effort for excellence in picture and sound, but unfortunately they've put out a product line which is hard to enthusiastically recommend. The titles that they've picked are among their most popular titles, ones that many of us already own. So in many cases these Superbits would be a 'replacement DVD' or re-buy. Unless you are a fanatic over the title or have a load of cash laying around it's really hard to justify spending another $20+ on each title. The stars of the Superbit series are the DTS tracks, and since Columbia Tristar is using the lower bit rate DTS tracks I'd rather see them add these DTS tracks to their main releases, which in many cases they could easily do. I DO think they've set the standard here for a bare bones release and between the improvements in picture and sound, all of the Superbit titles are Reference Quality DVDs.
If you don't own any of these titles, I'd recommend the Superbit over all the original releases except Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon which I feel you give up more in special features than you get back in quality. The one Superbit which is most justifiable as a re-buy is Desperado because it is dramatically better in both picture and sound, and I'd recommend The Fifth Element and Air Force One ONLY if you have a DTS capable system.
Ultimately it's great to see studios creating choices out there for DVD buyers, and I applaud them for making the kind of commitment that they have to great picture and sound (on many of their titles Superbit or not). Columbia Tristar has created a new product line that does look and sound better than the original releases but the question is: are people willing to pay for slight improvements in picture? I think the jury is still out. For my money, I'd probably only look to pick up my absolute favorite movies, and would justify the re-buy with the fact that for the most part the DTS tracks do sound appreciably better.