The ultimate top 10 Blu-Ray guide for your home theatre.

To celebrate the launch of our new Mini Theatre series we have compiled an all-time top 10 list of Blu-Rays to really test your home theatre system.

Star Wars1: Star Wars: The Complete Saga

Use it to test: Everything!

Resplendent in 1080p HD and endowed with a freshly remastered HD-Audio soundtrack, this sci-fi epic remains the standard by which all other home cinema experiences should be judged. Skywalker Sound’s Matthew Wood supervised a four-year audio restoration process, with every soundtrack sourced from the archival prints and remastered in uncompressed 24-bit/48kHz form – and the results are simply astonishing, especially with the older films. You’ll find familiar sequences take on a whole new energy, most especially in surround sound standouts such as the walker assault in The Empire Strikes Back or the Death Star’s destruction in A New Hope.

Test Track Moment
So many to choose from…but if you had to pick one moment, we’d go for the speeder bike chase in Return Of The Jedi. It’s a staggeringly realized 360-degree whirlwind of sound.

Super 82: Super 8

Use it to test: Dynamics

Directed by J.J.Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, Super 8¹s cinematic credentials are impeccable. While its core themes may be familiar ­ aliens, middle America, conspiracies and cover-ups ­ there¹s nothing hackneyed about its execution: indeed, you¹ll seldom see a slicker or more technically accomplished film, its beautifully composed cinematography and bravura set-pieces combining to creative an endlessly entertaining experience.

And if anything, the film¹s soundtrack is even more impressive. Super 8¹s soundtrack was created by what could best be described as a Supergroup of Skywalker Sound¹s finest engineers, with contributions from David Acord, Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom and Matthew Wood. The result is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

Test Track Moment
Chapter 3 begins with spaciousness, with expertly applied foley effects that transport you to the scene¹s remote train station in uncanny fashion. And thenŠthen there¹s a huge train crash, an extended, sofa-shuddering adrenaline rush of sound and fury unparalleled in modern home cinema. Hang on to your sofaŠ

Inception3: Inception

Use it to test: Scale

Chris Nolan’s wildly ambitious, dazzingly complex thriller demands your attention: it’s a challenging watch, one that will reward repeat viewings, if only to bask in the splendour of its special effects. And if the watching is impressive, the listening is, in many ways, even better: Hans Zimmer formidable soundtrack sets an appropriately majestic tone throughout – it’s astonishingly dynamic – while Gary Rizzo (another Skywalker Sound alumni) relishes the film’s many opportunities to challenge every speaker in your system, most especially your subwoofer. The results are brilliant, as richly textured as they are formidably dynamic: Inception garnered both an Oscar and a Bafta for its sound in 2010, and rightly so.

Test Track Moment
The film’s final, climactic ‘kick’ scene, as everyone attempts to make it back to reality, is a masterpiece: sound effects and soundtrack intertwine to create a massive, seamless soundfield that can’t fail to excite.

Inglourious Basterds4: Inglourious Basterds

Use it to test: Dialogue clarity

After his Grindhouse project (eventually released as Death Proof and Planet Terror) met with a distinctly mixed reception, it would have been easy for Quentin Tarantino to fall back on what he knew best, but Inglourious Basterds is much more than a khaki-clad retread of Reservoir Dogs.
Forget explosions and firefights: here, the real weapons are words, with Tarantino’s exceptional ensemble cast relishing the opportunity to wrestle with the script’s crackling intensity. Historical accuracy be damned, too: throughout, Basterds is as exuberantly inventive as Brad Pitt’s cod-Italian accent in the film’s final scenes. The result is a war film like no other, and a great home cinema tester – but not in the sense you might expect.

Test Track Moment
To get a measure of your centre speaker’s clarity, check out the 20-minute long opener, as Christoph Waltz’s sadistic SS Colonel Hans Landa interrogates a French farmer he suspects of harbouring Jews. The tension is almost unbearable – as is the scene’s shocking, brutally dynamic finale.

Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense5: Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense

Use it to test: Musicality

Unlike almost every other Blu-ray release you can think of, Stop Making Sense is no advert for the virtues of high-definition video. Its picture quality is mediocre at best, its age (and the relative lack of care devoted to its 1080p transfer) showing through in its grainy, comparatively soft image. But the sound…now the sound’s a different story. Presented in DTS-HD Master Audio, it’s fantastic, capturing the band’s best-ever performances at their deliriously rhythmic best. If your system doesn’t sound musical when spinning this disc – and, in particular, if your subwoofer sounds sonically distinct from the rest of your speakers – then you need to rethink your system’s set-up.

Test Track Moment
As the concert unfolds you get the sense it’s been working its way towards one big moment, and ‘Girlfriend is Better’ is it. Byrne in his iconic ‘big suit’, keyboard player Bernie Worrell (formerly of Parliament) to the fore: it’s the very essence of funk.

