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Home Entertainment Blog Archive

Brought to you by your friendly, opinionated, Home Entertainment and Technology writer, Stephen Dawson

Here I report, discuss, whinge or argue on matters related to high fidelity, home entertainment equipment and the discs and signals that feed them. Since this Blog is hand-coded (I like TextPad), there are no comments facilities. But feel free to email me at scdawson [at] hifi-writer.com. I will try to respond, either personally or by posting here emails I consider of interest. I shall assume that emails sent to me here can be freely posted by me unless you state otherwise.

This archive is for an uncertain period commencing Thursday, 21 August 2003

'RMS Power' -- an inappropriate term - Wednesday, 3 September 2003, 2:59 pm

Electronics professionals cringe when they see the terms 'RMS Power' or 'RMS watts' in publications. This new article explains why.

And now for the bad news: the rise of the Music DVD - Wednesday, 3 September 2003, 11:48 am

Warner Vision Australia has issued a press release on the growth of DVD sales in Australia. The good bit:

... the DVD industry booming at 102% compared to the previous year (by unit growth) ...

This year, the DVD software market will generate expected retail sales of $860.8 million making DVD the fastest growing product format the industry has ever seen.

Strong hardware sales underpin this growth. By the end of 2003 there will be over 3.7 million DVD players in Australian homes, which is 43% of the 7.51 million households in Australia. This is almost double the number from 2002 and a far cry from the 89,000 units at the end of 1999. Estimates are for a penetration rate of around 60% by the end of 2004.

Yippee ... lots of movie DVDs!

But here's the bad news:

Music DVD as a genre is on the up and up, with a growth rate of 204% for the same period, which is double the growth rate of the total DVD market ... Music DVD retail sales have grown from 6% in 2002 to 9.2% of the total market value for the same period.
The one saving piece of information about Music DVDs is that 'Music DVD is around 3-5% of the total DVD market in the US, UK, France & Germany.' That is, in the much bigger markets.

So why do I consider this bad news? Because I see it coming at the expense of DVD Audio and SACD.

Music DVDs are just DVD Video, except that they have concerts or video clips instead of movies. The sound is normally in Dolby Digital, sometimes in DTS and rarely in PCM. In other words, for most the sound quality is simply not as good as would be available from either DVD Audio or SACD.

The problem is that the main selling points of the high resolution formats is their sound quality, but the majority of buyers simply aren't interested in these subtle improvements over the CD. So CDs continue to sell strongly and if people want DVD, they want the value-added video content more than what DVD Audio or SACD have to offer (even though the former can have video as well). I suspect the market will sort itself out eventually with the CD remaining the primary audio-only format, and DVD Video being the value-added format. Likely studio material will find its way onto DVD Video, with the audio accompanied by music videos where available, or lyrics and photos where not. Hopefully one of the audio tracks will be at least 48kHz/16 bit PCM.

As for DVD Audio and SACD? They'll either remain specialty items with a very limited catalogue and distribution (when was the last time you saw either one in a major record store?), or they may die altogether.

CD Copy Protection Woes - Wednesday, 3 September 2003, 11:28 am

Ian writes:

I've just read your article on copy-protected CDs and I must say it was a very interesting read. I received the Robbie Williams album today but am having problems ripping the tracks to mp3. I have always used EAC for this purpose in the past but for some reason it won't recognise the Escapology album. I am using the same version as you (v0.9) but still the CD isn't detected. I can't get even get my DVD-writer to detect the CD at all in explorer but at least my Lite-On CD writer does (not in EAC though). I've tried CDEx to rip to wav first then to mp3 in EAC but I am getting errors for the first track (the others rip ok, well 2-13 with a partial cd rip on 14 doing the trick). Any ideas how I can either get track 1 to rip ok without errors or to get EAC to recognise my CD? Any info would be appreciated.
I should point out (with a suitably snooty tone of voice!) that my role here is not to encourage the breaching of copyright. But I am certainly interested in all these copy protection issues, and seeing where they work and where they fail is a matter definitely worth exploring.

The CD player As I mentioned in my article, one of my computers would not recognise the CD initially. This seems to be a function of the operating system, the CD-ROM (or whatever) drive's firmware and, perhaps, the BIOS within the computer itself. Possibly the firmware in your DVD burner has different standards for checking disc integrity than a typical CD-ROM drive.

