HighFidelityReview reports from the ‘Future of Surround’ panel & New Technologies Forum held at the Surround Professional 2003 Conference and Technology Showcase where subjects such as hybrid DVD-Audio discs and Super Audio CD version two (SACD 2) were discussed & new products from Minnetonka Software, SRS Labs, Dolby Laboratories and iBiquity Digital were demonstrated, where John Eargle of JBL Professional demonstrates his company’s Linear Spatial Reference active studio monitors.
Regardless of their ultimate fate in the fickle consumer marketplace, at this point both SACD and DVD-Audio are mature, established formats for production and delivery of multichannel music recordings. In contrast to Surround Conferences past, presenters no longer have to lug around unwieldy custom or home-built gear for demos – now, they can simply drop their sample discs into commercial players.
Nevertheless, in this highly competitive environment neither format completely addresses all perceived needs. As a result, evolutionary changes are afoot in both DVD-Audio and SACD. Each format is currently being enhanced to address the respective limitations for which it is most commonly criticized: DVD-Audio’s lack of backward compatibility with CD players, and SACD’s lack of video content options. These developments were among the topics tackled in the ‘Future of Surround’ panel, moderated by Bobby Owsinski, Surround 2003 Conference Chairman and Managing Director/Executive Producer at Surround Associates.
DVD-Audio Hybrids and SACD 2
Compatibility with CD players is the most significant complaint lodged against the DVD-Audio format (the need for ‘Play-Stop-Pause’ simplicity for audio playback without requiring a display monitor has long since been met). Although the universal industry consensus seems to be that the CD is on its last legs and that incorporating support for it in DVD-Audio discs would be at most a transitional format, the need for it at this time is clear due to the huge number of legacy players in homes and automobiles. Yet for the past year, long-awaited hybrid DVD-A/CD discs encountered delays from both technical and political setbacks.
The technical problems have all been solved, according to panelist Phil Carlson, President of DVD Plus International, the Stommeln, Germany-based license holder of DVD Plus double-sided disc patents. Bobby Owsinski – Click for a Larger ImageCarlson claimed that broad CD player-compatibility of the 1.48mm DVD Plus discs has been proven in extensive testing. [There is also supposed to be DVD Plus V2 with a thickness of just 1.2mm – Ed] Despite lack of official format acceptance by the DVD Forum, Carlson said that two production lines are already active in Germany and France, while a third in England is imminent. A production line in United States is scheduled to be online by March 2004. Currently, the discs can be produced for close to the price of a DVD and CD packaged together.
To date, no DVD Plus discs have been released in the United States, but that will soon change –AIX President Mark Waldrep told us over lunch that in January 2004 his label will release four titles in the hybrid DVD Plus disc format, despite the lack of official DVD Forum sanction. “I’ve been holding back, trying to be a team player,” Waldrep said,
“But I’m in a business where I have to deliver product in CD format as well. I’m a small label and I just can’t afford to maintain dual inventory.”
Among the major labels, Warners will reportedly be the first to buck the standards and proceed with DVD-A/CD hybrids, but there is some question as to whether the company plans to license the DVD Plus format.
“Since we hold the patent on DVD Plus, the only hybrid format that’s been proven to work,”
Carson said dryly,
“I certainly hope the technology that will be used will be mine.”
Super Audio CD
Perhaps the worst kept secret in audio is the yet-to-be-announced SACD 2 format, which was nevertheless named as a topic for the ‘Future of Surround’ panel. Among the format’s new capabilities is reportedly incorporation of video content in an attempt to level the playing field against rival DVD-Audio, which has allowed video from day one as part of the DVD Forum specifications. Despite the planners’ best of intentions, however, the panel’s scheduled Philips representative, Paul Reynolds, was a no-show, pleading illness. The sheepish reluctance of the remaining panelists to comment on SACD 2 prompted Owsinski to remark that “there seem to be a lot of non-disclosure agreements floating around.” Since Sony’s David Kawakami and the usual SACD suspects were also absent from this year’s Surround Conference, no official information was available on the new format.
Nevertheless, one manufacturer representative, speaking under conditions of anonymity, claimed that the SACD 2.0 spec is still being written, and that
“we could be as much as 48 months away.”
Asked if the delay was due to the added support for video content, he replied
“possibly, but it’s also because of adding HDMI – which also means going back to re-negotiate with content providers.”
At this point, it is still unknown whether the video portion of SACD 2 discs will be limited to static images only, or the degree of backward-compatibility with the numerous audio-only SACD players that have been sold since the first-generation format launch.
Software, Tools and Services
The transition from two-channel to multichannel music benefits from a wide range of underlying enabling technologies, from studio tools that facilitate production to consumer products and services that raise public awareness about the exciting possibilities of surround sound. A New Technologies Forum at Surround 2003 introduced attendees to some important developments on several fronts.
