Monday, August 27, 2007

Dolby Digital, DVD-Audio, SACD and the sad decline of 5.1 audio content

I mentioned earlier in the week that I have a pretty strong audio fetish for 5.1 mixes of albums. I think that the technology adds an immense amount to the music by offering a more immersive mix, a new perspective on the tracks, and in some cases even completely different arrangements. The format is not without its champions: Flaming Lips have made it a mainstay of their past 3 releases, David Bowie has released recent albums (Heathen, Reality) as well as some reissues in 5.1, the Talking Heads box-set was remastered in 5.1, and a large portion of back catalogs for the Stones, Elton John, and Bob Dylan have also gotten the treatment. However, the format's popularity has been continually declining since its inception, and I am continually disheartened as I watch the surround format offerings at music retailers dwindle by the week.

The 5.1 (that's 5 "true" channels + subwoofer) audio format realizes itself in a number of ways: There's Dolby Digital, which is playable in any DVD player, and offers 5.1 channels of audio compressed into a single PCM audio stream. Then there's DVD-Audio, which uses the DVD's capacity to offer 6 channels of uncompressed PCM audio, and is playable in DVD-Audio compatible players. Finally, there's SACD,which does the same (uncompressed, 6 channels), but in SACD compatible players. These multiple formats are more telling than anything else about the launch failure of the format: the hardware requirements, complexity, and different offerings made the adoption by consumers extremely low. Then there's the issue of artists not even knowing which format to support: the Flaming Lips releases are consistently on DVD-Audio, while the Stones and Dylan are both SACD. Elton John has released in both the DVD-Audio and SACD format, while Bowie has released his discs in DVD-Audio, SACD, and exclusive Dolby Digital mixes.

As can be seen, the format is in what might be considered a bit of a confused state, and it's hurting because of it. Artists, studios, and most importantly fans, are giving up on surround audio. I guess that's what this post is really about: To implore those readers who haven't explored it to give it a shot. You will be amazed to see the depth and excitement that the new mix brings to the music, and perhaps the added niche support will help to maintain the release of exciting surround content. There is lots of surround audio catalog to explore, not to mention new releases coming out (albeit under the radar) weekly. As recently as last year, Liars released Drums Not Dead with a full surround mix of the album included, and Pet Sounds saw a surround remix for its 40th anniversary. This year's Flaming Lips live album UFO's At The Zoo got the surround treatment, as did their video compilation VOID. Even the Beatles got in on the act with the release of their inter-group mashup Love.

Whenever I see people sit down to listen to surround albums like these, the reaction is often one of excitement, exhilaration, and wide eyed bafflement at the format's dynamic personality. It's an experience all its own, and one I couldn't recommend more highly.

For more information on surround audio releases, check out High Fidelity Review. (I have no affiliation with the site, it just seems to be the best place to track surround stuff down on the web.)


Mike - said...

You are very, very right about the amazing experience 5.1 music is. And listening to the high resolution formats of DVD Audio or SACD is like taking cotton out of your ears. I am astounded at how significantly better it sounds!

I'll play friends Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody on CD, or songs from Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and then pop in the DVD Audio counterpart. People are are just amazed at the difference.

It's so sad, because there are all these tapes of truly superb recordings stored away in vaults, and very few people have ever gotten to hear them in all their glory.

Elton Hohn's Honky Cheatau is one of the best sounding titles I've heard.