Home theater gearheads who frequent the AVSForum boards are no doubt already familiar with the names Spears and Munsil. For the benefit of everyone else, Stacey Spears and Don Munsil are former writers for the Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity web site who developed the DVD Benchmark and the Progressive Scan DVD Player Shootout. In their time at Secrets, Munsil and Spears instituted a battery of tests that truly set the standard for how DVD hardware should be evaluated. Their invaluable reviews and articles explained the importance of deinterlacing performance in a thorough and accurate manner unmatched by any other publication, whether online or in print. Recently, the two men have brought their DVD experience into the Blu-ray realm by producing a new test disc called, simply enough, the 'Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark'.
A good calibration disc is the lynchpin of any home theater. At present, there aren't too many of them available on Blu-ray. Joe Kane's 'Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics' provides a host of test patterns for setting picture controls such as Brightness, Contrast, Sharpness, and Color. Meanwhile, the 'Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark' focuses on measurements for deinterlacing, scaling, and noise reduction. The 'Spears & Munsil' disc attempts to combine the best attributes of both into one easy-to-use package.
The disc starts with a 3-minute high-def video montage shot using a RED ONE camera. It's mostly scenery and travelogue footage (with some time lapse) filmed in and around the Seattle area. 'Twin Peaks' fans will recognize the Snoqualmie Falls. After this begin the test patterns.
Users who have at least a modest familiarity with the basics of calibration will likely recognize the purpose for many of the test patterns on the disc. Nonetheless, most of the specific patterns provided were built by Spears and Munsil for the disc, and were optimized for HD displays. The menus are divided into three categories. "Setup and Evaluation" offers static patterns for the likes of PLUGE, contrast, color bars, grayscale, picture geometry, and the Chroma Upsampling Error. "Source Adaptive Deinterlacing" contains film deinterlacing tests (specifically the famous 'Super Speedway' racetrack clip and a synthetic wedge) in a variety of cadences. "Edge Adaptive Deinterlacing" is meant for video deinterlacing. Here you'll find patterns for jaggies, as well as mixed film and video content (scrolling horizontal and vertical text running at a different cadence than the video in the background), and some familiar public domain clips of bridges, hockey players, men climbing ropes, and a ship's mast.
The disc's menu structure is intuitive and easily navigated. Text instructions describing the purpose of each test and what to look for can be activated by simply pushing the UP arrow on your remote control. (Press DOWN to disable.) The disc was designed for home theater end users, not necessarily professional calibrators. The majority of tests were specifically chosen so as not to require any specialized equipment such as colorimeters or oscilloscopes. A blue filter (like that provided with 'Digital Video Essentials' and most DVD calibration discs) will be useful for the color bars, but unfortunately has not been provided.
Although there is certainly some overlap, the 'Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark' is meant as a compliment to 'Digital Video Essentials', not a replacement. Unlike 'DVE', the 'Spears & Munsil' disc has no audio test tones and no live action or animated instructional videos. On the other hand, 'DVE' has no deinterlacing or chroma alignment tests, for instance. The two products each serve their own purposes, and I recommend both.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 'Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark' was produced independently by its creators. The disc is currently being sold by the hardware manufacturer Oppo Digital, which also plans to include a copy of the disc with its upcoming DBP-83 Blu-ray player.
Included in the case is a printed insert booklet with descriptions of the test patterns (the same text that appears when you turn on the Help commands on the disc).
As a reference standard for calibration purposes, it stands to reason that all of the test patterns on the Blu-ray are essentially flawless. All synthetic patterns were built in native 4:2:0 YCbCr color space and are encoded with VC-1 compression at either 1080i or 1080p24 resolution, depending on the purpose of the specific pattern. Certain tests are also available in standard-def resolution using VC-1 or MPEG-2.
The 3-minute HD montage was photographed at 4k resolution in a 2:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-ray retains the original framing, though the video has been scaled to Blu-ray's 1080p24. The VC-1 transfer is pretty stunning. The footage is crisp and colorful, with smooth contrasts and a terrific sense of depth. No compression or encoding artifacts are apparent.
This is not an audio test disc. Only the opening logo, demo montage, and bonus trailers have any audio. The logo and montage can be replayed in your choice of Dolby TrueHD 5.1, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, or PCM 5.1 options. All are lossless to the original master and sound identical, though I'm sure that won't end any arguments about one sound format being superior to another. The Dolby and DTS trailers offer up to 7.1 audio.
The demo montage has an understated musical score that sounds perfectly nice. Clarity and fidelity are both strong, but this isn't a whiz-bang action movie soundtrack with slamming bass or zippy surround activity. It's fine for what it is.
There aren't a whole lot of extras, but the disc creators did throw in a little something.
The 'Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark' is a very useful tool for both calibrating your HD display and evaluating the performance of your Blu-ray player. Recommended.