Anyway, the work-around I used in that case was to simply insert the CD into the drive, close the door and wait. The AUTORUN.INF file in the root folder duly invoked PLAYER.EXE, also in the root folder, and the player application started. This seems to get the CD recognised before the firmware has a chance to start complaining. Once this was working Explorer was quite happy to display the files on the CD, and EAC was happy to extract the files.

If the PLAYER.EXE application doesn't start up, perhaps you need to check your system's setup. Have you disabled the automatic CD startup function in Windows? You will need to re-enable it if this is the case. Since PLAYER.EXE seems to be a version of Windows Media Player, check to make sure that Media Player works okay on your computer. Otherwise I'm at a loss.

Room deadening and CRT projectors - Tuesday, 2 September 2003, 9:28 am

Gary from Spectra Engineering in Western Australia writes:

An idea for your reader Dave would be to add some acoustic deading material to his sound room. This would cut the reflections and make the Bass sound field more even throughout. For example large heavy curtains work well. I have floor to ceiling carpet in the theatre (which looks better than it sounds) and a black acoustic absorbing ceiling which really does make a big improvement in this respect. What you then get is less boomy bass and a tighter more natural sound, abet at a softer volume, like running your speakers outside in the middle of a park.
You can certainly do massive amounts of tuning of the sound with acoustic treatments. Deadening material, though, tends to have a more significant affect upon the midrange and high frequencies than the bass. I use some deadening material: foam across the full back wall -- and it looks worse than it sounds!

From the amount of treatment in your room, it seems that you are enjoying 'direct field' sound from your speakers. That's where the sound you are hearing is almost all directly from the speakers, with very little reflection. There's a lot to be said for this, especially in a home theatre context. My preference is for speakers that tend to widely disperse the mid and high frequencies, particularly for stereo usage, so I have plenty of hard, but irregular surfaces in my listening space. The advantages for my way are greater ambience and stage depth with stereo. The advantages for your way are sharper between-speaker imaging, and greater detail (less smearing from time-delayed room reflections). Oh, and you ought to get a very accurate frequency response since there will be less uncertainty on how the different frequencies will be reflected within the room.

I heard that Plasma screens have a limited lifetime, much shorter than CRT TV screens, before they start to leak or degrade. Naturally, there is not much info on this.
Can you enlighten us?
That is what I hear as well. But I believe the lifetime is still up towards ten years, so the enthusiast will likely have replaced the screen well before this is an issue. As to leaking, I've never heard of it being a problem with respect to actually emitting noxious substances!

Precisely how long they will last though, is not really known since the oldest consumer Plasma displays are still just around five years old.

CRT projectors, it seems they are all being replaced by the inferior but brighter DLP projector. Apart from the ludicrously expensive (>$30K+++) "handmade" CRT projectors, what is there around now that is still manufactured new and worth considering?
You know, that's what I thought until a few months ago. But it turns out that Barco has at least one CRT model that sells in Australia for around $14,000 (ie. cheaper than the Mustang-based DLPs). I am expecting to receive one for review in the next week or two and will post my impressions when I have some.
DVD Menu Conveniences - Monday, 1 September 2003, 5:17 pm

The famous InstaPundit makes a valid point about the inconvenience of many DVDs:

The new Simpsons' [Third Season DVD box set] release has a selection that basically lets you play each disc from beginning to end, like a video tape, without having to deal with menus. That's a great idea, and all DVDs should have that option, easy to implement and up front. Or maybe all DVD players should have it.
Like him, I hate sitting through fancy menu build-ups. But unfortunately his DVD player solution won't work. There are two reasons. First, under the DVD Forum's licensing conditions, DVD players are supposed to honour User Operation Prohibitions. Sure, some player modifications allow these to be overcome, but all this achieves is allowing you to get to the main menu quicker, or jump straight to the program ... if you know where it is. And this last point is the major problem. How is the disc logically organised? The majority of DVDs have the movie in Title 1, but not all. Where there are multiple episodes of a TV show on a disc, they are each normally in their own Titles, but not necessarily starting at Title 1. Or they may be all in one Title with a further logical division. Some weird tricks can be pulled on DVDs, including putting program material into no Titles at all. Unfortunately, there's just no way a DVD player can take over the whole show, nice as that would be.
Plasma advice - Wednesday, 27 August 2003, 9:54 am

