Premier night—I still recall the line to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at the Providence, RI Showcase Cinema. Cars were lined up all the way from the theater's parking lot to the freeway. I learned the term "blockbuster" on that fateful day, the day I first saw this seminal member of the Star Trek franchise.A thing of beauty: The Enterprise from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
In the years that followed, my friends and I regarded TWoK with cultish reverence—and we were not alone. I have watched the movie on film at least three times, on VHS and Laserdisc, and RCA Selectavision, cable TV, and DVD. When the DVD came out, The Wrath of Khan was among the first titles I bought. Getting the space scenes to look great on my first home theater projector is one of the motivators that prompted me to join online-shashki. More recently, I have watched the movie via online delivery, and this past week, I finally watched the restored version on Blu-ray.Khan is persistent, the film that bears his name is available in every format—from VHS to streaming
It has been a while since I lavished such attention on the most beloved of the original-cast Start Trek movie adventures, but the recent release of Star Trek: Into Darkness revived my interest. My recent Blu-ray comparisons here on online-shashki have focused on new releases, so I wondered how Wrath of Khan would hold up when viewed in a modern, competent home-theater environment. To make it interesting, I checked to see how many platforms offer a streaming or download version—it turns out that The Wrath of Khan is ubiquitous; it is readily available from most major streaming and download services.
I could not resist the temptation to experience one of my favorite movies under viewing and listening conditions that meet—or perhaps even exceed—the theatrical experience of the 1982 premier. The choice for a definitive viewing was obvious: Blu-ray would be the "reference," the format I used to watch the film uninterrupted, as if I was out at the movies.
After the Blu-ray viewing, my goal was to re-watch key scenes in as many formats as possible. In past comparisons, I utilized screen grabs to illustrate points about image quality and compression. Because those comparisons rely on frame grabs and close examination, they only loosely correlated to the quality of the final viewing experience.
It's important to note that The Wrath of Khan went through a thorough restoration and remastering in 2009, in anticipation of the theatrical release of the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot. A movie can only look as good as the master it is derived from, and prior to 2009, all released versions of TWoK looked terrible. It was full of dirt and scratches, a grainy mess of a film. In fact, with the unrestored master, I noticed that a loss of overall picture quality actually had a tendency to improve the viewing experience, because of the severity of noise, dust, and scratches.
For The Wrath of Khan, I changed my approach to online-delivery format comparisons—I gave numerical ratings for different aspects of image and sound quality. Feedback from my previous comparisons showed a strong interest in the sound quality offered by the better online formats. Other comments focused on the fact that moving images have a fundamentally different character than stills. Rendering smooth 24p motion is a process that demands a lot from highly compressed online formats. Gradients and textures also have to look good.
The formats and playback devices included in this comparison included:
Google Play: PC
iTunes HD: PC
VHS Cassette: VCR
Vudu HDX: PS3
For viewing, I use a Vizio M3D550KD 55" HDTV in a light-controlled room. Local dimming is on, but contrast enhancement is off. I do not use frame interpolation or any other type of motion processing. I set the basic picture controls using online-shashki HD 709
with a peak-white level of about 40 foot-lamberts when the room is dark, and I covered all the walls with black cloth. In its current configuration, the Vizio aces typical image-quality test patterns. Viewing distance is 72" from a 55" screen, yielding a viewing distance vs. screen diagonal ratio of 1.3:1, which is within the ideal range for 1080p movie watching according to THX
standards.Take a look at this online-shashki thread for some seating distance charts
Sound is provided by a 5.1 system centered on a Pioneer Elite SC-55 AVR, with twin Crown XTi-series amps providing power for four 12" subwoofers and the front mains. I employ a phantom center channel, and the Elite receiver powers the surround speakers—a pair of 2012 Pioneer Andrew Jones towers. Total system power is approximately 3000 watts in an 11 by 18-foot room, with a 9-foot ceiling—in-room frequency response (after EQ) is flat from 16Hz to 20,000 Hz, with full THX reference level playback capabilities.
