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DVD-Audio Conference (And DVD Audio FAQ)
New York City - August 16th, 2002
Article by Chris Boylan

 

DVD-Audio Conference (And DVD Audio FAQ)

 

  Ok , it wasn't exactly a conference. More like a sales pitch. Apparently there's this new multi-channel music DVD format called DVD-Audio (DVD-A) and apparently we press folk aren't doing a good enough job talking about it and raising the public's awareness. So a whole bunch of record labels and manufacturers gathered all the finest audio and video reviewers together in a room under the guise of free food and drink to berate us for not proselytizing the wonder that is DVD-Audio. Well (with all due props to Steve Martin) EXCUUUUUUUSE ME!

But seriously folks, I'm sure most if not all of the people who frequent the cyber-pages of Enjoy The Music.com already know a thing or two about DVD-Audio. Along with Sony's SACD (DSD) format, DVD-Audio is the future of audio reproduction as we know it, and it is capable of some seriously exciting sounds. But it is also capable of a lot more. Certainly much more than I had considered and I have a pretty active imagination. Let's attack head-on a few of the myths about DVD-Audio, shall we?

 

Chris Boylan Reviews DVD Audio Conference (DVD-Audio News, Media, Music, Formats, DVDA, DVD-A, Secrets, information, FAQ)

 

Myth #1
You need a new DVD player plus a receiver or preamp with a 5.1 channel analog input in order to enjoy DVD-Audio.
False. DVD-A is actually backwards compatible with all of the purported 40 million consumer DVD machines already installed in this great land of ours… well, mostly. Most DVD-A discs can be played in standard DVD Video players, and they will work. You'll be able to navigate through the menus, view the extras, and read the song lyrics (when included) plus you'll get a multi-channel compressed Dolby Digital version of the music itself. OK, it's not the super-high fidelity that DVD-A is capable of. But it's a start and it'll work with your current player. So your current DVD player is DVD-A-"compatible," but it's not DVD-A-"exploitive" (my word).

It is true that you'll need a new DVD-A-exploitive player plus a receiver or preamp with a multi-channel analog input in order to take full advantage of the quality that DVD-A has to offer. And what is this quality of which I speak? Well the standard CD format uses a 16-bit sample word, sampled 44,100 times per second (henceforth known as 16/44). DVD-Audio supports up to a 24-bit sample word, sampled at 192,000 times per second (24-bit/192kHz) for stereo recordings and 24-bit/96kHz for multi-channel recordings. Simply put, DVD-A is better able to quantify and then reconstruct the analog audio music waveform.

If you think of DVD-A as a ruler that measures music with markings every 1/20th of an inch (very precise), then a CD is like a ruler with a mark at every foot (not very precise). Larger word lengths sampled more frequently translates into smoother, more three-dimensional, more accurate sound. Some would say it's "more analog."

 

Myth #2
DVD-Audio is too expensive.
False. 5.1 Entertainment Group (one of the largest current supporters of DVD-A software) has just lowered their price on DVD-A to $17.98 across the board. Similarly, Warner Records has lowered the price of admission to $16.98. These prices represent just a $1 or $2 premium over current CD list prices. On the hardware side, there are now several models in the $300 to $500 price range that include full DVD-A support.

 

Myth #3
All you can get on DVD-A are those esoteric audiophile recordings - bring on the REAL music!
False. If nothing else, the label reps made it clear that DVD-A is intended to be a format for the masses and, as such, will include a representative sample of all types of music. The lead-in music track of the first presentation was techno/rock/rap band Linkin Park's Reanimation in glorious 5.1 channel surround. You haven't lived until you've heard DJs scratching at you from all around the room.

Now you may not be a fan of this type of music (most of the writers in the room clearly were not, based on the groans, rolled eyes and snide commentary), but the fact is that there are millions of rap fans out there with money to spend on gear and discs and the only way that DVD-A will be commercially viable is if it can satisfy the masses. I wonder when they'll release the first DVD-A boom box? And will it come with support braces to suspend all five speakers around your head? Hmmm...

In addition to the standard audiophile-oriented pop artists like Steely Dan, and classical and jazz selections, you can also now (or very soon) buy DVD-As featuring the works of Alice Cooper, Fleetwood Mac, Dishwalla, Queensryche, Bob Marley and the Wailers, and the Sex Pistols, among others.

One of the label reps stated that they can break even on the average DVD-A product with just 6,000 to 10,000 units sold. This may come down even further as the R&D costs come down and the mastering/authoring process gets more streamlined. Expect to see many of your old favorites available in the DVD-A format.