Neil writes:

... making sense of the plasma thing. We are getting conflicting messages from different hifi magazines. The last online review we found sang the praises of the Hitachi 32 pd3000. The size is right for our room. Any thoughts re plasma vs LCD?
I haven't looked at any of the Hitachi plasma displays. But I can give you a few hints. First, check the display's resolution. A lot of older plasmas use a resolution of 852 pixels across by 480 down, which means that for PAL you are getting less detail than the medium is capable of producing. You should look for a display that has a vertical resolution of at least 576 pixels, which usually means 768 or 1,024 depending on the panel manufacturer.

Second, look at the level of 'black' produced by the display. Some are a bit weak in this regard, with black being a dark grey, sometimes tinted slightly brown or green. Check it out at the store. Use a DVD with a night scene to ensure that you can see dark detail -- but there's a problem here because often the settings of TVs and panel displays are not adjusted to the best performance at the factory, and the shop may not want you fiddling with the controls. Still, if you're going to be spending around $10,000, I think you ought to insist that you be allowed to test out the display properly (or take your money elsewhere).

Other than that, most plasma displays are pretty good on colour and peak brightness (when the appropriate adjustments are made).

Regarding plasma vs LCD, this is a battle that has not yet, I think, been fully joined by LCD. The large LCD screens have only just hit the market and are priced rather higher than plasma. I am not an enthusiast for the smaller LCDs, because I think their colours (particularly blues) are a bit water-colourish. Still, I haven't reviewed a large one yet so perhaps they are better. LCDs are thought likely to have a longer life than plasma displays, but expect their prices to fall rapidly and their quality to improve sharply over the next few years, so this might not be a consideration.

I suspect that we are not that far from seeing full high definition (ie. 1,920 by 1,080 pixel) panel displays.

Room size and bass - Wednesday, 27 August 2003, 9:34 am

Dave from Cheltenham writes:

I came across a comment on an audio website recently that said something to the effect that a small room or a large room will reduce bass response from speakers. I have a pair of Tannoy Arden speakers (15" dual concentrics) in a large room, 4.5m W 11.5m L and 3.9m H and the bass response does seem to be rather less than in some other smaller spaces they've occupied in other houses. Are you able to shed any light on this for me
I haven't done any rigorous work on this issue, but I suspect that these kind of claims -- which have been around as long as I've been interested in the game (thirty-odd years) -- are overblown and somewhat of a misinterpretation of what happens.

In fact, unless one is outside or in a huge room (some kind of indoor stadium), the major problem with bass is a lumpy response due to constructive and destructive interference. The reason I say 'huge' becomes obvious when you consider the wavelengths of bass frequencies. At 20C, a 40 hertz tone has a wavelength of around 8.6 metres. At 20 hertz, it is 17.2 metres. At these kinds of frequencies the wave will have bounced from several surfaces before even producing a full cycle!

In most modern homes, even large dimensions in a listening room don't solve these problems because few have ceiling heights much more than 2.5 metres (although you have a wonderfully high ceiling, I see).

The bass performance of any speakers will vary according to the various dimensions which determine which frequencies are subject to destructive and constructive interference. The relevant dimensions are the distances between the major surfaces (walls, ceiling and floor), the distances between the speakers and the surfaces, and the distances between the listening position and the surfaces and speakers. The best bet is trying to make sure that none of those distances are whole multiples of any of the other distances ... but then we will be getting into multi-dimensional matrices to try to solve that one!

The other way to best achieve smooth bass response is to follow tradition and simply experiment. It is hard to change room dimensions, but try moving the speakers around, even by a few feet, and experiment with different listening locations.

CD emphasis calls for caution in ripping - Tuesday, 26 August 2003, 3:29 pm

Emphasised String Masterpieces There is a little-known feature of CDs called emphasis. This is primarily a noise and distortion reduction mechanism, provided for when CDs were first designed over twenty years ago. In short, the idea is that the engineer boosts the treble before laying down the digital data, while the CD player cuts this back once again for a flat frequency response.