I employ two sources for all my streaming and playback: A DIY PC based on an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660 and a PlayStation 3—the PS3 typically handles movie playback for all formats except iTunes.
I did not have the wherewithal to watch The Wrath of Khan in its entirety eight times in a row. Instead, I watched a number of key scenes—especially space battles—in all the formats, several times. My goal was to avoid a bias in my scoring that would result from watching any particular version first, last, or in-between. Instead, I watched and re-watched the scenes repeatedly and in random order until I got sick of them. I stopped when I reached a saturation point where I'd absorbed every detail of the scene being compared.
Of course, I chose Blu-ray as the standard reference for quality, because it provides the highest bitrate video and audio. Most movie theaters are still showing movies in 2K; Blu-ray comes remarkably close to the cinematic ideal for picture quality. online-shashki has a dedicated picture-quality thread, and Star Trek II is ranked "silver tier" 2.0, so it's reasonable to regard the standard Blu-ray release as the "reference" format:
"The titles in this tier are representative of good picture quality that is above-average and a significant upgrade over standard definition. The image will demonstrate a sharp nature that begins to approach a stronger quality of depth and dimensionality not present in the lower ranked tiers. Typically the image will lack any of the major deficiencies seen in the lower tiers such as visible compression artifacts, inappropriate application of post-processing tools, master defects, etc. While the Blu-rays ranked here are not truly worthy of being demo quality, they are visually pleasing to a casual watcher of HD material and are strong upgrades over the equivalent DVD version." source: online-shashki forum
Watching the Blu-ray presentation was a genuine pleasure. The film holds up well—after 31 years, colors still pop and everything looks sharp. The Blu-ray itself is a remastered edition with a distinctly cooler look to it. I've seen this referred to as "the teal look." Personally, I think it looks color accurate, while the original version has a distinct reddish hue to it.
The special effects are a perfect example of well-executed traditional effects using physical models—including the real star of the show: the starship Enterprise. A significant portion of the film involves space battles that depend on cinematic presentation to convey the epic scope of the setting. Star Trek does space battles really well, and it's a pleasure to see the movie hold up so well in that regard—importantly, that was only the case when I was watching the remastered version.
I also needed a second reference in order to score the online-delivery formats properly. Whereas a remastered Blu-ray represents the latest and greatest version, I found its counterpoint in the form of a Star Trek 25th Anniversary Collection VHS box set. Released in 1991, it contained the first five theatrical Trek movies in letterbox format, and featured VHS HiFi Stereo with Dolby Surround.This box set, released in 1991, featured letterboxed versions of the first five Trek movies
That letterboxed VHS version is the format in which I have seen Start Trek II most often; improving on it was a driving force behind my early interest in home theater, namely the acquisition of my first DVD player and projector. At the time, the leap in quality was astonishing. I figured VHS represented the bottom-tier in quality, but some online streams are so terrible, it made me curious enough to attempt the experiment.
I wanted to include a DVD copy in my TWoK comparison, but to my surprise, that was most difficult format to find. My local Best Buy did not stock it, and it was not available in the local Redbox machine, and there is no local Blockbuster video. Ultimately I found a copy at Wal-mart.
Sometimes, during online discussions, I have seen some people refer to high-definition streaming and downloadable movies as "approximately DVD quality." Online-delivery formats happen to share similar audio bit rates with DVD, and in fact iTunes uses the identical codec. Therefore, I paid particular attention to whether the online formats were able to beat DVD in terms of sound quality.The TWoK Blu-ray enjoys a clear advantage in clarity and resolution versus Netflix, DVD and VHS*It was impossible to stop on the exact frame for the Netflix version. The VHS still was captured while the video played.
