New Discs Bring New Life to Old Music
by Jim Bray
Individual Disc Reviews
Forget MP3's, Windows Media, and the like. There's a better way to get
fine quality sound and it can even bring new life to the old music youve
loved for decades.
It's DVD-Audio (DVD-A) which, with Super Audio CD's (SACD), offer incredible
audio quality from a disc the same size as a normal audio CD or DVD.
Okay, the catalog isn't as broad as it is for the traditional compact
disc that's been ruling the roost for twenty years now, but it's growing.
And thanks to the ear opening sound quality of these high resolution
discs, your home theater has never sounded so good.
SACD's are being pushed mostly by Sony and Philips, and driven by Sony's
collection of software titles, but other labels also offer limited numbers
of titles in the format. DVD-A, however, appears to have drawn, at least
so far, a broader range of record companies and the format itself is easier
for consumers to exploit than SACD.
That's because while SACD is backward compatible with any existing CD
or DVD player, the format won't give you the higher sound quality or multi-channel
capability if you dont have a special SACD-compatible player and
DVD-Audio also requires a DVD-A-compatible player and receiver for the
best results, but even if you only have a garden variety DVD
video player you can still get spectacular audio because DVD-A discs also
include Dolby Digital and/or dts tracks you can exploit via the players digital
audio output jack. This means any DVD player connected to any home theatre
system can sound simply awesome, as long as it has a digital audio output.
Unfortunately, SACD and DVD-A are incompatible with each other so, except
for a few high end disc players that can handle any of the current digital
disc formats, you can't put an SACD disc into a DVD-A player and expect
anything more than old fashioned CD quality audio. And a DVD-A
disc won't play at all in an SACD player at all. This can be frustrating,
and may help to limit SACDs consumer acceptance.
But since, as mentioned, dts and DVD-Audio discs are compatible with
almost any DVD player, there's already a vast audience for DVD-A as
long as there's the software to make it worthwhile. And while its
true that a garden variety DVD player and receiver won't give the true
benefits of DVD-As high resolution audio, the Dolby Digital audio
tracks are so good that the difference probably won't matter to all but
the most serious audiophiles.
I'm not going to get into the technology this time; check out TechnoFILEs Audio/Video section
for other DVD-A and high resolution audio features. What I want to talk
about is how DVD-A can give old music new life.
I've been listening to DVD-A versions of some Classic Rock albums,
most of which I also have on their original CD version (though the music
itself was originally released on vinyl records), trying to see if the
new format really does offer an ear opening experience. The
discs came courtesy of Warner Music and dts Entertainment, and I've been
having an ear bleeding good time assessing the new versions.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to try the discs on DVD-A compatible
and incompatible equipment, which was the best of both worlds When the
test started I was using a Rotel preamp/processor that,
while wonderful, wasn't compatible with DVD-As 96KHz/24 bit specifications.
This let me hear the format the same way owners of garden variety DVD
players and home theatre systems would.
Later, Rotel sent their beautiful RSP-1066 preamp/processor, which offers
compatibility with the high resolution audio formats, including 6.1 channel
analog inputs for true DVD-Audio, and I concluded the test using that wonderful
The discs I auditioned included dts releases of Queen's A Night At The Opera, Moody Blues' Seventh Sojurn, Paul McCartney's Band on the Run, and Santana Abraxas. The latter three are strictly
dts-encoded 96/24 DVDs that use the DVD players digital audio
output, while Queen's is a true DVD-A title with extra audio choices and
the video for Bohemian Rhapsody as a bonus.
Warners sent me DVD Audio versions of Eagles' Hotel California, Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies, the Doobies' Captain
and Me, Doors' L.A. Woman, Foreigner, Deep Purple Machine
Head and Carly Simon's No Secrets. I
fired up my high end audio system (powered by Rotel and with speakers by
Definitive Technology and M&K), grabbed a notebook and my CD versions
of the titles, and prepared to approach eargasm.
