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Audiophile Audition


DVD-Audio Reviews
October 2001

After a rather prolonged delay they're finally here - multichannel DVD Audio discs in some quantity. Word is of around 85 releases so far. And plenty of players to play them on - from entry level to the top-of-line Pioneer AX10 which we are reviewing this month and on which all of these discs were auditioned. I'm reviewing 13 multichannel discs of each of the two competing formats, trying to select a variety of music genres, labels and approaches to channel dedication. Lots more next month!

TCHAIKOVSKY: 1812 Overture; Capriccio Italien, Marche Slave, Festival Coronation March, Polonaise, Cossack Dance from Mazeppa - Kiev Sym. Chorus/Greater Cincinnati Children's Choir/cannon/carillon bells/Cincinnati Pops Orch./Erich Kunzel - Telarc DVDA-70541:

Telarc really got their start bigtime with their l978 1812 LP, which also featured Kunzel and his orchestra and the same cannon and bells. It became the audiophile blockbuster of all time and its grooves - with near 90-degree turns at the impact of the cannon firings - sent many a delicate phono cartridge skittering across the vinyl. Now they've done it all over again for multichannel surround sound in both DVD-Audio and SACD.

Project director Michael Bishop had a big challenge this time around due not just to the complexities of recording for multichannel, but also to the fact that the DSD recording gear he used was all in its beta stage. Of course it was impossible for the various elements brought together sonically here to actually assemble in one acoustic space simultaneously. The Russian choir was recorded there, the carillons at a Cleveland church, the cannon outdoors at a park, with the orchestra in Cincinnati's Music Hall.

Bishop decided to offer an alternative to the THX 5.1 layout of channels, just as Chesky, DMP and D&G are doing for their multichannel releases. While all approach it differently, the starting point is realizing that the .1 LFE channel is really superfluous for music listening and some reason that the center front channel is also less important - often actually compromising the frontal imaging if not properly handled. Telarc suggests feeding the LFE channel to a pair of height speakers placed high on the sides between the front L and R speakers and the rear surrounds. These speakers then not only contribute the height information but also aid in a more seamless integration of the front and rear surrounds, since the ears are most sensitive to sounds and reflections coming directly from the sides. If you retain the basic 5.1 setup the very low level height information is still fed to the subwoofer, so the setup is compatible as is. I don't yet have my height channels set up so all the multichannel discs in this issue were auditioned with a standard 5.1 setup using five of the Genelec HT205 Active Home Theater speakers and a Cambridge Soundworks active subwoofer. The five standard speakers were all equidistant from the sweet spot and levels were carefully set to be identical using the superb R. E. Design six-channel analog preamp and a Radio Shack digital sound level meter. The L and R speakers were 30 degrees off center and the left and right rear at 110 degrees. [Both the preamp and powered mini monitors will be reviewed next month.]

I suppose many readers are anxious to hear about a comparison of the SACD and DVD-A versions of the1812. Musically, both multichannel 1812 discs offer a bit more than the original LP due to the increased space available. There are six additional selections, including the 16-minute long Capriccio Italien. The DVD-A also includes a number of extras not present on the SACD release: A slide show on the recording of the album, onscreen notes on the production, detailed about the composer, and some visuals on the screen during the playback of the disc, as with most DVD As. On neither disc are the cannon shots quite as impressive dynamically as they were on the original LP, being more of a "whap" than a "boom." However, they are plenty impressive spatially, coming from left and right and sides. Missing is the sound of the leaves falling after some of the shots, as heard on revealing equipment with the original LP/CD. The bells also seem more subtle.

