DVD Audio & SACD - The Royal Scam Part II
Original Publish Date: 9/05/02 - Much of the content in this article has been addressed via hardware, but we keep it live for archival purposes. Software selection however is still the big issue remaining.
It has been some time since I wrote the controversial, but much needed article titled, "DVD Audio & SACD The Royal Scam".
I did not write this article to bash new technologies, nor to be a non-supporter of technological progress. I wrote this article to educate the public about the shortcomings of these new technologies, which are mostly implementation related due to the greedy Record Industry and bureaucratic Standards Bodies (i.e. DVD AWG).
If you recall from this articles predecessor, the three major issues with DVD-A and SACD are:
- Limited or No bass Management.
- No Universal Digital Output for High Resolution Signal.
- Limited Software.
In addition to the above mentioned issues, I have discovered a few new ones:
- No speaker Channel Digital Delay Adjustments (many players).
- No Channel Volume Level Adjustments (many players).
- Alternate Menu Configurations to Select DVD-A Analog Output or DD Bitstream output for DVD-V (applies only to DVD-A players).
- Audio Watermarking May Kill Resolution.
Issue #1: Limited or No Bass Management
At the time I authored "The Royal Scam Part I", no DVD-A or SACD player offered bass management out of the analog outputs to support these new formats. Since then, a handful of DVD-A players and Sony SACD players (not enough models of either format for a full finger count) were introduced with limited bass management. When I say limited, I mean that the bass management offered is fixed at around 100-120 Hz. What were they thinking? Who crosses over their sub so high? This reminds me of those little "Cubed" speakers from the company we all love to hate. In addition, most of these players donêt incorporate bass management in two channel mode, so if you have small main speakers, you are not going to be able to route bass to your sub. Are your SACD / DVD-A discs sounding a little thin?
Some companies such as Outlaw Audio, offer a bass management system designed to resolve this problem.
Outlaw Audio ICBM Bass Management System for DVD-A / SACD (Retail: $249)
While this is a step in the right direction, this analog bass management unit has issues of its own:
- No channel level adjustments.
- No speaker digital delay adjustments (see issue #4 for further elaboration).
- Requires an additional six RCA type cables.
- Solution for one player at a time only.
In order to use products such as the ICBM, you must connect it in series with your DVD-A or SACD player before connecting it to your Preamp / Receiver. As if there werenêt enough cables to worry about, now you will have to add a whopping 12 audio cables! I hope you like spaghetti. In addition, what happens if you want to listen to SACD and DVD-A, but have separate players for these competing formats? In order to use this system for both players, you will need to rig up a Y-Connector with a switchbox and feed 6 RCA cables from each player into it, followed by 6 RCA cables into your Preamp / Receiver.
Some Receiver manufacturers such as Sherwood New Castle, and Pioneer Elite now offer bass management on their analog inputs, however there is a price to pay for this convenience. For example, the Sherwood Newcastle Model R-963 claims to offer complete bass management for DVD-A and SACD.
Sherwood New Castle Model R-963 Multi Channel A/V Receiver
I did some digging and found out what they are doing is taking the DVD-A / SACD signal, converting it back to digital, processing it inside the Receiver to add bass management, and then converting it back to analog for amplification. So let's get this straight.
- Step #1
DVD-A / SACD player converts digital signal to analog to pass into Receiver.
- Step #2
Sherwood R-963 Receiver converts analog DVD-A / SACD signal back to digital to process for added bass management.
- Step #3
Sherwood R-963 Receiver converts re-digitalized DVD-A / SACD back into analog for amplification. Can somebody tell me how we are going to hear the supposed added resolution of DVD-A / SACD when we are butchering the hell out of the signal by bouncing it back and forth between the digital and analog domains? This sounds like a good idea to me, where do I sign up?
