For those of us who enjoy concert performances on video, Blu-ray Disc is a revelation. The format delivers lossless high-resolution multichannel audio, which in itself is cause for celebration after more than ten years of living with the sonic limitations of Dolby Digital. And then there’s the 1080p high-definition video, which is simply sensational when viewed on a 1080p video display. But what really makes Blu-ray so compelling is the synergy between the stunning sound quality and fabulous picture.
Blu-ray’s capabilities were vividly apparent with Sony’s STR-DA5300ES AV receiver ($1700) and BDP-S2000ES Blu-ray Disc player ($1300). This system delivered an experience far beyond what’s possible from DVD on both music and movies. I’ll focus on the format’s appeal to the audiophile, as well as offer some general observations on the new high-res lossless surround-sound formats, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.
The STR-DA5300ES is Sony’s top-of-the-line receiver, and bears the “ES” (Elevated Standard) mark reserved for the company’s best efforts. The STR is one of the first of a new breed of AV electronics to offer decoding of the new audio formats, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, and DTS-HD Master Audio. Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio deliver high-res multichannel audio with lossless coding, meaning that the high-res bitstream in your home is identical to that of the master. (See sidebar for details of the new audio formats.)
The STR-DA5300ES connects to the BDP-S2000ES Blu-ray player through an HDMI 1.3 cable. The long-awaited HDMI 1.3 interface carries 1080p video along with high-res multichannel digital audio. Decoding of Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, DTS-HD, and DTS-HD Master Audio takes place in the STR-DA5300ES. HDMI 1.3 will also carry uncompressed eight-channel PCM-encoded audio data, found on some Blu-ray movie titles.
If you currently have a receiver or AV controller with a discrete six-channel analog input (or a multichannel preamplifier), you can still enjoy Blu-ray’s advantages; the BDP-S2000ES also decodes these new audio formats (except DTS-HD Master Audio) and outputs a 5.1-channel analog signal on six RCA jacks. In fact, I used the BDP-S2000ES in this way, feeding an Arcam AV9 controller from the player’s analog jacks and my Sony VPL-VW50 1080p projector via HDMI. Connecting the BDP-S2000ES to the STR-DA5300ES with a single HDMI cable is, however, vastly simpler than multiple analog connections plus an HDMI connection for the video. Die-hard two-channel enthusiasts aren’t left out; the BDP-S2000ES can downmix the high-resolution Dolby TrueHD audio signal (or any other multichannel signal except DTS-HD Master Audio) to a stereo analog signal. The player will also downmix multichannel signals to a stereo SPDIF signal on coaxial or TosLink jacks for decoding by an outboard D/A converter.
The STR-DA5300ES is by far the most sophisticated AVR I’ve reviewed. In addition to decoding the new audio formats, the unit sports a port for an optional iPod dock. While many AVRs offer an iPod dock, the STR displays the iPod’s playlists, artist, and track information on its on-screen display. You can also stream digital audio wirelessly from a PC to the STR-DA5300ES via an optional network client. Other features include automatic calibration (speaker sizes, distances, height, and channel levels), as well as automatic equalization. You can bypass all signal-processing and multichannel functions by pressing the 2-channel-direct button. Power output is rated at 120Wpc across all seven amplifier channels in stereo mode. The unit is loaded with other features and capabilities too numerous to detail here. Check Sony’s Web site for the specifics.
The BDP-S2000ES is Sony’s top-of-the-line Blu-ray player and is beautifully built. The unit features a reinforced, vibration-resistant chassis, a shielded drive bay, and separate boards for audio and video. If you use the BDP-S2000ES with your existing gear (that is, using the player’s analog outputs rather than an HDMI 1.3 connection), you’ll be listening to the player’s digital-to-analog converters and analog-output stages. This is one reason why it’s probably worth the extra money for the BDP-S2000ES over Sony’s entry-level Blu-ray players; in my experience, the ES-designated products sound considerably better than those in Sony’s standard (non-ES) line.
The STR-DA5300ES and BDP-S2000ES feature Sony’s Bravia Theatre Sync, which enables one-touch control over the entire system when used with a Sony television equipped with Bravia Theatre Sync.
After unpacking the STR-DA5300ES and looking at the 149-page instruction manual, I had a moment of regret that I took on this project. I’ve reviewed dozens of AVRs, and setting them up and going through the learning curve can be a nightmare. Today’s AVRs are so loaded with features and quirks that even someone with decades of experience can easily become frustrated. What’s more, the user interface of AVRs is universally poor.
But, to my great surprise, the STR-DA5300ES was different. The user interface has been completely rethought. It even has a special name: “Xross Media Bar.” This icon-based on-screen display is a revelation, making control over the receiver simple and intuitive. This isn’t an incremental improvement in the user interfaces you’ve seen before, but a ground-up overhaul. Having struggled with AVR and controller user interfaces for the past decade, I found the Xross Media Bar an absolute joy—something I never thought I’d say about an AVR’s user interface. You have to see the Xross Media Bar in operation to appreciate what an advance it is.
