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DVD-Audio - Worth the Price of Admission Print E-mail
Friday, 13 April 2001
Although I have heard enough DVD-A demos in ghastly-sounding hotel rooms, I have not previously been able to listen to them in the comfort of my own living room. However, as of the other day, I am lucky enough to have a Kenwood DV-4070 DVD Universal player, and as a result I’m able to listen to DVD-A discs at home, on my fairly average (and outrageously eclectic, but at least well known to me) home system for the first time. The results are distinctly encouraging.

First, note that you are obliged to use your player’s internal converters and analog 5.1 output if you want to listen to DVD-As at full quality, because although DVD-A players have digital outs, they only offer CD-quality. This is of course silly, but it’s also a discussion for another time. Just remember that for the time being, if you want to avoid paying enormous sums of money for the most amazing Meridian system, you will need analog 5.1 inputs on your receiver, hook them up to the DVD-A player, and listen through them. In my case, switching between digital and 5.1 analog inputs (one button on my Pioneer receiver’s remote) made it simple to compare the quality of the converters and surround decoders in the player versus my receiver.
Most DVD-A/V players will handle any disc except CD-Rs, which need a different colored laser, unlike CD-R/W discs (a pity, as otherwise I could retire my CD player as well as my previous DVD player), and include their own DTS and Dolby Digital decoders as well as D/A converters. As a result, you should find that the player correctly identifies a DTS CD, for example, if you try playing it, selecting the internal DTS decoder. In the same way, the player should be configurable to play the highest-quality audio stream on a given disc (ie the MLP DVD-A stream) automatically, but note that you will still have to choose whether you play a DTS or a Dolby Digital surround stream if they both exist in the DVD-Video area of the disc.

I have a small collection of DVD-A discs at present, including the initial four DVD-A releases from DTS that I picked up at CES. These discs include a DVD-A MLP stream, plus a DVD-V area including a DTS-encoded 5.1 stream and a stereo Dolby stream. Some of them have additional video material: for example Studio Voodoo has a couple of short interview/documentary pieces which give useful background to the album. I will be reviewing these and other DVD-A discs over the coming months.

Playing the DTS discs is particularly interesting because of the multiple streams. I was also curious because some people have suggested to me that the DTS-encoded tracks sound better than the MLP ones.

Interrogating the player, however, provided a surprise: the DVD-A material is recorded at 48 kHz sampling. This means that in many senses, what you are listening to when you switch between the DTS (DVD-V) and MLP (DVD-A) streams is just that: the difference between a very good perceptual coding system (DTS) and a truly lossless system (MLP). Well, nice though DTS is, it is no match for MLP, the latter of course merely ticking over at this sample rate: DVD-A goes up to 192 kHz sampling in stereo with MLP. The difference is particularly noticeable at the top end, where the MLP version is cleaner, more detailed and more transparent, and a little brighter. There is also more detail in the bass end and perhaps curiously, the channel separation seems more impressive, but this could be a subjective result of the increased HF detail. Switching between the two on Toy Matinee, now my favorite rock test album (I now have no less than three discs of it - CD, DTS-CD and the DTS DVD-A, which alone has three different versions) is almost like listening to a different mix, although I am sure it is not.

So, contrary to popular opinion, I was more impressed by the DVD-A material than the DTS. Also note that I was using the same converters (in the player) for all the playbacks, so I didn’t have the complication of comparing audio stream A via converter 1 with audio stream B through converter 2. Remember too, that the MLP tracks on these discs are recorded at 48 kHz sampling, not the 96 kHz and up that really makes DVD-A different.

And you know what? The sample rate is not the important thing. 48 kHz sampling can offer excellent results though, yes, 96 kHz offers an improvement in many cases. In addition, we can hear detail out to about the 22-bit level, so if your source is 24-bit, you’re fine. By all means, too, enjoy the benefits of lossless compression – they are significant, and MLP is probably one of the most important audio developments in ages (believe me). But the real thing is surround sound! I have long maintained that the really cool thing about the new disc media is the final arrival of high quality digital surround. This is the real experience of the new digital media, so go for surround first.

And now, back to the records. I have one Warner’s DVD-A release, Machine Head from Deep Purple. If you were wondering why I might want a 5.1 remix of this album (which I used to own many many years ago on vinyl), you might well ask, and I’ll let you know when I’ve thought up a decent excuse. Warner’s include a little leaflet with their discs telling you how to play them. This is important, because you might have a DVD-A player set up just to play audio and not connected to a screen. This is not a good idea, and it’s probably not very likely, either, as most people will end up with a single universal DVD player, as in my case, that will play anything you throw at it. This means you will need a video monitor of some kind on the end.

Warner’s tell you that if you put the disc in the tray and press PLAY, the disc will begin to play automatically from Track 1. If you put the disc in and press CLOSE, however, the player will read the main menu and display it for you. In other words, if you have no TV connected, you press PLAY. Not so on the Kenwood, which insisted on going to the menu and waiting, whichever insertion method I chose. The answer is to hook up a TV and quit complaining.

I also have a few of 5.1 Entertainment’s Silverline series of classical remixes from the London Philharmonic, recorded at Abbey Road and remixed down the street from where I’m sitting now, at 5.1’s West LA facility by Ken Caillat, Gary Lux and friends. I don’t know the vintage of these recordings, but the remixes are very smooth and easy to listen to with the orchestral forces sensitively arranged in surround without being either distracting or boring. A little more on the liner notes side would have been nice, ie what we might expect on a classical release - this is not, after all, a "Greatest Classic Hits" CD for $3.99 in the local drugstore. You do get some nice extras on the discs themselves, though: scenes of the composer’s homeland, for example, and a useful little section that confirms that your loudspeakers really are in the right places and you have them connected in the right order. You’ll simultaneously be reminded that each of your speakers sounds quite different, that it’s time to get some new ones -and that surround sound is not only wonderful: it’s another of Mother Nature’s ways of telling you that you have too much money.

These Silverline discs also have 24-bit/96 kHz sampling DVD-A streams, with a 48 kHz DVD-V stream too. Again, lossless MLP, this time at medium power in 24/96 mode, scores heavily, for me, over lossy compression at 48 kHz sampling.

So, was it worth the effort? Would I buy one? My overall first impression is that DVD-A is definitely worth it. Even if the DVD-A material is only sampled at 48 kHz, MLP knocks spots off any lossy compression system, including DTS. And surround music is what it’s all about.

Universal DVD players that will handle the new format as well as DVD-Video will already set you back about $400 or so. I would suggest that you start thinking about who is getting your old DVD player for Christmas. Now all we need is a truly "universal" player that handles SACD discs as well…

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