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Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Universe: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review


  • Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4
  • Audio Codec: English PCM 2.0 (48kHz/16-bit)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78
  • Studio: New Video/A&E Home Video
  • Region: A
  • Discs: 3
  • List Price: $79.95

Click thumbnails for high-resolution 1920X1080p screen captures

The Series


The History Channel has taken on the daunting task of producing a series that delves into the sprawling world of the Universe, the physics that drive it and the celestial bodies (including our own planet) that populate it. Granted, throughout much of this first season of The Universe, the series stays very close to home, spending much time and many episodes covering our solar system, our planet, and our own sun. That is not to say, however, that the series does not go beyond our little corner of space. In episodes such as “Alien Galaxies”, “Life and Death of a Star” and “The Most Dangerous Place in the Universe”, the series focuses on subjects far more vast and complex.

Sitting down and watching The Universe is a thoroughly engaging affair. Certainly, for anyone with even a passing interest in astronomy or anyone who ever looked up at the sky and wondered what exactly is up there will find this series fascinating. This is one of the best documentaries on astronomy I have ever had the opportunity to watch. The History Channel takes complicated concepts and conveys them in a manner that is easily understood by anyone.

The graphical accompaniment, though not always of the highest quality, is always intriguing and helps to explain the higher-level theories and concepts for the laymen who are viewing the series. That, combined with the well-articulated narration makes for an educational and quite entertaining series that one can feel good about sitting through once it is over.

Video Quality


The Universe arrives on Blu-ray Disc in a 1.78:1 1080p/24 AVC/MPEG-4 encoding. Being taken from sources of varying degrees of quality, The Universe at times looks sub par and at other times looks spectacular. Most of the archival footage is simply upscaled standard definition and shows many signs of processing artifacts and edge enhancement. The new high definition footage of the various scientific experts or footage of more earthbound features such as the Grand Canyon, etc. is quite detailed, but it does display quite a bit of video noise.

By far the best looking parts of the series are the new CG graphics of bodies in space, such as quasars and planets or distant galaxies and sundry other celestial phenomena. Unfortunately, whether it was due to budgetary constraints or some other reason, even some of the CG graphics are obviously sourced from older standard definition sources and the difference in quality is jarringly inconsistent.

The transfer’s strong points are that it has good, obsidian blacks that are consistent throughout. That works perfectly displaying the black background of space and the sparkling stars and nebula. Contrast is also set at a perfect balance so there are no signs of blooming to wash out details. Flesh tones in the few filmed interview segments, however, are somewhat off and display a bit of red push.

This is a series that could have stood as a reference for an astronomy documentary series on Blu-ray, but A&E Home Video and The History Channel have disappointed on the video quality of this release.

Audio Quality


Despite what the packaging says, The Universe does not come with a Dolby 2.0 mix, but it is in fact only a stereo mix nonetheless. The Universe: The Complete First Season has as its sole audio option an uncompressed PCM 2.0 (48kHz/16-bit) mix. For a series like The Universe where it is either very dialogue heavy or filled with mostly foleyed sound effects, it’s difficult to argue that there would be much gained by stretching the mix to 5.1 channels or more, but kudos should go out to The History Channel/A&E Home Video for providing the mix in PCM instead of lossy Dolby like many other television series seem to be release in on Blu-ray. The sound is as good as it can be for the material at hand. Dialogue is clear, the score and sound effects never drown out the narration and the EQ’ing is easy on the ears. At times, the mix feels just a little closed in, which is the one area where perhaps a 5.1 mix with some added ambience might have helped, but otherwise the mix works well with the material at hand. It won’t push your home theatre’s sound system to its limits, but one can’t really expect much else from a program of this nature.

Supplemental Materials


The Universe comes with only one supplement, the documentary, Beyond the Big Bang, which explores not only the history of the origin of the Universe, but the history of the study of physics. It’s an excellent companion piece to The Universe series, but, still, providing this documentary as the sole extra leaves the release feeling a bit bare bones.

The Definitive Word



The Universe is an excellent and highly educational series that is also thoroughly entertaining. It is good to see something that is thought provoking and of such high quality poke through the sea of mindless reality shows and awful sitcoms for once. Unfortunately, as a Blu-ray release, The Universe is somewhat of a disappointment with its below average video quality and boring 2.0 PCM. Still, it is better than what you can find on DVD and the strength of the series alone forces me to recommend this release with the caveat that you temper your expectations on how it will look and sound.

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