Welcome fellow Audiolics to my 84th column. That's right; seven years writing for this rag, if you can call a web magazine such. That's six years more than I thought I'd be doing it. Normally my annual anniversary column is spent on some new piece of equipment that in some way has advanced the audio field, but that was blown last month by reviewing the APC S-15 review, a significant improvement in line conditioning. My review of its little brother the H-15 is not complete, so that will have to wait for next month.
So today, I thought I'd review what I consider to be my WORST OF THE YEAR, what are definitely the two biggest disappointments in audio over the past few years, i.e., the implementation of the computer for audio-video reproduction, and the new High Definition Video standards for audio reproduction. As usual for all applications from the computer industry, in both cases, audio has been treated as the syphilitic stepbrother compared to the video side.
To me, this makes no sense in this day. Maybe a hundred years ago, when Silent Film was the rage, but certainly not today. Even then, the picture had to be accompanied by music, preferably live by piano or band, for the audience to appreciate the emotional innuendoes that could only be conveyed partially by the character's expressions. But Talkies certainly drove out the Silent Films in short order.
As an experiment, try evaluating a modern film, first with the sound and then the video turned off. See which you would prefer if the other could not be available to you. Which actually conveys more information? Bet you'd opt for the sound rather than the picture. Why? Because the sound conveys more to our brains than the picture, especially emotional content.
Thus, my disappointment with the audio standards promulgated by both High Definition DVD camps. HD-DVD and Blu-ray will continue to offer Dolby Digital and DTS, both of which offer significantly poorer sound quality than even the 25-year-old CD standard. Why? Because most receivers and pre-pro's out there will not be able to decode the new bastardized standards pushed by the two camps.
The video side can be superb if the maximum bit standard is used, in some demonstrations I've seen, exceeding anything your cable, satellite and off the air programmers can possibly give you considering their lower bit rates. So you'll have 1080 I or P video of probably excellent quality if the movie companies have taken the time and effort, but still poor audio.
And the audio side improvements future standards are just as good, but at least for now and into the foreseeable future, as usual, the audio has been screwed again. There have been improvements on the audio side, even with Dolby Digital EX, which has been allowed to use its maximum bit rate of 640 kHz, still significantly less than CDs but 1/2 more than the standard 480 found on most concert DVDs.
In addition, both will offer three new audio formats:
Dolby Digital Plus: This is an enhanced version of Dolby Digital that can be encoded at slightly higher bit rates and with 7.1 channels. Unhappily, the bit rate is still below even CD's standard per channel at a maximum of 3 MBPS and 24/48 for HD-DVD and 4.736 Mbps for Blu-ray. The encoding is done as a main stream of normal Dolby Digital EX with a substream for the extra information to make it backward compatible with present receivers. Again, unhappily, present receivers and pre-pro's won't be able to decode the substream, so you'll have to either use the 7.1 decoded analog signal from the player with its maybe decent D/A converters into your analog bypass with its 5.1 channels unit, or use a down-sampled to DD-EX 5.1 digital output to the pre-pro, possibly little better than what is presently available.
Dolby True HD: Finally we're getting somewhere. This is a lossless high-res audio format that can also have 7.1 channels, based on the so-called lossless MLP process developed by Meridian for the DVD-Audio format, using up to 24-bit/96kHz decoding for 7.1 channels or 24/192 for two channels. Sounds great, except for the following;
This presents five problems.
DTS-HD: This is the DTS answer to Dolby True-HD. While it appears it will be able to do higher sampling rates up to 192kHz., and channel numbers, it does not guarantee which level of encoding from low to high bit is on the recording, and none of the present machines will be able to decode most of them.
So what does all of this mean? For now, if your pre-pro has only an SPDIF input, all of the advanced formats will be down-rezzed to standard DD or DTS, thus no improvement except maybe that the signal may not have as many defects, as it will be decoded from a higher order one. If you use the pre-pro's 5.1 analog inputs, all formats supported by the player's internal D/A converters will be sent as 5.1 analog signals. If it has the present HDMI 1.1 standard connector, the player will decode everything to 5.1 channel 24/96 or two channel 24/192 LPCM or DD or standard DTS. Down the road, once the HDMI 1.3 standard is set and receivers and pre-pro's come on the market with the proper capabilities, all of the standards may be available, but who knows when that will occur.
If the above is not bad enough, this is the breaking point for me! None, and I mean none of the presently foreseen HD players will have decoders or the ability to play back in any way DVD-A and SACD discs. Even Sony has abandoned SACD playback. Thus, you'll still need your present player in addition to the new one. So if you venture into HD-DVD or Blu-ray territory get ready to spend big bucks for a new player and pre-pro.
Thus, at present, while I was hoping against hope that we'd soon be getting concert HD discs of various types in both high definition video and glorious 5.1 or 7.1 channel 24/96 or 192 encoded audio, I guess the wait will be considerably longer, if ever. While DirecTV through HDNET has shown the quality that is obtainable now, at least on the video side with their PROMS concert series, the HD audio will have to wait for the standard to catch up. Unless you're more of a videophile than an audiophile, save your money for now. You'll be glad you did down the road.
Sony VAIO VGX-XL1 Home Theater Computer
Since my first year writing for this magazine and in multiple articles since, I've been experimenting with using computers for audio and video playback. Yes, its true that most computers have a poor reputation for audio recording and playback, usually due to their poor sound cards and crappy speakers. But, remember that most of the digital discs we have today were at some time or other recorded, manipulated, and transcribed from analog to digital by computers using professional grade sound cards, such as those from M-Audio, Audiotrak, RME and Lynx.