 

 

Myth #4
Aha! I knew it! It's all just another attempt by the greedy record execs to make me go out and buy the Beatles white album again in yet another format!
Welllll... mostly FALSE. Records, tapes and CDs are all audio-only media (we won't go into CD-Enhanced because it's a non-starter in my book). Tapes offered increased portability and convenience over LPs (at a sacrifice in quality). CDs offered increased quality and convenience over cassette tapes (and arguably some sonic improvements over LP, but the jury is still out on that), but really LP, cassette and CD are more alike than they are different.

DVD-Audio offers not just vastly superior sound quality over CD, but also the opportunity to gain greater insight into the artist and into the recording process and deeper meaning to the music. Just as a DVD can include features that just weren't possible on VHS tape (director's commentary, deleted scenes, detailed cast and crew information, etc.), so can DVD-Audio offer similar unique features. The DVD-Audio discs featured in the conference included on-screen lyrics synched to the music (karaoke anyone?), live video footage from performances and interviews related to the album, and even "Easter eggs" - hidden goodies that the die-hard fans will stumble across over time that will enhance their enjoyment of the material even further.

For me, the most effective demo of the format was when John Trickett (CEO of 5.1 Entertainment) showed us a feature of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours DVD-A which documented the evolution of that album from its earliest raw incarnation into fully finished songs. Using an audio/video montage of interviews, studio photos and actual early studio recordings, you can see and hear the songs evolve from ideas into reality.

Apparently Rumours went through significant transformation from the first few days of recording and through the months of studio work. This disc lets you hear the earliest rough cuts of the songs as well as the artist's explanation of what was going through their heads as they were creating this master work. Try that with a CD! I don't think so! For a casual listener, this probably isn't relevant, but just think of the hours of entertainment that this could give a diehard Mac fan and you begin to see that $17.98 is a small price to pay indeed.

 

Myth #5
DVD-A is a multi-channel thang and I only do stereo!
False. Most DVD-A titles include a 24-bit/96kHz stereo mix of the album. Just like the original CD - only better. Is it better than the LP? I won't even touch that one...

 

Myth #6
You gotta have a TV to listen to a DVD-A, as no TV is coming anywhere near my stereo rig!
False. DVD-A players have direct track access controls on the unit and on the remote so you can get your music without the need to use the on-screen menus. But of course you do need a video display unit if you want to view all the supplemental content on the disc.

 

Myth #7
I do most of my music listening on the road. DVD-A seems like a home-only format.
False. In addition to the portable DVD-A players on display at the conference, we were also treated by Mark from Panasonic to the incredible DVD-Audio Cruising Machine. This was a full multi-channel DVD/DVD-A setup in a car including a head unit, 5.1 channels of amplification and speakers and a miniature LCD display (for menus, extras and regular DVD movie watching). Listening to a sampling of music ranging from Stone Temple Pilots to Eric Clapton and Pat Metheny, I had a very simple reaction - I WANT IT... NOW! It was a little distracting (particularly trying to concentrate on a movie while simultaneously avoiding all that pesky New York traffic), but the DVD-Audio clips sounded fantastic, a nice layered spatially defined sound with good vocal transparency.

 

Um... Have You Become Completely Brainwashed?
OK, OK, so I led into this story saying that this was a sales pitch. But you know what? It was a good pitch and I'm buying! Does this mean that DVD-A's path to music format domination will be nothing but smooth sailing? Not by a long shot. There are still obstacles in the way of DVD-A's success.

Though a good sample of manufacturers were present at the conference, showing their full support of the format, from the mass market consumer-oriented brands like Panasonic and Toshiba all the way up to the ultra high end Meridian (who, by the way invented the completely loss-less compression mechanism that allows DVD-A to support 5.1 channels of 24-bit/96kHz audio), there were a couple of notable absentees - Sony and Philips.

Sony and Philips, of course, are advocates of the competing SACD format which offers similarly excellent two-channel and multi-channel digital sound. Jeff Samuels from Panasonic went on and on about how impressed he was to see so many hardware and software vendors working together toward a common goal. But as long as SACD and DVD-Audio are seen as an either/or proposition, many audiophiles will be hesitant to jump on board with a major investment in a format that they fear may one day be obsolete.

Personally, I say that it makes sense to hedge your bets - buy a "universal" player (such as Pioneer's DV-47A) which plays back both DVD-A and SACD discs. Buy the music that you like on whichever format that it's available, sit back and enjoy the music! If one of the formats runs out of steam some day and the new releases start to trickle, then you'll still be able to enjoy all of the discs in your collection.

