May 1, 2004
Sounds: The Future is DVD
I just received three wonderful Neil Young DVD-Audio discs
with a difference. They are not multichannel, containing only 24-bit/176kHz two-channel
tracks, and backup LPCM 24/48 tracks to make the disc playable on DVD-Video machines. The
three titles, On the Beach, American Stars n Bars, and Hawks
& Doves, sound wonderful: crisp, clean, and freshly minted. This is high
resolution at its best.
More important, these discs could, taken with other recent
events, forecast a trend. Until now, the DVD-A camp has seemed relatively uninterested in
two-channel stereo, remixing all titles for multichannel playback. Most of these titles
have also carried alternate high-resolution two-channel tracks, but these have not been
the featured configuration. Youngs embracing of the DVD-A medium as a way to produce
high-resolution sound in any configuration of channels could be a sign that DVD-A will
ultimately win out over SACD.
Consider this: The DualDisc -- which can be CD on one side
and DVD-A or DVD-V on the other -- is now a fact. The possibilities are unlimited. The
DualDisc quells one of the main arguments about DVD-A: that it was not playable on CD
players, especially the millions found in cars and trucks. A DualDisc can be played
wherever you go: at home on a DVD-A player, and then, if you havent finished
listening and must go somewhere, you can pop it in the car machine, other side up, and
finish your listening. If you dont have a DVD-A player, you can play the CD side in
your DVD-V player. The DualDisc is forward- and backward-compatible.
The problem with producing DualDiscs for a mass market is
their thickness. But now, in test marketing in the Boston area by Time Warner and Sony,
the discs have been proven to work in all machines. I expect some commercial releases by
At the same time, the new Crutchfield catalog lists no
CD players. Everything is listed as a "DVD/CD" player. "DVD" is
Given all this, one cant help but think that CD is
dying and DVD is the medium of the future. Many software manufacturers will continue to
make CDs, because theyre playable on any machine. But as "any machine"
comes more and more to mean a DVD/CD player -- or, better, a universal DVD-V/DVD-A/CD/SACD
player -- producers will go for the better quality and additional features that DVD
In the meantime, this was an unusual month for good
|Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Island B0001570-36, two discs, Hybrid Multichannel SACD.
As the LP grew in popularity, finally eclipsing 45s -- the "singles"
format so popular in the 1950s and 60s -- artists and producers of pop music began
to think in larger terms. The concept album was born, a program in which each track
occupied a special place, seeming to evolve from the preceding track while leading to the
next. This concept album, originally released in 1973, has proved one of the greatest and
This 30th Anniversary Edition, in glorious SACD sound,
blows out of the water almost anything recorded since. Its glorious music has been
reworked into a raucous 5.1-channel mix by Greg Penny, who seems to have the measure of
each song in his bones. The opening track, "Funeral for a Friend," always seemed
destined for surround. Those of us who fooled around with bucket-brigade sound-delay
systems and units that played with in- and out-of-phase sounds would revel when we could
get those opening wind sounds to swirl around the room. The multichannel tracks on this
SACD do that with aplomb, building and panning until the stringent, anguished synthesizer
homage to pain is anchored in the center channel. The whole brief sequence is one of the
most thrilling demos of multichannel imaginable.
There is a lot of surround sound throughout the program,
much of it boisterous. "Saturday Nights Alright for Fighting" could be
destined to be this decades lease-breaker, yet its clean as a whistle. Even
when the din is at its loudest, the struck cymbal rises over the furor as clear as can be.
And listen to the beginning of "Sweet Painted Lady," with just Eltons
voice and acoustic piano with drums. The voice and piano sound uncanny in their realism.
Score another one for high resolution. This set gave me such a high I thought Id
never come down.
If youre a diehard two-channel-only listener, the
stereo SACD tracks are outstanding too, displaying great clarity and clean articulation of
every note. They sound the best to me of any two-channel version of this album, including
Mobile Fidelitys LPs. The CD tracks are great for the car and are very good, but
seem restricted compared to the SACD ones.
The packaging suits the quality of the discs. The original
booklet and art are reproduced with magnificent clarity and rich color, with no hint of
photocopying or reduction.
