HD Advisor Opus No. 96

Posted Fri Mar 4, 2011 at 10:45 AM PST by

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Answers by Joshua Zyber

Is Lossless Audio Mostly Hype?

Q: I'm having a difficult time getting to grips with these new audio formats. The hype led me to purchase a Panasonic BD85. (I'm using multi-channel analog out, not HDMI.) I'm running both analog (lossless) and digital (lossy) together. I can switch from one to the other, and I have to say there's not much in it, to be honest. I cannot believe my ears. Are these higher bandwidth legacy tracks really that good? Are there any Blu-rays that can clearly demonstrate the qualities of a lossless recording over a lossy compressed one? I sure would like to hear of it.

A: Honestly, you're going to get a variety of different answers to this question the more people you ask. Some will tell you that there's a mind-blowing, absolute night-and-day difference between the lossy audio used on DVD and the lossless audio used on Blu-ray. Others will tell you that they can't hear any difference at all. I'd venture that most people fall somewhere in between.

I've never pretended to be an audiophile. I came to the home theater hobby with an interest in video first, and learned about the audio side of things as I went. All I can give you is my perspective on the topic. You'll have to decide for yourself how much you agree with.

I tend to take a pragmatic approach to all home theater matters. Human hearing and our perception of audio quality is extremely subjective, much more so than vision or video quality. The way our brains process sound information is easily biased by Placebo Effect. Even a tiny difference in volume can be perceived as a significant difference in clarity, when it's really not. (Volume is not the same thing as quality.) Also, if you expect one piece of audio to sound better than another, your brain is more likely to interpret it according to that expectation. At the same time, the combination of factors that affect the sound quality in your home theater is enormously complex. One weak link in this chain can cause the whole thing to fall apart.

Here's what I believe: In most cases, yes, there is a perceptible improvement in audio quality with a lossless format like Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. How much of an improvement will depend on what you're listening to, the specific equipment you're using, how you've set it up, the acoustics of the room environment you're listening in, and your own perceptions, preferences, and biases. In most cases, I don't believe that there's a so-called "night-and-day" difference. The improvement is usually subtle.

It may be so subtle that attempting to directly compare two short audio clips isn't the best way to go about it. Human short-term memory for audio quality is ridiculously poor. By the time you've finished listening to one clip and cue up the next one, you've already lost most of the ability to remember exactly what you last heard. What I recommend instead is to listen to lossless audio long enough for the effect to "sink in." This may take longer than one movie, or two movies, or five or ten. But eventually, after you've conditioned yourself to get accustomed to lossless quality, jumping back to standard lossy DVD audio will sound noticeably weaker, thinner, and more fatiguing on the ears. You may not be able to pinpoint exactly what, but it will just feel like something is missing. Because it is.

With that said, to truly benefit from lossless audio quality, you need equipment that can actually deliver it to your ears with as much of the fidelity as is available in the source. This means more than just getting a Blu-ray player and plugging it in to a receiver that has lossless audio decoders. You also need quality speakers that can reproduce all the subtle distinctions in the signal. Even if the "TrueHD" icon lights up on your receiver's front panel, you're not getting the full quality available if your receiver is wired out to flimsy "Home Theater in a Box" off-brand speakers that you bought as a $50 package at Big Lots. (I'm not accusing you of doing this. I'm just making an example here.)

The quality of your speakers is the single greatest limiting factor in your home theater to the sound quality your ears will hear. Poor speakers will not be able to reproduce the difference between lossy and lossless audio signals. Conversely, the better the speakers you own, the better that everything will sound through them. If you don't have good speakers now, upgrading them will provide a much more immediate and tangible difference to every single thing you listen to than the difference between lossy and lossless compression codecs ever could.

To go with these good speakers, you also need a receiver or amplifier that can provide enough juice to power them effectively. You also need to properly calibrate these speakers and receiver with a sound level meter (or, at the very least, the auto-calibration tool that may have come with the receiver). You need to arrange the speakers in your room with the most effective angles and distances from each other and from your seating position. You need to dampen audio reflections and compensate for other acoustic issues in your room.