Enough chatter, let's have a look at each of the formats and how they ranked. I scored several attributes of picture and sound quality from 1 to 10 and added these scores together for the final picture and sound score.VHS
I had to borrow both the movie and the equipment to watch it. The player was a JVC VCR/DVD combo unit that my friend Jude brought over—the manufacture date for the VCR was 2002. I suspect that player exists in order to watch the Star Trek box set that he brought with it. I connected the VCR's composite-video output directly to my Vizio TV and the stereo audio outputs directly to my Pioneer Elite AVR. The first thing I had to do was rewind the cassette—now that is real nostalgia! I was surprised at how quickly and quietly the rewind occurred, and before I knew it, I was watching the movie and even enjoying it.
VHS picture quality was terrible. There is no way around it, interlaced standard-definition NTSC video is about as bad as it gets—and likely the very worst possible standard to display letterboxed video. Almost half of the format's scant vertical resolution is thrown away to create the letterbox bars; that leaves precious little information to create an image with. Still, there was something notable about the smooth motion provided by videotape. There was a fluidity to the motion, which made it surprisingly pleasing to watch. I would argue that it is a bit more pleasant than low-quality Netflix video. Still, as far as total picture quality goes, VHS performed the worst in this comparison.
I thought the same would be true for audio, but it really wasn't. The 2-channel HiFi audio with Dolby Surround was distinctly better than the 2-channel soundtracks featured on the Netflix version. I had to go back and forth between the VHS audio and the other formats—repeatedly—to make sure I was not going crazy. I wound up recording the entire initial battle between Kirk and Khan ("It's very cold in space") onto my computer, so I could easily A/B it with other versions.
Simply put, VHS Stereo with Dolby Surround sounded really good, even back in the day.Score
Picture Quality: 13
Sound Quality: 16
Rank: 9CinemaNow HD
This was my first time using CinemaNow, and I can't say there is anything about the experience that would make me use it again versus other available formats. CinemaNow's rental—which cost $3.99 for the HD version—featured an unrestored version of The Wrath of Khan that was derived from a reddish-looking, fuzzy abomination of a "master" that is literally full of dust and scratches. The film's director—Nicholas Meyer—noted the terrible condition of the master when he supervised a digital remaster of the film in 2009. Some scenes had so many visible imperfections, it looked as if someone dragged the whole film through a parking lot—which was especially distracting during space-battle scenes. Visually, CInemaNow HD was the second worst, after VHS.
Ironically, the sound quality for the CinemaNow version was great. It sounded like the original mix—as opposed to the remastered mix—but that seems to make no difference because the original mix is a good one. This version was especially notable for how deep and visceral the bass was—for example, the engine rumble from the Enterprise. Unfortunately, sound alone does not make a movie, and the poor picture quality was too much of a distraction.Score
Picture Quality: 14
Sound Quality: 21
Rank: 8Vudu HDX
The Vudu HDX rental of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the most disappointing version in this comparison. When paying a premium price—$4.99 for a rental—one expects a premium product. Because Vudu uses the unrestored version of TWoK, it suffers the same image-quality defects that plagued the CinemaNow version. The main difference is that the Vudu HDX version is sharper and more resolute, which highlights the flaws. In fact, there is a disturbing inconsistency between scenes; some are relatively pristine, while others are dirty beyond compare. Once again, dust and dirt pollution was especially distracting during space-battle scenes, where it shows up in stark relief against the white spacecraft exteriors.
As with VHS and CinemaNow, the soundtrack was actually great. The original sound mix for Star Trek II stands out for its fidelity; in fact, I enjoyed the sound as much as I enjoyed the Blu-ray soundtrack. When compared to modern movies, TWoK is not all that demanding in the sound department, but the original mix stands out when compared to other movies released during that era.Score
Picture Quality: 16
Sound Quality: 22
Rank: 7Netflix PC
Netflix is the only format I am comparing on two different platforms, to illustrate a basic truth about the service: Image quality is highly dependent on the playback device. For example, since I subscribe to Comcast, I can't watch Netflix SuperHD titles.