First impression: Quadraphonic is back, and it's better than ever!
Remember quad sound, the 1970's folly? I sure do; I had a
beautiful Sansui system (when the name Sansui really meant something) with
matching speakers all the way around and I absolutely loved it. But quad
died out and, having now heard discrete digital surround applied to music,
I'm glad it did the new technology is far, far better. Its
what quad should have been all along, but wasnt.
So if youre an old fart like me, you may want to look at a surround
sound system if only for its potential for multichannel music the
way it was always meant to be. Youll also get the benefits
of a surround sound home theater, too, for the same price.
As for the audio quality, I was impressed with every one of these discs
except one and that single bad experience wasn't the technology's
fault: it was a case of the engineers painting a moustache on the Mona
The title was Abraxas, and while the
mix was interesting, it had absolutely no bass and far too many gimmicky
effects of swirling the music around the room. Swirling for the sake of
swirling just doesn't cut it unless you're playing something like ELP's Brain
Salad Surgery which was originally mixed with plenty of such
So I'll keep the old stereo CD of Abraxas, thanks, even though
it's a tad muddy.
The other 96/24 versions were all marked improvements over the old CD's,
with a fatter and more lifelike sound and better separation
between the channels. The DVD-A titles benefited the most from the new
technology; the dts-encoded ones were very good, and still sounded great
on my old, non dts-equipped DVD player, but I have to give the nod to the
true DVD-A titles.
Another shortcoming of the dts-encoded titles is that they require you
to use the DVD players digital audio (bitstream) output. If, for
example, you use analog outputs, all youll get is the loud hissing
of white noise. This meant the titles also didn't play on my computer's
DVD ROM drive.
Then again, the dts titles (except for their true DVD-A ones) dont
make you sit through a menu they just start playing as if they were
a compact disc. DVD-A inflicts menus on you, though considering the extras
and multiple soundtrack choices they offer its hard to imagine packaging
them any other way. Still, I wish the DVD-Audio discs would merely default
to the DVD-A mix and start playing automatically like other audio discs
unless it notices the player isn't DVD-A compatible. The menu could still
be there, but only accessed by the user when desired.
To be fair, if you ignore the menus the DVD-A discs do start playing on
their own, but it's only after about a minutes' wait.
One can argue that remixing a stereo original into 5.1 channels is also
ruining the original, and my opinions could be colored by my fondness for
quadraphonic, but except for Santana's I thought the 5.1 mix was superior
to the original stereo. None of the discs beat you over the head with the
surround, but by placing instruments around you it filled the room with
great music and on overproduced albums like Queen's where there's a multiltude of multitracked instruments
it improved my enjoyment because I could now hear instruments clearly that
had been lost in the din on the original stereo mix.
Sometimes the surround is used very sparingly (L.A. Woman, for example), and though the dts titles that
arent true DVD-A dont offer stereo mixes most of the DVD-A
discs do, which should please purists.
One mustn't forget the truth of the old garbage in, garbage out axiom,
either, because on L.A. Woman there's some noticeable
distortion on Jim Morrison's voice but it's also there on the original
CD. Besides, the overall sonic improvement makes it more than worth it.
And Babies suffers from the last word
on the last song being cut off when listening to the Dolby Digital version,
though the DVD-A mix is complete.
My overall impression of the high resolution audio discs is that theyre
really worth while. In fact, I wont be buying any more CDs
save for emergencies. Theres a liveness, a real presence
to the DVD-A titles thats quite breathtaking, and the result is that
most of the discs I auditioned sounded almost as if theyd been recorded
last week. Vocals seem to benefit particularly, as well as percussion instruments,
and on a good audio system you get great punch and dynamics.
So I'm sold and will be looking to replace many of the CD's that have
never satisfied me in the past whether because there were thin or muddy,
overly compressed, or just plain substandard.
