‘Riding with the King’ is an album about harmony and synergy between two different but yet extremely similar artists, friends and contemporaries B.B. King and Eric Clapton. It’s an album that allows the listener to experience the bonds that tie them together and understand just how much respect both artists have for one another.
As with all DVD-Audio titles, the music is available in several different formats to enable compatibility with all DVD players and in turn afford varying degrees of definition. We’ve got standard PCM stereo, multi-channel Dolby Digital and DTS for the DVD-Video crowd while for the DVD-Audio glitterati, the disc boasts a dedicated 96kHz 24-bit two-channel mix and multi-channel in the form of 96kHz 24-bit Meridian Lossless Packing. It’s the highest resolution surround mix and requires the use of a DVD player specifically designed to play DVD-Audio discs.
The fairest way to review this album is to start with the “lowest” definition PCM stereo option (albeit a loss-less format), but even here the two performers are well defined at opposite ends of the “virtual” studio that the mix creates for the listener and throughout their performance, the soundstage is never compromised by an obvious lack of fidelity. That statement must be qualified however, for when you listen to the same recording in surround via Dolby Digital, you find that nuisances that are subtle, and almost felt rather than heard, become far more noticeable. The extremes of the disc’s dynamic range, which are somewhat compromised on the PCM track become clearer and add a far greater three-dimensional quality to the music. This is of course in part due to the use of the surround speakers, albeit not as effectively as in the DTS variant, which is also multi-channel as one would expect.
It must be noted that while the idea of surround sound to accentuate placement and sound staging can be extremely powerful, it can also rob a recording of its identity if not carefully crafted. Luckily, neither of the multi-channel formats falls into that seemingly common trap.
The Dolby Digital version of track three, ‘Key to the Highway’, begins with guitars played to an exceptional standard by both B.B. King and Eric Clapton and the 448kb/s track enables the listener to almost visualize the strings themselves and the vibrations they are forming. The lifelike quality of the guitars is startling and while it sparkles in PCM, it shines brightly in Dolby Digital.
The 1509.75kb/s DTS track takes full advantage of its (supposedly) higher resolution abilities to allow the ambiance of the room to become much more pronounced. On the title track, ‘Riding with the King’, the listener becomes a part of the rich tapestry of sounds and images. The midrange is clear and the exceptional bass extension afforded by the format makes the experience all the more satisfying. I should quickly point out that the low-frequency component is not overdone as is the case with many recordings, but is an integral part of the music rather than simply giving one the sense of driving in a car with the stereo turned up full blast.
If your impression of the album thus far into this review is that it is worth owning, then you will be even more excited to learn that the MLP track, the highest resolution version, only improves upon what has gone before. It must be noted that not all albums benefit from increased resolution, the listener can become acutely aware of flaws in the performance, the recording or the recording technique, but not here.
The DVD-Audio two-channel 96kHz 24-bit mix is best appreciated by listening to it, rather than by reading about it. Once again the title track, ‘Riding with the King’ provides an interesting insight; unlike the DTS track which appears to rely heavily on the surround speakers to convey a sense of presence and space, the DVD-Audio two-channel version is able to achieve this same result from just two loudspeakers.
And then we come to the icing on the cake, the MLP multi-channel track, which provides an outstanding example of what can be achieved when a great performance is recorded using high resolution techniques and delivered by one of today’s state-of-the-art consumer formats. In this iteration, ‘Riding with the King’ uses the surround speakers to achieve the ultimate goal of home reproduction, namely the blurring of the line between recorded material and a live performance.
Another good example comes by way of the album’s eighth track, ‘Worried Life Blues’. Through the use of the higher fidelity recording and the playback enhancements afforded by the surround speakers, the listening experience becomes less about a good recording and more about a great performance. Close your eyes and your listening room is transformed into a recording studio where the performers are positioned all around you.
This DVD-Audio version of ‘Riding with the King’ is, in short, a magnificent example of what can be done not only with the use of today’s ‘high fidelity’ playback technology, but is also a fine example of precision recording techniques. It’s an album that would be worth owning on the merits of the musical content alone, but the DVD even contains additional material in the form of notes, pictures and miscellaneous material that makes this DVD-Audio disc a worthy purchase.
One final point before I conclude; unless you possess a DVD-Audio player that can be configured to behave like a DVD-Video machine, you’re unlikely to be able to access all of the available sound options (the chances are neither Dolby Digital nor DTS can be selected). This is a common trait amongst many discs, but not a great loss given the superiority of the DVD-Audio layer’s content.
It should be obvious from the preceding text that this album is a truly exceptional example of what can be produced using modern playback formats and recording technologies. Not only does the album provide amazing fidelity but wonderful supplementary material as well. The album is so impressive that during the Home Entertainment Show in New York City one of the major stereo equipment manufacturers used it as demonstration material during their presentation. Need I say more?