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Extreme Prejudice and the Pursuit of Hi-Res Audio


Published on April 20, 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

- Tom Gibbs




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