Here's something you should remember when contemplating high resolution
audio: the discs should be listened to with matching speakers all the way
around. Since some surround sound systems scrimp on the centre and rear
speakers, you may want to beef up these parts of your system. You dont
need five identical speakers but if you can match the midranges and tweeters
to your large main front speakers (the subwoofer should fill in the difference
for all channels) youll appreciate the sound better.
Oh, and if you want to take your DVD-A discs on the road with you remember
that, unlike SACD's, they won't play in your car CD player. If you have
a DVD player for the rear seat passengers they should play there, but only
the Dolby Digital tracks.
Heres a look at each of the individual DVD
Queen: A Night at the Opera, from
dts Entertainment. DVD-Audio. Includes DVD-A, dts 96/24 5.1 and dts 96/24
stereo soundtracks. Menus, with the video for Bohemian Rhapsody as
a bonus track.
Queen's most famous album is about three quarters terrific (I could have
done without "Sweet Lady" and "The Prophet's Song") and though the differences
from the original stereo CD can be subtle, the 5.1 channel mix is definitely
a keeper. Brian May's guitar is over dubbed again and again to create the
orchestra of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and jazz band of "Good Company" and finally
you can hear all the nuances (should it be "olduances" when referring to
a 28 year old album?). The string bass on "39" also sounds better than
before. There's sibilance on some vocals, but this can also be traced back
to the original disc.
Moody Blues: Seventh Sojurn from
dts Entertainment. dts 96/24 5.1 surround mix. No menus, extras.
The Moodies have always been famous for their wall of sound (not
to be confused with Phil Spectors) and in my never humble opinion
theyve also been crying out for a good surround sound mix. This isnt
their best album, alas, but the producers have done a nice job of turning
the stereo mix into multi-channel - so much so I'd encourage them to perform
this trick with all the Moodies' titles. Sound quality is very good, though
I was disappointed that it didnt have the dynamic punch of
some of the other discs. Overall, its very clean, though, and quite
Paul McCartney and Wings: Band on the Run from
dts Entertainment. 96/24 5.1 channels surround. No menus, extras.
This one benefits from the 5.1 channel remix more than from the actual
high resolution audio and thats because the original recording
was excellent to begin with. Theyve done a nice job of placing instruments
around the room in a manner thats satisfying without being gimmicky.
Overall sound quality is excellent.
Santana Abraxas from dts Entertaiment.
dts 96/24 5.1 surround mix. No extras, menus.
The most disappointing of the titles reviewed here. The sound quality
is very good, but thin-sounding and with a distinct lack of bass. And while
its probably understandable given the spaciness of the
music, theyre also made instruments float around the room from speaker
I'd like to see them redo this one, or release it on DVD-Audio with stereo
and a proper 5.1 surround mix.
from Warner Music. DVD-Audio 24 bit, 96KHz 6 channel discrete 5.1 surround
sound, 96/24 advanced resolution stereo, DVD Video compatible 5.1 Dolby
Digital and dts surround sound. Video: producer's notes. With navigation
Eagles' biggest album has been given a really nice DVD-Audio treatment.
Surround channel use is tasteful and the guitars and vocals sound fresh
and clean. It's the guitars that really shine on this album, with three
main guitarists and their different styles going at it. The DVD-Audio sounds
much cleaner than the original CD, with vocals more up front and a more "live" feeling
Alice Cooper: Billion Dollar Babies ,
from Rhino/Warner Archies. Advanced resolution stereo, advanced resolution
6 channel surround sound, DVD Video compatible Dolby Digital. Includes
exclusive Alice Cooper photos, audio interview, video clip, album essay,
lyrics and bio, bonus tracks. With navigation Menu.