For sound engineers, the ability to provide in-progress review copies of surround mixes to their clients is an essential way to allay concerns and gain the acceptance and support of artists, many of whom are unfamiliar and apprehensive about venturing into this radically redefined recording medium. For engineers who choose to work in DSD, however, the format’s draconian copyright protection protocols preclude the creation of playable SACD media until the disc goes into final production. This may be great for the labels bent on curbing piracy, but it’s also a serious handicap when the mixer wants to consult with the artist at an intermediate stage.
Fortunately, a solution is at hand with the upcoming Version 2 update to discWelder™ CHROME, the PC-based DVD-Audio authoring tool from Minnetonka Software. As explained by Minnetonka’s John Calder, among the new features introduced in this upgrade to its flagship DVD-Audio authoring application is a DSD Import/Conversion capability, which allows the sound engineer to import DSD-format DFF audio files into the CHROME playlist. DSD-to-PCM conversion bit-depth is set at 24-bit, and the sample rates are set at 48kHz for surround and 96kHz for stereo. For the first time, authors of SACD discs will be able to create DVD-Audio reference and approval discs of their SACD projects, something not possible in the DSD native format.
The discWelder™ CHROME update also introduces some new features for working with video content, one of the key advantages of DVD-Audio over SACD. A Video Track Link allows a track in a DVD-A disc’s Audio Zone to access a Video Title in the VIDEO_TS, enabling playback of videos from within the Audio menu. Another feature allows the engineer to automatically create the Video Zone from the contents of the Audio Zone, which allows playback on both DVD-Audio and DVD-Video players (by creating a universal DVD-A/V disc). For those who appreciate visual aesthetics, a menu customization feature allows the importing of background images, buttons, and other menu elements from image editing program (such as Adobe Photoshop). Available in the first quarter of 2004 and priced at $2,995 Craig Eggers – Click for a Larger Image($500 for those upgrading from a previous version), discWelder™ CHROME’s efficiency and quality enhancements will hopefully speed up the production of DVD-Audio titles.
In the meantime, unfortunately, the slow pace and limited selection of multichannel music releases limits broad public awareness of the possibilities in an involving and immersive surround experience. In the battle for consumer hearts and minds, a useful means of paving the way for the acceptance of DVD-Audio and SACD recordings engineered for surround is through DSP algorithms built into home based playback systems that can extrapolate more channels from any two-channel source – in effect, transforming every consumer’s existing music collection into a multichannel experience.
All matrix decoding algorithms are not created equal, however. Although some highly effective proprietary processing techniques have been developed over the past decade, they have traditionally only been available to owners of very pricey surround processors from companies such as Lexicon and Meridian.
But in recent years, the inclusion of Jim Fosgate-designed Dolby Pro Logic II in mass-market receivers and processors has done much to bring the benefits of well-implemented matrix enhancement to a wider audience, and the deeply ingrained two-channel paradigm has finally started to loosen its grip.
During the New Technologies Forum, Dolby Laboratories’ Craig Eggers described how his company’s new enhancement, Pro Logic IIx, extends the algorithm beyond its original 5-channel limit to support up to 7 speakers, in keeping with the trend in home theater systems to utilize both side and rear surrounds. Afterwards, I asked Eggers if any other changes or improvements had been introduced in the new version. As in turned out, some unadvertised running changes have been made to improve performance, including a tweaked Center Width parameter to better position centered vocals, and modified Panorama control for tighter integration of front and surround speakers. These modifications were incorporated in the PL IIx and the 5-speaker PL II variant, both of which will be included in new receivers and surround processors. Like every Dolby representative I’ve spoken with on the subject, Eggers agreed that the six-channel option supporting a psychoacoustically flawed singe rear center speaker configuration was driven by marketing necessity.
Although Circle Surround matrix technology from SRS Labs does not enjoy the same ubiquitous market penetration as Dolby Pro Logic in its various incarnations, the company has made some headway with the introduction of its Circle Surround VST Pro. A plug-in for VST-powered software applications, the package offers both encode and decode capabilities, allowing delivery of up to 6.1 channel surround over any stereo broadcast or storage media. The company claims that ESPN games are encoded for broadcast with its technology, giving a home-field advantage to the niche processors equipped with Circle Surround decoders (the process is robust enough to yield good results with alternative matrix decoders, representatives were quick to point out). In its demo room, as in previous years the company persisted in using a single center rear speaker, despite the well-documented front-back reversal problems that have prompted THX, Dolby and DTS to adopt dual rear speakers for their respective Surround EX and ES technologies, even when the same mono rear channel is fed to both rear speakers.