There are a great, great, great many things that need to be done to fully optimize your home theater for the best sound quality. And, once you've done all of them, you still need to expect that the difference between lossy and lossless audio is going to be subtle. Because, frankly, lossy DVD audio was never "bad." It's actually pretty good. It just so happens that lossless Blu-ray audio is better. Nonetheless, the difference between "good" and "better" is much smaller than the difference between "bad" and "good."

Oh, and did I mention that if you're over 30-years-old, you've already lost the ability to hear many of the audio frequencies that make up those subtle distinctions? That's something to ponder as well.

To sum up here: There's a whole lot of hype about lossless audio. Some of it is merited and some isn't. It's worth going to the effort to set up a proper lossless audio chain in your home theater, but try to set realistic expectations for how great a difference you'll notice right off the bat.

HD DVD Compatibility

Q: I bought a friend the HD DVD discs of the 'Sopranos' TV show. I found that she has a Toshiba projection TV and a Toshiba DVD video player. All we could get on the TV was the sound from the discs. I searched on the internet and got a lot of stuff about Blu-ray that was no help. What I want to know is if and how I can get her discs, player and TV to be compatible. Is this possible?

A: I'm amazed that you got the audio to play. It really surprises me that you got that far. Without knowing the model number of the Toshiba disc player being used, all I can do is give you some background and general information.

HD DVD was a high definition disc format developed by Toshiba as a competitor to Blu-ray. HD DVD discs can only be played on machines with the official "HD DVD" logo. (Note that there is no hyphen in "HD DVD.") The majority of HD DVD players were manufactured by Toshiba. However, this does not mean that all Toshiba DVD players are compatible with HD DVD discs. Only players specifically built for HD DVD will work. These were only manufactured from 2006 to 2008. As soon as Toshiba conceded defeat in the high definition format war in early 2008, the company discontinued all HD DVD player models and removed that functionality from all further machines.

If your friend has a standard DVD player without HD DVD capability, she will not be able to play these discs. If, by chance, she did happen to buy a real HD DVD player during the period they were available, the machine should be connected to the HDTV by either HDMI or Component Video cables. (HDMI is preferred.) The brand of television being connected to does not matter. Toshiba HD DVD players should work with any brand of HDTV.

The complete list of HD DVD player models can be found on this page.

Homework Assignment: You Be the Advisor

The HD Advisor knows many things, but he doesn't know everything. Some questions are best answered with a consensus of opinions from our readers. If you can help to answer the following question, please post your response in our forum thread linked at the end of this article. Your advice and opinions matter too!

Home Theater Energy Efficiency

Q: I have recently installed a Hitachi 42" LCD TV, PS3 Slim 120GB, Xbox 360 120GB, and a Pioneer 5.1 Surround Sound system into the spare room. As a result of me playing video games a few hours per night, my electricity bill has shot through the roof. My girlfriend is constantly telling me that I need to play less games and watch fewer Blu-rays in order to save money, but I really want to find another alternative to playing less if i can help it.

In an attempt to show that I am at least making an effort, I have noticed that my LCD TV has an "energy efficient mode" to apparently reduce power consumption. But I have noticed that when it's activated, the content on the screen becomes extremely dark. In some cases (i.e. 'Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem'), the film is almost unwatchable. Is this a case of just simply increasing the brightness / contrast levels on the TV, or will this reduce the quality of the image overall? Also, are there any other alternatives to saving energy that I may have missed to avoid tinkering with my TV picture settings?

JZ: I'll leave it to our other readers who may be more knowledgeable on the subject to address your question about alternative methods for conserving energy. What I will point out, however, is that the 'Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem' Blu-ray is already dark to the point of unwatchability. That's just the way the movie was made and the disc was mastered.

I'll also say that cranking up your Brightness and Contrast settings pretty much defeats the purpose of turning on an energy efficiency mode built into the TV, which primarily works to save energy by reducing light output. Whether you use the energy efficiency mode or not, I highly recommend that you purchase a video calibration disc and adjust your settings with the guidelines provided by that. If you haven't already done this, you probably had those Brightness and Contrast settings too high to begin with. (Most TVs are set to "Torch Mode" out of the box.)

Check back soon for another round of answers. Keep those questions coming.

Joshua Zyber's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.

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