Secrets Q & A

TVs? We Don't Need no Stinking TVs - Third Generation Multi-channel Audio - Part 1


Hardware and Software

In 2000, the major record labels introduced what they thought would be the next-generation CD. The companies were eager for the change since these new discs had copy protection that CD did not. To encourage the public to upgrade, the new discs offered higher resolution representation of the recorded signal and discrete multichannel sound. There was no moving video. DVD served that purpose, but the limitations of the prevailing technology required audio channels to be compressed with a sound slightly worse than CD.

High-resolution multichannel audio discs did not catch on. The format war between SACD and DVD-A aggravated the process, leaving high-resolution as an afterthought with the emergence of the iPod. Despite these headwinds, some smaller labels continue to manufacture SACDs. Recently, Naxos and a few others introduced the Blu-ray Audio Disc to entice listeners to migrate from stereo MP3 to high-resolution multichannel. Unlike DVA-A and SACD, which require specialized equipment, Blu-ray Audio discs work with any Blu-ray player. Like SACD and DVD-A, Blu-ray Audio discs do not require a multi-faceted launch from a video screen; instead, one need only press the Play button. To change playback options, four colored buttons are available on all Blu-ray remote controls.

Specialized players for multichannel SACD and DVD-A playback are being discontinued, though some higher-priced two-channel SACD players remain on the market. These so called Universal DVD players are being obsoleted by the Universal Blu-ray player which plays all music formats (CD, SACD, DVD-A and Blu-ray Audio), video DVD, and Blu-ray. Most Sony Blu-ray players are almost universal. They play SACD but not play DVD-A. This is the final remnant of the format wars.

Blu-ray Audio discs are mastered in various ways. Naxos discs are similar to standard Blu-rays with the copyright warning at the beginning. Although they have a video startup menu, the disc eventually starts with a press of the play button alone. Pressing the red button on a DVD's remote control tells the Blu-ray player to produce DTS-HD multichannel (5.1). The green button yields a (Linear Pulse Code Modulation) stereo output. Both stereo and multichannel versions have high resolution 96kHz sampling rates and 24bit depth. An alternate mastering system has been developed by Pure Audio This launches faster without the copyright menu. A press of the red button yields a DTS-HD 5.1 presentation. Pressing the yellow button produces the LPCM stereo output and green adds a DTS-HD 7.1 output. Pure Audio discs offer 5.1 and stereo at sampling rates up to 192kHz. A 7.1 presentation is restricted to a 96kHz sampling rate. Pure Audio discs also have transferable stereo files for download to a music player or for burning a CD-R (Blu-ray audio discs are not compatible with a CD player).

The selection of Blu-ray Audio discs is limited and it is unclear if the format is sustainable. However multichannel concert performances with video are also excellent multichannel audio discs. The video is optional, which is the preferred mode for those whose attention is focused on audio, akin to someone at a live concert closing their eyes to amplify the musical experience. I recall some audio stores that liked to dim the lights when they were doing demos.

There is also the distraction factor of video; some producers believe quick transitions from one orchestra section to the next or panoramic shots of the orchestra maintain viewer interest. The expense of some Blu-ray concert video and opera discs may be an obstacle. However, unlike CDs, Blu-ray discs can be rented. Netflix is one available channel, although the current selection is limited.

Those who find stereo satisfactory will not need a Blu-ray player. While Blu-ray Audio discs do provide the option to listen in high-resolution stereo, more high-resolution material is available by download as FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files. These files are much larger than compressed MP3 files and are frequently stored on multi-gigabyte hard drives. I prefer to archive the files directly on recordable DVD discs. Specialized Blu-ray players read DVD-R discs encoded with FLAC files. More details are provided at the later of this report.

To listen in multichannel, you will need an Audio Video Receiver (AVR) or Preamp Processor (Pre/Pro). The Pre/Pro is like an AVR without the power amp. I will use the term AVR to represent both types. AVRs suitable for multichannel audio start at $300. Expect higher prices for better performing DACs, more substantial power amplifiers, and increasingly sophisticated room correction systems.