The addition of the two choirs adds much to the 1812, making it more of a special occasion and less of a potboiler. Though surround doesn't seem to improve the intelligibility of the words they are singing. The DVD-A has another extra not found on the SACD, and that is the whole sound program encoded in MP3 files for DVD-ROM. While the visual portion there was strictly for PCs I was able to access the actual MP3 files on my Mac and when run thru my Onkyo external sound card was surprised at the reasonable quality, though of course not approaching the high-res versions. The DVD-A also includes both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks for those with earlier DVD players, and the multichannel DVD-A is not at the top 96K rate allowed but at 88.2 with 20 bit on the surround and 24 bit on the stereo version. The disc, by the way, is two-sided in order to accommodate all these extras.

So was there a startling difference sonically between the DVD-A and SACD multichannel versions? Well, in a way this is not a perfect test since the DVD-A was made from the same DSD master recordings. Also, there was a wide variation in players used. Since the $6000 Pioneer "universal" player only plays two-channel SACDs (and that not very well) I used it only for the DVD-A, and used the $400 Sony 775 multichannel SACD player for the SACD version. My time was constrained and I want to compare again when all set up in my upcoming new digs, but for now I have to admit I couldn't tell a great deal of difference.

- John Sunier


CARL ORFF: Carmina Burana - soloists/Southend Boy's Choir/London Philharmonic Choir/London Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta - Teldec 8573 86597-9:

One of the first DVD-A discs I received for review, this and the next provided no end of frustration trying to get sound at all, and then trying to get the multichannel tracks instead of the in-player mixdown to two channel stereo. In fact after some effort not only I but two other audio buffs present were convinced that the discs were mislabeled and did not actually feature "Advanced-Resolution Surround."

Well, be advised they do. It just takes some perseverance and patience to wade thru all the onscreen prompts - not only on the actual DVD-A but first on the DVD-A player. (I'll admit that some of my grousing might be due to the especially arcane logic of the designers of the Pioneer player.) I had thought I was fairly adept at screen navigation from the DVD videos that now come with increasingly more elaborate extra features. But little did I know. Obviously the clowns that program the navigation on these discs are not real music listeners! One of the many options with DVD Audio is not to use the video displays at all. The D&G DVD-A discs I expect to review shortly feature a completely black screen if you insist on feeding your TV display. You can access any track just like a standard CD. This should be an option with all DVD-A discs even when there are onscreen visuals - for the many music lovers who don't even allow a TV in the house!

OK, now that's off my chest... No, wait, I've got one more coming up. This is a smashing performance of the popular Orff neo-primitive cantata based on randy friars' songs of the middle ages. Choral music is always a good test of accuracy in reproduction, and the multichannel presentation clearly improves the impression of a large choir and soloists performing in front of you. I don't believe I've ever been able to hear the actual words quite so clearly, and I once played one of the two pianos in a public performance of this. The display of all the words on the screen with appropriate medieval illustrations in the background is an aid to understanding. The design is very striking and makes for a thorough involvement in the work. However - and this is true of most of the DVD-As reviewed thus far - why in the world didn't they program the visuals to automatically change as the music goes from one section or movement to another?? As described below, some of the discs have only one short slide show which remains the same for the entire hour-long disc or piece, but in the case of Carmina there were different lyrics for each song. You had to be wide awake and hit the advance button each time it sounded like there was a new song, and with the extensive repetition common to Orff's style you might press it before they were finished with the previous song. (In fact at the rehearsal for that public performance I blithely came in with a loud om-pah-pah accompaniment on the piano solo for several measures; the chorus and orchestra still had one more repeat of the song to go! Very embarrassing.) The disc also includes a picture gallery slide show of paintings and photos of and by Orff. As with most DVD-A discs, it also contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 version of the music for those with standard DVD Video players.

