|February 14, 2006
In This eNewsletter:
In All Directions
By Thomas J. Norton
There are all sorts of loudspeaker designs on the market. Most of them, sometimes referred to as monopolar, generate sound over a wide but still limited front angle. Dipole speakers radiate sound from both the front and rear, with the rear sound out-of-phase with the front. Most dipoles are flat panel designs, such as the electrostatic and magnetic planar models popular with many audiophiles, but some are made from conventional dynamic drivers for service as home theater surrounds. Bipolar designs are similar to drivers-in-a-box dipoles, but the front and back radiation is in-phase. Bipoles are also found serving front- and (on rare occasions) center-channel duties as well as surrounds, though they are far less common than direct radiators and dipoles.
Then there's the so-called omnidirectional loudspeaker. I was reminded of these at the recent CES, which saw the introduction of new omnidirectional models from veteran Canadian speaker manufacturer Mirage and Italian newcomer (to the US, at least) Bolzano Villetri.
(For the purpose of this discussion, I use the word omnidirectional to denote any speaker that deliberately radiates sound in other directions apart from the front hemisphere facing the listener. This definition will exclude bipoles and dipoles, which deserve their own unique categories.)
Omnidirectional speakers get their inspiration from the theory that the ideal transducer would be a pulsating sphere of infinitely small size, radiating sound equally in all directions over the full frequency range. A loudspeaker which can radiate all frequencies equally in all directions is physically impossible, at least with today's technology, so most commercial omni speakers settle for a reasonable facsimile, concentrating on the horizontal plane with perhaps some enhanced vertical radiation as well.
It's hard to pin down just when omnidirectional speakers made their first real impression on audiophiles. Legendary audio designer Stu Hegeman's original Citation models for Harman Kardon, some of which used a tweeter shaped like a tulip, is as likely a source as any. But the idea didn't really take off until 1968, when Amar Bose gave the world the direct-reflecting 901 speaker. The 901 received ecstatic reviews in the major US hi-fi magazines, reviews that kick-started what may now be the most recognized loudspeaker brand on the planet.
Bose was a professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT. But how many audiophiles are aware that before there was a 901 there was a Bose 2201? Where the 901 used nine small, full-range drivers, the 2201 used twenty-two, and it was built as an eighth of a sphere designed to fit in the corner of a room. By making use of reflections from the adjoining floor and walls, it simulated (in theory) that proverbial pulsating sphere. I once saw a pair of 2201s at a hi-fi shop, but they weren't hooked up so I never heard them.
I have a theory that Dr. Bose, stuck with a warehouse full of 5-inch drivers and the expensive, commercially unsuccessful 2201 design on his hands, woke up one day with the proverbial light bulb illuminated over his head and exclaimed, "Hey, what if we use nine. . .?" The rest is history.
Omnis make up only a small fraction of the thousands of speakers that have been produced over the years, but they often leave a lasting impression by breaking out of the boring "box" paradigm that has dominated speaker design for decades. Apart from the names mentioned above, manufacturers who have made a lasting (if sometimes short-lived) impression in the omni hall-of-fame include Design Acoustics (no one who saw or heard their multi-sided, pentagonal-faced design from the 1970s will forget it), Sonab, Canon (!?), JVC, DBX, MBL, Bang & Olufsen, and Infinity (with its 1970s Hegeman-inspired "ice cream cone" tweeters).
But even with Bose in the mix, perhaps the most dedicated practitioner of multi-directional speaker design over the past several decades has been Richard Shahinian. Shahinian followed up on the work of Hegeman at Harman-Kardon in the early 1970s with the Citation 13 (I once owned a pair). His own company, Shahinian Acoustics, has been in business since 1977 and still produces perhaps the widest range of high-end omnidirectional designs (they prefer the term polydirectional) on the market.
