Starting last week, I've been trying to explain the new Dolby and DTS surround codecs little by little. The reason each camp is hawking two new codecs for HD DVD and Blu-ray is that one is lossless (Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio) and the other is lossy (Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio). Lossless codecs reconstruct the original signal without discarding data; lossy ones use perceptual coding to discard the least important data, achieving greater efficiency in a limited bit bucket. Together these formats represent the first qualitative step forward for surround sound since the ill-fated debuts of DVD-Audio and SACD. High-res surround is baaack! Here are the basics on Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and how they're supported in BD and HD DVD. DTS devotes a whole new website to the two new DTS-HD codecs including heaven-sent wiring diagrams. Has anyone mentioned to you that DTS Encore is simply a rebranding of DTS 5.1 and DTS-ES 6.1? You'll find it only on software packaging. There, I'm glad we've had this little talk.
Memo to early adopters of HD DVD and Blu-ray: HDMI 1.3 will support every surround codec in the Dolby and DTS stables. How I wish I could leave it at that. However, only DTS-HD Master Audio requires the full monty of HDMI 1.3, which is a good thing, since HDMI 1.3 isn't here yet. Because HD DVD and Blu-ray players have surround decoders, panners, and mixers built in, lowly HDMI 1.1 or 1.2 will transfer decoded signals for Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. In fact, even the player's 7.1-channel analog-outs will support all these new surround goodies at full resolution. Using the old-fashioned digital coaxial or optical outs will down-res the signal to Dolby Digital at 640kbps or DTS at 768kbps. There you go. Knock yourself out. I'll continue milking this thing Monday.
If you hate the vulture's nest of ridiculously expensive cables lurking behind your rack, relief is spelled with four letters: HDMI. Someday signal sources will connect with just one HDMI cable. However, depending on what audio formats you want your system to support, you may have to seek out specific versions of HDMI. Having just nailed this for the next edition of my book (not out yet, to appear on Amazon sometime in the next 30 days) I might as well give you this little cheat sheet:
Have you ever thrown your iPod into the washing machine...on purpose? That's what the folks at ArsTechnica—a website worthy of daily visits—did with the new second-generation nano, following gushes of interest in similar tests inflicted upon the first-gen nano. And guess what? The nano continued to be playable. "Despite many requests to drop the nano into the toilet, boiling water, and cups of beer, I decided to quit with the washing machine," said tester Jacqui Cheng. Before that, it survived being sat upon. It also did well with scratch testing in a bag full of coins, keys, cellphone, camera, and other knickknacks, which left only minor blemishes on the new aluminum finish and none on the screen. Only with the sidewalk-drop test did the unit acquire a serious problem—one impact on concrete was all it took to render the screen useless. Note from our lawyers: Don't try any of these stunts, and if you do, we're not liable.
Ever wondered what's inside an iPod's inscrutably screwless design? There actually are people who pry these things open and look at every part, and some of them work for iSuppli's Teardown Analysis. Apple has reduced the "bill of materials" cost for the second-generation 4GB iPod nano from $89.97 to $72.24, according to iSuppli. Considering that the price has dropped from $249 to $199, that's only fair. Among the changes, the "system on chip" has been changed from a "semi custom" PortalPlayer PP5021 to a Samsung chip. And the latter includes a flash disk controller previously implemented in a separate part. The analysis leaves only one question unanswered: What would happen to the new nano if you put it through a washing machine? Details tomorrow.
