What Is DVD-Audio? 
Home Theater Feature Articles Audio Related Articles
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Wednesday, 12 December 2007

AV Education on RHT

What Is DVD-Audio?

Written by Jerry Del Colliano

What Is DVD-Audio?
DVD-Audio is one of the two competing pre-recorded audio formats positioned to replace the Compact Disc after the CD’s 20-year reign as the ruler of the world’s music stores. DVD-Audio is derived from the same DVD disc that DVD-Video movies are recorded on. However, with DVD-Audio, the space on the disc is configured to optimize high-resolution audio, surround sound and added value features.

On most standard DVD-Audio discs, you will find three different audio playback options:
1) A high-resolution stereo track that is often 24 bit and 96 or even 192 kHz resolution.
2) A default DVD-Video compatible surround sound track that is usually a lossy (AKA compressed) surround sound format like DTS (3:1 compression) or Dolby Digital (12:1 compression).
3) A MLP surround sound mix. MLP stands for Meridian Lossless Packing and it is the highest quality audio for surround sound found on DVD-Audio.

One of the advantages DVD-Audio has over its high-resolution competition, SACD, is DVD-Audio’s ability to include video content. Most of the record companies issuing DVD-Audio disks, among others, have added in music videos, interviews and cool video clips as an added value goodie for consumers who purchase their artist’s records on DVD-Audio. Other added value goodies on DVD-Audio include lyrics, photo galleries, Easter eggs, video games and more.

People are often concerned that they will not be able to play DVD-Audio discs in their system. DVD-Audio discs will play in any DVD player in either stereo or default surround. In order to enjoy MLP surround sound, you need to own a DVD-Audio player which has a 5.1 analog output, or a proprietary digital output (Meridian and Denon are good examples of this) designed to send copy-protected audio from your player to your preamp. In order to enjoy MLP surround on your 5.1 home theater system, you also need the right 5.1 analog input or special digital input on your receiver or AV preamp. Almost all AV preamps and receivers sold today have the right 5.1 analog inputs needed for DVD-Audio. Fewer have digital connections.

If you are wondering why connecting a DVD-Audio/Video (or SACD) player to a home theater system requires so much extra work, blame the paranoid record companies. Their fear of people stealing music made such complicated and expensive connections a necessity. But fear not - there are other ways to hook up DVD-Audio that are easy. In fact, you may already have them running in your AV system. Any DVD player with a digital output can send stereo or default surround to your theater system. Default surround isn’t as good as MLP, but it sounds far superior to CD in every case.

Another way to play back DVD-Audio discs is to use a Microsoft Xbox or a Sony Playstation 2. They will not perform in MLP surround, but they will play back the default surround and stereo tracks on a disc. All you need is a digital cable running from your game machine into a digital input on your AV preamp or receiver. It is as easy as that to be playing DVD-Audio in surround sound.

Buying DVD-Audio Discs
At this point, DVD-Audio confuses the heck out of the bolt-nosed, purple-haired clerks at most record shops. All they want to do is ring up orders, so they tend to not care about anything new or exciting in the store that isn’t easy to sell. No matter what, don’t let the salespeople get you down. Many record stores like Tower Records, Virgin and Best Buy have dedicated “audiophile” sections in their stores that have DVD-Audio and SACD titles for sale. Just find these areas and you are in business.

Be careful not to get confused, because the record labels are out to make your life difficult again with the packaging of DVD-Audio. The typical DVD-Audio title comes in what is called a “super jewel case,” which is physically slightly bigger than a CD case. The competing SACD comes in a more CD-like case often, with rounded corners and stickers that explain what permutation of disc you have in your hands. Before you get in the checkout line, make sure you read the stickers on the disc. There is nothing more frustrating than buying the wrong disc. Also be careful not to miss DVD-Audio discs packaged in standard CD cases or even in standard DVD-Video cases. For example, Blue Man Group’s Audio album is a DVD-Audio disc that is packaged in DVD-Video packaging. Not only is it confusing for the retailers and consumers, it makes for a difficult storage situation when you get a collection going at home. The Audio album is really fun if you can find it.

To date, the best and least expensive place to buy DVD-Audio discs is on the Internet. Not everyone will buy things online, but the inventory is better and more organized than in retail stores, with sound clips, reviews and lower prices. Many DVD-Audio labels sell their titles directly to customers from their own websites.

What Is A Universal Player?
A universal player is one that plays many AV formats, including DVD-Audio, SACD, DVD-Video and beyond. They tend to be affordable in cost (well under $1000) and allow you to build a collection of DVD-Audio and/or SACD discs, even if you are still heavily invested in CD and stereo music playback. Many audiophiles consider a universal player a way to protect against buying the wrong player now at a high price. The downside to universal players is that they don’t have the same parts quality in most cases as do the high-end DVD-Audio/Video players from companies like Classe, Meridian and others. If you are coming out of the analog outputs of a DVD-Audio player, your audio quality is based largely on the quality of the DACs in your player. Cheap DACs found in cheap players sound, well, cheap. More expensive players use better transports that reduce jitter (digital distortion), have better DACs and/or use their own special digital connections that bypass DACs completely. That is the best way to go. Direct digital high-resolution connection from your player to your preamp or receiver sounds absolutely amazing, especially when compared to using any DACs in your player, no matter how pricey the player is.

Copy Protection
DVD-Audio is a copy-protected format that allows artists and record labels to keep you from making “illegal” recordings of the music. Many labels opt to not use the copy protection. Others allow you to make a few copies. It is basically up to the label or the artist as to how they want to encrypt the disc. Another deterrent to copying DVD-Audio discs and sharing them on the Net or ripping them on a hard drive is that songs on DVD-Audio are huge files. Some day, demand for DVD-Audio might be so strong that stealing the songs will be a big issue for labels, but for now, making consumers want to buy the format is a far bigger issue. Also, if anyone wanted to copy music from DVD-Audio, they can certainly take the analog output of the stereo version of the record and use that to rip on their computer or MP3 device.

The Future of DVD-Audio
The format war is far from over, but so far DVD-Audio has support from 3.5 of the five major labels. Warner Brothers (WEA) is the driving force behind the DVD-Audio format so far, but EMI, BMG and Universal Music Group have started releasing DVD-Audio tiles to the market. SACD is mainly supported by Sony Music and Universal Music. Both formats in the high-resolution audio format war have support from various indie and/or audiophile labels.

Industry experts predict that what will allow DVD-Audio to replace CDs in the marketplace will be the proposed “DualDisc” - a "flip disc" that has a DVD-Audio layer on one side and a CD layer on the other side. This proposed disc is reportedly designed to replace the CD as the format major labels will utilize for releasing new music. In principle, the idea sounds great, but it has yet to be approved by the DVD Forum (although this is expected very shortly). Another potential problem with the DualDisc is the thickness of the disc - it is lightly thicker than a regular one, and there were initial concerns (that turn out to be unfounded) that they might get stuck in slot-loading players such as those found in cars. Car audio is a very important market for the playback of pre-recorded music, including DVD-Audio and DVD-Video.

SACD has a “hybrid” disc that has shipped to the marketplace and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies to date, with albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Bob Dylan catalog. Hybrid SACDs play in CD players just like normal CDs do, as well as playing back high-resolution stereo and surround sound music.

If you are looking for a new way to make music sound better or more exciting in your system, you might want to order up a few DVD-Audio titles. There aren’t thousands of big titles yet, but many of the ones on the market are very well done and new titles are released each week. You might find that you like listening to music with the added resolution of stereo DVD-Audio or you might fall in love with the possibilities of hearing your music mixed for surround.

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