Also, there is still some controversy over the "watermarking" that is used on DVD-Audio to protect DVD-A content from being copied in the analog domain. Many audio purists feel that any copy protection mechanism that is at all audible must be avoided at all costs. Craig Anderson, from Warner (who has opted to use watermarking on all Warner's DVD-A releases to date) got a little defensive when this came up. When asked if watermarking is audible, he first said "inaudible," but then corrected that to say "audible, but masked." Huh? He admitted that he has heard an audible artifact of watermarking, but only for about two seconds on one of the many discs he has been involved in mastering. Hey, at least he's honest about it.

It seems to me that the record labels think that the audio press is making a mountain out of a molehill on the watermarking issue. In principle, I think that audible watermarking is bad, but in reality, in my non-critical listening of DVD-A to date, I have not heard anything the least bit objectionable. Personally, I'll adopt a wait-and-see attitude on this. I'll wait until I hear it myself before I freak out over something that may be nothing.

The bigger outstanding issue in my book is the issue of bass management. Most DVD-A titles are mastered assuming that you have five identical full-range speakers plus a subwoofer. But most home theater systems in the real world use small speakers for the surrounds, and sometimes even for the mains. What this means is that you may be sending low bass to your little tiny speakers and they may not be able to handle it, and they certainly will not be able to reproduce it.

Even the most basic home theater receivers solve this problem with a set-up option that allows you to set the size (and/or crossover frequency) of all of your speakers. If you select "small" speakers for your main, center and surrounds, then low bass is routed away from your satellites and sent to your subwoofer channel. This is why you can get decent home theater sound from a system comprised of five teeny tiny satellites plus a sub.

But, since the DVD-A signal is sent to your receiver in the analog domain, and since most receivers have no bass management for their multi-channel analog inputs, you're stuck with limited or no bass management. I personally feel that the best long-term solution to this is to require bass management to be built into all players, as is done currently with SACD. Of course, there are solutions to everything. Some DVD-A players have built in bass management, some receivers have built in analog bass management, and there are even some outboard boxes that can be used to add bass management to any system. There are always choices...

I believe it was Craig Eggers, from Toshiba who made a very good point - DVD-A is only a baby! It has only been a live production format for a little over two years. The issues that we think are major now will be solved over time as the format matures. But in my opinion, none of the objections are critical enough to merit waiting. The water's fine... come on in!

 

Reply From 5.1 Entertainment

Chris,

  I'm really impressed! You capture the essence of what this is all about. Don't worry about the intro. It was a sales pitch - we were trying to get people excited about the possibilities.

The only thing I disagree with you on is bass management. I've produced or exec produced over 120 DVD Audio titles. In the very beginning (about three years ago) it was a problem for engineers, both creatively and technically. Frankly I listen to some of the earlier albums that were released by my record labels and cringe at what we did back then. We've come a long way.

Time, experience and better playback tools have taught us a lot about how to manage LFE for multiple consumer speaker systems. One of the ways my production company learned was to network a really crappy sounding living-sized room in our facility together with the main studios. This room contains a continually updated set of the cheapest surround systems available. Our engineers and producers can flip a mix into this room directly from the board and listen to it in real time on a set of 1" cubes with no sub.

We also flip the variable settings on the players and see how it's going to sound to the average person. In the mastering and authoring process we do the same thing and then again in QC on cheap high speed burned DVD/R's.

Of course we aren't ever going to design our sound for that. These disks are going to last a long time and today's hardware environment will evolve and grow. This is much the same as in the early days of stereo when many producers would have a tinny car speaker in the centre to hear how a record would sound on AM radio in mono.

I don't want to dwell on this one issue. Thanks for being there and doing such a great job in capturing it for your readers...

Regards,

John Trickett
5.1 Entertainment

 

Chris Replies

Hi John,

  I know what you mean about listening on tinny car speakers. In the three CDs we cut in my previous life as a rock drummer, we'd listen to each mix on a set of behemoth speakers, a set of Yamaha NS-10M monitors (blech) and usually on a set of 4" car speakers just to make sure it didn't sound terrible on any of them.

It's good to hear that you employ similar techniques in 5.1 mixing. Make sure it sounds best on a state of the art set up, but doesn't completely suck on the real world stuff.

Regards,

Chris Boylan

 

Note: Check out our DVD Audio Update from Dolby Labs' press conference at Home Entertainment Expo 2003 in San Francisco (part of our comprehensive coverage of Home Entertainment Expo 2003).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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