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DVD-Audio: The Upstart
Can 192kHz Make A Difference?

The Hi-Res Shootout session was supposed to be presented by Bob Michaels of 5.1 Entertainment but, as luck would have it, we were graced by a couple of surprise guests: Charlie Watts, also of 5.1 Entertainment, and Craig Anderson of Craigman Digital, the DVD-Audio technical consultant to Warner Bros., Elektra and Atlantic.

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Anderson mentioned that he had just returned from Europe, where he seemed surprised by how well classical music had taken off on DVD-Audio: “In Germany they were really into high-res multi-channel classical; I heard lots of it and very little of the ‘surround-me’ mixes and pop music that are popular here on DVD-A”. The idea behind this session wasn’t so much to promote DVD-Audio but rather to demonstrate side-by-side comparisons between various PCM sampling rates and allow the audience to judge how audible the differences were.

To that end, the first thing Michaels got out of the way was to establish the transparency of the Meridian Lossless Packing process. He played a delicate piano piece in both 192kHz LPCM and then a packed MLP version. For all intents and purposes, they were identical. “We don’t need to use lossy compression or pack the data any more than MLP does” said Michaels, adding “Data storage is cheap these days; I can get a terabyte for less than three thousand dollars. We need to deliver audio as painlessly as possible to the consumer.”

Anderson, who has authored close to 100 DVD-Audio titles, gave a quick slide show to visually demonstrate how various sampling rates looked compared to a 10kHz square wave. As expected, the higher the sampling rate, the more it looked like the original signal. The differences between 44.1, 96 and 192kHz sampling were surprisingly easy to see; though whether these differences were just as easily audible remained to be heard. The final set of slides, comparing the 192kHz PCM sample to a DSD version, was quite the eye-opener. The shape of the DSD sample looked just the slightest bit closer to the shape of the original signal than the 192kHz version did. However, the more noticeable difference between the two digital samples was in their noise, where the PCM sample was obviously less blurry than the DSD version. For more details, see the SACD to DVD-Audio comparison.

Having seen the differences between sampling rates, it was now time to hear how closely they correlated to audible differences. Everyone in the room did the ‘audiophile squint’ and closed their eyes to better concentrate on the sound. As he cued up samples of ‘Angels or Devils’ from the 5.1 Entertainment Dishwalla album ‘Opaline’ (which offers a maximum sample rate of 96kHz on DVD-Audio), Michaels commented “I just want to let you guys know that this comes from an analog source. Dishwalla are digi-phobic and record everything, and I mean everything, on analog.” Sigh! One of these days I’ll get a demonstration of high-resolution digital audio that actually features material recorded in high-res digital audio. We heard the same short piece of music at four different resolutions: 44.1kHz 16-bit, 48kHz 24-bit, 96kHz 24-bit and 192kHz 24-bit. The differences between the first two and last two were barely audible; in fact, going from 44.1kHz 16-bit to 48kHz 24-bit was so slight, I wondered how much of the difference I had ‘heard’ was due to the fact that I was told beforehand the resolution of the recordings.

Without a doubt, the biggest and most easily noticeable jump in sound quality was when going from 48kHz 24-bit to 96kHz 24-bit. Everyone had told me to pay particular attention to the high frequencies, but that’s not where I heard the most significant improvements in sound quality. Instead, the bass and percussion seemed to tighten and become more articulate; I could clearly hear this difference even on drum whacks. Vocals were the other area where I heard improvements; the added smoothness and clarity were anything but subtle. The only time I did hear a difference in the high frequency region was when we went to the 192kHz 24-bit sample. Even then, the difference was small enough that I realized we were at a point of diminishing returns. This demonstration confirmed one thing for me: rather than have the ultimate resolution of 192kHz 24-bit and be limited to two channels, I’d always take 96kHz 24-bit if it meant having a multi-channel mix. Any difference in sound quality would be negligible.

As though reading my thoughts, Michaels commented after the shootout “It’s sometimes hard to appreciate higher resolution; it’s much easier to appreciate multi-channel, especially on pop music.” To demonstrate, he played a cut from ‘1011 Woodland’, a 5.1 Entertainment DVD-Audio disc by The Fixx that’s due to be released in mid January. As soon as all five speakers in the room turned on, smiles started to spread amongst the audience. The 5.1-channel 96/24 recording really was spectacular. “Surround is more important than 192kHz,” said Watts, “but with DVD-A there’s no need to sacrifice sound quality; we can have multi-channel without having to resort to the incredibly horrible distortion of CD audio.” In all my years of listening to CDs, I’ve never considered them to be ‘perfect sound forever’ but also never thought of the audio quality as being “incredibly horrible distortion”. For Watts’ sake, I’m glad more DVD-Audio titles are coming out.

In the question and answer session that followed, further increases in data storage and corresponding improvements in sound quality were brought up; specifically, any benefits that blue ray laser technology might bring. “At that point,” Anderson answered “we’ll be able to give you every single Led Zepplin album, mixed to 5.1 channels with 192/24 resolution on every channel, all on one disc!” Unless the music industry takes a bizarre turn sometime soon, Anderson’s humorous version of the future is not likely to happen. However, DVD-Audio titles created by him, Watts, Michaels and others could conceivably change the way consumers listen to music in the future; especially if they continue to promote the importance of music in surround. []

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Show report last updated: 2nd February 2003.


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