Big Picture Big Sound

DTS-HD Master Audio Finally Hits the Mainstream

By Chris Boylan

Earlier this month, in a swank New York penthouse apartment, DTS invited a few of their closest friends (plus the usual crew of journalists, analysts and hangers-on) to celebrate the official arrival of their new lossless audio codec, DTS-HD Master Audio. And if that doesn't mean anything to you, well it should, because with DTS-HD Master Audio, you can hear exactly what was laid down in the movie or music studio - up to 7.1 channels of sound encoded at 96KHz with 24 bits of precision - right in the comfort of your own home.

DTS-HD Master Audio is an optional sound format on both Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD. But until now, it has been difficult to actually hear DTS-HD Master Audio at home as very few players of either format include native decoding, nor was it previously possible to pass the sound digitally to a receiver or surround sound processor for decoding, due to its relatively high bandwidth. But all that has changed with the advent of HDMI version 1.3 and the latest generation of HD-DVD players, Blu-ray Disc players and surround sound receivers from companies such as Samsung, Sharp, Toshiba, Panasonic, Onkyo, Integra, Yamaha, Pioneer and others. These new players and receivers can actually extract all those digital bits from a shiny silver disc and turn them into heavenly music (or movie sounds, as the case may be).

Audiophiles around the country rejoice as a new light illuminates on their receivers!

In a "real world" demo, the DTS crew were spinning DTS-HD Master Audio tracks on a Toshiba HD-A35 HD-DVD player and a Samsung BDP-1400 Blu-ray Disc player with its firmware upgraded to pass the digital bitstream to a compatible receiver. In this case, that compatible receiver was a Yamaha model RX-V3800, capable of decoding DTS-HD Master Audio (and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio) from an HDMI 1.3 digital bitstream. For speakers, DTS chose powered Genelec studio monitors (seven of them) along with a powered Genelec subwoofer. Total system cost came in under $7,500, including the LG Flat Panel HDTV, speakers and all electronics.

Tracks were ones I'd seen and heard before at trade shows, some great sounding material from Peter Gabriel, Pat Metheny and Omar Hakim, plus movie cuts from "Ice Age: The Meltdown" and "Fantastic Four." What was different this time was that I was hearing it on off-the-shelf components, not prototype players or computer-based decoders. A little while later I popped the same demo disc into a new Panasonic Blu-ray player we have in for review, and finally saw that "DTS-HD MSTR" light up on our Integra DTR-7.8 receiver.

Ah nothing says "PARTY" like finger food, a fine Cabernet and 7.1-channel lossless surround sound.

In terms of sound quality, DTS-HD Master Audio is capable of incredibly detailed reproduction of original recordings, and the better the original recording, the better it will sound via DTS-HD. Like its competitor, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio uses a form of lossless compression which maintains the full resolution of the original recording, yet does so with less storage space (and lower transmission bandwidth), when compared to the original uncompressed PCM tracks.

These storage and bandwidth savings are quite important on both Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD which are currently limited to 50 GB and 30 GB per disc, respectively. Once you squeeze in a full 1080p video transfer, special features, commentary tracks, deleted scenes, documentaries and online interactive games, there isn't much room left for audio -- in many cases, a full uncompressed PCM audio track just won't fit. So if the content creators (e.g., film directors, record producers, etc.) want to deliver the best possible audio experience to go with the HD video, then lossless codecs such as DTS-HD Master Audio are an attractive option.

Samsung, Yamaha and Toshiba are among the first to support DTS-HD, but is that Toshiba HD-DVD player making a comment on current software availability perhaps?

The only drawback right now is the lack of available titles which exploit the new format. Although DTS-HD Master Audio has made its way onto a good number of HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs in Europe, only about 40 titles in the US market have gotten the DTS-HD Master Audio treatment (you can find a searchable list here). But now that the hardware is available to play it back, things can only get better. And let's hope they do, because DTS-HD Master Audio is something you just have to hear to believe.

What did you think?

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