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Editorial - January, 1996

By John E. Johnson, Jr.


Well, we attended the 1996 Winter Consumer Electronic Show (WCES) in Las Vegas, held the first week in January. There were lots of new preamps, amps, speakers, and so on, but I know you are all interested in DVD, so let's talk about that first.

Please note: all photos in this editorial are hyperlinked to give you a closer look. Also, the size of the larger photo is indicated.

We saw three DVD players:

The Sony The Toshiba The Pioneer

Sony had a wonderful demo set up, not only for their DVD players, but also to show their Plasmatron flat panel TV displays, and their new digital VCR (photo at left).

For the DVD demo, Sony used "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Speed". They demonstrated that the player could switch between wide screen and Pan and Scan, to suit viewers' preferences. We could not really see how well this feature worked because the demo was done on a wide screen (16:9) TV rather than a standard 4:3 set. We were only able to get about 10 feet away from the monitor, so any motion artifacts were not readily visible. However, the picture looked excellent from that distance . . . as good as anything (except HDTV) that I have ever seen. They also showed that, when using a DVD that is dual layered, switch from layer one to layer two is seamless, and it is indeed. I could not see any flicker at all. The outputs of the DVD player will include composite video (the single RCA video jack output we are used to having already) and S-Video (carries chroma and luminance on separate conductors), along with direct digital output (and/or six decoded analog jacks to be fed to five discrete audio inputs on a receiver, and subwoofer) for the audio. High end players should also have component video outputs, consisting of separate RGB (Red, Green, Blue) jacks and a sync (synchronization) jack (usable on good front projection TVs and possibly on computer monitors with these connectors). DVD is capable of delivering progressive line scanning images at 625 scanning lines (thus, no line doubler would be necessary). Our typical home NTSC TVs will convert (degrade) this image to an interlaced one at 525 lines. PAL/SECAM will use 625. TVs (in a reasonable price range) capable of displaying progressive line scanning apparently are in the works. They also demonstrated the AC-3 sound that accompanies the video from the DVD, but it was so loud ("Speed"), I could not really evaluate it. But it is AC-3, and probably the same quality as that from laserdisc.

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DVD has the following specifications, compared with standard CD:

Disc Diameter 120 mm 120 mm
Disc Thickness 1.2 mm 1.2 mm
Disc Structure Single Substrate Two bonded 0.6 mm substrates
Laser Wavelength 780 nm 650 and 635 nm
Numerical Aperture 0.45 0.60
Track Pitch 1.6 um 0.74 um
Shortest pit/land length 0.83 um 0.4 um
Reference Speed 1.2 m/sec, CLV 4.0 m/sec, CLV
Data Layers 1 1 or 2
Data Capacity 680 megabytes Single layer: 4.7 gigabytes
    Double layer: 8.5 gigabytes

DVD can have up to 8 languages, each with the AC-3 soundtrack, and 32 sets of subtitles. Thus, if the original film is in English, the movie can be dubbed in 7 other languages, each with its own AC-3 sound track. However, for a single sided, single layered disc, for 133 minutes of movie, there can be only 3 sets of sound tracks (each with a different language) and 4 sets of subtitles. The sound track will be either AC-3 OR standard two channel PCM for Dolby Pro Logic. If the movie is longer than 133 minutes, or if more languages and subtitles are used, then a dual layer disc is required. The formula to calculate the required disc space is as follows: Picture complexity (average) 3.5 megabits/sec + number of languages X 0.384 megabits/sec + number of subtitled languages X 0.01 megabits/sec = required bits for one second X 60 sec/min = number of bits required for one minute of audio/video X movie run in minutes = total number of bits required for the movie, divided by 8 = number of bytes required for the movie. Are you still with me so far? There will be a quiz in 133 minutes.

Pioneer showed a unit that is capable of playing not only DVD, but laserdiscs as well. I imagine this will be quite popular. Their demo allowed me to get a few inches away from the monitor (again, a 16:9), and I was able to discern a motion artifact. It occurred at the edges of a young lady's hand when she moved it across the screen rapidly.

Overall, I was quite impressed with DVD. It appears to be very flexible, and has an excellent picture quality. They quoted about 500 lines of horizontal resolution (vertical lines on the monitor). It will play standard CDs as well as DVD. The Digital VCR will record AC-3 sound tracks, and there is a plan to release movies on digital video tape. We were told by Toshiba that their initial DVD players will be $599 and $699 (the more expensive model has RGB outputs). We should see them in the fall of this year. It will be nice to have Ben Hur all on one side (dual layer) of one disc. Dozens of movies on DVD are scheduled to be released at the same time as the players. A caveat here is that DVD at the WCES was a series of finely tuned professional demonstrations using prototypical players, and we don't know how that will translate to the actual product that we get to take home with us eight months from now. Time will tell if what we saw in Las Vegas is what we get later.