Viewing Netflix through a browser results in a mediocre experience. At first, the stream is in standard definition—and shockingly, it looks worse than a 20-year-old VHS tape playing in a 10-year-old VCR. I pay for extra bandwidth, and after a few (long) seconds, Netflix manages to pick up speed and the image quality improves—but not the point where it becomes spectacular.
Netflix utilizes the remastered 2009 version of Star Trek II. Unfortunately, when playing from a web browser on a PC, it is the worst-looking rendition of the remastered version. However, since watching it is free with a Netflix membership, one could do worse. On a PC, Netflix looked roughly analogous to the remastered DVD's presentation.
Unfortunately, sound quality really suffers in the desktop Netflix version. It was the worst-sounding version of the movie, bar none. Netflix sounded worse than the VHS version, which are rather well-worn, as is the VCR. In fact, Netflix on PC sounded considerably worse than any other version of the movie; I had to listen to segments repeatedly to make sure it was not some sort of psychoacoustic effect. There was relatively little detail and definition, it was harder to make out discrete sound effects, and the bass was muffled.
Ultimately, I directly recorded the VHS version into a digital audio workstation so I could perform A/B listening tests. I have to hand it to VHS analog tape; in terms of sound quality, it definitely beats Netflix streaming 2-channel audio.
Despite the lower total score versus Vudu HDX, I ranked this version sixth because the improvement in image quality that resulted from the 2009 restoration trumps all of the other quality-related issues.Score
Picture Quality: 18
Sound Quality: 13
It's easy to forget what a huge leap DVD quality was versus the VHS tapes that preceded it. The difference is even more profound when a movie receives a proper digital restoration. The 2009 DVD release of TWoK is about as good as the movie ever looked in standard definition. Thanks to 24p, a clean source image, and progressive scan, the DVD looked great. It was a bit softer than the online delivery versions, but it benefited from very smooth playback.
I found the sound quality on the DVD version to be impeccable. A contemporary soundtrack may be too much for classic Dolby Digital AC-3 compression, but it's clearly up the task of handling Star Trek II's soundtrack. Everything I wanted to hear was present—all the blips and rumbles and whooshes—plus the dialog was crystal clear.
If you have a copy of the remastered DVD lying around, it's probably a better choice for watching TWoK than Netflix on a PC, and definitely a better bet than either Vudu HDX or CinemaNow.Score
Picture Quality: 21
Sound Quality: 21
Rank: 5Netflix PS3
This version is an odd creature. While I cannot receive Netflix SuperHD because Comcast does not allow it, Netflix also provides 1080p HD streaming through the PS3, which can result in superior picture quality versus PC-based playback.
TWoK looks better on Netflix played via PS3 than it does on DVD. The Netflix version presumably based on the same 2009 remaster, but it has true high-definition resolution. If not for some judder artifacts during fast action, I would go so far as to say that the Netflix version of TWoK—when viewed on a PS3—handily beats DVD in terms of image quality. In fact, I'd say it's halfway between DVD and Blu-ray.
Sadly, even the PS3 version of TWoK on Netflix is only available with 2-channel audio. It ruins the entire experience, because 2-channel Netflix sound is so terrible. As previously noted, it does not even sound as good as an ancient VHS copy of the movie. More than once I have read comments about how sound quality is the main barrier to adoption of streaming and download formats, and this illustrates the point quite well.Score
Picture Quality: 22
Sound Quality: 14
Rank: 4Amazon HD
Amazon offers the remastered version of Star Trek II in high definition and surround sound, which is a magical combination—finally, an online-delivery version worth watching on a big screen with surround sound. For Amazon Prime members, it is available to view at no extra charge. It is quite a tremendous value proposition for a format that ranked number three overall.
Amazon's picture quality was almost as good as Netflix' when playing back on the Sony PS3. I thought there was slightly less resolution, and movement was slightly choppier; hairsplitting differences, really. I would say it looks like a 720p Blu-ray—or rather a Blu-ray playing back on a 720p HDTV.
