Ok , it wasn't exactly a conference. More like a sales pitch. Apparently there's this new multi-channel music DVD format called DVD-Audio (DVD-A) and apparently we press folk aren't doing a good enough job talking about it and raising the public's awareness. So a whole bunch of record labels and manufacturers gathered all the finest audio and video reviewers together in a room under the guise of free food and drink to berate us for not proselytizing the wonder that is DVD-Audio. Well (with all due props to Steve Martin) EXCUUUUUUUSE ME!
But seriously folks, I'm sure most if not all of the people who frequent the cyber-pages of Enjoy The Music.com already know a thing or two about DVD-Audio. Along with Sony's SACD (DSD) format, DVD-Audio is the future of audio reproduction as we know it, and it is capable of some seriously exciting sounds. But it is also capable of a lot more. Certainly much more than I had considered and I have a pretty active imagination. Let's attack head-on a few of the myths about DVD-Audio, shall we?
It is true that you'll need a new DVD-A-exploitive player plus a receiver or preamp with a multi-channel analog input in order to take full advantage of the quality that DVD-A has to offer. And what is this quality of which I speak? Well the standard CD format uses a 16-bit sample word, sampled 44,100 times per second (henceforth known as 16/44). DVD-Audio supports up to a 24-bit sample word, sampled at 192,000 times per second (24-bit/192kHz) for stereo recordings and 24-bit/96kHz for multi-channel recordings. Simply put, DVD-A is better able to quantify and then reconstruct the analog audio music waveform.
If you think of DVD-A as a ruler that measures music with markings every 1/20th of an inch (very precise), then a CD is like a ruler with a mark at every foot (not very precise). Larger word lengths sampled more frequently translates into smoother, more three-dimensional, more accurate sound. Some would say it's "more analog."
Now you may not be a fan of this type of music (most of the writers in the room clearly were not, based on the groans, rolled eyes and snide commentary), but the fact is that there are millions of rap fans out there with money to spend on gear and discs and the only way that DVD-A will be commercially viable is if it can satisfy the masses. I wonder when they'll release the first DVD-A boom box? And will it come with support braces to suspend all five speakers around your head? Hmmm...
In addition to the standard audiophile-oriented pop artists like Steely Dan, and classical and jazz selections, you can also now (or very soon) buy DVD-As featuring the works of Alice Cooper, Fleetwood Mac, Dishwalla, Queensryche, Bob Marley and the Wailers, and the Sex Pistols, among others.
One of the label reps stated that they can break even on the average DVD-A product with just 6,000 to 10,000 units sold. This may come down even further as the R&D costs come down and the mastering/authoring process gets more streamlined. Expect to see many of your old favorites available in the DVD-A format.
DVD-Audio offers not just vastly superior sound quality over CD, but also the opportunity to gain greater insight into the artist and into the recording process and deeper meaning to the music. Just as a DVD can include features that just weren't possible on VHS tape (director's commentary, deleted scenes, detailed cast and crew information, etc.), so can DVD-Audio offer similar unique features. The DVD-Audio discs featured in the conference included on-screen lyrics synched to the music (karaoke anyone?), live video footage from performances and interviews related to the album, and even "Easter eggs" - hidden goodies that the die-hard fans will stumble across over time that will enhance their enjoyment of the material even further.
For me, the most effective demo of the format was when John Trickett (CEO of 5.1 Entertainment) showed us a feature of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours DVD-A which documented the evolution of that album from its earliest raw incarnation into fully finished songs. Using an audio/video montage of interviews, studio photos and actual early studio recordings, you can see and hear the songs evolve from ideas into reality.
Apparently Rumours went through significant transformation from the first few days of recording and through the months of studio work. This disc lets you hear the earliest rough cuts of the songs as well as the artist's explanation of what was going through their heads as they were creating this master work. Try that with a CD! I don't think so! For a casual listener, this probably isn't relevant, but just think of the hours of entertainment that this could give a diehard Mac fan and you begin to see that $17.98 is a small price to pay indeed.
Um... Have You Become Completely
Though a good sample of manufacturers were present at the conference, showing their full support of the format, from the mass market consumer-oriented brands like Panasonic and Toshiba all the way up to the ultra high end Meridian (who, by the way invented the completely loss-less compression mechanism that allows DVD-A to support 5.1 channels of 24-bit/96kHz audio), there were a couple of notable absentees - Sony and Philips.
Sony and Philips, of course, are advocates of the competing SACD format which offers similarly excellent two-channel and multi-channel digital sound. Jeff Samuels from Panasonic went on and on about how impressed he was to see so many hardware and software vendors working together toward a common goal. But as long as SACD and DVD-Audio are seen as an either/or proposition, many audiophiles will be hesitant to jump on board with a major investment in a format that they fear may one day be obsolete.
Personally, I say that it makes sense to hedge your bets - buy a "universal" player (such as Pioneer's DV-47A) which plays back both DVD-A and SACD discs. Buy the music that you like on whichever format that it's available, sit back and enjoy the music! If one of the formats runs out of steam some day and the new releases start to trickle, then you'll still be able to enjoy all of the discs in your collection.
Also, there is still some controversy over the "watermarking" that is used on DVD-Audio to protect DVD-A content from being copied in the analog domain. Many audio purists feel that any copy protection mechanism that is at all audible must be avoided at all costs. Craig Anderson, from Warner (who has opted to use watermarking on all Warner's DVD-A releases to date) got a little defensive when this came up. When asked if watermarking is audible, he first said "inaudible," but then corrected that to say "audible, but masked." Huh? He admitted that he has heard an audible artifact of watermarking, but only for about two seconds on one of the many discs he has been involved in mastering. Hey, at least he's honest about it.
It seems to me that the record labels think that the audio press is making a mountain out of a molehill on the watermarking issue. In principle, I think that audible watermarking is bad, but in reality, in my non-critical listening of DVD-A to date, I have not heard anything the least bit objectionable. Personally, I'll adopt a wait-and-see attitude on this. I'll wait until I hear it myself before I freak out over something that may be nothing.
The bigger outstanding issue in my book is the issue of bass management. Most DVD-A titles are mastered assuming that you have five identical full-range speakers plus a subwoofer. But most home theater systems in the real world use small speakers for the surrounds, and sometimes even for the mains. What this means is that you may be sending low bass to your little tiny speakers and they may not be able to handle it, and they certainly will not be able to reproduce it.
Even the most basic home theater receivers solve this problem with a set-up option that allows you to set the size (and/or crossover frequency) of all of your speakers. If you select "small" speakers for your main, center and surrounds, then low bass is routed away from your satellites and sent to your subwoofer channel. This is why you can get decent home theater sound from a system comprised of five teeny tiny satellites plus a sub.
But, since the DVD-A signal is sent to your receiver in the analog domain, and since most receivers have no bass management for their multi-channel analog inputs, you're stuck with limited or no bass management. I personally feel that the best long-term solution to this is to require bass management to be built into all players, as is done currently with SACD. Of course, there are solutions to everything. Some DVD-A players have built in bass management, some receivers have built in analog bass management, and there are even some outboard boxes that can be used to add bass management to any system. There are always choices...
I believe it was Craig Eggers, from Toshiba who made a very good point - DVD-A is only a baby! It has only been a live production format for a little over two years. The issues that we think are major now will be solved over time as the format matures. But in my opinion, none of the objections are critical enough to merit waiting. The water's fine... come on in!
Reply From 5.1 Entertainment
Note: Check out our DVD Audio Update from Dolby Labs' press conference at Home Entertainment Expo 2003 in San Francisco (part of our comprehensive coverage of Home Entertainment Expo 2003).