I connected the STR-DA5300ES to my reference loudspeaker system, a pair of Magico V3s in the left and right positions, a Wilson WATCH center channel, four Revel Embrace surround speakers, and a pair of JL Audio Fathom f113 subwoofers. I evaluated it with the BDP-S2000ES as the source, as well as with my reference digital-playback gear. I also assessed the BDP-S2000ES’ sound quality by connecting it to my reference electronics (BAT Rex preamp, Arcam AV9 controller, Mark Levinson No.433 amplifier). Cabling with the STR-DA5300ES was Kimber 8TC all around, and I used Monster Cable’s top-end HDMI cables throughout the system.
The STR-DA5300ES had no problem driving this system to satisfying playback levels. With the loudspeakers set to “Small” in the set-up menu (rolling off the bass to the main loudspeakers at 80Hz), the STR sounded like a powerhouse. With the Sony receiver driving the Magico pair full-range, the sound stayed clean, dynamic, and composed. On loud film soundtracks, the STR-DA5300ES kept its cool at any sane listening level. The STR had solid bass extension and good soundstaging, with a tonal balance that was a little tipped up toward the bright side—a common trait of AVRs.
I used the terrific Blu-ray Disc Legends of Jazz Showcase to compare Dolby Digital with Dolby TrueHD (the audio format is selectable from the disc’s menu). The disc, a compilation of performances for the eponymous television series, was recorded in an acoustically treated studio before a live audience with top-end Neumann and AKG microphones. If you like jazz, this disc is Exhibit A in the case for Blu-ray and Dolby TrueHD.
Not surprisingly, TrueHD sounded considerably better than Dolby Digital in nearly every area of sonic performance. Overall, TrueHD was more open, detailed, and lifelike, with much more natural timbres. By comparison, Dolby Digital sounded flat, hard, and constricted. I had the impression that Dolby Digital presented just the “surface” of an instrument’s timbre, while TrueHD rendered more “depth” of timbre. That is, Dolby Digital didn’t resolve the nuances or tone color that give an instrument a sense of body. A perfect example is Chick Corea’s magnificently recorded Steinway on his classic unaccompanied composition “Armando’s Rhumba.” In comparison with TrueHD, the Dolby Digital track made the piano sound thin, bright, hard, and lacking in body—almost like a toy piano. On the TrueHD soundtrack, the piano’s richness and warmth returned, and along with it, much greater expression of Corea’s musical intent. (I wish someone would release a Blu-ray of Corea’s entire performance rather than just the one track on this sampler.)
The track on Legends of Jazz Showcase by flutist Dave Valentin exemplified TrueHD’s vastly better performance on music rich with transient detail. Switching from Dolby Digital to TrueHD made the high-energy Latin percussion jump to life. The Dolby Digital track rendered the percussion as merely pops of transient energy; the TrueHD version revealed the full measure of each instrument’s dynamic envelope, better portrayed the mechanism by which sounds were created by resolving far more low-level information, and surrounded the instruments with some air and space. The percussion went from flat, dull, and lifeless to vibrant and energetic. Although the sonic gap between Dolby Digital and TrueHD was significant, the difference in musicality with TrueHD was even greater than what one might anticipate from the sound-quality difference. Blu-ray Disc is a stunningly great format for enjoying concert performances at home.
I had only one disc (Nature’s Journey) with DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS’ high-resolution, multichannel lossless format. Although the sound quality was spectacular, it was hard to judge the format because the instrumentation was virtually all synthesized. Nonetheless, because both Dolby Digital TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio deliver perfect bit-for-bit accuracy to the source, I would expect them to sound the same.
This was my first opportunity to compare the sound of digital audio transmitted over HDMI with the same bitstream carried over a coaxial interface. I connected a digital coaxial cable from the BDP-S2000ES to the STR-DA5300ES, and simply switched between the inputs with familiar CDs as the source. (HDMI 1.3 will also carry two-channel PCM data.) High-end equipment designers who had experimented with HDMI reported to me that the interface introduces audible degradation. In fact, an engineer from Arcam told me that the company doesn’t implement the audio aspects of HDMI because the sonic degradation is unacceptable. After listening for myself, I can see why. The HDMI connection sounded thinner, brighter, and harder, and had a strange, almost “phasey” character in the midrange. I noticed this only with two-channel material in direct comparison with the coax interface. When listening to Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio through HDMI, I didn’t hear these sonic shortcomings.
