Meridian Digital Theatre surround-sound music system Page 7

The real thing?
In order to hear what the Meridian 861 could do with discrete, albeit compressed, multichannel recordings, I quickly compiled a collection of Dolby Digital and DTS discs. Whenever possible, I also picked up the standard two-channel version. Insertion of a Dolby Digital or DTS disc automatically switches the 861 into the appropriate mode. Unfortunately, the switch into DTS from any other mode was usually accompanied by a few seconds of harsh transients, which should have been muted; each time, I had to hit the Repeat button to hear the beginning of the music. Playing a second DTS disc, or switching from DTS to any other format, was appropriately uneventful.

In every comparison of stereo and multichannel releases, it became apparent that the masterings for the two formats had resulted in different balances, thus rendering comparisons of limited value. Consistently, multichannel discs have an excess of bass, as if to appeal to an audience in need of cheap thrills. This can be cured, to a good degree, by opting for the DTS-Music or Pro Logic-THX alternative modes. The majority of DTS discs also wreaked havoc on instrument placements, as players and singers were scattered about the room, shattering any sense of ensemble and loudly shouting "This is multichannel!" This wasn't a total surprise, but I was disappointed that so many respected producers had fallen into that trap.

Most of the DTS recordings I obtained, including many of my favorite performances, were unlistenable. For example, I very much like Lyle Lovett's Joshua Judges Ruth, but aside from a few neat effects on "Church," the DTS version has singers and instruments popping up all over the room instead of playing together as an ensemble. The DTS release of Junior Wells' Come On In This House (Telarc CD-83395-DTS) has phenomenal impact and presence, but it, too, puts the listener in the center, with the players pulling at you from all directions. Very disconcerting! To this list could be added more than a dozen others, all of which suffer from this blatant abuse of multichannel's potential. What makes this especially disconcerting is that I rarely found a movie soundtrack, auditioned on my weekend home-theater setup, with these faults. The reason must be that the soundtrack has to make dramatic sense in terms of the action on the screen. Why can't music producers display the same sense?

Mercifully, there were exceptions, and playing those, the Meridian system gave me the chance to see the true potential of multichannel. With these discs, the performers stay together and stay put where they belong, whether on a concert stage, in a small clubroom, or even in a church. Going back to Delos's DVD Music Breakthrough, selecting the Dolby Digital program, and switching the 861 into Pro Logic, I finally achieved something close to what I'd hoped for. Litton/Dallas performing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was a marvelous experience. The somewhat distant aural space they occupy no longer had hard limits, and my listening room was no longer merely "looking into" the far end of the performing venue---it was that venue's far end. Even though the physical distance between us seemed no less, I felt more intimately related to the performers.

Another disc with multiple formats is Mickey Hart's Indoscrub DVD single. Both the Dolby Digital and DTS programs were more exciting and involving than the straight 24/96 stereo mix. This is probably a consequence of my not caring at all for the music, so clearly limned in the 24/96 mode, but I succumbed to the spatial, multidirectional manipulation of the other mixes. Can I choose between DD and DTS? Easily, given the tools of the 861 to tame the bass of the DTS mix so that its more explicit directionality could be enjoyed. The DD tracks were great too, but seemed less precise in all channels than the DTS.

I badmouthed one of Telarc's DTS efforts above, but the Ray Brown Trio's Summertime (Telarc CD-83430-DTS) is an example of DTS done right. The ensemble is up-front, as they are on the two-channel release, but now the window frame that limited the aural view is completely gone, and the listener is in the room with this trio-plus-one. I don't mean to suggest that the listener and performer are any closer, but that they now occupy the same ambient space. In a similar way, on the Yoel Levi/Atlanta performance of Holst's The Planets (Telarc CD-80466-DTS), there is no longer a lateral limit to the soundstage, even though the orchestra spans little more of it than on the conventional CD. Setting aside the sound-effects tracks and overly aggressive bass, Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops' The Big Picture (Telarc CD-80437-DTS) is a smashing example of how five-channel reproduction can bring the listener into the concert hall.

My three favorite multichannel experiences were with widely different music: the DMP Big Band's Big Band Potpourri (DMP/MAS CD-804), Sacred Feast from Gaudeamus (DMP/MAS CD-805), and Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic performing Tchaikovsky's Suite No.3 for Orchestra (DTS 51031-2). In each case, the depiction was of a group of performers in a characteristic and defined space that acoustically subsumed the listening room. In the DMP Big Band disc, the performers' chairs were arranged in a U with the mikes and the listener at the open end. Thus, the performers were arrayed from my immediate left, forward and around to my immediate right; I sat in the conductor's podium and reveled in the flavors of the instruments. On Gaudeamus, from Sacred Feast, the a cappella chorus is much more distant, but it is the reverberation of the chapel that engulfed me. How real and clear the chorus remained, as the echoes from sides and rear did not confuse their sound! The Tchaikovsky, drawn from recordings made in the Quadraphonic era of the 1970s, gives us Boult/LPO in a large hall. I seemed to be seated in about Row M, with the orchestra spread widely in front. I heard the hall around me, and felt that there was more space to the sides and behind than in front.

The Meridian system and these three discs showed that multichannel could significantly enhance the musical experience in the home. Was there a price for this? Sadly, yes. None of the Dolby Digital or DTS recordings seemed nearly as detailed and precise as their two-channel siblings. This is not surprising; both surround processes involve a loss of data compared to 16/44.1 stereo upsampled by the 861 to 16/88.2. The loss of resolution might account for the raucous effect of the improperly placed voices in the rear channels on many discs. It might also account for the fatigue I experienced even with the best of the surround/multichannel recordings.

Because I set up a parallel but much less ambitious multichannel system in my weekend home and heard the same disappointments, I can ascribe none of these faults to the 861. In fact, the Meridian system made the more convincing argument for the potential of multichannel by offering alternative modes of decoding and synthesis, and by permitting optimum setup configurations. Nonetheless, I usually listened to multichannel discs, of any format, only when I needed to critically audition multichannel. When listening to music, I chose the two-channel version. This disturbs me.

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