Now CDs that actually use this facility are exceedingly rare. I've just checked a hundred or so of my own, none of which used emphasis, until I finally remembered which one did: String Masterpieces (Innovative Music Productions, PCD 802). I while back I needed to copy a track from this onto CD-R, but the quality of the transfer bothered me immensely. It sounded very harsh indeed.

That high frequency boost reaches to more than 10dB! So why didn't the CD player de-emphasise the treble? Because, silly me, I had digitally ripped the track and ripping copies the digital data as it is on the disc, ignoring the emphasis bit. Burn a new CD with the track and you get the high-treble-level of the music. Not nice.

A socially useful application of home entertainment technology - Monday, 25 August 2003, 9:21 am

While I have no doubt at all that my current line of work is far more socially useful than my previous employment as a government servant, I am still sometimes niggled by, what shall I say ... perhaps a lack of gravity in what I do. Sure, my aim is to guide people towards getting maximum value for their dollar in home entertainment equipment, but it isn't exactly saving the world, or even saving lives.

So it is somewhat heartening to read an article entitled CD Player Turned Into Bioassay Molecule Detection Instrument over at FuturePundit.com:

Scientists at the University of California at San Diego have adapted an inkjet printer and a CD player to make a scientific instrument that detects types of proteins molecules present in a solution ...

Compared to the $100,000 price tag for a fluorescent protein chip reader ... a CD player costs as little as $25.

Phase 2 of the Home Entertainment Dictionary complete - Sunday, 24 August 2003, 1:58 pm

Well, I've worked my way through the Dictionary of Home Entertainment, fixing up the silliest entries and richly cross-linking terms. So now I'm happy with it, but only as far as it goes.

Phase 3 will consist of adding the (gasp!) 76 additional terms I've thought of so far.

Phase 4 will consist of adding some small pictures.

Recording 96kHz, 24 bit PCM to DVD - Sunday, 24 August 2003, 10:33 am

I had this wonderful idea for an article, which I promptly put to the editor of Australian HI-FI and which he equally promptly accepted. The idea:

Obviously recording LPs to CDs is old-hat. But now that DVD burners for computers are coming down in price, I wonder if it might be interesting to do an LPs to DVDs piece. The idea is that you install a high quality sound card (something that supports 96kHz, 24 bit) and record at high resolution. Now I'm assuming that there is DVD burner software around that supports 96kHz, 24 bit LPCM audio. I'll look into that. But assuming there is, what do you think of the concept?

That might give LP lovers the best of both worlds. The convenience of digital discs and what ought to be pretty damn close to the sound of LPs.

Incidentally, it would have to be on a computer. All consumer DVD recorders use Dolby Digital 2.0.

There's only one problem. After making some enquiries, it seems that none of the software bundled with DVD burners, and none of the relatively affordable consumer-level DVD recording software, support 96/24. Some apparently support 48/16. Wow. Hardly better than CD's 44.1/16. There is super-expensive professional software, but this is unlikely to appeal to someone who only wants to archive a couple of dozen LPs, not become a DVD distributor.

If I have this all wrong, please hasten to let me know! Remember, the software would not need to manage the 96/24 recording. I would (indeed do) use other software for that. All it would need to do is be able to transfer a 96/24 WAV file, unaltered, to a DVD-R or DVD+R.

The Home Entertainment Dictionary improves a little - Friday, 22 August 2003, 8:20 pm

I've been doing a bit of work on the Dictionary of Home Entertainment. I've added a number of terms and definitions, filled all but one of the missing definitions, and enriched the internal links up to and including dither. In the process I've thought of no less than 26 more terms and definitions I'm going to have to add. Oh well.

Dithering? - Friday, 22 August 2003, 10:53 am

Dithering has two meanings. The first is what I've been doing lately, although I have submitted my latest Institute of Public Affairs Review column, plus a lengthy piece to Australian HI-FI on ... dithering. In this latter context dither is noise added to digital audio to reduce other problems. Being a true gentleman, Greg Borrowman, the editor of Australian HI-FI, has not only purchased this article but granted me permission to simultaneously post it here. For your edification. But do buy the magazine when it comes out. Aside from the graphics being more detailed in my piece, and it including my DVD reviews on Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, it will have lots of great stuff not written by me.