- John Sunier


MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in C minor "Resurrection" - soloists/Prague Philharmonic Choir/Israel Philharmonic Orch./Zubin Mehta - Teldec 4509 94545-9:

One of the more approachable Mahler symphonies, and in a way one quite fitting for our present national post-trauma condition. The ethereal, heavenly mood of the work is beautifully communicated and depicted by all concerned, and the multichannel reproduction involves the listener much more than standard stereo. There may be more exciting versions musically but Mehta and his forces are first rate. Soprano Nancy Gustafson and contralto Florence Quivar are separated more clearly from the chorus and orchestra and from each other laterally than in two-channel versions. The lyrics for the vocal portions are displayed both onscreen as well as in the printed note booklet. Again, they have to be manually switched from one movement to another on the screen. Again there is a Picture Gallery option that can be viewed before or after listening to the work.

- John Sunier


VIVALDI: The Four Seasons; Concertos for Double Orchestra RV 581 & 582 - London Mozart Players/David Juritz - Naxos 5.110001:

Naxos' very first multichannel high-res release was recorded using the maximum 96K/24 bit system for DVD-A surround. It has the standard 5.1 Dolby Digital track, but in addition also a 5.1 DTS feed. I didn't get around to comparing all three but experience with similar triple-threat discs has shown the expected "good/better/best" quality running DD/DTS/DVD-A. I was a big fan of DTS CDs but now that we have two even higher-res formats at hand its failings become more hearable. However, with the additional data space on a DVD vs. CDs the DTS encoding can employ a better sampling rate and therefore improved fidelity.

Naxos' engineers followed the conservative line most of the classical releases are using, in assigning the surround channels to the natural reflected sound in the rear portion of the venue. The recordings were made in a church in London and the acoustics are very natural. Only when the surrounds are switched off does the sonic image collapse toward the front - which is at it should be. Music featuring massed strings such as this can serve as excellent demos of the advantages of either of the high-res formats over 44.1 CDs. Though standard CDs have made great strides in overcoming "digititus" lately, the analog-like sheen and naturalness of the string timbres here are easily appreciated on reasonably good equipment vs. Vivaldi's famous four on any 44.1 disc.

The overly-familiar concertos are played with grace and verve, though my tastes run toward the more gutsy approach of Il Guardino Armonico. The two filler concertos - in C Major and D Major, employ a somewhat larger string orchestra and have liturgical connotations. Naxos has designed their DVD-A to be playable easily without the necessity of a video display - Thank you! If you do display the visuals what you get is a very slow slide show with a single lovely and appropriate pastoral photograph to accompany each of the 18 tracks on the DVD. By the way, in concert with their budget-label revolution Naxos is offering this DVD-A at the normal standard CD price of about $16 rather than the $20 to $30 of other DVD As.

- John Sunier


BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 - soloists/Choir of German State Opera, Berlin/Berlin Staatskapelle/Daniel Barenboim - Teldec 8573-83063-9:

Barenboim has recorded all of the Beethoven Nine in multichannel sound. There seems to be some inconsistency as to packaging the new format - some of them arrived in standard CD jewel boxes and others in the taller plastic DVD cases that are often are extremely difficult to snap open and whose plastic hinges are just as likely to break off as the weak little "ears" on CD jewel boxes. The standard approach of offering DVD-A 5.1 channel, DVD-A stereo mixdown and Dolby Digital 5.1 is found in this series. The visual extras on the disc include a time line year by year around the time of the symphony's composition, with important musical, literary and political events listed. There is a slide show of about a dozen images of paintings and sculpture of Beethoven, a page of the music, a view of Vienna, etc. This can be manually cycled thru and it remains the same for the entire symphony. Finally there is a short video live-action documentary with stereo soundtrack on Barenboim and his recording of the series. Some of his comments about why he is excited about DVD-Audio (though I don't disagree with him) reminded me of similar spiels uttered in the past - back to cylinder records in fact - by various classical performers on behalf of their record companies.

