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DVD Audio

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The sound of the future was staring me in the face. It was also hovering behind me. But let’s backtrack for just a moment.

In the last few months, discerning fans of Natalie Merchant and the Doors may have noticed a new wrinkle in record stores: A ”DVD Audio” logo has surfaced on the cover of select copies of Tigerlily and L.A. Woman, respectively. The logo has nothing to do with movies; instead, it announces the start of the supposed next major leap in enhanced listening experiences.

Without getting overly technical about it, a DVD Audio disc aims to be to the CD what DVD video is to videotape: a new, improved version of the format, with lots of extra stuff. A DVD Audio (DVDA) disc holds not only a complete album but also such drooler-heaven goodies as lyrics, portrait galleries of the musicians, and a music video or two, which can be seen and heard when the system is hooked up to a TV set. The major selling point, though, is the reputed sonic upgrade. The revamped discs, about $25 each, have been given surround-sound remixes, designed to literally engulf you in music, so you’ll have to buy a new DVD Audio player plus five or six speakers in order to take full advantage of the technology. Experts are now routinely bashing the CDs we’ve been buying for over a decade and telling us DVD Audio is the real thing — that, in essence, we should buy our CDs all over again.

It’s an irritating prospect — and one that invites skepticism — but an open-minded test was in order. Panasonic lent us one of its newest component systems (priced at about $1,500), and I found myself sitting in the middle of a room, three speakers in front of me and two in back. Currently, the number of available DVDAs is extremely limited, so my guinea pigs were a hodgepodge: the aforementioned Doors and Merchant albums, plus Stone Temple Pilots’ Core; the latest by k.d. lang (Invincible Summer), the Corrs (In Blue), and Aaron Neville (Devotion); and two classic-rock behemoths, Deep Purple’s Machine Head and Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery. (In full disclosure, most come from the Warner Music Group, part of the same company that owns this magazine.) Not my first choices for testing a new system, but they would have to suffice.

No matter the disc, the initial DVDA experience was essentially the same. I pressed play, and onto the TV screen came a logo and fanfare for the disc’s record company (a jarring experience) followed by a menu. Using the arrows on my remote, I could scroll up and down the screen to either the stereo or multichannel mix and any of the extras, like credits and song lyrics.

Sonically, the experience was a (re)mixed bag. Thanks to the three front speakers handling the bulk of the power, the lang and Merchant discs felt like slightly fuller-sounding CDs, but the music emanating from the two back ambient speakers was much softer, at times barely audible — a percussion instrument here, a guitar strum there. (The system allows you to raise or decrease the decibels on each speaker, but that didn’t make a massive difference.) The separation was most apparent, often disconcertingly, on the Doors and ELP albums, where the downpour in ”Riders on the Storm” or the shrieking synths on ”Toccata,” respectively, burst forth unexpectedly from the back speakers. When Greg Lake’s voice shifted from speaker to speaker at the end of ELP’s ”Lucky Man,” I felt as if I were in a theme park: the album as carnival ride! The most satisfying disc was Neville’s, the most recently recorded of the bunch; it’s obvious that modern studio technologies are more prepared for DVDA than that of recordings made 25 years ago. It’s just too bad his versions of ”Morning Has Broken” and ”Bridge Over Troubled Water” are lachrymose, and the accompanying shots of Neville friends and family that flash by as the music plays are as compelling as a rec-room slide show.

The visuals aren’t that much more interesting on the other DVDAs, either; Core, for instance, features six ordinary band portraits. (The two ’70s concert clips on Machine Head, though, are crisp and make a case for Deep Purple as the archetype for Almost Famous‘ Stillwater.) And as happens on the Internet, I occasionally felt stuck, unable to skip back to a previous track or forced to hit stop and start the menu process from scratch.

I can’t say that DVD Audio rocked my world, although, to be fair, the format is very much in its infancy. On the plus side, a DVD Audio unit can play normal CDs and DVD movies as well. (One drawback, though: It doesn’t yet play CD-Rs.) But it’s going to take some time to adjust to the way it turns what used to be just a piece of music into a multimedia experience. It’s bad enough that the old-fashioned album is already an endangered species at the hands of downloadable sound files; the emergence of DVD Audio, even with the option of turning off your TV, implies that the days of listening to music without visuals are history. Call me old, but the new format made me nostalgic for the era when you simply popped a disc or tape (or LP!) into a stereo and didn’t have to worry about where you’d left the remote.