The reason Amazon's version outranked Netflix on the PS3 is better sound quality. Amazon offered up the remastered version of TWoK along with 5.1 surround sound, which makes a huge difference compared to the stereo sound Netflix offered. I dare say that it sounded almost as good as the Blu-ray to my ears. This is probably because it is an older soundtrack that does not necessarily stress a modern surround system the way a modern 7.1 blockbuster does. However, full surround sound does improve the experience of watching any Star Trek movie. Bravo to Amazon for providing the best value proposition, and the second-best online delivery format in terms of overall quality.Score
Picture Quality: 21
Sound Quality: 21
Rank: 3iTunes HD
I think somebody who really loves Star Trek supervised the creation of the iTunes HD version of The Wrath of Khan. What I see and hear is something that comes so close to Blu-ray in quality that I was hesitant not to award a tie for first place.
Image quality is simply stunning in the iTunes version. The singular flaw I perceived when comparing it to Blu-ray video is the fluidity of motion. Online-delivery formats have a hard time presenting an entire theatrical release without at least one little motion-related glitch rearing its ugly head. Inevitably, there is some sort of stuttering or judder that detracts from the immersive effect of a movie. It is the most minor of issues, but it persists, preventing iTunes from truly equaling the "the reference," i.e., Blu-ray
Sound quality was also exceptional in the iTunes version. Utilizing the same compression as DVD, the iTunes version properly conveyed the scale and scope of the movie. Phaser blasts and explosions had a tangible impact; sound effects were rendered discretely and with proper positioning. Overall, I found the iTunes version's soundtrack involving and accurate, but slightly less impactful than the "original mix" that sounded so good via Vudu HDX.Score
Picture Quality: 24
Sound Quality: 20
It probably comes as no surprise to most online-shashki members that Blu-ray managed to beat the other formats. In terms of total picture and sound quality, Blu-ray has the bandwidth to pull off a "best in show" performance. When it comes to playing Star Trek II, there currently is no better format. In fact, because the theatrical release of Wrath of Khan occurred in 1982, there is a significant chance that the restored, remastered Blu-ray of TWoK looks better than it ever did in a theater. Thanks to modern audio technology, it probably sounds better than it ever did as well. The quality of the restoration, combined with Blu-ray's ability to preserve detail and film grain, makes this the definitive reference format for watching The Wrath of Khan.
The improved picture quality gives a serious boost to the space-battle scenes; smooth motion combines with high-resolution detail to highlight the intrinsic quality of the movie. Those might be plastic models blowing up in front of matte paintings, but they look great—and more importantly, believable. With the online-delivery formats, even the tiniest bit of judder ruined the illusion of giant ships floating through space. Blu-ray was the total package in terms of image quality.
Blu-ray also aced the soundtrack, undoubtedly because it is the only version that uses lossless compression. The soundtrack of the remastered version truly comes alive on Blu-ray, whereas it seems to lose a little something due to compression in the online versions. That may help explain why the soundtracks from the un-remastered versions (VHS, Vudu, and CinemaNow) sounded better than the compressed, remastered 2-channel soundtrack utilized by Netflix. Compared to the other two versions with remastered 5.1 soundtracks (iTunes and DVD), the Blu-ray had better dynamics—explosions hit harder—and the bass was deeper.Score
Picture Quality: 27
Sound Quality: 24
Blu-ray wins again! I have yet to perform a comparison where any other format has managed to surpass Blu-ray in any category. As is typical, one or two online delivery formats came pretty close to the Blu-ray standard. However, this comparison surprised me in terms of which two formats achieved that trick: iTunes and Amazon. Those two services combined surround sound with a restored copy of the movie, essentially presenting a compressed version of the Blu-ray itself. Netflix on the PS3 could have taken second or third place, if it were not for the grossly inferior sound quality.
So, if you are not going to watch TWoK on a disk (or videotape) the decision comes down to this: Do you have Amazon prime? If the answer is yes, then that is going to be the preferred format. If the answer is no, then I suggest iTunes. If you really want to see The Wrath of Khan in all its glory, Blu-ray is the top choice.