Richard Shahinian has dedicated his working life to the convincing reproduction of the symphony orchestra. I've heard his speakers at numerous Consumer Electronics Shows over the years, and I have never, before or since, heard more compelling CES demos of this type of music (unfortunately, his company has not done CES for several years now). I'm convinced that one of the reasons for the decline in the popularity of classical music is that most home systemsand most speakerssimply don't do it very well.
But while that ideal, pulsating sphere is a compelling theory, it can be argued that it would not produce the perfect loudspeaker even if it could be built in the real world.
It's widely accepted that the ideal loudspeaker would simply reproduce the source, without alteration. But the more a speaker is influenced by the acoustics of the listening room, the less accurate the overall result will be. And such a pulsating sphere will energize any real room far more aggressively than a direct radiating design. The same will be true for any real-world, near-omni speaker.
But the entire subject of speaker dispersion, room reflections, and what represents the "right" combination of the two for the best audio reproduction is so complex it would fill a thick bookat least. Oceans of papers have been written about it. And it also resurrects an age-old debate: Is the purpose of an audio system to bring the listener into the environment where the sound was first reproduced (and eliminate the effect of the listener's room), or to bring the performers into the listener's own space, acoustical warts and all?
In short, not all experts agree on the best radiation pattern for a loudspeaker. And the fact that omnidirectional designs sound very different from conventional speakers has driven a long line of very talented designers to create them and inspired many music (and now film) lovers to buy them.
There is more than one way to design loudspeakers. Keep an open mind when buying them for your first home theater or looking for an upgrade to bring new life to your current one. The open, spacious sound typical of omni designs would seem to be as well suited for the cinematic sweep of movie epics as it often is for dramatic, large-scale symphonic music. While an omni's more diffuse radiation pattern might not seem ideal for pinpoint dialogue reproduction, some work better than others in this respect. But because omnidirectional designs don't appeal to all listeners, a pre-purchase audition is mandatory, and even more important than with more conventional speakers.
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Details of Next-Gen Formats Beginning To Emerge
By Shane Buettner
As both sides in the format war posture regarding their launch dates, reports arise that the standards the two formats will be based on are either just completed or not finished yet. Is either format going to be ready to come out of the oven anytime soon? As I write this, the HD DVD camp informs me that the March launch is still a go, and Blu-ray is still sticking to the first half of 2006, which could be as early as the end of May (in spite of gaming industry publications saying they'd be surprised to see PlayStation3 before the end of 2006.) Nevertheless, as we get closer to the respective launches some details about the implementation of both formats are coming clear.
First and foremost, it is now a virtual certainty that while HD DVD's initial releases will be 1080i, Blu-ray's releases will in fact be 1080p. In a recent phone interview Pioneer's Andy Parsons confirmed that Blu-ray players such as Pioneer Elite's BDP-HD1 will offer an option for a 1080i output for the many displays (even those with 1080p resolution in a lot of cases) that cannot accept a 1080p signal in its native format. The Blu-ray players will apparently offer on-the-fly 3/2 pulldown and deinterlacing of the 1080p/24fps signals Blu-ray discs will carry.
Regarding the significance of 1080p/24fps, there is a real potential for improved image quality in displays that will be able to maintain film's inherent 24fps frame rate, or a direct multiple such as 48 or 72fps. Current displays most often use a 60Hz refresh rate (refresh rate being analogous to frames per second) that still requires 24fps film material to be deinterlaced with 3/2 sequencing intact as 60 frames per second is not a direct multiple of 24. This causes minor temporal distortion in that some frames must be displayed on screen a little more often than others. Not so with 24, 48, or 72fps. Not only will we be seeing 1920x1080 progressive, the displays that keep the Blu-ray signal at 24fps or a direct multiple of 24fps will eliminate this time-based distortion ("judder") for smoother, more film-like images with movies.