DVD Audio & SACD - The Royal Scam Part II - page 2
Issue #2: No Universal Digital Output for High Resolution Signal
There has been some progress here. The DVD-AWG decided on firewire or IEEE1394 as the standard digital interface for DVD Audio. Now the question remains is when will hardware vendors fully support this? Pioneer has introduced one of the first hybrid DVD-A/SACD players with the I-link digital output which incidentally only interfaces with their mega $4K+ flagship receivers and the digital interface only operates for DVD Audio, not SACD. Another company to note who has a solution is Denon. According to their Rep at CES 2002, the new Denon AVR 5803 Receiver has a proprietary digital interface which is exclusively mated with their new DVD 9000 players. This is a brilliant strategy as it does not violate the copyright law set upon digital transmission of high resolution audio signals. While this seems promising, it leaves me a little uneasy that there are only a few vendors with this solution, forcing us to buy costly flagship Receivers and matching DVD Audio players if we want high resolution DVD-A with proper bass management, time delay, and level settings. It would be nicer if the universal digital interface would be adopted more quickly by hardware vendors so that consumers had their choices of brands and model #'s to suit their preferences and budgets. It would also be nice if Sony / Phillips would jump on the standardized digital interface bandwagon and we could have a single digital interface solution for both formats to eliminate all of the technical and cabling issues currently hindering these potentially high resolution formats.
IEEE 1394 Firewire Interface
Meridian, the co-developer of Meridian Lossless Packets (MLP) also has a proprietary digital interface for their Preamp Processor and DVD player. However this is a very costly system that most people would have to refinance their homes to afford. It is unclear if Meridian intends to transmit MLP data via this interface from the DVD-A player to the Processor, or if this interface will be used solely for DD / DTS and digital transmission to their active DSP loudspeakers.
Issue #3: Limited and Expensive Software
There has been some progress here, mostly for DVD-A, since I wrote the this article's predecessor. However, the titles are not being delivered as quickly as promised. In addition, most of the software costs around $25, which is almost $10 more than a current CD that is already overpriced in my opinion.
I have a hard time believing the masses will shell out $25 for a high resolution DVD-A or SACD disc which most peoples systems, and ears canêt appreciate the difference, especially in an MP3, "Cubed Speaker" world we live in. This leaves these two competing formats fate on the support of the audiophile minorities. DVD-A seems to have a slight edge since it has more hardware supporters, and is backwards compatible with DVD-V via the Dolby Digital 2.0 or DTS 5.1 alternative soundtracks. However, SACD has many more titles and Record Label support. At this point, it's a toss up who will be the clear winner, or if there will be a winner at all. I suppose in the next year or two it may not be so ambiguous. I am personally hoping that both formats can peacefully coexist.
Issue #4: No Channel Speaker Delay Adjustments (most players)
The purpose of channel delay speaker settings is to configure the proper amount of signal delay for each speaker based on their distance from the listening position. This helps to create more realistic imaging between all speakers to provide a more enveloping and natural surround field. Speaker Distance compensation is impossible to do in the analog domain. The lack of a digital output for DVD-A / SACD negates the possibility of your Receiver / Processor to handle this task and thus at this point, it must be done in the player. To date, with the exception of the soon to be released DVD-A players from Denon, there are currently no DVD-A / SACD players on the market that incorporate this feature.
Issue #5: No Channel Volume Level Adjustments (some players)
Many of the DVD-A players on the market do not give the option to adjust volume levels for each channel. Since you connect these players via the analog outputs, you have no control of this in your Receiver / Processor. Only the master volume may be adjusted which in turn scales the remaining channels down proportionally. The problem with this is if your rear speakers are too close or too far from your listening position, or if the DVD-A mix contains too much or too little output to the rear channels. Since you have no control to vary surround volume levels, your rears, or even center channel, may play too loudly or too softly depending on your situation. Luckily some of the newer DVD-A players and all of the new Sony SACD players do have channel level adjustment feature, but we weary of the player you may be considering to purchase if you arenêt sure it incorporates this critical feature. A solution for this may be an analog volume level control feature added to the six channel inputs of the A/V Receiver. Some A/V Receiver manufacturers have made claims that their new models will be offering this feature. We will just have to wait and see, or should I say, listen. The Apex AD-7701 illustrated below has no bass management, speaker delay settings, or volume level adjustments for DVD-A or SACD.