One thing that bothers me about all this is that HDTV and high density CDs (probably 96 kHz sampling, 20 - 24 bit word length) are only about two years away . . . how long have we been hearing that? (HDTV broadcasts in North America are scheduled for late 1997.) I wish the manufacturers would just wait and make DVD and digital VCRs (digital camcorders are already available to consumers) at HDTV capability (720 lines of horizontal resolution x 1280 lines - scanning lines - of vertical resolution) and DVD able to play high density audio CDs to begin with. I heard some discussion about adaptability, but it is unclear how this occurs, i.e., you buy a new DVD player, digital VCR, and digital camcorder that have HDTV performance chips in them, or replace some chips in existing units. From all that I can ascertain from the manufacturers, DVD players will not be forward compatible since the standards for the new technology have not been engraved in stone. I guess they figure that it will be a considerable time before HDTV monitors and high density audio CD players are in a significant number of homes, so they are building the digital units to work on what we have now, namely NTSC and PAL/SECAM TVs, and standard CDs. A large number of companies are making the various products, and they want our consumer dollars now, not in years down the road. If you look at it from a practical standpoint, here is what might happen. DVD and digital VCRs are released in 1996. We buy them. HDTV broadcasts and HDTVs are available in late 1997, perhaps along with high density CD players. Consumers start buying them, but not at the pace of DVD. By the year 1999, HDTVs are in enough homes that HDTV broadcasts are expanded. The year 2000 comes, and we are ready to buy a new DVD player that will also handle HDTV and High Density Audio CDs, and maybe a new digital VCR too. Voila, HDTV DVD players, and HDTV VCRs hit the market. If we haven't bought an HDTV yet, we do it then, and the HDTV DVD, and the HDTV VCR, maybe not all at once, but perhaps over a period of a year or so. (If I am completely wrong about these predictions, I'll sneak back in here and modify the dates in the archived file.)

DTS Coherent Acoustics is quite alive and well. They showed a DTS outboard decoder that receives data from the digital output (either the coax or optical, and they prefer to use the optical) of laserdisc players. What is nice here is that even older players, as long as they have a digital output jack, can be used for DTS encoded laserdiscs. Also, if you just bought an AC-3 laserdisc player, you are all set for DTS too (assuming it has a digital out jack). The data take up what would have been the two digital sound tracks, so if you don't have a DTS decoder, but have Pro Logic, you just switch to the analog tracks on your laserdisc player. (DTS and AC-3 won't be on the same laserdiscs.) Apollo 13 is one of the first DTS laserdiscs to be released (Jurassic Park too, I think). Others will follow shortly. If DTS is popular, I would imagine that Dolby Pro Logic/AC-3/DTS receivers will hit the dealers' shelves in a reasonable number of models, and laserdiscs will continue to be released, instead of being wiped out by DVD (, are you listening?) Of course, this is all still in the "decoder chips being made available (the Motorola chip can do AC-3 and DTS decoding)" stage, so we'll see what happens.

Bob Carver with the new sub driver.

Moving on to other, perhaps more mundane, yet still interesting equipment shown at the WCES, we found some cool new subwoofers by Sunfire and Velodyne. The Sunfire uses a piston driven by an amplifier of several thousand watts (yes you read that right). It is a radically new design (do we expect anything else from Bob?), and it thunders beyond belief. It moves as much air as four 15" drivers. All in about a 12" cube, and selling for $999. Available soon. (That's Bob on the left, holding the driver.) The Velodyne (shown on the right) is a modification of the F series, plays a few dB louder, and uses a metal cone. The amplifier is programmable so that if you have, say, a 35 Hz peak in your listening room, you can attenuate the sub at that frequency. Price should be about $200 more than the standard F series. Available soon.

We met with Mo Iqbal and Ross Ginn, of Monitor Audio speakers. They showed us a new driver design (shown on the left) that incorporates a special curved cone. It will be used in some speaker models but not others (not the Studio 20 SE or Studio 50, for example).

Numerous companies showed new AV receivers/preamplifiers. Some will be AC-3 compatible with processors coming later this year.

Of course, there were plenty of new CD drives and DACs, including some slick units from Thorens and Polyfusion Audio, in the mucho kilobuck range.

Thorens Polyfusion Audio

Bruce Edgar showed his latest modification of the Edgarhorn, at $9,000 the pair. Horn speakers are very sensitive, and this particular design was so sensitive (107 dB/w/m) that room filling volume was heard at about 1 watt of power amp input per channel. This makes them ideal for low wattage class A, single ended tube amps.

Several Electrostatic speakers were shown. What turned out to be one of the most impressive sound setups at the show consisted of Sound Lab A-1 full range electrostatics ($13,250/pair) powered by Fourier Panthere Tube OTL (Output TransformerLess - no output transformers) amplifiers ($9,950). Amrita Audio showed a very tall (about 6 feet) set of oak veneer speakers at $3,000/pair. They are backordered, needless to say. On the home theater range, Mirage speakers just blew us away with their AC-3 demo using Mirage bipolar subs all the way around. This further convinced me that multi-sub configurations will be popular with AC-3 (and DTS).

On the video side, Audio Alchemy showed a prototype of an outboard comb filter that will sell for $599. It has chip sockets for future capabilities regarding ghost reduction and line doubling. And, as I mentioned above, the Sony Plasmatron flat panel TV displays were shown. They have progressive line scan (note comments about DVD progressive line scan capability above). Awesome image quality.

That's it for WCES, 1996. Sorry, we don't have bandwidth for more photos, but I wanted to focus on what I knew you were waiting to hear about (DVD). More extensive show reports for you to look at will be published in the paper trade magazines later on, I'm sure.

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The Editor's Choice Hi-Fi Kit for Volume 3, Number 1, 1996 is as follows (in the last issue, it was a home theater setup; in this issue it is a stereo audio system):

Input Source: McCormack SST-1 CD Transport and DAC-1
Interconnects to preamp: Nordost Red Dawn
Preamp: Audio Electronic Supply Pure Class A, Single Ended Tube Triode
Interconnects to Power Amps: Nordost Red Dawn
Power Amps: White Audio B-80 MOSFET Push Pull Monoblocks, 80 watts/ch
Speaker Cables: AudioQuest Argent (softer high end) or Nordost Red Dawn (crisp high end)
Speakers: Monitor Audio Studio 20 SE (received our 5 star award)

This kit represents many, many hours of listening and fine tuning, and we feel it is a combination that produces breathtaking sonic performance where you can truly "listen to the music" and stop worrying about the equipment that is reproducing it.

John E. Johnson Jr.

Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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