Reference Status - The 20 Best Blu-rays for Picture and Sound
The best of the best!
Anyone who's ever bought a decent AV system knows that half the reason for owning one is so you can show it off to your mates.So we have put together a list of the twenty Blu-rays that we feel provide reference quality in terms of the picture and sound. All of these discs offer state-of-the-art audio and video but also have those classic demo scenes that will make your friends green with envy! In fact, even our hardware reviewers use these scenes to test the quality of a system - be it a sub moment to shake the foundations or complex shadow detail that challenges a TV or projector. Often it's a combination of factors that really show off how incredible Blu-ray can be as a format and how good your system actually is - delivering that quintessential 'wow' moment. So, without further ado, we present the AVForums Top 20 Reference Blu-rays for the best picture and sound.
This article was originally published on the 16th June 2014 and the last update was on the 18th May 2015.All of these Blu-rays offer state-of-the-art audio and video that will push your system to the limit.
Aside from being a beautifully designed and an enjoyable throwback to the classic sci-fi of the 1970s, this technical marvel includes a spectacular combination of visuals, score and effects. The transfer is flawless, perfectly replicating the film's digital capture and the soundtrack is constantly alive with effects. However it's the nuclear explosion that'll blow your friends' socks off and have you questioning the structural integrity of your house.
Disney took a genuine risk handing the big-budget sequel of the hugely influential Tron to first time director Joseph Kosinski (who incidentally went on to direct Oblivion). However they were rewarded with a technological tour de force that makes for an almost perfect Blu-ray. The picture and sound are the definition of a reference disc and, in the famous light cycle race, both come together to form one of the greatest audio and visual experiences ever.
David Fincher is a perfectionist, so you can expect the Blu-ray releases of all his films to have impressive picture and sound. So it proves to be with the exception of Panic Room, which remains unavailable on Blu-ray for some reason. Fincher has been pioneering digital photography for some time and the results have been spectacular with The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo both delivering a reference performance. However it's his latest film that makes the list with a pristine image and sound that perfectly capture the tone of Fincher's mystery thriller and will show your system off at its best.
It might have seemed like both a gimmick and a huge risk to hand this mega-budget reboot to the director of the micro-budget Monsters but Gareth Edwards knocks it out of the park and gets a Star Wars gig in the process. The idea of a serious film about a three-hundred foot monster that breathes fire is ridiculous but somehow Edwards makes it all plausible thanks to some exciting set pieces. The characters are paper thin and there's not enough of Godzilla but the picture and sound on the Blu-ray are awesome with some of the deepest bass you'll ever experience at home.
Christopher Nolan's attempt at a realistic sci-fi movie is full of ambitious film-making and big ideas but somehow it fails to deliver a sense of wonder. Interstellar also isn't as clever as it thinks it is and there are plot holes you could drive a bus through, not to mention a ludicrous ending that will have you yelling at the screen. However the visuals are simply stunning, with some truly breathtaking effects and beautiful cinematography. The film was shot using a combination of 35mm and IMAX and the disc uses multiple aspect ratios, which you'll either love or hate. The sound is equally as impressive, with directional effects and deep bass, but perhaps a bit too much church organ!
War films, by their very nature, often provide the chance for great picture and sound and for years Saving Private Ryan was the demo disc of choice. The latest addition to this select group is Fury, David Ayer's flawed but superbly shot tale of a tank crew during the final stages of World War II. The photography is gorgeous adding a surreal beauty to the devastation and the disc captures this perfectly. The sound is just as impressive with the tank battles immersing you in a hailstorm of bullets and chaos, not to mention some serious low frequency effects, that place you right inside the tank.
Alfonso Cuaron's ground-breaking masterpiece is an exercise in pure filmmaking that utilises all the technology currently at a director's disposal. Cuaron deservedly won an Oscar for helming a film that pushes the boundaries of what is possible in terms of photo-realistic computer generated effects. The disc is flawless, with the deep blacks of space and the staggering amount of detail in the animation all perfectly replicated by Blu-ray; whilst the highly directional soundtrack is ideally suited to lossless audio. There's even a re-release with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that manages to be even more immersive.
Mission Impossible 4
Something of a surprise hit on its initial release, Brad Bird made the transition from computer animation to live action seamlessly and gave Tom Cruise's career a boost at the same time. The action set pieces are staggering and often shot with IMAX cameras, resulting in an astonishing level of detail in the picture. The justifiably famous sequence at The Burj will leave you with vertigo, whilst the sandstorm that immediately follows it will give every speaker in your system a serious workout.
This film has gained in reputation over the years but remains something of a curio in Danny Boyle's filmography. It's intelligent sci-fi that you so rarely see these days, with an eclectic cast and a story that raises genuine philosophical questions. Boyle spent 18 months in post production crafting the effects and the results speak for themselves. The picture and sound are fantastic but what really stands out in the level of detail in the shadows. In fact the opening fly-by of the spaceship is still used by our reviewers to check how good the shadow detail is on TVs and projectors.
