First Listen: Dolby Pro Logic IIz Page 2


The sound of PLIIz

I expected to be blown away by PLIIz from the first moment I turned it on. But I wasn't. In fact, I had to touch one of the cones of the Atlantic Tech height-channel speakers I was using to make sure it was working. It was-I just wasn't hearing much. I double-checked the channel balance in the TX-SR607's on-screen menu; everything was calibrated correctly.

Rather than fuss around trying to see if I could get the height channels to play louder, I decided to start my PLIIz evaluation with a "by the book" presentation, using the Dolby-specified settings and playing a slam-bang action movie that would show off the height speakers at their best. I chose Death Race, a movie I hadn't seen or heard about. But given the presence of Jason Statham in the lead role, I guessed I wouldn't be twiddling my thumbs through quiet scenes of philosophical rumination.

The ride I got was only a bit less thrilling than Tatsu, and all while sitting on my couch scratching my dog and sipping coffee. Death Race-an amped-up remake of the 1975 Roger Corman B-movie Death Race 2000-turned out to be a home theater classic, an overlooked masterpiece of cartoonish characters and comically absurd action. Imagine Cool Hand Luke meets The Terminator meets Smokey and the Bandit, and you've got it.

In the movie's most frenzied scenes, PLIIz made my home theater seem as muscular as the world's finest commercial cinemas. I've never had my home theater so filled with sound. And I have never had such an enveloping, escapist experience from a sound system in my home-at any size, at any price.

The most exciting effect occurred during the faux reality TV intros that introduced each race segment. The heavy metal backing score completely overwhelmed my room, almost as if I were sitting right in the middle of a Metallica rehearsal. During the race scenes, I felt wrapped in the explosions, impact, and gunfire. It seemed almost as if I were in the car with Statham. Switching back to 5.1 during these scenes didn't make me think I could never go back to ordinary surround sound. But after every round of A/B comparison, I always went back to PLIIz, and I left it on all the time during my casual movie watching with the TX-SR607.

However, I didn't hear the height cues I expected. Nothing in particular seemed to come from the height speakers-just occasional ambient sounds and a bit of music. In fact, it didn't add what I'd call ambience. Instead, it sounded as if I'd swapped out the little Sunfires for a hulking tower speaker system. I'd describe the sound as taller, not higher.

A few measurements showed me just how subtle the effect is. Even when the height channels are running at their peak, their output is typically about 20 decibels lower than that of the main channels.

This result held up with other action movies. The more action, the more kick-ass the soundtrack, the more exciting PLIIz made things. However, in most dramas and comedies, PLIIz does very little except during moments when the music swells. Certain scenes, like the opening of Ratatouille in which a light rain falls, really come alive in PLIIz. Most scenes don't.

With PLIIz, Dolby leaned toward understatement rather than sonic spectacle. Some enthusiasts are already contending that the height-channel levels should be cranked up by as much as 6 dB relative to the main speakers, in order to heighten the effect. I don't buy that. Sure, in many, if not most, movie scenes, Pro Logic IIz's effects aren't audible. But the upside is that I never heard it do anything wrong-it never sounded phony or exaggerated.

I worry, though, that many people who go to the trouble of putting in those height speakers will be disappointed. When people pay for extra speakers, they quite understandably want to hear them. They're generally not concerned if some engineers would consider the effect distasteful.