Finally, I evaluated the BDP-S2000ES through its analog outputs into my reference system. If you want to get into Blu-ray and use your existing (non-HDMI 1.3) equipment, you can use the BDP-S2000ES in one of two ways. First, if you have a multichannel controller with a six-channel discrete analog input, connect the BDP with six analog RCA cables. You’ll hear high-resolution multichannel audio from Dolby TrueHD. In the second method, as I mentioned earlier, the Blu-ray player downmixes the multichannel signal to stereo for connection to a two-channel preamplifier. In these configurations, the BDP-S2000S was outstanding; the player’s D/A converters were quite good, with excellent depth, space, and resolution. The Sony’s tonal balance was a bit brighter than the Cambridge 840C ($1600, CD-only), but not excessively so.
I had one glitch with the BDP-S2000ES. After a couple of weeks it started flashing colors and patterns when I was navigating the menus, and it took the player a long time to respond to commands.
Blu-ray Disc is a stunningly great format for enjoying concert performances at home. In fact, the sound and picture quality exceeded expectations, delivering a rich and immersive experience. The only caveat is the limited availability of music titles. That situation should change, however, now that HD DVD has been withdrawn from the market and Blu-ray is the standard for HD packaged media. I expect to see a flood of new titles now that the format war is over.
I’ve focussed on the audiophile aspects of Blu-ray and the STR-DA5300ES and BDP-S2000ES, but the format and these two products also deliver a movie experience that leaves DVD in the dust. With more than 400 movie titles available in Blu-ray, you might find that reason enough to take the plunge.
Once you experience lossless high-resolution multichannel audio mated to 1080p HD video, you’ll be spoiled for anything less.
The New Audio Formats
Blu-ray Disc’s vastly greater storage capacity and maximum bit-rate (how fast data can be pulled off the disc) have paved the way for striking new audio formats that don’t rely on massive data compression. The DVD format was limited to Dolby Digital and DTS (and uncompressed PCM 48kHz/16-bit stereo audio on some music titles), whose sound quality was significantly inferior to that of CD. It’s worth noting that Dolby Digital has a data rate of 384kbps on most DVDs (448kbps on others) for 5.1 channels, or about 64kbps per channel on average—the same as low-quality MP3. (To be fair, Dolby Digital’s 384kbps can be allocated to the channels that most need it, increasing the performance potential beyond a fixed 64kbps per channel.)1
The new audio formats don’t just offer CD-quality audio—they leapfrog today’s standards to deliver full high-resolution, multichannel digital audio. The Blu-ray spec gives content-producers the option of including perfectly lossless high-res digital audio on the disc in the form of Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. Dolby TrueHD delivers perfect bit-for-bit accuracy to the source, but consumes about half the data of uncompressed coding. (Dolby TrueHD is based on Meridian Lossless Packing [MLP] developed for the DVD-Audio format; Dolby acquired the technology from Meridian Audio.)
Dolby TrueHD on Blu-ray has a maximum data rate of 24Mbps—more than sixty times the data rate of the Dolby Digital tracks typically found on DVD. This allows Blu-ray Disc to deliver 7.1 channels of 192kHz/24-bit audio to your listening room with bit-for-bit fidelity to the source master. This is, needless to say, a dramatic advance in video and sound quality.
Although I expect most concert videos to employ the optional Dolby TrueHD format, content-providers can opt for the Dolby Digital Plus format. Dolby Digital Plus is a significant improvement over Dolby Digital, but is still a “lossy” format. Dolby Digital Plus has a maximum data rate of 6Mbps, still a whopping 16 times the data-rate of Dolby Digital. In addition, the encoding algorithms have reportedly been improved, resulting in better sound quality even when used at relatively lower bit-rates.
DTS has developed its own high-resolution formats for Blu-ray Disc. The new DTS-HD format is a parallel of Dolby Digital Plus, offering 7.1 channels with bit-rates up to 6Mbps on Blu-ray. DTS’ lossless high-res format is DTS-HD Master Audio, with the “Master Audio” label designating lossless delivery. DTS-HD Master Audio has a maximum bit rate of 24Mbps on Blu-ray Disc.
It’s important to note that these new audio formats are backward-compatible with the 40-million-plus Dolby Digital decoders in the world. If you use a Blu-ray player with a controller or AVR that lacks the ability to decode these new formats, you simply connect the Blu-ray player to the controller or AVR through the familiar coaxial or TosLink jacks. The Blu-ray player will downconvert the new format to a Dolby Digital datastream at 640kbps (an improvement over the 384kbps typically used on DVD). Of course, you won’t realize the full benefits of the new audio formats, but the sound will be better than what’s possible from DVD.
Finally, the Blu-ray Disc specification contains a provision for an audio-only disc that can deliver eight channels of uncompressed high-resolution PCM with sampling rates up to 192kHz and word lengths as long as 24 bits. So far, the music industry has shown no interest in creating the next-generation optical music carrier.