I wasn't able to do any musical comparisons but Barenboim's Ninth struck me as excellent if not as white-hot emotionally as several others. During the Ode to Joy - Beethoven's all-out effort to use all the forces he could think of (this was pre-Mahler of course) to express the inexpressible - all previous recordings have run out of steam and sound strained in the big climaxes. Not this one; everything is there and the soloists are clearly heard over the din of the chorus and orchestra in full reign. The surrounding sound of the massive forces acoustically loading the hall is also strongly felt and heard. I did have to back off the surrounds slightly because there was a trifle too much of the chorus in the surrrounds. Nevertheless, one of the most thrilling Ode to Joys I've heard, even though it isn't Toscanini, Bernstein, et al.

- John Sunier


DVORAK: Symphony No. 9 "From the New World;" The Water Goblin - Royal Concertgebouw Orch./Nicolaus Harnoncourt - Teldec 3984-25254-9:

I suppose we'll have the really basic repertory all over again now in multichannel. After all, why should the record companies risk offering obscure music on a brand new format that is not only obscure to most people but not even known to them as yet? I wouldn't say Harnoncourt jumps to the top of the recorded interpretations of the New World right off the bat, but I would say if you don't have a multichannel New World, this is definitely the one to get! (It's the only one too.) The Concertgebouw has the reputation of being one of the two or three most perfect halls in the world acoustically-speaking. This DVD-A gives a better approximation of being in that very hall than we have ever had before. The tone poem is a nice filler and introduction to all the other Dvorak tone poems. The disc again includes a brief slide show that serves for the entire disc. It has illustrations of Dvorak and New York City in the 1890s when he visited here to collect native melodies, and spent time in Iowa while writing part of his symphony.

- John Sunier


Organ Spectacular - Famous Organ Works by Bach - Ton Koopman - Teldec 8573-82041-9:

Eight selections here, not missing the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor of course, nor the Fugue in G Minor. Three Chorale Preludes are part of the program. Koopman plays a tracker organ in his native Holland built between 1724 and 1727. Since pipe organs depend on the reverberation effects of the spaces in which they are installed, they make perfect candidates for surround sound. Don't expect big overblown Romantic organ timbres here - this is a precise and smaller Baroque organ whose timbres lean toward the spare side. Except for seeming a bit undernourished for the big D Minor Toccata and Fugue, it's just the ticket for the rest of the program.

- John Sunier


PHILIP GLASS: Koyaanisqatsi - Music for the film by Godfrey Reggio - Albert de Ruiter, basso/Western Wind Vocal Ens./Members of the Philip Glass Ens./Michael Riesman - Nonesuch 79506-9:

This was the first of several plotless, dialog-less, non-narrative, widescreen epics and set a standard for those to follow. The almost visual qualities of much of Glass' film music makes it a favorite of filmmakers such as Reggio. The strong visions on the screen make a thrilling point that ties in with the Hopi prophecies printed onscreen at the start of the film. Koyaanisqatsi is translated as crazy life; life in turmoil, disintegrating; life out of balance; and a state of life calling for another way of living. My favorite sequence in the film was the Clouds section - Glass' music is so perfect for these flowing images, repetitious and yet ever-changing. While hearing the score again in multichannel is a great experience, seeing the slide show of stills from the film - one per section - on the screen didn't replace seeing the actual film classic, which I now want badly to do.

- John Sunier


The Bedroom Mixes - Jazz at the Movies Band - Warner Bros. Discovery 9 47885-9:

Surprise - this DVD-A comes in a standard CD jewel box and could be mistaken for a 44.1 CD. The master tapes were 24-track analog and the selections are taken from three previous CD releases of movie themes in jazz on this label. The performers vary for different tracks. They include John Pisano on guitar, Jack Sheldon on trumpet, and Ernie Watts on tenor sax. The dozen tracks include themes from Body Heat, Black Orpheus, Last Tango in Paris, Touch of Evil and Casablanca. Extras include the live-action theatrical trailers for both Body Heat and Casablanca - that's something that can't be offered on an SACD. There are also onscreen music credits, film credits, cast lists and brief synopses of each of the 12 films - the latter repeated in the printed booklet as well. The Bedroom Mixes evidently refers to the primarily sexy themes and generally lyrical nature of the improvisations. The mixer had fun with the 5.1 channels at his disposal, often placing assorted percussion sounds directly at the surround speakers. Frankly, this would seem to be a bit distracting in the bedroom if used as directed, but in the living room it was a kick.

