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Musical Note

Ear's to High Definition Audio!

by Jim Bray

Now that DVD video is turning the home theatre market on its ear, "high definition" audio is poised to up the ante for music lovers as well.

Unfortunately, there's more than one format promising superior sound - leading to the possibility of another standards war that's destructive to everyone (especially consumers!).

Proponents of "HD-Audio" are so high on the formats that they're practically promising the sound will make today's compact discs sound like AM radio. I've heard one of the formats, and it sounded very good, indeed. Unfortunately, it was at a trade show and I don't trust anything I see or hear at a trade show - everything looks and sounds good.

Then again, I didn't trust DVD Video when I first saw it at a show a few years back - but since then have jumped so firmly upon that bandwagon that I left footprints in it.

There are two major competitors for the ears of consumers, one of which is supposed to be compatible with today's compact disc players. The compatible system is Sony and Philips' Super Audio CD, a hybrid disc that contains the normal reflective data layer of a CD player, enhanced with a second, high density "semi-reflective" layer. This second tier offers the "ultra high quality" stereo sound as well as multi-channel, text and graphics capability.

Philips says the "SACD" is consumer friendly because of its forward and backward compatibility. Naturally, this is only partly true: you may indeed be able to play the disc in today's CD player, but to get all the extras you need a new player - and an audio system capable of handling the enhancements.

The other standard, DVD Audio, is incompatible with today's CD and DVD players, though some new players hitting the market later this year will handle DVD Audio along with DVD Video.

DVD's high storage capacity allows for much higher sampling rates or much longer playing times than compact discs. Demos I saw at the trade showpromised "only" 74 minutes of playing time (the same as an audio compact disc), but with a 24 bit "sampling rate" of up to 96 kHz (this "technobabble" means the number and size of the "digital pictures of the music" the recording device takes each second), which is more than twice a CD's.

You can also add six channel surround sound to the mix.

Panasonic, one of DVD Audio's chief cheerleaders, says the format allows the reproduction of overtones up to 100 kHz (the human hearing threshold is about 20 kHz - so your dog will be happy, too!), which leads to a more pure and realistic sound. They say this immerses you in a veritable sonic sea and, as one who loved quadraphonic sound when it limped onto the market in the 1970's, I think that's good.

Remember, when you listen to a live show you're not only hearing the music played in front of you (or wherever it is), you hear it reflected from walls, trees, or whatever else happens to be around as well. So this "immersive" experience can not only give a more realistic feel to the music - something that audio manufacturers have been trying to duplicate digitally with "concert hall-type" settings on their receiver/processors - it also offers the opportunity for some really wild, studio-created effects - like music swirling around you from speaker to speaker.

These sound like neato formats for high end audiophiles, and that's fine. To be honest, however, I'm not sure they'll be a real mainstream item. As good as the demos have sounded, I'm not sure I care as much for the inaudible frequencies (after all, they slice them off in the minidisc format - to cram the audible parts onto the little disc - and minidiscs still sound terrific) as I do for compatibility and the extended playing time you can get from a regular DVD.

But I'm willing to be convinced otherwise…

 

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Updated May 13, 2006