Exploring the New Spears & Munsil 'Ultra HD Benchmark' Test Disc Set

Long-time readers and experienced videophiles will instantly recognize the Spears and Munsil brand. Over the years S&M has released what are arguably the best video evaluation discs on the market for setting up video displays of all descriptions, including televisions. While it's incorrect to state that these discs alone can fully calibrate these devices (a genuine calibration requires expensive test equipment not available to the average enthusiast), it can take you a big step toward achieving your TV's best performance.

At $59.95, the new Spears & Munsil Ultra HD Benchmark is the company's priciest offering to date. But it's also the most thorough, including three discs, a multi-page "manual" that guides you through the basic process, and a set of filters for setting a TV's Color and Tint controls. The authors don't actually recommend using the controls however, as no such filters, even these, are totally accurate. I've long avoided these filters. Instead, and as is the recommendation here, I leave these two controls in their as-delivered defaults (usually centered). They might have had some value in the CRT TV era, where few easily accessible setup controls were offered to the viewer. But their value in modern digital TVs is dubious at best.

The included manual is readable but quite small (as are most packaged instructions these days). But it's available for download at spearsandmunsil.com.

Some might wonder why the complete package, including the test patterns, aren't available for purchase and download, since so much information is readily available online today. The quick answer: streaming is very good today, but Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs are still superior, particularly when we're trying to discern (and cure, if possible), even the smallest flaws in the TV as delivered while ensuring that those flaws aren't in the source. That's why I always use disc sources in a review. I'll also watch the odd newscast, weather channel report, or sports event, but will rarely comment on any artifacts I see from such broadcast or streamed sources. If I haven't also seen similar artifacts on discs, they're likely in the source and were not produced by the TV.

There are also recommendations in the provided manual as to the best associated gear to use, from cables to Blu-ray players. And you'll need such a player to make use of the S&M discs. First off, make sure that your disc player (or game console) is Ultra HD Blu-ray compatible. Also ensure that any on-player settings such as output resolution are set to UHD/4K/3840 x 2160, or Native, and are also set to Auto for such features as aspect ratio, 3D, and deinterlacing.

The manual also notes that if at all possible make sure the player offers separate audio and video HDMI outputs. You'll want the video to go directly from the player to the TV and not first pass through, for example, an AV receiver. The latter could alter the signal, likely in minor ways but the changes might nevertheless mislead you into thinking that your TV has one or more artifacts that were actually generated in the AVR. Even if the AVR's negative contributions are small, you don't want them skewing your analysis.

If your player has only one HDMI output, you could disconnect the cable from the AVR, plug it directly into that single output on the player, and connect it back to the receiver later for normal viewing. But that route won't let you simultaneously use both the audio and video features offered on the Spears & Munsil package. The audio features on the discs include levels, bass management, A/V sync, panning, and a rattle test.

While many of the tests in the Spears & Munsil package duplicate those seen on an earlier Spears & Munsil single test disc, the space available on the three discs here allows for far more patterns for you to dance with. The number of test patterns here might well be intimidating for the novice, or even for lowly calibrators such as myself. I know I wouldn't be tempted to reference many of them in a review for fear of readers' eyes glazing over. But keep in mind that these discs were produced not just with the interested consumer in mind but also for the most professional of the professionals.

But don't panic. If you follow the guidance in the included manual, you'll be unlikely to go wrong and will need to use, at least for now, only a fraction of the test patterns available on the three discs. As mentioned earlier, however, a full deep-dive calibration is still in the territory of the professional calibrator.

Navigating the menus on the discs is a bit tricky until you scope it out. This was also true of the earlier S&M single-disc release that used the same layout. I can't help you much with this here, as it will depend to a large extent on the controls, and control configuration, of the Ultra HD Blu-ray player you're using. I'll only note here that the selected pattern, after being chosen but before hitting "Enter" to engage it, is highlighted in a tint that isn't easy to spot until you know what to look for. (Suggestion for a future release: make the selected menu item blink, or at least make the highlighting more prominent.)

Some of the offered patterns are designed to work with dedicated test equipment, but don't let that scare you off. There are more than enough patterns on each disc to keep your eyeballs alone fully occupied in analyzing the results.

Disc 3 is the most straightforward, and is dedicated to standard dynamic range sources. Discs 1 and 2 are primarily high dynamic range (HDR), with selections for a range of formats, including HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision. You can select the peak luminance of your HDR-enabled TV if you know it; if not, the instructions recommend setting it to 1000 nits. Most HDR sets can at least approach that (apart from the cheapest; if the latter describes your TV you're not likely to be reading this tome!).

The Demo material on Disc 2 is carried over from the previous single disc Spears & Munsil release, with a few additions (including a nosey chipmunk) and different music. But it's still spectacular on a good HDR-enabled TV. When showing off your setup handiwork to friends who are still using a 10-year old standard HDTV at home, you might just convince them that it's time to acquire a new HDR-enabled TV of their own. Just don't be surprised if they ask you to drop over to set it up!

The earlier Spears & Munsil single HDR test disc is out of production and no longer available, at least not through regular channels. But you might still come across a copy here or there. If so, be aware that the name similarities between the two versions may be confusing. The words "Ultra" and "4K Ultra" appear only appear on the package cover of this new 3-disc release, not on the single-disc version.

Thomas J. Norton's picture
There were two errors in my original posting. The S&M manual included with the discs is available for downloading. And the earlier S&M single-disc package has been discontinued. Both errors have now been corrected in the above text...TJN
Ehto's picture

This looks like an interesting tool to calibrate settings with. But I usually stick with the default settings anyway haha. Or I leave it to the experts. Thank you Sound & Vision for your installation at our office. From the team at Gutter Cleaning Near Me.

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