Special Features

Extreme Prejudice and the Pursuit of Hi-Res Audio


Published on April 1, 2005

Editor John Sunier forwarded me the following email message he recently received:

You should stop allowing Tom Gibbs to publish reviews of DVD-A and DualDisc releases because of his extreme prejudice against these formats. I think it’s now generally understood that multi-option DVD-A discs require use in a system (home theater, usually) with a video display to select menu options. Reviewers who refuse to (do) this are not qualified.


The comments no doubt reference my reviews from the Jan/Feb issue detailing my first experience with DualDisc; while I do not deny that my impressions were indeed negative in tone toward the fledgling new format, I take the gravest offense at the characterization of “extreme prejudice” on my part. I generally reserve those kind of heavy-handed remarks for individuals or institutions I really despise. I’m also troubled by the inference that I don’t bother to use the available technology to avail myself of all the wonders that these “multi-option” discs offer the consumer-at-large – which engenders a distinct lack of credibility on my part as a reviewer.

I’d like to take a moment to describe my personal circumstances as they relate to my enjoyment of our hobby/addiction – and as often as I agonize over the smallest, most insignificant system issue – enjoyment might be much too strong a word. I’m what’s commonly known as an “early adopter” – and while my finances won’t allow the purchase of “statement” or “flagship” equipment, when the price of admission generally drops to around the $1K mark, you can usually count me in. And that’s exactly what happened with both SACD and DVD-A, and of course I had to get preamplification and cables that would allow switching between formats at the push of a button. Which was no mean feat three years ago, especially considering the constant buzz the switching between formats topic got on all the audio forums at the time. My home-theater/listening room incorporates an overhead projector, six channels of sound and considerable acoustic room treatments, all in an attempt to reach a reasonable compromise between pure audio and home theater objectives. Most of my time in the room is spent divided between my enjoyment of (in no certain order): Redbook CDs, SACDs, DVD-A discs, DVD videos and HDTV broadcasts. Although I have a slew of LPs, I am not currently equipped for LP reproduction (we’re currently working on that one.) And lest we forget, there’s the aforementioned and newly-arrived DualDiscs.

My primary goal continues to be (as it has for the last 25 years) the accurate reproduction of music sources, although I have gleaned an immeasurable amount of satisfaction (and newfound appreciation for video sources) from my involvement of the last five years or so with home theater equipment. The dawn of the high-res era was met with little or no prejudice on my part towards either of the two new competing formats. And I made numerous personal discoveries along the way concerning how I responded to the features offered by both, and to the music I was hearing not only from SACD and DVD-A, but also from Redbook CD as well.

I think it’s prudent at this time to touch on what makes an audio source “hi-res.” A minimum requirement would be that the discs offer something beyond the Redbook CD standard of 16 bit/44.1kHz – and that definitely leaves some room for serious conjecture. Where do discs such as JVC’s frequently excellent XRCDs, XRCD2s and XRCD24s fit in? While technically, they’re not anything other than just very well made 16/44.1 Redbook CDs, the proof is in the listening, and they’re usually miles beyond their standard Redbook counterparts. And what about DVD-based discs such as Classic Records DADs and HDADs, that offer 24/96 or even 24/192 sound? The benefit they offer can easily be gleaned from any well-constructed CD or DVD player (respectively) in any good system. The care and effort that goes into the source discs’ remastering process is directly proportional to the benefits one receives when listening – regardless of where the disc is sourced from.

And while many of us still receive hours of pleasure extracted from stereo sources, one of the main attractions of the new hi-res discs is the multichannel content that so many of them offer. And therein lies the biggest quandary – how to easily navigate the multitude of content that clogs and complicates their use. Many out there consider themselves “two-channel purists” and could give a hoot in hell about any multichannel content the discs may contain. But just as many have reveled in the joys of finally hearing legendary recordings (such as the Mercury Living Presence, RCA Living Stereo and Vanguard discs) in their original multichannel presentations, for the first time ever. The slew of old quad-era recordings that have been made available, as well as some excellent surround endeavors of a more recent vintage, leave a plethora of choices for those who would avail themselves of more than just two stereo channels.

Unfortunately, with both SACD and DVD-A, there are respective pluses and minuses. Both formats, in advanced publicity, offered greatly enhanced audio reproduction; while DVD Audio also offered video content right out of the gate, SACD only hinted at it’s inclusion, and it’s yet to become a reality. Not that anyone really clamored for it, anyway. As far as navigating the various layers on any given disc, SACD is the hands-down winner in simplicity of operation – you just press a button repeatedly to select the desired layer, whether CD, SACD stereo, or multichannel SACD. The main problem is that you can’t change layers on the fly – you have to bring the disc to a complete stop, which is aggravating, but not terribly so. With DVD-A, of course, there is no Redbook CD layer, but with the vast majority of discs and players, you simply cannot just press a button repeatedly to navigate the layers. More often than not, you’re required to enable your video system to simply access the music content of the disc – I’m on my second DVD-A player currently, and the operation hasn’t gotten any more intuitive or user-friendly with the current state of the electronics. In most situations where I’m mainly interested in just listening to music, I see this extra effort as a nuisance. And based on the limited and sometimes questionable value of the video content offered on the numerous discs I’ve sampled, too often, not even worth the effort. If I want musically satisfying DVD video, then that’s the disc I’ll reach for. With SACD, while the initial tease of video content-to-come was intriguing, the ease of use and the almost always supremely satisfying musical experience has made any lack of video content a non-issue for most of us.

Where does DualDisc fit into all of this? The initial crop of releases are a mixed bag, to say the least – some include hi-res PCM stereo or multichannel mixes, while others include only 5.1 Dolby surround mixes that are nowhere nearly on par with hi-res surround. Some include DVD video content, but it’s too early to tell what value will be ultimately offered by any included video. If you read the published specifications, DualDisc doesn’t have to include any hi-resolution content at all, and the releases so far show no clear pattern where the format is headed in this respect. The CD-compatible music portion of the disc is only standard stereo PCM audio, and – this is very important – it doesn’t even meet Redbook CD standards! It’s shaping up to be a lose-lose scenario for everybody.

Do I approach DVD-A and DualDiscs with extreme prejudice? Absolutely not – as with any video or music source that finds its way into my system, I get varying levels of enjoyment, depending upon the source and/or performance. As with anything, your mileage may vary, and you must be your own judge of any source’s particular merit. With respect to the two DualDiscs I’ve had the opportunity to sample, the Jane Monheit disc (and I’m giving credit where it’s due) offered both hi-res stereo and multichannel mixes, and despite still being a pain in the butt to access, they both sounded superb. The standard PCM stereo layer was nothing to write home about, though. And while their superb hi-res sound offers a ray of hope for the format, don’t expect the bean counters overseeing the record industry to tailor these things to the likings of those of us seeking higher fidelity.

 

- Tom Gibbs




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