Apex AD-7701 Universal DVD-A / SACD Player
DVD Audio & SACD - The Royal Scam Part II - page 3
Issue #6: Alternate Menu Configurations for DVD-A Analog Output and DD Bitstream Output
It has come to my attention that some of the DVD-A players on the market must be configured to play DVD-A signals from the analog out. When the player is configured in this fashion, it cannot output a Dolby Digital bitstream from the digital output. This means you must reconfigure the audio settings in the DVD player menu every time you switch between a DVD-V disc and wish to pass the DD bitstream into your receiver or listen to a DVD-A disc with MLP decoding via the analog outputs of the player. How many consumers are willing to bother with this inconvenience, and how many will get too annoyed to care? To make matter worse, you need to turn your TV on when you want to listed to a DVD-A disc so that you can select the proper audio stream on your DVD-A disc menu. Also, try pausing the DVD-A disc, you may be surprised to find that the current DVD-A discs cannot be paused.
Issue #7: Audio Watermarking May Kill Resolution
As if the lack of a universal digital output for DVD-A / SACD wasn't bad enough, the paranoid Record Industry is set to cause more havoc by watermarking these new high resolution discs. This watermarking seems to be applying mostly to DVD-A at this time, but only the future will tell to what extent it will achieve and if SACD will suffer in the same fate. Audio watermarking modulates a spectrum of noise within the audio band. It is designed to reduce resolution to deter piracy.
Although the scoundrels who are implementing this, claim that it is inaudible. However, many record produces claim it is clearly audible on the few watermarked DVD-A discs currently available, and is characterized by a low buzzing sound which is evident even on mediocre systems. The result of audio watermarking may reduce the resolution of DVD-A and SACD (if applied) to less than current 16 bit PCM based "Red Book" CD's and possibly even lower than a good DD/DTS recording. So at this point you may be finding yourself scratching your head asking what's the point?
Why not just be happy with DVD-V and listen to DTS and DD recordings? These are good questions that I am not sure have definitive answers, especially with the advent of DTS 96/24 on the horizon.
For more info about this topic from a very credible source, look here: http://www.audiorevolution.com/news/0800/09.dvdwatermark.shtml
I am not trying to deter anyone from buying into the new DVD-A and SACD formats. It was my intent to identify the shortcomings of these technologies and how they may impact your enjoyment when you integrate them into your home theater system. I am personally quite satisfied with some of the DTS soundtracks of the new DVD-A discs, particularly the DTS 96/24 ones. My system configuration is optimized, and all I have to do is press play to enjoy 5.1 music. However, in order to do proper diligence to the new technologies (DVD-A / SACD), I recently added a new DVD-A player and SACD changer to my reference system so that I could experience these high resolution formats first hand and compare the MLP soundtracks and to their DTS counterparts. In a properly set-up system, I have been able to hear benefits of MLP over DTS, particularly in smoothness and transparency. However, a DVD-A player without bass management and digital delay compensation may offset this advantage by smearing the imaging and soundstage and not properly routing bass to the appropriate channels. So far, some of the best audio fidelity I have heard to date is from two channel SACD. I am actually floored by how good all of my SACD discs sound. In two channel, all of the issues of bass management and digital delay compensation basically disappear, so just about anyone could enjoy this format with little or no set-up difficulty regardless of their system.
If you are ready to support one of these new high resolution formats, then by all means, go for it. You can work around many of the issues I have identified if your willing to customize the configuration of your system each time you listen to these new formats and you are willing to add all the necessary cabling as well. I am sure there will be light at the end of the tunnel and a new hope for these technologies once hardware vendors and the Record Industry realize that consumers are annoyed with these issues and once standards bodies and lawyers make a mutual compromise. In the meantime, we can enjoy these technologies and look forward to their future improvements. I strongly encourage considering one of the newer universal machines to minimize cabling and for added convenience.
Enjoy the music!