There are two SACD editions of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
For $10 more, you can have a deluxe edition that includes a DVD-Video disc of the Classic
Albums program that tells all about the making of this groundbreaking recording.
|Roxy Music: Avalon
Virgin 83871, Hybrid Multichannel SACD.
always been a voluptuous-sounding gig -- a set usually listed as one of the great ones.
Id always thought of Roxy as Pink Floyd without attitude -- lush and comfortable,
but a little wimpy. The new multichannel mix on this disc alters that opinion. With
everything open and instruments distributed around the room, attacks seem cleaner, rhythms
more urgent -- all of that without taking away from the basic magic-carpet-ride effect. By
comparison, the two-channel version now sounds flat and congested. The master tape of
"India" has been lost, so theres some manipulative 360-degree panning that
actually works. But "Avalon" is this discs demo track: vocals center
front, backing vocals in the rear, and instruments all over the place, all anchored by
solid, well-focused bass. Its an arresting and appealing sound.
|Steely Dan: Gaucho
MCA B0000868-36, Hybrid Multichannel SACD.
youre looking for a disc to test the transient response of your speakers or simply
to demonstrate their clarity, look no further. This is the same mix Elliott Scheiner did
for the DTS multichannel release three or more years ago, but this time in high-resolution
sound. The first track opens with crisp yet never brittle drums spread across the center,
mellow guitar to the front right. Then horns and backing vocals sneak in from the rear,
all leading up to Donald Fagens lead vocal in the center channel, bled just enough
into the left and right front channels. The overall acoustic is dry and clean, clean,
clean -- theres not a particle of unwanted sound or distortion. The high-resolution
two-channel version is just as clean but not quite as clear, due to having all that
rear-channel information mixed into the front channels. Throughout the whole disc, the
bass has a presence and focused attack that made my jaw drop in amazement. Lets hope
Universal will someday remix Aja and Katy Lied (my favorite Steely Dan disc)
with the same expertise and results.
|George Strait: Honkytonkville
MCA B0001620-19, DVD-Audio. Contains MLP 5.1 and 2.0 tracks and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks.
Although other country singers get splashier production and hit the
headlines more often, it is George Strait, for my money, who has been the rock around
which the others revolve. This is one of his best ballad albums, filled largely with songs
about love gone wrong. His delivery is heartfelt, genuine, appealing, and simplicity
itself. How can you argue with a line like "Desperately I long to feel your touch /
But you left me alone in love" (from "Desperately," by Bruce Robinson and
Monte Warden)? The backup musicians are great to a man, and the recording is clean, clear,
and immaculately balanced. The surrounds are used quite a bit, for backing vocals and
harmony instruments, but never seem overbearing. Theres nothing spectacular about
this disc, but it stands out due to its artistic sincerity and engineering integrity. My
only complaint is the onscreen lyrics. Crammed onto a single screen, theyre somewhat
hard to read.
Concertos 1 & 2; Shchedrin: Piano Concerto No. 2
Marc-André Hamelin, piano; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Litton, conductor.
Hyperion SACDA67425, Hybrid Multichannel SACD.
Shostakovich was a piano virtuoso until he stopped playing in the 1950s for physical
reasons, and Rodion Shchedrin assumed the role as potent composer-performer for another
generation. The first Shostakovich concerto, written when its author was very young, is
scored for strings and trumpet. Concerto No. 2 was written for the composers son,
Maxim, and is scored for full orchestra. Both works bubble with good-natured sarcasm and
high energy. Shchedrins Concerto No. 2 is more acerbic and bristles with hammered
Marc-André Hamelin tosses off all three of these
technically difficult works as if they were childs play. Thats not to say that
this potent artist plays frivolously; its just that his incredible technique allows
him to be expressive without having to worry about getting the notes right. Littons
accompaniment is right on the money.
The recording is of the same high quality weve come
to expect of Hyperions two-channel CDs, but with more presence and higher
definition. Oddly enough, theres no center channel, which might have anchored the
piano sound a bit more. As it is, where it appears to come from will depend on where you
sit. Wherever that is, the actual sound of the instrument is incredibly realistic -- this
is some of the best piano sound I have heard from any high-resolution disc. The orchestra
sounds as if its just behind Hamelin, so the balances are ideal. This is now my
favorite recording of the popular Shostakovich concertos, and the Shchedrin was a
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