Angelina Jolie's second film as a director tells the remarkable true story of Louis Zamperini who represented the US at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and flew bombing missions in the Pacific during World War II. He also survived 47 days at sea in a life raft before enduring the horrors of a Japanese POW camp. The Blu-ray release boasts stunning digital photography from Roger Deakins that is beautifully captured on the disc. It also includes an incredible Dolby Atmos soundtrack that totally immerses you in a three-dimensional sound field. The opening bomber raid is simply a master class in sound design.
Each of the films on this list has a quintessential 'wow' moment that's guaranteed to turn your friends green with envy.
Star Trek Into Darkness
It's a toss up between J. J. Abrams initial reboot or its bigger and bolder sequel because both Blu-rays are pure demo gold. However we'll go for the sequel because the video and audio presentation is second to none and the bass extension is subterranean at times. You certainly can't beat a film that starts with a volcano erupting and ends with a massive spaceship crashing, especially when you're trying to impress your mates.
Possibly the last great Pixar movie, Wall-E is computer animation as an art form, delivering a beautiful, funny and moving film that manages to tell large parts of it's story without any dialogue. Of course that doesn't mean the soundtrack isn't impeccably mixed, very active and highly directional, as is often the case with animated movies. Whilst the gorgeous and impossibly detailed images will have you gasping at how far computer animation has advanced in just over a decade.
This Keanu Reeves movie redefines the action genre with its simple story of a retired hitman out for revenge. Created by the stunt team who worked on The Matrix, the fighting, gunplay and ballistic mayhem in the film are all incredibly thrilling. The digital photography captures all the action with wonderful detail, despite largely taking place at night, and the black levels and colours are superb. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is equally as good, matching the action on screen with an inventive use of the overhead speakers that totally immerses you in John Wick's violent world.
Edge of Tomorrow
The third Tom Cruise film to make the list and despite being a wonderfully inventive and entertaining film, it sadly didn't get the audience it deserved. Still the Blu-ray release provides you with an opportunity to finally catch up with a film that plays like a combination of Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers. The picture and sound on the disc itself are absolutely stunning with a detailed image that retains a realistic and grungy look as the central character repeatedly storms a beachhead. The audio is just as good, immersing the viewer in a highly active soundstage with plenty of directional effects and bass presence. If you imagine a sci-fi film that takes place during Saving Private Ryan's opening D-Day assault, you'll get the idea.
If there's one genre that really can use surround sound effectively it's horror and this film makes full use of the surround channels to unnerve and terrify your friends. The Orphanage is one of those rare films that can be interpreted in two completely different ways but whichever you choose it's still the classic dark old house and as creepy as it gets. The cinematography is beautifully transferred to reveal some genuinely disturbing images and the lossless audio will have you looking over your shoulder nervously.
Possibly the best and certainly the quintessential Pixar movie, Finding Nemo perfectly captures the sensation of being underwater. The script is brilliantly structured, the jokes are funny and the voice cast is spot on but it's the animation that will leave your guests with their jaws on the floor. The Blu-ray transfer captures every last pixel whilst the highly directional surround mix will immerse you in the ocean and when those underwater mines explode, your subwoofer will be working overtime.
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Whilst the film itself may be utter rubbish, there's no denying the impressive technical specifications of its Blu-ray release. The disc itself represents the state-of-the-art as far as what is achievable at home these days, with a pristine transfer that includes multiple aspect ratios for the IMAX sequences. The level of detail is astonishing and the colour palette and black levels are superb, resulting in a reference image. It was also the first Blu-ray released with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack and the results are incredible with sounds all around you, jets flying overhead and subterranean bass.
Lawrence of Arabia
The majority of the films on this list are relatively recent but that doesn't mean that older films can't look stunning as well. David Lean's masterpiece was shot on 65mm film and the recent restoration was done at a resolution of 8K, so the resulting Blu-ray is nothing short of a revelation. The cinematography is simply stunning with incredible desert vistas and ultra fine detail; whilst not to be outdone, the audio is equally as impressive. A classic film and a reference Blu-ray.
This latest instalment in the James Bond franchise not only nabbed a cool billion dollars at the box office but also picked up the best reviews in the film series' 50 year history. The result was a Blu-ray so good that it managed to usurp Casino Royale, and that was already a reference disc! There's Oscar-nominated cinematography and Oscar-winning sound and the Blu-ray delivers both perfectly. The atypical siege ending might feel like a derivation of everything from Young Guns to Home Alone but on disc it looks and sounds fantastic!
Finally we have Robert Zemekis' first live action movie in twelve years, which boasted a powerhouse performance from Denzel Washington and the director's usual flair for big effects sequences. In this case it's the film's opening airliner crash, which is a frighteningly realistic recreation that, thanks to a reference Blu-ray, will look and sound incredible on you AV system. It's as close as you’ll get to rolling an airliner and will probably put you off flying for life.
Well, that’s our top 20 Blu-rays which we think currently deliver a reference level of picture and audio, although we have no doubt there are many more. So do you agree or is there something obvious that you think they've missed? Let us know.
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