True Grit6: True Grit

Use it to test: Spaciousness

When the Coen brothers last tackled a remake it was with The Ladykillers, and things did not end well (as the few of you to have seen the film will doubtless attest). But True Grit is far more successful, eclipsing John Wayne’s original in every regard: Jeff Bridges, in particular, invests his iteration of Rooster Cogburn with an irascible humanity that Wayne’s inevitably bluffer performance lacked. Cinematographer Roger Deakins conjures an evocative, sweeping feel to the film’s visuals, while Craig Berkey (sound designer in X-Men: First Class, above) creates an equally grand soundfield, one that should immerse you in the story from the first minute.

Test Track Moment
Nothing sums up a Western like a good-old-fashioned showdown, and True Grit’s confrontation is a peach, the wide-open atmosphere of the open prairie contrasting wonderfully with the brutal gunfire of both Cogburn’s pistols and LaBoeuf’s mighty Sharps rifle.

Star Trek7. Star Trek

Use it to test: Bass

For all the enthusiasm of its devoted fans, the Star Trek franchise was ailing, the paunch of its increasingly careworn cast matched only by the ponderous bagginess of each new script.  Kudos then to J.J.Abrams for so successfully reviving Gene Roddenberry’s much-loved sci-fi saga: the director’s high-octane, all-action style and pitch-perfect casting ensures 2009’s take on Trek appeals to both devoted Trekkies and the wider audience alike. The youthful cast do full justice to their illustrious forebears – with Zachary Quinto’s Spock an especial delight – while the special effects are suitably out-of-this-world throughout.

Test Track Moment
Most earlier Trek films relished any opportunity to blow up the Enterprise: here, director Abrams takes aim at an all-new and much larger target, destroying planet Vulcan – Spock’s home – in a dazzling fifteen-minute rush of full-bore sound and fury.

Saving Private Ryan8. Saving Private Ryan

Use it to test: Punch

Few soundtracks have been so rightly acclaimed as that of Steven Spielberg’s 1998 war epic. Conceived by seven-times Oscar-winner Gary Rydstrom, it’s a tour-de-force of authenticity, its shockingly graphic opening scenes proving so convincing that some WWII veterans reportedly felt traumatized watching them. The film’s key sonic signatures are absolute realism – as just one example, every gunshot is generated from a recording of an authentic weapon firing live ammunition – and thunderous, hitherto-unparalleled levels of volume. Your subwoofer will be assured of a thorough workout, most especially during the film’s climactic final battle.

Test Track Moment
Ryan is book-ended by a pair of savage battles, the first the assault on Omaha beach, the last a brutal confrontation to save  the bridge at Ramelle from a German advance. Both are extraordinary sonic workouts in every possible regard.

Master And Commander9. Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World

Use it to test: Power

Although more modern war films – Saving Private Ryan (above) springs to mind – can provide even more visceral tests of your system’s power, there’s something uniquely appealing about Master And Commander’s period sense of muscularity. Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, there’s a thrilling sense of authenticity coursing through every scene: sound designer Richard King insisted that no stock (ie prerecorded) audio be used to create any of the film’s effects. Instead, virtually every audio component in the film’s soundfield was generated as a bespoke recording – and the result is wondrous. Cannonfire has seldom, if ever sounded this forceful before.

Test Track Moment
As Russell Crowe’s ship HMS Surprise chases its French quarry the Acheron around Cape Horn, your system should come alive: the soundfield is astonishingly complex, full of the furious power of the storm-lashed seas and the creaking protests of the tortured ship.

Foo Fighters10. Foo Fighters: Live At Wembley Stadium

Use it to test: Atmosphere

Live concert discs are usually a great way to test your system’s ability to convey ambience, and this pulsating set is no exception. 86,000 devoted fans do their best to wrap you in the action while the Foos thrash out hit after forceful hit, each performance made all the more exciting by the soundtrack’s 24-bit/48kHz-mastered PCM 5.1 audio. You’re placed at the heart of the crowd, with audience effects and stadium reverb wrapping you in the atmosphere. It’s a raw and raucous listen, the band preferring a warts’n’all presentation rather than the polished, studio-enhanced mixes favoured by some of their contemporaries, but none the less impressive for that.

Test Track Moment
As the concert nears its climax, Dave Grohl introduces two special guests – Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – before taking to the drumkit to thrash into a blistering rendition of Rock and Roll. He’s grinning like an excited child throughout, and it’s easy to hear why…

5 Comments

  • Steve says:

    B&W an excellent choice above.

    My 5.1 home theatre system- HTM3s (Centre), 804s (Main), 805s (Rear), DB1 (Bass), Pioneer (calibrated display), Sony (Blu Ray / DVD player), Tag Mclaren (10 mono amps- 2 per channel), Audiolab (sound processor), Audyssey Sound Equaliser MultiEQ XT Pro (Room correction), IsoTek mains conditioning.

    My top ten films (not the ultimate collection); this is taking into account A1 sound and picture quality. Enjoy!