Even the quaint old medium of radio is due for a high-resolution audio makeover, if iBiquity Digital’s Joe D’Angelo has anything to say about it. The company is currently rolling out its new HD Radio technology, which transmits AM and FM digital audio and data alongside existing analog signals. Using 96kb streams, iBiquity says it can achieve CD sound quality on FM, and boost AM sound to FM standards. An additional 96kb can be used to deliver textual data (such as song titles, artist names, news, traffic updates, weather forecasts, and sports scores). Claiming that HD Radio has already signed up nearly 300 licensed stations in 37 states and 79 markets, D’Angelo said that planned enhancements to the technology will permit surround sound, time shifting, and multimedia services. Kenwood, Panasonic, JVC, and Onkyo have already announced HD Radio receiver and tuner products.
As multichannel SACD and DVD-Audio rely on more speakers placed throughout the critical listening environment, there is a correspondingly greater need to control the sonic influence of the room itself. As a result, Room Equalization to control anomalies resulting from each room’s unique boundaries, geometry and surfaces is fast emerging as the next technical frontier in home playback systems. However, the same need exists on the flip side, in the mixing studios, which, contrary to popular belief, are not always ideal acoustic environments.
To meet this need, JBL Professional has introduced a new line of Linear Spatial Reference (LSR) active studio monitors and subwoofers with built-in equalization to correct loudspeaker response at the mixer’s position. The LSR series was developed under JBL’s John Eargle, well known throughout the Pro Audio community for his many highly regarded recordings for Delos International. Unlike outboard room EQ approaches which typically rely on single-point on-axis measurements, JBL’s approach involves correlation of 72 “power response” measurements of the loudspeaker’s relative output summed over all directions, analyzing the room’s direct, reflected, and reverberant sound fields to expose resonances, poor dispersion, and other sources of off-axis coloration.
In addition to boundary compensation switches to control for placement relative to walls, each LSR Loudspeaker contains its own Room Mode Correction (RMC) module to deal with standing waves. Each LSR Loudspeaker must be corrected individually using JBL’s matching RMC Calibration Kit. The analysis kit contains a test CD with sine wave, pink noise, and one-tenth octave warble tone test signals, a hand-held sound level meter, a template for measuring the Q (width) of response peaks, and a tool for entering equalization settings directly into the monitor’s electronics. The RMC unit and kit are self-contained – no access to a PC is required, making the system easy to set up in any new environment. A handy A/B comparator switch on the sound meter allowed Eargle to demonstrate the impressive benefits of RMC – in the acoustically challenged 24” × 29” conference room, a decent-sounding jazz combo recording suddenly achieved dramatically more clarity and definition at all frequencies when RMC removed all boominess from the bass response.
John Eargle – Click for a Larger ImageDuring his demo, Eargle showed how RMC targets the most critical enemy of flat frequency response – room modes in the 26-96Hz region. RMC is specifically designed to control peaks rather than dips, Eargle explained, since even if a dip is bad, it can usually be alleviated by moving furniture. Based on the audible results, the LSR series’ built-in room EQ capably meets its goal of smooth low frequency response at the listening position without reliance acoustical room treatments. Which means our multichannel SACD and DVD-Audio recordings are that much more likely to arrive in our homes free of colorations and anomalies introduced in the mixing environment. All that’s left is to equip home playback systems with comparable room EQ capability – a feature that is starting to appear on more and more high-end consumer gear.
Perhaps the consumer environment that lends itself best to surround sound is the automobile, with its captive audience and fixed listening positions. The introduction of surround car playback systems continues apace with Panasonic’s ELS Surround Sound System, a true multichannel system developed in collaboration with sound engineer emeritus Elliott Scheiner. Initially deployed in the $32,500 Acura TL, it’s not exactly a mass-market option, but if it gets drivers to spend less time on their cell phones, it just might be a good thing for all of us.
Jeff Talmadge of Denon had some interesting news about forthcoming upgrades and new products. Soon to be released is an upgrade to the current top of the line receiver, the AVR-5803. The upgrade will add Dolby Pro Logic IIx in all three modes, movie, music and game. Dolby Pro Logic IIx builds upon Pro Logic II by adding support for 6.1- or 7.1- channel output. The AVR-5803 upgrade will also add HDCD decoding.
Even more exciting is the next upgrade to the 5803, for which no release date is yet available. This upgrade will add the necessary hardware and software for passing DSD (SACD content) via the company’s proprietary Denonlink interface. Further details are not yet finalised but are subject to agreement by all necessary parties. If approved the upgrade will be made available for the DVD-5900 and the AVR-5803. Jeff expected that more details would be available at CES 2004.
Even further into next year Denon plans to release a replacement for the AVR-5803. Specifications and further details are not yet available. Jeff was also unable to say whether improvements in the new receiver would be available for the AVR-5803 as the design and layout of the new product has not yet been finalised.