Image quality with both formats is a real concern right now for the millions of potential early adopters whose displays accept HD signals only in the component video domain (i.e., those without HDMI or DVI/HDCP compatible displays). Both Blu-ray and HD DVD players will output only copy-protected digital streams over HDMI and perhaps FireWire. Recently the online community officially went up in arms with the news that the AACS copy protection standard used on both formats will allow content providers to invoke an "Image Constraint Token" in the bitstream that will instruct players to downconvert the 1920x1080 signals on the discs to 960x540 on the analog component outputs.
The key thing to remember for now is that image constraint is an option; it's not mandatory. While I wouldn't want to bet my house on the whims of studio executives and their intellectual property attorneys, it's hard for me to imagine any studio would want to exclude a group of potential early adopters numbering in the millions given that the success of either format is hardly a sure thing. And just how much danger is there of pirated copies made from the analog outputs of next-gen players anyway? If the next-gen discs are available at reasonable enough prices, why would anyone want to buy an analog-domain knock-off? So, let's not jump off this bridge unless (or until) we actually come to it.
On the audio side, things aren't quite as clear. Both formats are spec'd to carry up to eight channels of hi-res linear PCM (up to 24/96 for HD DVD, and 24/192 for Blu-ray) over HDMI. Some of Blu-ray's initial releases, including that old standby Fifth Element, are in fact spec'd for uncompressed PCM soundtracks. But there are also new codecs from DTS and Dolby that offer much higher data rates than the current codecs, as well as options for lossless compression with full bit-for-bit data recovery. The catch is that these formats will only be carried digitally over HDMI spec 1.3, which isn't scheduled to be finalized until the middle of 2006 (best case scenario, I'm told). And yet, HD DVD and Blu-ray players will already be in stores if current launch schedules hold. What gives?
From the HD DVD side, the players will "transcode" signals encoded with the new Dolby or DTS formats to linear PCM, which can be carried over current HDMI spec and decoded by a good number of surround processors and AVRs already on the market. It's also possible (if not more than likely) that the initial HD DVD releases will be encoded with the current Dolby and/or DTS lossy compression codecs, but at the highest data rates currently allowed. Both HD DVD and Blu-ray players will apparently decode the new codecs and convert them to multichannel analog output, and there are certainly vast numbers of surround processors and AVRs with multichannel analog inputs out there waiting.
As far as the new audio codecs and digital domain compatibility, the full lossless compression signals will only travel over HDMI 1.3, whenever that comes. Backward compatible 5.1-channel streams will be embedded in the signal that can be transmitted by current S/PDIF connections, but these will be the current lossy compression streams we have now. The bummer is that time doesn't stop for any specification- the first generation HD DVD and Blu-ray players will apparently come without HDMI 1.3, and so will any surround processors or receivers released in the interim. It's theoretically possible that players and processors in the field could be upgraded to HDMI 1.3 in software, but no manufacturers I've spoken with will commit to an upgrade path for now.
This is nothing new of course. It's hard to remember way back to 1997, when DVD was first released. Not only was there a format war then too (remember DIVX anyone?), but Dolby Digital was spec'd into the format while DTS was left out in the cold at first. It was sometime later that the first DTS compatible DVD players appeared, followed later by DTS compatible surround processors, AVRs and (eventually) software. Not that the history lesson helps if you're shopping for a new surround processor or AVR now! The transition to a new format always involves some uncertainty, and hopefully years from now these glitches will be as hard to remember as DVDs early steps and missteps!
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By Thomas J. Norton
Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, Christopher Jones, John Mills, Leo McKern, and Sarah Miles. Directed by David Lean. Aspect ratio: 2.20:1(anamorphic). 2 discs. 206 minutes (film). 1970. R. Dolby Digital 5.1 (English and French). Warner Home Video 65170. $26.98.
David Lean's Ryan's Daughter followed on the heels of three monumental epics from the British director: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago. But this would-be epic of ill-fated love on the bleak west coast of Ireland was not at all well received by critics or audiences in 1970. The failure reportedly so devastated Lean that he didn't direct again until 1984's A Passage to India (his last film).