    1) 3:10 to Yuma (Blu Ray)

    Use it to test: Everything

    This might not be the best film in the world the 7.1 PCM mix is without question the best of the bunch. Sound separation across the front soundstage is splendid and dialogue is reproduced to absolute perfection. Bass is deep and loud but remains accurate and distortion free.

    2) Quantum of Solace (Blu ray)

    Use it to test: Dynamics

    From the car chase at the start of the film, to rain falling on James Bond’s car – an excellent treat for all channels in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1.

    3) Kill Bill Volume 1 (Blu Ray)

    Use it to test: Scale

    Presented in uncompressed 5.1 PCM, Kill Bill sounds spectacular. I was completely blown away with the amazing width of the soundstage and the clarity exhibited in every nuance that this track delivered.

    4) Pulp Fiction (Blu Ray)

    Use it to test: Dialogue clarity

    DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, check out the dialogue scene between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson when they are discussing different types of burgers.

    5) Michael Jackson’s – THIS IS IT (Blu Ray)

    Use it to test: Musicality

    I remember being at The Haugh in Glasgow green and experiencing the Dangerous Tour- what a concert- sound quality was phenomenal, a show not to have missed. I took some ear plugs as I had an inclination that the levels were going to be loud. The following day he was banned by the council! The bass was seismic and mid range and treble was crystal clear and defined, lower bass vibrated your internals. This is the best concert I’ve been to and I’ve went to many since.

    ‘THIS IS IT’ captures in 5.1 DTS HD Master, Dolby Digital an aura of visuals and a sound that takes you to a private viewing of what was going to be but never was. The bass from the DB1 is strong and punchy as each hit after hit rolls by. The treble and mid is crystal clear and precise.

    6) Shutter Island (Blu Ray)

    Use it to test: Spaciousness

    Sound is presented via DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack. The track proves its worth mere moments after the film opens, setting the stage for what is nothing less than a superb environmental recreation that captures almost every sonic nuance with incredible precision. As a vessel sails towards Shutter Island, listeners will enjoy the sounds of gently rolling waves splashing through the soundstage. A foghorn sounds away from what seems like a great distance. Chains rattle about the inside of the ship.

    7) Hurt Locker (Blu Ray)

    Use it to test: Bass

    If this is what a bomb going off sounds like then this sound track captures it with the DB1 causing air borne waves on a gigantic scale. Not just with bombs the action-oriented sound effects prove to be show-stoppers, high-end system-sellers, and limit-pushing sonic marvels that stand among Blu-ray’s finest audio offerings. Helicopters aggressively but naturally buzz around the soundstage and whirl with ease from one side to the other; fighter jets, too, scream through the listening area with amazing clarity and precision.

    8) and 9) as B&W selection above.

    10) Joe Bonamassa: Live from The Royal Albert hall (Blu Ray)

    Use it to test: Atmosphere

    An excellent concert, check it out.

  • Paul says:

    I completely agree with most of these choices. But my question is!! Could they bring out a “test your hifi kit blueray” with all these in one amazing disc? I would place an order right now!! Regards Paul

  • Joe Calarco says:

    This is a great feature. It draws our attention in a specific way to sound achievements in recent films released in blu-ray, and will influence my purchase decisions. It would also be interesting to read more narrowly focused evaluations of classic releases–for example, the films of Stanley Kubrick. How does sound hold up for releases of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Shining, or A Clockwork Orange?

  • Bowers and Wilkins says:

    Hi Joe,

    This is a very interesting point and I’m going to commission a classic top 10 list as you suggest.

    Best,
    Susanna
    Society of Sound

  • Amateur says:

    While this is an interesting list, there is one major problem:

    It has been definitively proven that the Master & Commander Blu-ray disc contains far inferior audio in the ultra low frequencies (ULF) than its DVD counterpart. For reference, please see the comparison of the opening cannon salvos on these two audio tracks measured with SpecLab on digital output (from all channels) from the same Blu-ray player:

    http://gickr.com/results4/anim_b6f68f4e-6fcb-6f14-85aa-344d630723dc.gif
    (credit bossobass)

    The 2003 Collector’s Edition DVD audio track (DTS) is significantly better in the low bass region, with very hot effects centered around 20hz, extending significantly to 3hz.

    With all of the attention paid by Richard King in creating this beautiful and vibrant track, you have to wonder why the 2011 Blu-ray’s DTS-MA 5.1 track is so obviously neutered. Though the tracks from the two sources share some of the same effects, the audio has been remastered and significantly reduced in intensity within the Dolby specified LFE range of 3-120hz. Many of the ULF effects are simply no longer present.

    The result? While the overall clarity of the entire Blu-ray DTS-MA track is superb, the cannon fire is significantly more realistic and impactful on the DTS track from the DVD. If you’ve ever been around Howitzers, or on a modern destroyer or battleship when they fire their cannons, you know how much ULF content there is in modern, real life examples of what M&C depicts. There is absolutely no reason why this content should not be included – if your system can’t reproduce it, it can’t reproduce it, and there’s no loss. For those who can reproduce it, however, there is MUCH to gain!

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