With their high grade DVD drives, and soon to be in place high definition drives, the ability of the high end sound cards to use ASIO transmittal of data rather than Windows' K-mixer, output balanced analog, software that can take any analog such as from vinyl, digitize it to 24/192, clean up, if necessary, pops and tics, and make a DVD-A disc, plus do all of the other things computers do well, if the audio side had kept up with the video, all of us would be dumping our pre-pro's, DVD players, etc. for them. The home Theater Computer would be the center of any home playback system.
Unhappily this wish has not come to fruition. While video cards have advanced every six months giving quality unheard of only a couple of years ago, audio cards have remained at their late 1990's levels, with no significant advancement since the Creative company was allowed to do DVD-A decoding in the computer. Unhappily, the Creative cards are somewhat less than high end or semi-pro, and all other cards down-sample the 24/96 to 20/48 before decoding. Thus, they still cannot do DVD-A properly and no computer card available to us can do SACD.
If one knows what one is doing with computers, one can build a very good unit with an excellent sound card, video card, and the proper software for under $1000 for a basic unit that will play back and copy CD's almost as well as any CD player and recorder under $3000, and produce excellent DVD-A's from vinyl, play concert DVD's, and receive off the air NTSC and high definition television. For an added $500-$1000, one can add software and hard drives of sufficient capacity to store just about anybody's CD and possibly DVD collections, and record television like a TIVO in one repository for playback. In addition, in the next couple of months, Sony and Pioneer are planning on releasing HD-DVD and Blu-ray drives at about $900 with the proper software to playback high definition video formats,( but unhappily not DVD-A or SACD) which may overcome the problems listed in the first part of the article with the audio playback of these formats. Whether the software will allow them to do Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD decoding in the computer will have to wait to be seen.
There are also several computer makers out there who have constructed both notebook and desktop ready-to-use so-called Home Theater Centers having most of the above features using Windows Media Center for the software. Most are in the mega-bucks range, but recently Sony has come out with a reasonably priced unit, the VGX-XL1, which I jumped at purchasing as it was being sold for $900, significantly less than it $2699 list price. While it probably was last year's model, It should have been at least up to the standards set by my home built unit of three years ago.
Unhappily, the unit is a dud, one of the few purchases in audio that I sincerely regret. The reason for purchase was that it came with a 200 disc changer that would have held most of my DVD collection and a 200 gig hard drive to hold my CDs, which would have made playback easier. Or so my thinking went.
First, as it had Ethernet, the programming was updated by going to Windows Update. Big mistake. The Media Center addition in the computer was for revision SP1 of Windows XP. What the good folks at Sony failed to mention in their literature, web site, and even to most of their technicians, is that their special edition of Media Center is incompatible with the SP2 update, which shut down the video card. Even the discs sent with the computer wouldn't bring the video back to life. The several technicians at Sony diagnosed everything from a faulty video card to a damaged television receiver card, to a main board defect, and sent their technician over three times over a three week period to replace these before one of their brighter techs finally spilled the beans on Sony's ineptitude and downloaded a patch to fix the problem. This may be only temporary, for if I download any windows updates, it may cause the computer to do the same thin again and require a wipe of the hard drive and reinstall. No thank you!
The keyboard with built-in mouse has a range of about 15 feet and if one goes further away, it loses contact with the unit and has to be reacquired. It does have a smallish remote control for the MediaCenter functions, but it has to be pointed directly at the computer for it to function properly. It's Ethernet antenna is not bad, being able to pick up the signal from my wireless transmitter at the other end of the house.
It only comes with 512mb of Ram and a 200 Gb hard drive, which are insufficient for doing any video or audio mastering. Thus a second 300 Gb drive and 1 Gb of ram were added by yours truly. The DVD drive on the main computer is playback only, so one has to use the 200 disc changer to record onto DVD, and both drives are not replaceable due to their configuration, so one cannot even place a better disc drive-recorder in if one wanted too.
While the styling is nice with its matching silver and black cabinets for both pieces, the main unit has been made about the size of a receiver, which makes space inside somewhat cramped. There is only one fan, so with the cramped space and less than optimal circulation; this may cause problems down the road with overheated components. Likewise, there is only one extra expansion slot to add any further video or audio capability. The video card presently in the unit will only do NTSC television with one antenna input, one Composite and one S-Video input. Happily there is an HDMI output that is HDCP compliant.
The video card is one of the lower level GeForce units that will do a maximum of 720P, not even 1080 I or P, and I've been told by a Sony rep that the software for it cannot be updated to newer drivers. Stupidly I tried the latest drivers and had to replace it with the original as the card shut down.
The Media Center program is also very poor. It only recognizes the names of about 2/3 of the commercial DVDs and CDs, and won't let one add names for the unrecognized ones and those discs you have recorded. Thus, a large portion of them are listed in the table of contents as either "DVD or CD unknown name" and that can't be changed. Also every time one removes a disc, the order of the 200 possible discs changes so one cannot even tell which number disc is playing.
I could go on but it is fruitless. Sony has shot itself in the foot again with this less than stellar unit. They are coming out with an updated one and hopefully will be showing it at CEDIA. We'll see if it is any better. Also, Dell and HP and several other manufacturers have come out with similar units that are hopefully better. Between this, their nonsupport of SACD, their recent lithium battery fiasco, Beta-VCR, etc. its surprising Sony hasn't gone down the tubes by now. Guess their great televisions and CD players have kept them in business.
Anybody who has any computer knowledge can build a unit that will be far superior for a similar or even lower price. For those wishing to get more information may go to the AV Sciences web board specializing in home theater computers for more information. Personally, I'll be going back to the one I built a couple of years ago, changing out components and seeing what developments have occurred. STAY AWAY FROM THIS DOG!!!