Tuesday, 18 November 2008

I Have a Dream

I enjoy watching movies. Some appeal to my intellect, but the ones I truly enjoy the most are the ones that make me feel as if I’m taken off this world and into the film’s world for the duration of the film; the ones where the suspension of disbelief is working so well as to truly suspend my disbelief.
One of the most effective way to suspend one’s disbelief is to trick one’s senses into thinking that the imaginary world of the film one’s watching is real. Films try to achieve that using their visuals and their sound; in my opinion, and as some research indicates too, it is the sound that is responsible for 80% of the immersion experience.
I am an audiophile who likes watching films. My dream was to be able to watch films the closest way possible to the way they were originally made. For years I have been trying to achieve this dream and for years I was denied.

Let’s have a look at the history of film sound. I won’t go all the way back; I’ll start in the early nineties.
By the early nineties digital sound, in the form of music CDs, was firmly established. The question then became how to introduce digital sound to the cinemas. What was clear is that the cinema digital sound has to be multichannel sound, given that cinema audiences have enjoyed Dolby Stereo sound since the original Star Wars. Several companies rose to the challenge, some more successful than others. Of these, Dolby was again the most dominant.
The problem that Dolby and their competitors had to contend with is where to store the digital soundtrack’s information. Dolby chose to be creative: Its Dolby Digital soundtrack is applied on a thin magnetic layer that is positioned in small sprocket perforation holes at the side of the cinema’s projection film. Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with cinema film, but there’s not much room in there between those holes; as a result, Dolby Digital has had to be a very bandwidth limited sound format, simply because there wasn’t much room to put much information on the film.
In order to cope with the inability to store much information on film, Dolby came up with a lossy compression method. “Lossy” means that the compression actually loses information is it goes about compressing the sound; it’s information that is deemed the least vital to the listening experience, but the more least vital info you take away the less inspiring the overall sound is. Dolby thus ended up with a system that was effective but also a far cry from the original soundtrack master’s sound.
The second most dominant company when it comes up to movie theater sound experience is DTS (Digital Theater Systems). Their solution for the same problem was different to Dolby's: They chose to put synchronization information on tiny magnetic tags added to the film's side, whereas the soundtrack itself was playing off a separate CD-ROM. A CD-ROM contains much more bandwidth than the space between the film's perforations, so DTS could afford to have a significantly less lossy compression than Dolby. A DTS movie soundtrack is still heavily compressed, though, and still suffers significantly when compared to the original master.

That was the early nineties. By the mid nineties a new kid came into town, the DVD, and the question then became what sound format would be used in order to store movie soundtracks on DVDs given that the format lacked the capacity to host the full blown master.
Both Dolby and DTS came along with their existing offerings from the world of cinema playback, and pretty quickly Dolby got themselves as the mandatory soundtrack format for DVDs (with DTS being a noted optional). Thus we've ended up with a system that has been designed to serve cinema theaters on DVDs instead, despite this system being designed with the cinema theaters' limitations in mind and despite these limitations not really applying to DVDs. The fact of the matter is that with the architecture of the Dolby Digital system being the way it is, Dolby were not able to come up with a system that would utilize the extra bandwidth offered by DVDs; we all had to contend with extra compression we didn't need to contend with.
Dolby still continued to claim that extra compression doesn't matter, at least in articles they published in audiophile magazines such as Widescreen Review and Stereophile. I disagreed with them: I did not have the opportunity to listen to Dolby Digital or DTS live but I did listen to the Sony Minidisc format. It had lesser compression than Dolby Digital but still didn't sound great when compared to the CD version, the same way an MP3 version pales in comparison to the CD version nowadays; Dolby truly had to come up with a miracle to be able to achieve more than Sony could.
In 1994 I wrote Stereophile a letter expressing these concerns. The letter was published and then addressed in an editorial which earned the response of Dolby's then chief technical person (whose name, if I'm not mistaken, was Roger Drexler). Luckily for me, my mother threw my copy of the magazine away so by now I lack the proof this has ever happened...
Essentially, Dolby's claim was that all the bleeding hearts should shut up and listen. A few years later I did, and since then my opinion is fairly firm: Dolby Digital sound is good, but it's far from being truly good; listen to it on its own without a picture to distract you and you will notice that the sound does suck. Big time.

A lot has happened as years went by.
To one extent or another, Drexler was right: Dolby Digital sound was good enough for most occasions, or good enough for me to be happy with it on most occasions. Not all occasions, though, especially when not when reproducing music where the difference can be clearly heard as opposed to when reproducing movie sound effects to which it is much harder to relate.
New sound formats promising much but delivering little came and went. SACD and DVD Audio are the most notorious ones, completely failing the market for a multitude of reasons.
With me losing interest over time in favour of bigger and better things, interest waned.

