Planet Earth (Blu-ray and HD DVD)
Talk about a win-win. Not only is the BBC's Planet Earth series spectacular hi-def eye candy, it's so well-made and narratively compelling that it holds up to an insane number of repeated viewings. And I should know- my two-year old son has us watching several of these episodes (especially Shallow Seas and Ocean Deep) several times a week.
Planet Earth was shot over a five-year period, almost exclusively in HD, and features some of the most stunning, how in the heck did they get that footage nature photography I've ever seen. I was left gaping at many of the creatures and much of the footage here. This material would hold my interest even it weren't captured gloriously in HD.
One note- the narrator in all these episodes is David Attenborough, who sounds strikingly similar to John Cleese. On Discovery HD's broadcast of Ocean Deep (and reportedly others), Sigourney Weaver narrated to great effect. Would have been nice for a little change-up every now and again or even an audio option for both.
The 1080p video is presented in identical VC-1 encodes on Blu-ray and HD DVD, with identical 448kbps Dolby Digital tracks. There is nothing I'm aware of to choose between the two formats on this one.
Most of the footage here is near-perfect and pristine- bold colors, strikingly sharp images with excellent detail- I was especially stricken by clarity of the aerial photography and above earth shots. Most of the sequences throughout the four-disc set are at the precipice of the "looking through a window" gold standard that only video-based HD can seemingly provide. If it falls just ever so short of that, it's understandable given that this photography took place far from controlled conditions. It's still the best-looking nature footage I've seen in terms of quality and content. And the transfer is certainly sharp enough to easily spot the few sequences that appear to upconverted from standard-def. Any shortcomings in the image (like noisy, low-res nighttime shots) are clearly a result of the source material not the transfer.
I was very impressed with the episodes of PE I saw on Discovery HD, but they literally pale in comparison to the Blu-ray and HD DVD presentations. These disc-based HD presentations are sharper and clearer and completely devoid of artifacts of any kind, compression or otherwise. Because the Disco HD broadcasts are so good this is some of the most compelling evidence yet that disc-based HD is a big step-up from broadcast and amust for discerning enthusiasts.
The 640kbps DD audio is serviceable and nothing more. It doesn't get in the way by a long shot, but also doesn't match the grandeur of the video; but perhaps no audio presentation could fill such a tall order.
The single disappointment in this otherwise superlative set is a lack of any extra features of any kind. I've seen a brief "making of" following the Disco HD broadcasts, which were excellent, and it's a bummer they weren't offered here on this $70 set. More so because I genuinely wanted to know more about this ground breaking production.
I'd encourage everyone who reads this review to purchase this set on one format or the other, but word is that most of you already have. While not the leader in overall unit sales, due to its $70-ish price tag and the fact that it's available on both formats, Planet Earth is reported to be the #1 HD titles so far in sales revenue. And it's well earned. There isn't a single title in my catalog I've enjoyed more than this and I'm hard pressed to think of a better way to spend $70. A treasure!
Picture: 9.5 out of 10
Sound: 5 out of 10
Video reviewed on Marantz VP-11S1 1080p DLP projector, 80" wide Stewart Filmscreen Studiotek 130 screen. Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD player and Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray Disc player via HDMI to Anthem AVM 50. Audio sent as PCM over HDMI to Anthem AVM 50. Ayre MX-R monoblocks and Theta Dreadnaught power amps, and Vandersteen loudspeakers. All video cables by Bettercables, all audio cables by AudioQuest