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The Music Scene Vol. 1 No. 1
DVD Video Guidelines for DVD Equipment

by Philip Ehrensaft Tuesday, October 22, 2002

If you enjoy opera or ballet, now is the time to move over to DVD. The higher technical qualities bring us closer to irreplaceable live performances and the benefits of being able to relive or anticipate performances.

No fewer than eighty-two opera DVD titles are available in Canada, and this number will increase at a healthy clip. The medium offers distinct visual improvements over VHS and better sound than Hi-Fi VHS. Prices for DVD players and requisite high-resolution televisions have tumbled and the cost of an opera on DVD is often less than an audio CD set since the content is on one disk as opposed to two or three, and it is not necessary to print a libretto.

It is possible to assemble a high quality DVD setup without breaking the bank. Step one is having a television capable of displaying DVD''s high-resolution output. This requires a TV with either SVHS ("supervideo") or "component" input jacks. DVDs played via the familiar coaxial cable deliver somewhat better images than VHS, but most of their higher resolution and better colour saturation is lost. Component video yields a slightly better picture than supervideo, so look for a television with component inputs unless you get a very good deal on a unit that has only SVHS.

The 27" screen TV is the most common in today''s market; excellent units sell for less than $500. The brands that typically score high in Consumer Report tests for picture quality are Sony, Toshiba, and RCA, although the latter has a problematic repair record.

The audio quality of the television is not a great concern. If you''re serious about music, you will channel DVD audio tracks through your sound system or amplified computer speakers (Altec, Lansing and Cambridge Audio are good bets). Your two-channel stereo system will do fine; the "PCM stereo" sound track on DVDs is high quality. Surround sound has compressed, lower quality sound on 5.1 tracks and can be saved for car chases and war flicks.

DVD players fall into three classes: standard single-disk, standard multidisc, and "progressive-scan." The latter, which does not cost much more than standard players, offers resolution and colours verging on lifelike only if you invest in an "HD-ready" television (HD = high definition). These units run from $1500 and up.

A multidisc DVD player is of little benefit to classical music fans unless they have a mad desire to watch the entire Ring Cycle without a single visit to the fridge. A quality single-play unit is sufficient for viewing classical performances. Toshiba, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Hitachi, RCA, JVC, Philips, Pioneer, and Yamaha offer solid models in the $300 to $400 range. Some of China''s cheaper Apex brand models are of equal quality.

Some but not all of the DVD players can do double-duty as an entry-level audiophile CD player. Consult the current issue of the British magazine What Hi-Fi, which does a good job testing DVD players for sound quality. Some recommended models are available in North America as well as in Europe. Check whether a unit can also play audio CD-Rs, CD-RWs, and MP3 files.

Above all, use your own eyes and ears to evaluate units. The specific models tested by Consumer Report or What Hi-Fi will usually be replaced by new ones within months. The fact that one model by a given manufacturer rates high is no guarantee that its replacement will be of equal quality. * Geoff Martin

How to Set Up Your DVD-Video

Walk into any video rental store and you''ll see that we''re well on our way to DVD-Video completely replacing VHS video tapes. There are a number of reasons why we can consider this a good thing, including an improvement in apparent video quality and no degradation in the signal caused by the ravages of time. However, perhaps the most obvious improvement is that DVD-Video brings what is known as "discrete multichannel audio" (more commonly known as "surround sound") to the consumer. Where VHS tapes can support only two independent channels of audio which are, in theory, routed to two loudspeakers, DVD-Video supports six independent channels of audio (better known as "5.1 channels").

In the best of all possibilities, a DVD-Video player has five outputs which provide full frequency range signals that are sent to five loudspeakers--the Left, Centre, Right, Left Surround and Right Surround (abbreviated L, C, R, LS and RS). A sixth output for Low Frequency Effects (the "LFE channel" also known as the .1 in 5.1) is connected to a subwoofer--optimised to only produce low frequency material.

The location of these five loudspeakers around the listener is crucial to the correct presentation of the sound field recorded on the DVD-Video. There is an official recommendation developed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which is the standard configuration used by professionals worldwide. This recommendation states that all loudspeakers should be the same distance from the listener, with specific angular locations as shown in the figure. Note that the surround loudspeakers are supposed to be located to the sides and slightly behind the listener--not far in the rear as is typically seen in homes and stereo stores. Remember that these are "surround" loudspeakers - not "rear" loudspeakers. (Readers wishing to read the exact details of this standard should download the document BS.775-1 from www.itu.ch for a small fee.) The placement of the subwoofer is less critical--one possibility is on the floor in a corner of your listening room. If you have a DVD-Player and fewer than five loudspeakers and a subwoofer, then you must configure your player for the appropriate loudspeaker configuration. In order to hear something approaching a reasonable facsimile of that which you ought to hear, you must "tell" your DVD-Video player how many loudspeakers you have. Almost all players provide the user with various modes of operation which correspond to different configurations of loudspeakers, providing what is known as "downmixing" capabilities (because you are mixing 5 channels down to a smaller number of loudspeakers).

For example, most of the dialogue in a movie is exclusively routed to the Centre loudspeaker. If you have only two loudspeakers, correctly connected to the Left and Right outputs, then you will hear very little speech in your movie, but a great deal of soundtrack music; therefore the player should play the Centre channel in your Left and Right loudspeakers. In addition, it should be smart enough to also include the Left Surround in the Left loudspeaker and the Right Surround in the Right.

In a worst-case scenario, if you have a single loudspeaker, then the player should rout all five channels to that one output.

Every player has a different trademarked name on its particular method of downmixing for your loudspeaker configuration. The three important things to remember are

  1. your player doesn''t know how many loudspeakers you own
  2. use the mode that''s appropriate to your setup, and
  3. read the manual that came with the player. This will tell you the
    correct mode and loudspeaker placement for your system. *

In the next issue, how five channels of audio can be squeezed onto a DVD-Video.


(c) La Scena Musicale