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Brain Salad Surgery

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 you’ve 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 don’t have a special SACD-compatible player and SACD-compatible receiver.

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 SACD’s 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 it’s true that a garden variety DVD player and receiver won't give the true benefits of DVD-A’s 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 TechnoFILE’s 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-A’s 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 unit.

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 DVD’s that use the DVD player’s 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. It’s what quad should have been all along, but wasn’t.

So if you’re 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.” You’ll 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 Lisa.

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 effects.

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 player’s digital audio (bitstream) output. If, for example, you use analog outputs, all you’ll 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) don’t 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 it’s 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.

Seventh Sojurn
Band on the Run
Hotel California
Billion Dollar Babies
LA Woman
Machine Head
No Secrets
The Captain and Me

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 aren’t true DVD-A don’t 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 they’re really worth while. In fact, I won’t be buying any more CD’s save for emergencies. There’s a “liveness,” a real presence to the DVD-A titles that’s quite breathtaking, and the result is that most of the discs I auditioned sounded almost as if they’d 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 don’t 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) you’ll 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.

Here’s a look at each of the individual DVD audio titles:

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 Spector’s) and in my never humble opinion they’ve also been crying out for a good surround sound mix. This isn’t 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 didn’t have the dynamic “punch” of some of the other discs. Overall, it’s very clean, though, and quite listenable.

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 that’s because the original recording was excellent to begin with. They’ve done a nice job of placing instruments around the room in a manner that’s 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 it’s probably understandable given the “spaciness” of the music, they’re also made instruments float around the room from speaker to 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.

Eagles:“Hotel California”, 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 Menu.

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 overall.



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 time?



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 navigation Menu.

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!

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