I kind of lost track of Alice Cooper after this album, but this is my
favorite of his band's work up until that point. Good use of surround,
without beating you over the head with it, and though the original CD sounded
pretty good this DVD-A version ups the audio ante as expected. Drums thunder,
vocals shine and there's better bass. Do I detect a change of some vocals
in "Elected" or am I merely able to pick them out correctly for the first
The Doors: L.A. Woman from Elektra
Entertainment. Features 6 channel advances audio surround and advanced
resolution stereo. Also Dolby Digital 5.1. Includes on screen lyrics sheet,
biographies, photos, and the world premier video of "The Changeling." With
Morrison's last stand brought such hits as "Love Her Madly" and "Riders
on the Storm." This version is head and shoulders better than the CD and,
though the surround is used sparingly it's used well. Some distortion on
Morrison's voice (it seems he was practically swallowing the microphone
at times), but overall the instruments sound fresh, clean, and very live. "Hyacinth
House" is the best song on the album, and it sounds glorious.
Foreigner , from Rhino. Features
advanced resolution stereo, advanced resolution 6 channel surround, DVD
Video compatible Dolby Digital. Includes Exclusive Foreigner photos, audio
inteview, video clips, album essay, lyrics and bios. With navigation Menu.
I bought Foreigner's first album when it first came out because Ian McDonald,
late of King Crimson, was part of the band and I liked what he added to
Crimson's sound. Foreigner is oranges to Crimson's apples, however, but
the album is terrific and the DVD-A version packs plenty of digital punch.
Instruments and vocals are clean and well-defined and the surround channels
are used very well.
Deep Purple: Machine Head , from
Rhino/Warner Archives. Features Advanced Resolution stereo, Advanced Resolution
6-channel surround, DVD-Video Compatible Dolby Digital. Includes Exclusive
Deep Purple photos, video clips, lyrics and bio. With navigation Menu.
This is the album that some have credited with creating heavy metal rock,
though that's arguable. It's certainly heavy and metallic and if all heavy
metal was this good I might have become a fan of it. Surround use is very
good and not gimmicky. Overall sound quality blows away the original CD,
though it's only subtly better than the remastered CD version that I also
got a chance to audition. If you don't have DVD-Audio and don't care about
surround or the bonus stuff, you can probably get by with the remastered
CD, but I still prefer the extra punch and liveness you can get from the
true DVD-Audio version.
Carly Simon: No Secrets from Elektra
Entertainment. Features Advanced Resolution Stereo, Advanced Resolution
6-channel surround, DVD-Video compatible Dolby Digital. Includes photo
gallery and lyrics. With navigation Menu.
This album sounded terrific on vinyl, so besides the surround mix (which
is very good) one wonders how much better it can be. Well, it's fabulous
- and so loud you may have to play it at a lower volume than other discs.
Simon's voice is right up front and center and sounds wonderfully live
and Richard Perry's production would threaten to envelope you with sound
even if you only ran it in stereo. A terrific demo disc.
Doobie Brothers: "The Captain and Me" , from
Rhino/Warner Archives. Features Advanced Resolution Surround Sound, Advanced
Resolution stereo sound, DVD-Video compatible Dolby Digital Surround sound
and dts 5.1 surround sound. Includes Album essay, photo gallery, lyrics.
With navigation Menu.
This album, which includes the hit "China Grove" as well as such beautiful
tunes as "South City Midnight Lady" features the Doobie Brothers at the
height of their success. The surround version ison one side and stereo
on the other. I loved the use of surround here, which is very tasteful
and succeeds in making you almost a part of the Doobies' recording sessions.
Vocals excel, without diminishing the power of the guitars and percussion,
and with the Doobies that's exactly the way it should be. Now if I could
only get my hands on "Toulouse Street!"
So there you have it. My biggest complaint about the DVD-Audio format,
other than the lack of titles, is that the darn jewel boxes are larger
than a CD's and so the discs don't fit on my CD shelf. And I hate the Rhino
logo on those titles; it's loud and annoying.
Just let me listen to the music (with apologies to the Doobies!), please!
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think