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FEATURE

 

BLUFFER’S GUIDE TO DVD

 

Age?

About six months, if you count back to when the major consumer electronics companies announced they had agreed on a common technical standard.

 

But what does it stand for?

We were afraid you’d ask that. Rarely has a consumer product gone through so many name-changes. Generically it’s always been known as the digital video disc, but it began life as two rival technologies: Toshiba’s SD-CD (super density CD) and Sony/Philips MMCD (multi-media CD). At one time, following the initial truce, it was going to be called just SD, then everyone sort of agreed on DVD, but decided that it would stand for digital versatile disc.

 

What’s the ‘versatile’ bit mean?

That’s a concession to the PC industry, who have got a big stake in the format as a carrier for computer software, multimedia and interactive games. DVD will almost certainly take over from CD-ROM in a couple of years, and their support is seen as crucial for the format’s survival.

 

What will DVD do for me?

You can get a two-hour movie on a single disc, with five CD quality soundtracks, (plus one lo-fi track for sound effects). Picture quality is excellent, and discs should be cheap to produce.

 

So when can I go out and buy one?

Tricky one that. A couple of companies have sort of promised to launch home players before Christmas, but it’s all looking a bit iffy. Spring/Summer 97 is looking far more likely for an industry-wide roll-out.

 

Why’s that?

Well, assuming some players did make it into the shops this year there’s the small problem of not having anything to play on them, though to be fair we should point out that DVD decks will be backwards compatible with audio CD. But as far as actual DVD software is concerned, there’s still some sorting out to be done over things like regional coding.

 

Sounds nasty?

It is, and it will prevent you buying the latest blockbuster movie on your next US holiday, and playing it on your DVD machine at home. It’s Hollywood getting heavy, combating piracy, protecting territories, enforcing movie release dates, that sort of thing.

 

How much is all this going to cost?

Target prices of £500 have been bandied about for the players, and several companies have hinted that discs shouldn’t cost any more than current releases on tape; our best guess it that early releases will be priced between £15 to £40, depending on the title.

 

Is this the end of VHS and LaserDisc? 

It’s certainly won’t help LaserDisc sales, and it’s probably going to see off CD-i and Video CD as well. VHS is safe for a good while yet, recordable DVD is on the cards but still  several years off.

 

GETTING STARTED -- SURROUND SOUND TVs

Large screen home cinema TVs have been around a lot longer than many people suppose. Americans have had them for years and on this side of the pond Philips launched their Matchline series of stereo TVs back in the early 1980s, that was ten years before the start of NICAM broadcasting! Sony’s Profeel component system goes way back as well, to the late seventies, so Toshiba’s claims to have invented home cinema are open to debate. Nevertheless they were the first television manufacturer to launch TVs with built-in Dolby Surround decoders, with the 2505DB and 2805DB, that reached the UK in late 1990.

 

Toshiba were well ahead of the game even then; the home cinema concept and surround sound televisions didn’t really start to catch on in this country until 1993. By that time simpler 3-channel Dolby Surround decoders were being superseded by more advanced 4-channel Pro Logic (DPL) processors.  Hitachi were the first onto the market with a DPL TV; Toshiba quickly responded, and then the floodgates opened. At the beginning of 1994 there were just the two models on the market, by the end of that year there were twenty DPL sets from eight manufacturers! Now there are almost fifty Dolby Pro Logic TVs from a dozen manufacturers to choose from, with prices starting at less than £700, rising to more than £3000, and screen sizes ranging from 25-inches to 33-inches, including widescreen models.

 

Until recently they all had one thing in common, wired outboard speakers for the rear effects channel. That’s not a problem for home cinema enthusiasts, early adopters and first kids on the block, but it has proved to be a stumbling block for a lot of other television buyers. The British public tends to be somewhat conservative in their attitude towards this kind of technology; hell, it’s us taken 20 years to wean ourselves away from wood-effect TV cabinets. The point is, extra speaker boxes and trailing wires around the living room are regarded with suspicion and alarm.

 

The first company to recognise that fact, and do something about it, were JVC. They developed the 3D Phonic range of TVs, purporting to create a surround sound effect, but without any extra speakers . There’s now three 4:3 models, (AV-21SX1, 25SX1 and 29SX1), with 21, 25 and 29-inch screens, costing £550, £700 and £900 respectively; two widescreen sets (AV-28WX1EK, £1000 and AV-32WX1EK, £TBA), are due out in the next few months

 

They all have on-board DPL decoders, but no rear channel speaker outputs. Instead the effects information is incorporated into the front and centre channels, using a variety of psychoacoustical tricks. This produces a remarkably wide soundstage, that appears to come from some distance either side of the TVs speakers. It’s not true surround-sound, at least not in the accepted sense, but it is quite effective and a good compromise, for those unwilling or unable to install extra speakers. In case they change their mind the option does exist, and these sets have a line-level rear output, that can be fed to a pair of active speakers, or a separate stereo amplifier and speakers.

 

Hitachi have taken a slightly different tack with its CT2548TN and CT2848TN home cinema TVs, selling for £750 and £850. Like the JVC models they have built in DPL decoders, but they’re not supplied with rear channel speakers (there is a speaker output). However, for an extra £120 you can buy a pair of infra-red cordless speakers, that do not have to be physically connected to the TV. Rear channel information is beamed from the set, to the speakers, which have their own on-board amplifiers. They’re not completely ‘wireless’ though, and they do have to be within reach of a mains socket.

 

Sharp, who recently announced a new range of 21, 25 and 29-inch DPL TVs, is hedging its bets with a new ‘surround sound’ technology called SRS or sound retrieval system. This also uses the TV’s own speakers to create a wide dynamic soundfield. This time there’s no actual Dolby Processing involved, though the SRS decoder works in a similar way to the old 3-channel Dolby Surround system. They’re launching three SRS TVs in the coming months, the 21-inch 51-CS05H will cost £430, there’s a 25-inch model (59-CS05H) for £530, and a 28-inch set (66-CS05H) selling for £630.

 

This new generation of ‘surround sound’ TVs, without rear channel speakers, has been selling well. We can lok forward to more of the same, but no matter how good they sound there is no substitute for a properly configured back channel, coming from speakers located behind the listening position. Unfortunately, quite a few DPL TVs that come with rear channel speakers, are underpowered, or the speakers themselves are so small that they have limited impact. It’s important to try before you buy, preferably in a listening room or environment that’s similar to the one it will be used in. Before you do, also acquaint yourself with Dolby Pro Logic surround sound from a mini system, or hi-fi separates, you might be surprised by the differences, and reflect on the true cost of one-box convenience...  

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1996 0808

 

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