Tech Trends '09: Taking You Higher Page 2

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Only a few feet from Dolby's premiere PLIIz demo at CES, DTS demo'd its height-channel technology, tentatively dubbed Neo:X. The system is still in development, and DTS declined to provide details. As best I can gather, the current plan calls for a 10.1 system: two front height speakers and an additional center rear surround speaker.

Dolby and DTS are arriving at a place Yamaha has occupied since 1986, when it released its first receiver with height-channel capability. (The company calls them "presence speakers.") Yamaha's Cinema DSP technology, which mimics the sound of various venues in which the company's engineers have conducted acoustical measurements, offers one benefit that Pro Logic IIz lacks: dialogue lift. "By blending some of the center-channel dialogue into the presence speakers, we can actually lift the sonic image of the dialogue up onto the screen," said Phil Shea, Yamaha Electronics' national training manager. But Cinema DSP adds considerably more sonic processing than does Pro Logic IIz.

Surprisingly, Shea is happy about the new competition. "I'm kind of excited about Dolby and DTS getting into this," he said, "because it'll create more awareness."

A NEW HIGH IN HOME THEATER SOUND?

For my demo, Dolby's Chabanne set me up with a laptop computer running PLIIz-decoding software. The software let me select between 2.0, 5.1, 7.1, 5.1 with height channels, and 7.1 with height channels. A PlayStation 3 served as the source device, and we listened through JBL LSR6325P-1 studio monitors and a JBL LSR4312SP subwoofer.

We started with a special PLIIz version of the PS3 game Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfare, a military shoot-'em-up in which I played a soldier being attacked by a helicopter. I first heard the copter's sound from behind, then it gradually moved overhead. As I tilted my character's head up, the copter appeared onscreen, right where my ears told me it would be. I was able to track its movements by ear, just as if a real helicopter were circling.

That effect impressed me, but what I heard next blew me away. Chabanne cued up the opening of Ratatouille, in which a rainstorm drenches the French countryside. In Pro Logic IIz, it sounded like I was standing in the middle of a real downpour. In conventional 5.1 and 7.1, it sounded like rain was coming from the sides of the room - an effect that seemed acceptable before but now sounded hokey by comparison. I heard a similar result when Chabanne played a scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in which wind blows around the characters.

I followed these discs with the classic diva scene from The Fifth Element. As the diva sang an aria from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor to light accompaniment, the height channels didn't make a significant difference. But when the electronic music kicked in halfway through, and the diva's voice became more reverberant, the height channels started to add more sense of being in an actual theater. The difference was subtle but unmistakable. Other scenes delivered similar results. When the action was big, so was the sound. When the content was simple, the height speakers were inaudible. I found this difference much more compelling than the switch from two to four conventional surround speakers - that is, from 5.1 to 7.1. Likewise, the switch from 5.1 with height speakers to 7.1 with height speakers was barely audible.

Running stereo music through Pro Logic IIz is sometimes exciting, sometimes futile. When I played the Destiny's Child hit "Say My Name," the background vocals sounded much bigger and more enveloping. When I played a choral recording with pipe organ, the sound seemed to echo off an imaginary ceiling 50 feet above my head. But when I played a simple country tune by Carrie Underwood, I heard no sound from the height speakers. The great thing about this mixed result, though, is that I never heard anything objectionable: no steering artifacts, no phony-sounding effects, and no sounds coming from above that shouldn't have been there.

IS HEIGHT HERE TO STAY?

I never got excited about 7.1. I own the gear for it, my sound room is wired for it, but I use it only when I need to evaluate a 7.1 speaker system or listen to one of the few Blu-ray Discs encoded in 7.1.

But I'm eager to install Pro Logic IIz when it's available. Once you've heard the effect of height channels, conventional 5.1 or 7.1 sounds collapsed. Sure, some people will turn off when presented with more complex and expensive audio systems. But any surround sound aficionado who hears a Pro Logic IIz demo will instantly realize that the home theater sound systems we've been listening to are missing something.

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