DTS: A Singular Experience

By Paul Cordingley

    I would like to relate to the readers of Michael D's site my very recent and profound experience with DTS. I am so moved by what I have heard that I want to share with you the excitement of a format that will become increasingly familiar to us all in Region 4 DVD land, and one which not only challenges Dolby Digital, but Linear PCM encoding of audio as well, both on DVD and Compact Disc.

    First, a little primer. DTS stands for Digital Theatre Systems, and since 1993 with the theatrical launch of Jurassic Park in DTS, it has become one of two popular formats, alongside Dolby Digital. Dolby Digital strives for compactness above all, and in fact the Dolby Digital bitstream is optically encoded between the sprocket holes on the film itself, alongside the optical analogue track. That is no small feat, and to meet that requirement, severe compression is used to encode 5.1 channels into a bitstream typically operating at a paltry 384 Kilobits per second. DTS audio, on the other hand, is provided on compact disc, and synced with the film via time-coding encoded on the film print. This removes the physical space restriction, and allows DTS to operate in the megabit per second territory. DTS is touted as being "transparent" to the original 6 track uncompressed master recordings. Both Dolby Digital and DTS provide excellent cinematic surround sound experiences, and in truth I don't really care how the audio is encoded when I go to the cinema. At home, things are somewhat different.

    Recently, I replaced my trusted and much loved Panasonic A350 DVD player with the new A360. Don't worry - the A350 has found a good home with my parents, and I will be able to visit it from time to time. I was eminently happy with the A350, but this new baby does something which was until recently unheard of, literally. Not content with passing the DTS bitstream onto an external decoder, it decodes Dolby Digital and DTS internally, and provides 6-channel analogue outputs. It does this for a retail price of less than $1,000. Brilliant. So, now I was DTS enabled, so to speak, but since I absolutely refuse to buy R1 discs out of hatred for NTSC, I haven't got any DTS DVDs to play, nor will I have until R4 has them, which is imminent.

    It is a little-advertised fact that very recently, more and more CDs are being pressed with DTS 5.1 audio on them, instead of the conventional Linear PCM. Now, you can't play these CDs in a normal CD player. Rather, any CD player with a digital output will pass on the bitstream, thinking it is Linear PCM, and an external DTS decoder will process that DTS bitstream and play it. The only place I have found in Australia which sells these CDs is the excellent EzyDVD on-line store. You will find a big "DTS Digital Surround" banner in the middle of the page, and you will find within a surprising number of DTS 5.1 encoded CDs for sale, ranging from classic 70s quad recordings such as Wings: Band On The Run (completely redone, of course) to brand new recordings designed with multi-channel audio in mind from the outset, such as Alan Parson's On Air. I ordered Every Breath You Take, which is a compilation of The Police's greatest hits, one of my favourite bands. A couple of days later it was in my hot little hands, and I nervously placed it in the Panasonic A360 and prayed, not really knowing how it would react, if at all. As it spun the CD, its indicator lights progressed normally, and the display read "DTS CD." Yippee! It worked! Surely enough, it sat there, waiting for me to press play. And I did.

    What happened from then will go down in memory for me as a crossing of a threshold. I listened to familiar songs, such as Roxanne, Walking On The Moon and Every Breath You Take, and heard them as never before. I am well-familiar with all of the songs on this disc, or at least I thought I was. Firstly, Roxanne. The CD sounds pretty good, being quite airy and with good clarity. It is a simple song, but one which has always been a favourite of mine. This DTS version took my breath away. Sting's vocals sound as if a veil has been removed - the clarity and detail in his voice is remarkable. There is incredible spaciousness to the mix, with his vocals being centre speaker, and the reverb filling out the rear of the room from the surrounds. It is as if he is floating in the room. The cymbals and high-hats on the standard CD are quite harsh, but here they are sweet, being intricately detailed and delicate. I knew from this song that DTS was an experience I had read much on, but can only be known by listening. I was hooked.

    Walking On The Moon opened up, being cluttered on CD. Here, it was free to fill the room, no longer constrained to a two speaker cage. The crystal clarity of Sting's vocals were not impeached by other instruments fighting for room. Rather, instruments are placed around the room, each having their own unique space. The detail in the bass guitar was astonishing, and again it was as if the bassist had walked out of the mix and into the room, it was that clear. The sibilance problems of the high-hats were gone, and clear, perfectly defined cymbals sparkled in the room, again with their own space to play in. It was a similar story throughout the album. Tight, well defined bass. Crystal clear vocals. Perfect high-hats and cymbals. Not only that, but there is fun to be had with this new format. Backing vocals are literally behind you, or to the side. Many vocals are discretely placed, and during Don't Stand So Close To Me, Sting's voice can be heard moving around the room with a precision which I didn't think was possible, at least not with my relatively humble setup. Listening to this album was exciting, and as chills went down my spine during Wrapped Around Your Finger, I wished for more. I know I will play the heck out of this album, and I am anxious to listen to many of the other albums currently available.

    My old CDs now sound boring, dull and lifeless. Funnily enough, they used to sound very good before - so much for the promise of perfect audio, forever! Whilst in truth, listening to one DTS album cannot a fair comparison make, it is clear to me that the future of audio reproduction in the home has reached a turning point. It is now multi-channel and whether it be DTS, Sony's ill-conceived SACD or the luxuriously specified DVD-Audio, I say...bring it on!

© Paul Cordingley
10th June 2000