Now, however, there are finally signs of an impending sunrise.
With advances in technology, computing power and storage facilities we now have on our hands two sound formats that kick ass, as in – two sound formats that can deliver the exact thing the recording studio recorded in the first place. Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD are both new formats that can deliver a non lossy eight channel soundtrack recorded in 96kHz and 24 bits. Compare these figures to the measly CD format, the usual benchmark: a CD features just two channels recorded in 48kHz sampling frequency and 16 bits.
For the record, the 96 vs. 48 and the 26 vs. 16 may sound like meaningless waste on paper but they’re not when implemented in real life. For example, and without getting into too much detail, the filter installed on all CD players in order to remove the sampling noise you get just above 20kHz (due to it being half of the 48kHz sampling rate) doesn’t just block the sound you don’t want to hear or can’t hear, it also has an effect – a marginal yet noticeable – effect on the music.
To me, the promise of 8 channels of pure perfection is the stuff of dreams.

The problem, however, turns into the equipment to be used in order to provide this HD sound at home.
The reality is that there are but a few receivers that can play these new HD formats and even fewer that would do it properly (and even fewer high end components that would do it at all; I am only aware of one). A lot of the problems are to do with the need to support a new and advanced format of HDMI, which is currently the only way to transfer the high bandwidth that a high definition picture and the HD sound formats require. Luckily for me, I happen to own one of those receivers. Well, it wasn’t luck at all; it was calculated dream fulfilment.
Then there is the matter of media, which is a particularly hurting point. The world of high definition media capable of carrying the new HD sound formats has had to endure a format war between HD-DVD and Blu-ray, at the end of which the lesser of the formats (Blu-ray) won the day. It wasn’t its superior capacity that won it, it was pure politics, but never mind.
The trouble with Blu-ray, or at least one of the troubles with Blu-ray, was that the competition made the manufacturers release their players to the market long before the Blu-ray standard was finalized and long before the hardware was ready. Sony managed to get away with it with its PlayStation 3, mainly because that unit’s processing power is so strong they were able to routinely release firmware updates to keep it up to speed. The reality is, however, that most Blu-ray players purchased so far are incapable of delivering everything the format was meant to deliver, with downloadable content from the internet being the most notable one.
It’s not only that, though. The media was suffering with most movie releases lacking the much coveted HD sound formats and settling for something far too close to what DVDs offer. The players themselves have been suffering from illnesses that caused them to deliver poor performance, most notably the first Samsung Blu-ray player (which happened to be the first ever Blu-ray player) that had such a badly implemented filter it was outgunned by DVD players. Then there is the copy protection and the overall high sophistication of the players, which cause severely long waiting periods on viewers whenever they switch the players on, try (emphasis on “try”) to play a disc, pause, or do whatever it is you do with the movies that you watch; anything you do comes with very long reaction times, and often the players just choose to get stuck.
And then there is the players’ price.

Things do seem to get a move on, though. Blu-ray players adhering to the latest standard (referred to as BD-Live or 2.0) are now out. The manufacturers, especially Sony, have realized no one is jumping on the bandwagon, so prices have been coming down.
And now we have ourselves, at last, a Blu-ray player that seems to be a winner. The Sony BDPS350 will do the HD sound formats when connected via HDMI, and it’s available now at the shops at "buy me before Christmas" prices: Harvey Norman sells it for $394, and JB Hi Fi sell it for $391 but will reduce it to $375 if you ask them nicely.
I suspect it is just a question of time before I surrender and get me one of these. Now I know that just a few months ago I have said on these very pages that I do not see myself getting into Blu-ray and that the future is in downloads and not in optical discs. However, things have changed: Blu-ray got better and cheaper, and I got much closer to the holy grail through the acquisition of a new receiver. Too close for comfort, I argue.
Don’t take me wrong: I have no intention of buying even a single Blu-ray disc; but I wouldn't argue against the ability to play rental discs at $2 a pop.

It feels like a déjà vu, but I have a dream.

1 comment:

Moshe Reuveni said...

Looks like my dream is not as close to fulfilment as I thought it is. You really have to read the fine print with Blu-ray players, because often they will come up with the unexpected (like only managing Dolby TrueHD in stereo as opposed to full blown 7.1 or 5.1).
The fine print about the Sony BDPS350 is that it won't deal with DTS HD. I don't know how much of an issue this is; it's probably not such a big one as Dolby TrueHD will probably be the more dominant technology. But why should I invest so much money in a limited player?
The alternative is to get the more upmarket Blu-ray player, the BDPS550. This one offers DTS HD handling as well as one gig memory for BD Live applications (that is, downloading stuff from the internet); on the cheaper player you need to use a USB stick. However, the BDPS550 costs $200, pushing it over the $500 mark and into the "much too expensive" realm (USB sticks are way cheaper!). At that price the Blu-ray player to get is the Sony Playstation 3 anyway: for $700 you get all the capabilities plus a nice gaming machine. Or do you? Read the fine print!