- John Sunier


Fleetwood Mac - Rumours - Warner Bros. 9362-48083-9:

It was great hearing this and another Fleetwood Mac album in DTS 5.1, but the new format beats them in several areas. Sonics on all twelve tunes are terrific, and there is interesting use made of the surrounds for answering choruses, percussion and other rhythmic effects - but not to the point of ridiculousness as some of the DTS 5.1 mixes did. The opening Second Hand News and Go Your Own Way were and still are my personal favs. The extras here are a rather lengthy audio-only interview with the group that you can either listen to all at once or have the particular comments that apply to each track heard between the tracks as it plays thru. There is also a photo gallery of snapshots caught during the studio sessions for the original album. All the lyrics are up on the screen for each of the tunes, and they do change automatically - Thank you again! It turns out I was guilty of some mondregons in the way I had heard some of the phrases in their lyrics all these years. (If you don't know what that is, see our links page for details.)

- John Sunier


Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Brain Salad Surgery - Rhino 89 75980:

Another classic rock album we can be induced to buy all over again. EL&P weren't the last word in good musical or performing taste, but they did put out some compelling sounds. Heavy on the Moog, which hadn't been on the seen many years when this album came out. Lots of playing around with slight timbral variations on basic sine tones, and at the very end of the elongated (too long) Karn Evil 9 suite there is a trippy spinning around the five speakers of a single frequency tone. Better not play this around anyone susceptible to convulsions. There is a bonus track not on the original LP/CD - Lucky Man, from the movie of the same name. The extras include video clips, an audio interview with EL&P, bios, and photos of the trio in action onstage. The lyrics are displayed with each track and now that I see what they are singing in all cases my previous rather low estimation of their lyric talents is even lower. Slightly lower than the Moody Blues, I would say. Still a kick of an album in multichannel!

- John Sunier


Esteban, flamenco guitar - Enter the Heart - DTS Entertainment 66621 55101-9-4:

This DVD-A differs from that offered by most other labels in that it replaces the usual Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks with DTS 5.1 surround, though it does include a stereo Dolby Digital feed for those with DVD players and/or receivers that don't decode DTS at all. The DVD-A multichannel tracks may also be decoded as 5.1 or mixed down to two-channel stereo if desired.

If you hanker for pure unadulterated flamenco guitar playing, this is not it. But if you want some interesting super-slick Hollywood-style Spanish fire arrangements Estaban is your baby. Most of the tracks are his originals; one is dedicated to Laurindo Almeida and another to Segovia. There are appropriate visuals for each tracks and they do change automatically. Some very creative use of the surrounds for sound effects and persuasive percussion.

- John Sunier


Studio Voodoo - DTS Entertainment 69286-01074-9-6:

I reviewed this one in its DTS-ES CD version a bit ago. Now we have it in that same center-rear-channel form but at a higher bit rate, plus 5.1 channel DVD-Audio. The two creators of the disc are based in LA and Toronto - shows how pop albums are often put together from the ends of the earth nowadays. They are both music-computer/synth experts and have expanded on their electronic wizardry with sundry natural sounds and various guest performers on vocals and acoustic instruments. Each track is quite different from the next. One is a flamenco-flavored track similar to the above disc, another is a sort of religioso-vocal fantasy that makes very effective use of the surround, and still another employs chants of African natives, with one at each speaker surround you and giving not a little cause for worry since you have no idea what they are saying! The electronica/heavy percussion leaning of the album might be a bit much for some listeners, but you have to admit this is a very skillfully-manipulated demonstration of what can be achieved in the studio for multichannel playback.

- John Sunier




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