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Wanna Hear DVD-Audio? Listen to DVD-Video!

by Jeff Partyka

I worked as a full-time EMedia Magazine staffer from July 1997 to January 1999, and became interested in DVD during that time, but I didn't get around to acquiring a player until the end of last year. I absolutely love it. Many of the movies I've enjoyed have never looked better to me, and I'm glad I did my research and invested in a model that plays not only my voluminous collection of store-bought compact discs, but my homemade CD-Rs as well (a surprisingly rare feature).

Readers of the last Waxing Digital will know I appreciate a well-mastered CD. And I've always had high hopes for the imminent DVD-Audio format, with its promise of 5.1 surround sound and 24-bit/96kHz sound. At the same time, I've wondered if the format will really take off, whether the difference will be great enough to impress potential converts of the non-audiophile variety, or whether it will be an audio-fanatic, fringe-market technology. Happily, what I've discovered through enjoying the 5.1, high-sample-rate audio tracks on some of my DVD-Video discs is that we stand to gain much more in the coming DVD-Audio revolution than many of us have realized.

I've always been attracted to music-video titles, and they make up quite a significant part of my VHS and DVD collections. I've been steadily selling off my favorite VHS movie and music-video selections for the purpose of upgrading to DVD versions, but surprisingly often I've found little difference in many of the music-oriented discs. There's no appreciable improvement in sound quality, and I'm left feeling I should have saved myself the trouble and stuck with VHS.

There are exceptions. I'll mention two in particular: the animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine, and the Beach Boys documentary Endless Harmony. The Beach Boys disc is phenomenal all around, and the video program distracted me from checking out the bonus audio goodies for some time. It includes 5.1 surround-sound remixes of seven fantastic songs, including "God Only Knows" from the Pet Sounds album, recorded in 1966. Even through my old-fashioned, two-speaker setup (and even with such a vintage recording), the actual quality of the sound is breathtaking, blowing away even the phenomenal first-ever stereo mix done for the Pet Sounds Sessions set in 1996. The bass is pleasantly plump, with great presence; the horn line and accordions of the song's intro just fill the room; and the quality of the vocal tracks is simply stunning.

The new mix of "California Girls" reveals horns in the second verse that I, for one, never really heard before-and I've been consuming Brian Wilson's productions since preschool days. Wilson's use of layered vocals lends itself particularly well to this 5.1 mixing; individual parts become more distinct without losing the sound and feel of the original 1960s releases. Listening to these tracks made me feel I'd been hearing them with layers of gauze wrapped around my speakers all these years, which have now been stripped away. (As I write this, I find that I'm going to have the opportunity to hear these mixes played on a surround-sound system for the first time within the next few weeks, and I'm getting giddy with excitement.)

One of the special features of the Yellow Submarine DVD-thus far truly one of the exemplary music-related exploitations of the DVD format-is the ability to watch the film accompanied only by the 5.1 musical content, without any dialogue. All the Beatles tracks featured, along with George Martin's orchestral score, are fresh remixes and, again, sound amazing. "Only a Northern Song" (a 1967 recording which was only available in mono until this project was prepared) bursts from the speakers, sounding-to use the tired-but-true clich?-as if it were recorded yesterday. The drums in particular have a rich and natural sound, especially compared to the stiff, thin, boxy mono mix. The sound effects in "Yellow Submarine" itself, for the first time, swirl through a sonically spacious and open soundstage (I especially like the sound of the "waves"-or rather, rags dragged through a tub full of water in Abbey Road Studios).

The audio content on these DVDs heightens my excitement about DVD-Audio-and the musical content on these discs was recorded in the 1960s and '70s. The best of today's modern recordings (which sound really good even on CD with the advances made in mastering technology) are sure to sound even better with this kind of reproduction.

Still, the question of whether DVD-Audio will really infiltrate the mainstream consumer scene remains unanswered. The first dedicated DVD-Audio players hit the market this summer (significant title releases seem to be a little farther off). As with each exciting development, even the most enthusiastic consumers face a formidable set of barriers in the path to widespread adoption: will CDs still be available in addition to DVD-Audio versions of the same music? Will DVD-Audio discs be more expensive? How many people will purchase surround-sound systems over the next decade? Will John Q. Public really hear or care about any of the sonic improvements DVD-Audio discs will offer? DVD-Video has certainly arrived, and consumers seem pleased with the high-quality visuals, indexing, and special features the format offers. My guess is that DVD-Audio will eventually impress the public as well, but to a lesser extent. High-end audio in itself has always been a niche market (making DVD-Audio at best a niche within a niche), and I don't expect that to change anytime soon.

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