When we last discussed Zune, plucky little Microsoft was getting ready to take on mean monolithic Apple with an iPod-really-wannabe but details were scarce. They got less scarce last week with the announcement that the 30GB player, at $249.99, would cost almost exactly the same as the new 30GB iPod video, at $249. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the 80GB iPod video may better serve a large library at just a hundred bucks more. But the iPod doesn't let you wirelessly share tracks with another user. The DRM catch? Three plays for three days, then the play privilege expires unless you pay. Another thing you won't get in the iPod/iTunes ecosystem is an all-you-can-eat monthly subscription like the Zune Pass, $14.99/month. Like some wacky city-state, Microsoft even has its own currency—Microsoft Points—described as "a stored value system that can be redeemed at a growing number of online stores, including the Xbox Live Marketplace." A track costs 79 Microsoft Points, at 80 to the dollar. Zune accessories include home, car, and travel packs at $79-99 with various cables, adapters, and things. Among many single-packaged accessories are the Zune Premium Earphones ($39.99) which, the 'softie site assures us, "produce superior sound." Finally, if you've had your heart set on a brown player, Zune's got one, along with black and white. Actually, it doesn't look bad. For more details, see the press release. Zune's D-Day is November 14. Wish it luck. Or not. Really, it's up to you.
Can a company better known for computer peripherals than for audio products make a great pair of headphones? Don't underestimate Logitech. The company's PC speakers may not keep the high-end audio industry awake at night but some of them do provide surprisingly decent sound for their modest pricetags. With these headphones, however, Logitech courts comparison with serious audio brands. That's because these are full-sized headphones (with real bass response) that enclose the ear (like the audio world's highest-performing headphone models).
Nearly lost amid the details of Apple's latest iPod launch a couple of weeks ago was something that will matter to fans of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and what old folks refer to as "side two" of the Beatles' Abbey Road. These classic-rock chestnuts consist of songs that flow together. But when you rip the CDs, iTunes separates the songs into separate tracks, and the iPod plays them with gaps. The gaps are brief but they interrupt the flow, destroy the mood. The solution? What Apple calls Gapless Playback is supported by iTunes 7 along with second-generation iPod nanos (shown, in new colors) and fifth-generation iPods. It will work with MP3 files as well as the AAC and Apple Lossless file formats. Use of the crossfade feature may interfere with Gapless Playback—see Apple's tutorial for details. Gapless Playback will also be a boon to classical music listeners. When the scherzo of Beethoven's Fifth gives way to the tumultuous final movement, there will be no jarring stop. The iPod has just gotten a little smarter.
The rap against the video iPod is that the screen is too small for movie immersion or even music-video amusement. Well, it was only a matter of time until someone came up with a video docking station, and Viewsonic has done it. The Apple-authorized "made for iPod" ViewDock comes in sizes of 23 and 19 inches, suitable for desktop, dorm, or space-starved studio apartment. Viewsonic's press release does not disclose resolution, though iTunes video downloads max out at standard-def 640 by 480, so a livingroom-worthy high-def ViewDock remains just an aspiration. The ViewDock will hit Europe, Taiwan, and—yesss!—the United States in November (otherwise I wouldn't have bothered to report it). Price is yet to be determined.
The engineers at Warner have been busy lately. Their latest quest: Why can't Blu-ray and HD DVD just get along? According to the NewScientist news service, Alan Bell and Lewis Ostrover have filed a patent for a disc that plays both of the nascent high-def formats as well as standard-def DVD. Getting the existing DVD format onto the disc was a cinch—it's simply the second side of a dual-sided disc. But how did they manage to get Blu-ray and HD DVD together onto the other layer? Two things worked in their favor. First, Blu-ray reads the disc at a relatively shallow 0.1mm, while HD DVD (like regular DVD) reads at a deeper 0.6mm. Second, they found a way to make the shallower Blu-ray layer act as a two-way mirror. It reflects enough light back to the laser to make the Blu-ray layer's data readable, but at the same time, lets through enough light to penetrate to the deeper HD DVD layer. Yet to be determined: How much will this three-format disc cost to manufacture? Will the hardware makers go for it, even assuming that the Blu-ray and HD DVD licensing powers allow them? And finally, and most crucial, will the studios and video retailers go for it? For the latter in particular, this could be the solution to the triple-inventory nightmare that threatens to strangle both Blu-ray and HD DVD.