The movie weaves a tale of an idealistic young girl who marries the local widowed schoolteacher, subsequently becomes infatuated with the young commander of a local detachment of British troops, and finally gets swept up in the British-Irish "troubles" of 1916. This conflict lasted through several years of periodic conflict and negotiation before ultimately leading to the establishment of an independent Ireland (apart from northern areas around Ulster) in 1923.
But while history plays an important part in the plot, it's peripheral to the central love triangle. And while the film deserved a better reception than it received in 1970, it's nevertheless too long by a good hour, and the story is nowhere near as compelling as Lean's earlier masterpieces.
But if the plot and length are weaknesses, the performances are not. These performances, and the characters portrayed, cut through the long and the sometimes turgid melodrama and make the film memorable: Robert Mitchum cast completely against type as the middle-aged schoolteacher, Sarah Miles as Rose Ryan, Christopher Jones as the British officer (with little to say), Leo McKern (best known to more recent audiences as the title character in TV's Rumpole of the Bailey), an almost unrecognizable John Mills as Michael, the village idiot who nevertheless seems to know more about what's going on than anyone else in town, and Trevor Howard as the local priest. Mills won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role, but it's really Howard who comes closest to running away with the film.
But if anything does steal the movie, it's Freddie Young's cinematography (also an Oscar winner). The widescreen landscapes of this barren patch of the earth look far more ravishing here than they probably ever did in real life. In those pre-computer-enhancement days, that was a true accomplishment. While a few scenes were shot in South Africa, most of the movie was filmed on location in Ireland, much of it in a village that was constructed from scratch.
While the film is often slow going, there's a spectacular storm in the second half that plays a pivotal role and is not to be missed. Again, there was no computer "sweetening" available to the filmmakers. It's all real, and enhanced only by mechanical water effects. Ironically, this sequence was actually helmed by an assistant director (not an uncommon event in major productions), not by Lean himself.
I had the opportunity to see a restored 65mm print of this film (likely the same restoration that was the source for this DVD) a couple of years ago at a special showing in Hollywood. It was one of the most spectacular film presentations I've ever seen. While the transfer here is a reasonably good one, no standard definition DVD can hope to come close to that reference quality experience. While the video here is generally crisp and clean, there are more than a few slightly soft medium and long shots as viewed on an 80-inch (wide) screen. Interestingly, that storm sequence looks consistently better than any other 15 continuous minutes in the film.
But it must be said that the video in this transfer does far surpass the quality of the DVD releases of any of Lean's more celebrated filmswhich only means that we have much to look forward to from all of these movies when we finally get them in high definition. A Passage to India, a better Lean effort than Ryan's Daughter, is currently running intermittently on HDNet Movies in HD. Unlike earlier Lean epics, A Passage to India was filmed not in scope (2.35:1 or thereabouts), but in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1.
The audio here is solid, if generally unspectacular. The storm sequence is superb, but even there the surrounds were more subdued than I anticipated. But the dialogue sounds natural. Much of it was apparently recorded on-site, if I interpret the clues in the extra features correctly. While not up to the standards of more modern films, the sound here is vastly better than the thin and pinched audio on the DVD of Lawrence of Arabia, a film which was shot only a few years earlier.
Maurice Jarre's music is nicely recorded. The transfer even includes opening, intermission (the film is spread over the two discs), and exit music. But I found the score itself to be a real negative. It lacks variety (the main theme ultimately becomes as annoying as Jarre's similarly grating effort on Doctor Zhivago). Worse, it often sounds inappropriate. It may seem daring and original to omit Irish-sounding cues from a movie so firmly planted in Ireland, but more often than not it feels like an oversight.
Extras include a commentary by seemingly everyone still alive who was involved the film in any wayso many, in fact, that each voice is introduced by a narrator. More interesting is an excellent three-part "Making of" featurette, some of it clearly shot on the set.
This isn't a great film, but it is a good film by a great director. Modern audiences might well find it more compelling than audiences did in 1970.
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