Planet Earth II: King of Ultra HD Reference Discs

We all have our favorite reference discs—the ones we pull out to show off our system to friends. UHD has now given us a lot to choose from, whether your preference is for action spectaculars or more subtle, thoughtful fare. But there’s now a new king of the home theater hill.

In 2007 the multi-part BBC nature documentary Planet Earth first appeared on broadcast television, and later came out on DVD and Blu-ray. Directed and narrated by British naturalist David Attenborough, it was widely praised (though as I recall the commentary on the US broadcasts substituted actress Sigourney Weaver for Attenborough—a not entirely effective move).

But now we have its 2016 follow-up, Planet Earth II. Unlike most UHD releases, this new package doesn’t include both UHD and Blu-ray versions. The two UHD discs here include the program, while a third disc, a 54-minute “Making of feature,” is not UHD. There’s also an HD-only release. If you want both versions (perhaps to use on both your UHD flat screen set and 1080p projector!) you’ll have to buy both—at $40 (street price) for the UHD and $33 (street) for the HD.

The only version I’ve viewed is the UHD. The program is divided into six parts running about 50 minutes each (Islands, Mountains, Jungles, Deserts, Grasslands, and Cities, but oddly, not Oceans). Along the way we learn some remarkable facts. For example, the highest concentration of nesting Peregrine falcons in the world is in New York City, where they prey on the local pigeon population (which I’m sure doesn’t worry most New Yorkers). And at night in the streets and parks of Mumbai, India, a city of some 20 million people, leopards prey on small animals (and occasionally, but rarely, humans). The latter is shown in some remarkable infrared photography.

There are some passing comments here about human encroachment and climate change intruding into animal habitats, boxes that apparently must be ticked off today in any politically correct nature documentary. But Attenborough doesn’t beat the viewer over the head with it; he lets the images speak for themselves. In fact, examples are shown where humans can actually enhance natural habitats, either accidentally or deliberately. In Rome, for example, huge flocks of starlings fly into the city every night in the winter because it’s slightly warmer there than in the countryside. The only problem with this, shown graphically here, is that birds (and other wild animals) clearly aren’t potty trained!

The UHD transfer here is spectacular, and for home theater fans these discs are likely to become lasting reference standards. In every respect—visible resolution, color, and high dynamic range (HDR)— it’s superior to any other UHD disc I’ve yet seen.

With multiple wild creatures populating each episode, the material clearly shows off UHD’s superior resolution. While many of us (including me, I’ll admit) sit a bit too far from a 4K set to, at least in theory, fully appreciate the benefits of 4K, there’s no way to ignore the detail on these discs. From the individual strands of fur on bears and monkeys, the scales on iguanas, the feathers on birds, the grains of sand in the desert, and more, nothing here is left to the imagination.

I’ve never before been so blown away by UHD’s color advantages.

The range of colors is also astonishing. While many UHD discs provide richer color than their HD counterparts, I’ve never before been so blown away by UHD’s color advantages. I didn’t have the HD version of Planet Earth II for comparison, but I did have the accompanying “Making of” documentary on the third disc. And nothing on that HD disc looked anywhere near as attention-grabbing as did the UHD presentation. The 65-inch set I watched it on was still being run-in, awaiting a (yet to be completed as I write this) full color calibration, but I’ve never before seen such awesome range of colors in a video presentation. The “Jungles” episode was particularly impressive, from varying hues in the foliage, multi-colored reflections on the water, and brilliant colors on hummingbirds and a Bird of Paradise as the latter shows off to attract a mate.

Frankly, I didn’t anticipate much benefit from the HDR here. Bright scenes dominate, and in a few of the dark scenes the blacks were a little too grayish (perhaps by design). But I was wrong. The HDR was superbly natural and added dramatically to the pop and contrast of nearly every shot without ever looking unnatural or gimmicky.

In short, the video alone makes this title a must for anyone who wants to see what their new UHDTV can do. But there’s more. While the images here have been almost universally praised, not a lot has said about the sound. It would be an exaggeration to put this on an even plain with the video, but the DTS-HD Master Audio on these discs also soars. The effects, likely recorded on spot, are good, if relatively subtle. And there’s no Dolby Atmos, despite more than a few scenes, such as rain in the jungle, flocks of birds, and a swarm of locusts, where object oriented audio might have been a real treat. But for me audio star here is the exceptional, and exceptionally well-recorded, score. I expect that some viewers will find it intrusive, but I didn’t. Other reviews have attributed the score exclusively to Hans Zimmer, but the end credits attribute it to Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe from the Bleeding Fingers Custom Music Shop (Bleeding Fingers is a training program Zimmer runs for aspiring film composers). Zimmer is simply credited as a music producer, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t have significant thematic input (the opening theme, fact, is not so subtly reminiscent of Transformers!).

In short, the only downside to this release is that your guests might just want to binge watch all six hours. Be prepared to cook breakfast.

drny's picture

The future of HDR is here and now in all its magnificent splendor with Planet Earth II UHD bluray.
If you consider yourself an A/V enthusiast you must add Planet Earth to your UHD collection.
The Revenant, Passengers, John Wick,The Martian,Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness are at the top of the heap of UHD visual impact.
Yet they pale in comparison to Planet Earth II.