Saturday, June 23, 2012

K-On!! Season 2 Blu-Ray US vs. JP review and comparison (vol 1)

With Bandai Entertainment having packed up and left the North American home video market, for a while K-On! fans feared the second season of the TV anime would not see an English language release. So naturally, when Sentai Filmworks announced their plans to release said TV anime on DVD and Blu-Ray as early as this very summer, there was much rejoicing. But Bandai’s release of the first season left a lot to be desired for a lot of fans – would Sentai’s season 2 fare better? With the release of the first volume now upon us, it is time to have a look and see if it lives up to expectations – whatever those expectations may be.

The first and most obvious difference in the approaches taken by the two companies is in the release strategy. Bandai’s first season was released as a series of single disc volumes with list prices of $34.98 (vols. 1 and 2) or $29.98 (vols 3 and 4) per disc. That comes out to a total of $129.92 for all 14 episodes, or $9.28 per episode on average.

Sentai, however, has opted to split the roughly twice as long second season into two collections with a list price of $69.98 each. That’s $139.96 for all 27 episodes, or about $5.18 per episode.

Quite a significant price drop between seasons, in other words. The question is, should we expect a drop in the quality of the presentation along with that lower price? Hey, here’s an idea: Let’s crack this sucker open and find out!

The immediately apparent part of the presentation is, of course, the cover. Sentai has taken a similar approach to Bandai’s, in using the cover art from one of the Japanese Blu-Ray volumes for their own release. In the case of season 2’s first US volume, we get the cover art from Japan’s volume 3. An odd choice in my view, and not one I would have preferred (I think a more logical choice would have been the artwork from volume 1, or at least another one that features the five main characters about equally) – but it’ll do. It’s a fun picture.

One interesting issue that presents itself right away is the fact that Sentai has dropped the second exclamation mark, signifying that this is the second season, from the English “K-On!!” logo, instead giving the show the rather plain title “K-On! Season 2”. While some fans may cry foul, I should point out that this is really just a superficial marketing choice, and the double “!!” remains intact in the actual shows title and opening sequence.

K-On!!’s first volume comes in a rather ordinary blue Blu-Ray case, same style as the ones Bandai used for their releases with the exception that this volume contains two discs. As with Bandai’s releases, the case contains no physical extras, there’s just the discs, and there’s nothing printed on the inside of the cover, either. But where Bandai used artwork featuring only the instruments used by the Light Music Club for their disc labels, Sentai’s season 2 is using the original disc artwork from the Japanese Blu-Ray discs, featuring the characters themselves in all their glory. A welcome change.

Disc 1 features the artwork from the Japanese volume 1, depicting Yui proudly displaying a cassette tape with her name on it. When starting up the disc, one is greeted by a friendly FBI warning (non skippable) followed by a trailer for Anime Network and the Sentai Filmworks logo (both skippable).

The main menu screen is simple and functional, if not particularly visually impressive. I’ll say this for Bandai – their releases had nice menus, featuring clips from the episodes contained on the disc. Nothing like that here – all we get this time is the K-On! logo against a patterned pink backdrop with episode selections at the bottom of the screen along with a submenu for language selection – Japanese audio with English subtitles, or English audio. Subtitles are not forced, by the way, in case anyone’s worried about that.

The English audio consists of a dub produced by Bang Zoom! Entertainment, who were also responsible for the first season’s dub, providing for a nice sense of consistency between the two seasons for those who prefer their anime that way. I am not at all a dub person myself, but I’ll concede that K-On! could do far worse than this as far as dubs go if my samplings are representative of the full experience.

My viewing experience of choice, however, is original Japanese audio with English subtitles. All in all, I am quite happy with the translation as presented in the subtitles here – not because I’m really qualified to judge their accuracy in terms of meaning, but the tone of language used is definitely appropriately light and fun (the occasional odd translation choice aside – why, for instance, is the word “kouhai” left consistently untranslated?). For a translation to work as it should, it’s important that the person or people in charge of it get the tone of the material, and that appears to have been the case here. With that in mind, the occasional typo or omitted word can be forgiven.

Subtitles are primarily yellow, with occasional use of white if there are multiple lines being spoken on top of each other, or for signs, song lyrics, etc. For the opening and ending songs, subtitles alternate between English and Japanese (romaji) from episode to episode, a presentation method I much prefer to Bandai’s method of throwing everything at the screen at once and horribly cluttering up the animation. Insert songs are subtitled in English only. If there’s one thing I didn’t like about the subtitles, it’s that I find them oversized to the point of being distracting. I can’t think of any good reason for normal subtitles on a Blu-Ray release being this big, so this particular aspect is something I think was better on Bandai’s discs. It’s a bit annoying, but hardly a dealbreaker.

