My criteria for a benchmark material are simple but surprisingly difficult to fulfill. In terms of picture quality, it should be neutral (not overly stylistic such as the green-hue in The Matrix), grain-free (not that film-grain is bad, but a movie that is intentionally grainy such as Unstoppable can be visually distracting) and preferably in scope (21:9) aspect ratio because I find it easier to find artefacts in my periphery (on my 9ft-wide screen viewed from 9ft away, the sides of my 21:9 screen are in my peripheral vision). For the audio standpoint, I need the movie to have full dynamic range from whisper quiet to a big bang within a single scene with a complex mixture of an intricately woven musical texture combined with an airy sense of surround sound envelopment. Hence the reason for me in using Disney’s Bolt as the reference material albeit it is in 16:9 and not the more preferable 21:9.
The premise of Black Swan is very simple, actually. Directed by Darren Aronofsky and stars Academy Award winner Natalie Portman, Black Swan is a story of a stunningly talented but dangerously unstable ballerina on the verge of stardom. Pushed to the breaking point by her driven artistic director and the threat posed by a powerfully seductive and exceedingly gifted rival dancer, Nina‘s tenuous grip on reality starts to slip away – plunging her into a waking nightmare. Classifying the movie, on the other hand, is more difficult. It can be classified as a psychological thriller, but it also has the elements of a drama. On the other hand, the “thriller” part of the movie is borderline “horror”. Yet, to my knowledge, there is no official classification for a “psychological horror” movie.
In terms of picture quality, it’s very film-like. There is no “digital-feel” to it whatsoever. Skin-tone is pure and natural without any added hues. Black level is impeccable with amazing shadow details and the overall primary colours are somewhat muted just like the colours the human eyes perceive in our daily lives. Secondary colours are never exaggerated unlike most life-action movies of the current trend. In virtually all scenes, contrast levels and sharpness are natural. Film-grain is there but not unnatural and never excessive. Never too soft and not even once it was overly sharp. Again, just like how we actually perceive the real world.
The sound quality is also impeccable. Dialogue is always clear from whisper to shout without any strain or exaggeration. Bass extension is engaging and a true workout for any subwoofer and can be very revealing if your room frequency response (or the subwoofer itself) have any bass-bloat from 60 Hz and under. Surround imaging and envelopment are truly effective without being gimmicky. The soundstage is wider than most movies, and the subtle nuances really help with the atmosphere of the film. The score is borderline genius without being overly ambitious and the balance of the mix is superb. I can easily gauge the performance of any home theatre by using various ballet scenes from this disc. The walls in your listening environment theatre should seemingly disappear with a proper playback system. The dynamics and complexity of the soundtrack is also at the peak. It is a gruelling workout for both the DACs, amplification system and speakers. Very revealing indeed.
I strongly recommend everybody who wants to gauge the capability of their home theatre system to own this disc. It will show every weakness of your system. Like I said before and I’m saying it again; this disc is, in one word, “perfection”.