Toshiba SD-9200 DVD-Audio/Video player Page 4

I then tried a DVD-A of the Doors' L.A. Woman (Elektra 62612-9), one of the few titles currently available at the time of writing (February 2001). As you work through the disc's setup menu, you get a quirky little computer percussion ditty not unlike what you might get when loading a computer software program. Why is this necessary? Then there's a picture of the album cover, and after that a menu of choices: Surround Playlist, Stereo Playlist, Video, Bio, Credits. Don't, as I did, fail to peruse this, or the disc automatically goes into its default Play mode, which is surround; I was not real adept at figuring out the remote procedure to get back to this menu using the Enter button, and was greeted with a track list to scroll through rather than simple numerical track-by-track access.

Finally, however, I achieved my goal: two-channel playback of "Riders on the Storm." Whew. The DVD-A stereo mix was indisputably more holographic, extended, and dynamic than the garden-variety CD, particularly in how it fleshed out and centered Jim Morrison's vocals in their own acoustic space.

My experience of Natalie Merchant's Tigerlily DVD-A (Elektra 62570-9) was different. The opening menu simply listed tracks, offering no options for choosing between stereo and multichannel, and pressing the Audio button revealed that the disc was in 24/96 Analog 6ch mode. Was the downmix to stereo automatic? You got me. In any event, the CD of Tigerlily just wiped the floor with the DVD-A. The CD version of her hit song "Wonder" sounded like something a rock'n'roll fan would love: the drums had a taut, palpable bottom and crisp, natural attack, but sounded washed-out and opaque on the DVD-A; the bass was punchy, focused, and forceful on CD, amorphous and tubby on DVD-A; and while Merchant's chanting, Dylanesque vocals were nicely centered on CD, they tended to drift a bit on DVD-A.

Just to be clear: I am reacting to the software here, not the hardware, which had given as good as it got on the two-channel 24/96 DADs. Trouble is, who knows what you're getting with DVD-A?

I'm not sure I can draw many conclusions about DVD-A as a medium from this evaluation. The Toshiba SD-9200 performed admirably, and offered a good level of audiophile two-channel performance for the price; I trust that what it offers in the way of multichannel panache might put it over the top for some viewer-listeners, but I'll have to leave that conclusion to those colleagues of mine blessed with true surround-sound setups. And while the SD-9200 is a shade below the long-discontinued California Audio Labs CL-20 in terms of absolute resolution on both 24/96 DADs and CDs, I never felt shortchanged by its performance in the many hours I spent listening to it as my primary source.

As for the efficacy of DVD-Audio as a hi-rez two-channel audiophile format, there were moments when I thought I could really hear its potential. After A/B-ing the DVD-A and SACD versions of Dave's True Story's "Dear Miss Lucy," for example, the DVD-A seemed warmer and deeper, the SACD more open, transparent, and detailed—which suggests that each format, when fully fleshed out, has much to offer. Still, it's hard to say, for now, how far along DVD-A actually is.

But unlike SACD, it was hardly an intuitive experience to navigate DVD-A's varied disc menus and programs and doodads. I found frustrating in the extreme the format's apparent insistence on on-screen navigation and the absence of front-panel or remote features that might allow listeners to simply default the hardware and software so as to make things behave like a two-channel stereo system. The rollout of DVD-A seems aimed at something other than a pure listening experience, in my considered opinion.

I heard enough that was compelling in DVD-Audio to keep an open mind, but the idea that anything you might hear on a DVD-A (or SACD) is automatically going to sound superior to a CD is suspect. I agree with Jonathan Scull that perhaps the best-sounding track on Beyond CD: The Premiere DVD-Audio Sampler (Warner Music Group A 600) is the Béla Fleck bluegrass track, "Katmandu," which is not 24/96 but 24/48. And it's interesting to hear how much information an old analog mix can contain—such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Lucky Man." What this suggests, as I've written in "Quarter Notes," is that the ancient values of good room, good mikes, and good placement are still crucial, regardless of recording format.

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