Sentai subtitles
Bandai subtitles

Episodes featured on the first disc are as follows:
  • 1 – Seniors!
  • 2 – Clean-Up!
  • 3 – Drummer!
  • 4 – Field Trip!
  • 5 – Staying Behind!
  • 6 – Rainy Season!
  • 7 – Tea Party!
  • 8 – Career!
  • 9 – Finals!

The label on disc 2 features the artwork from the third Japanese volume. As with Yui on disc 1, Mugi is seen here holding up her own personalized cassette tape.

Disc 2 features the following episodes:
  • 10 – Teacher!
  • 11 – Hot!
  • 12 – Summerfest!
  • 13 – Late Summer Postcard!
Disc 2 also contains the set’s Special Features section, which consists of textless versions of the opening and ending sequences. Those are the only extras that have been carried over from the Japanese Blu-Ray releases (and I’ll get to detailing those in a little while), which is a step up from the zero that Bandai carried over on the first season. In fairness, Bandai reportedly weren’t permitted to include the season 1 equivalents on their release, so they can hardly be blamed – and additionally, they included a few locally produced bonus features on their discs whereas no such efforts have been made here. Finally, the disc also includes trailers for recent or forthcoming Sentai Filmworks releases; specifically “Towanoquon”, “Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works”, “Needless”, “CLANNAD: After Story”, “Planzet” and “Gintama: The Movie”.

So – that’s that as far as presentation and bonus features go. But what about the main event? The episodes themselves, do they look and sound as they should? Well, first off, I am happy to confirm that the episodes on these two discs have not, as far as I can tell, been altered in any way compared to the Japanese release. There’s no annoying music replacement, nor any other stupid editing issues. Purists will be happy to know that even the opening/ending credits have been left in their original Japanese, with English credits added only after the end of each episode in the form of white text scrolling over a black screen. These are the original, unaltered episodes of K-On!!.

Video is splendid looking AVC encoded 1080p. Both audio options are presented in 24 bit DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 – yes, that’s lossless audio. That should satisfy those who were disappointed by the lossy Dolby Digital audio on the first season.

There is one issue, however – there seems to be a problem with the Japanese audio on episode 11, “Hot!”. It is only on the Japanese audio track, and only on episode 11 – but quite annoying if you’re unlucky enough to notice it. I’m not much of an audiophile and not necessarily very knowledgeable regarding audio issues such as this, but I can tell it sounds wrong, and that it definitely wasn’t like this on the Japanese disc. The music sounds kind of muffled, yet louder than it should be in relation to the dialogue. It is very obvious during the opening sequence, especially if you switch back and forth between audio tracks to compare – the English track sounds fine.

Aside from that one issue, as well as the annoyance of the subtitles being too big, I really have no significant complaints about this set. While some additional bonus features could’ve been fun, this is a good release.

Now, then – when I did my reviews of Bandai’s first season last year, I made a point of comparing them to the Japanese BDs. It’s only fair I do the same with the second season. But let me first clarify that this is not an attempt to criticize the US releases for lacking in bells and whistles. Like I said before, there’s a significant price difference between the US season 1 and season 2 releases – but that’s nothing compared to the vast difference between the Japanese discs and either of the US seasons.

For season 1, each Japanese volume (of which there was seven) carried the list price of 7,980 yen, and season 2 volumes (all nine of them) cost 8,400 yen each. That’s a total of 75,600 yen for season 2, or 2,800 yen (about $39.45 currently) per episode. Yeah. Comparing that to the mere $5.18 per episode for Sentai’s release, the Japanese one damned well better have something more to offer. (Oh yeah – just to complete the picture, the first season comes out to 3,990 yen per episode, or about $50.52. Maybe there’s a reason why Bandai charged more per episode than Sentai in the North American market?)

Since the first US volume contains 13 episodes, I will look at the Japanese volumes 1 through 4. They each contain three episodes, totalling twelve – that’s about close enough for a comparison.

The general specs are the same for all four volumes. About a minute’s worth of unskippable company logos play at startup, followed immediately by the disc’s three episodes. The main menu is presented over a still frame of background art, with “Have some tea?” from the first season’s OST playing over it.

Video is presented, as always, in AVC encoded 1080p, with linear PCM audio and optional (white) Japanese subtitles. For on-disc extras, there are two audio commentaries per episode – one featuring the main cast members, and one featuring members of the production staff – and, as with the first season, a special mini-episode (“Uraon!!”) for each volume. Volume 4 also has the textless opening/ending sequences.

As for the Uraon!! shorts, the ones on these volumes see the Light Music Club girls and friends 1) have their fortunes told by Azusa, 2) show off the souvenirs from their recent class trip, 3) discuss imaginary siblings (they’re unable to picture Mugi having one) and 4) remember childhood dreams.

Of course, there are physical extras. Volume 1 comes with a Ton-chan sticker, an Azusa guitar pick, a plastic bookmark designed to look like a film strip with frames from the opening sequence featuring Yui, and the first in a series of printed character bios on the students in class 3-2 featuring five of the background characters from the second season. As with the Blu-Ray release of the first season, each volume comes in a special pink Blu-Ray case, and the cover reverse profiles one of the characters – Yui, in the case of volume 1.

But wait, there’s more! Each volume also comes with a life size cloth poster of one of the characters. These posters are huge in and of themselves, but even more so when you collect all nine and place them next to each other in which case they come together to complete one large panorama depicting all the major K-On! characters as they are in the process of undressing (for some reason). Volume 1 comes with Yui.

The poster comes inside a thin cardboard container, which comes shrink wrapped together with the Blu-Ray case and is of roughly equal size. The front shows a picture of the poster inside, and the back features basically the same design and information as the back of the actual Blu-Ray cover does.

For volume 2, the disc label features none other than favorite teacher Sawako Yamanaka, as does the cover reverse. The accompanying cloth poster features Mugi.

Goodies inside the Blu-Ray case for volume 2 is the second part of the classmates bio, featuring just two of them this time, stickers that spell out the word “keionbu” designed to look like the matching keychains from episode 5, another film style bookmark (this time with Ritsu on it) and a Yui guitar pick.

Volume 3’s disc art and cover reverse both depict our beloved Mugi. Note that this disc art is what was used for disc 2 of the US release.

As for the physical goods, the poster and guitar pick this time both feature Ritsu, while the filmstrip bookmark shows us still frames of Azusa. We get brief bios on four more classmates, a bunch of those Mio stickers from episode 7 so that you, too, can create your own Mio backscratcher, and an advertisement for the “K-On! Ho-kago Live!!” PSP game from Sega.

Finally, for volume 4 the subject of the artwork seen on both the disc label and cover reverse is your very own doting little sister (you wish), Ui Hirasawa.

In keeping with the theme of one of the episodes featured on the disc, the guitar pick this time features Sawako, and there’s also a shiny Death Devil sticker. The classmate bio in this volume features only one of the background girls, the filmstrip bookmark is of Mio.

The volume 4 poster shows us Jun struggling with her clothing, and that concludes our look at the Japanese bonus content. All in all, is there any wonder the Japanese Blu-Ray releases cost more? One can of course argue that they’re still overpriced, but if you’re of that persuasion the solution is simple: Stick with the Sentai release. It’s more than fine if you’re content just owning the episodes themselves and have little need for the bells and whistles.

Finally, there’s one more comparison to be made between the US and Japanese discs, and that’s the matter of which one has better video quality? They both feature lossless audio which should in theory be the same (episode 11 notwithstanding), but is the video of equal quality as well? I will say that I didn’t notice any difference while just watching them. But here’s a series of screenshot comparisons for anyone who wants to see for themselves – Japanese video on top, US on the bottom, click to view full size:

In a direct comparison, it becomes obvious that the video on the Sentai discs is a bit brighter than the video on the Japanese discs. Other than that, I can’t honestly say I can see much of a difference at all. That in itself is more than enough for me to consider myself happy with the look of Sentai’s Blu-Rays.

Likewise, I can happily say I’m very pleased with Sentai’s K-On!! release overall. Aside from one annoying but tolerable audio issue, and the annoying but tolerable issue of subtitle size, there’s nothing here that I feel is inadequate in any way. Judging by this first half of the “Season 2 Collection”, I’d say the North American release of the series is in good hands.


  1. very awesome review, cant wait to pick this up. also how does this site not have more view/comments :(

    1. Well thanks for commenting. :) I view this blog as an outlet for my love of / obsession with K-On!... I don't really put much effort into promoting it. Pageviews will be pageviews, I guess.

  2. I'm really curious as to how Sentai's direction affected the dubbing. Even though I almost always watch K-On! subbed I saw the dub version first and while it didn't match up to the Japanese I thought it was a pretty good dub. It doesn't come out here until September and the main reason I'm picking it up is to see the dub's quality but none of the reviews even remotely touch on it. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

    1. im a huge fan of k-on and i was so excited when they announced a dub version coming because that meant i can finally own the series, and rest assured the dub is just as great in season 2, in fact id say its better because the voice actresses get more into the characters and seem more enthusiastic about playing them this time around

    2. The reason I don't go into details about the dub is because, well, I haven't watched it. That is, aside from sampling a few scenes here and there. I generally have no interest in dubs, so sitting through the whole thing would not be enjoyable for me. I tried it on season 1, but I couldn't finish... the interest is just not there for me.

  3. Great review, thanks for the details!

  4. Great review. Please, keep up the good work!

  5. Thanks. I'll do my best. Or at least I'll try my best to do my best.

  6. Thank you, now I can buy them with confidence. Good Stuff.