Dolby Digital Experience (Japanese release)
DTS Experience (Japanese release)

By Joshua Zyber
January 21, 2001

There is something uniquely appealing about a video demo disc. They may have no narrative content, but the act of pushing home entertainment equipment to the limits of its performance can bring a peculiar thrill all on its own. This is a difficult feeling to justify. How do you explain why anyone would watch a series of unconnected video clips, test patterns, and audio tones? Surely no one would put up with such a program on videotape.

Somehow none of that matters once you crank up the volume on the digital surround sound and let the high resolution images show off all they can do. Even a modest home entertainment system can be vastly superior to the low-res VHS crap your friends suffer through. That thought has got to bring a smug sense of satisfaction. And to think of it, what difference is there really between watching this sort of random clip assortment or buying a dumb Hollywood blockbuster just to watch the few special effects sequences on their own? It’s the same form of deconstructionism.

These programs also bring out the obsessive techno-geek in many home theater fans. I often find myself spending a good amount of time tweaking the settings of my video display or audio receiver to get just the perfect picture or sound, only to change my mind a few weeks later and wonder what I had been thinking the last time.

Two excellent examples of such test programs were issued on laserdisc in Japan, both designed to usher in the new era of discrete 5.1 channel digital surround sound.

The first disc is called Dolby Digital Experience, and the title should sufficiently explain its purpose. Dolby Digital is an enhancement over standard Dolby Pro-Logic surround sound. Rather than derive a matrixed surround channel from a stereo signal, Dolby Digital provides five separate channels, one for each speaker, and an individual subwoofer channel for deep bass effects. This allows for more precisely placed sound effects and a deeper bass presence. On the laserdisc format, the Dolby Digital signal is issued in RF-modulated form from one of the analog audio tracks. In order to convert the signal back to digital form for a receiver to decode it, an RF-demodulator must be used as an intermediary step.

Is anyone else disturbed that there are no doors in this room?
The Dolby Digital Experience disc is spread to two sides in CAV format. The contents of the disc, even the explanatory animated graphics, have been letterboxed to an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1. The program begins with a demonstration of how sound can move discretely through all five main speakers. Voices explain the mechanics of the sound format by walking from one speaker to the next in a circle around the viewer. Each speaker projects in a different language, including one in English. The program then segues to a series of video clips and movie trailers that have been remixed into 5.1 surround. The demonstrations are as follows:
    Gamera 2. This appears to be a big budget 1995 sequel to one of the prominent Godzilla spin-offs. The trailer is entirely in Japanese and the movie looks to be great fun, with many rubber monster suits and miniature city models that are as corny as they are elaborate. The footage is in decent shape for a trailer, but the black level is often washed out and a number of shots are excessively grainy. In theory, it would seem like the audio, filled with screaming monsters, gunshot ricochets and explosions, would be perfect Dolby Digital material. Unfortunately, in practice it is painfully obvious that the movie’s sound was designed for a more modest presentation and that the Dolby Digital mix has been artificially enhanced. There are numerous discrete surround effects, but they tend to ping-pong between speakers in a distracting manner. There are a lot of explosions, but the bass is overly boomy and unnatural. The fidelity of the entire track is thin and the ADR dialogue is unconvincing and disconnected from the picture on screen. Still, for what it is the trailer is a lot of fun. It simply should not be used as a “reference” example of what Dolby Digital can achieve, which one might think would be the purpose of this disc in the first place.

    Ghost in the Shell. This trailer for one of the most famous anime films is much closer to being reference quality material. The animated image is fabulous, with strong colors and sharp details. The sound, though a little bright, flows smoothly between channels during the directional pans and achieves a nice kick when it needs to. Oddly, the opening to the trailer features a text scroll and voiceover narration in English, but reverts to Japanese until the voiceover at the very end.

    Tetsujin Returns. Promoting a futuristic video game with extremely fuzzy computer graphics, this commercial looks blurry but sounds great. There’s a lot of force and directionality to the audio. Don’t ask me to explain what the game is about, because it was fairly incomprehensible.

    Fujiyama: King of Coasters. The very definition of wasted potential, this video tour of a roller coaster almost begs to be exciting but completely fails at it. The entire clip is presented from the point of view of the coaster’s front car, and takes us from the beginning straight through to the end of the ride. If only someone had taken the time to foley sound effects, it could have been a thrilling recreation of a theme park. Instead, we are given location sound, undoubtedly recorded from a single microphone in the front car, awkwardly spread to five channels. The audio is primarily rear-focused, but the sound of screaming passengers in the back cars is weak and nearly inaudible. The sound of the wheels on the tracks directionally pans along with the picture on screen in an artificial way that takes the audio out of all the other speakers. In the effort to ensure realism by using only location sound, the audio instead breaks the spell by not adequately capturing the experience of being there. This segment is nothing but a disappointing mess.

    Hi-Vision Las Vegas. This is more like it. A nighttime video tour of Las Vegas which was, I assume from the title, prepared for Hi-Vision HDTV broadcast in Japan, this segment has both exceptional picture and sound. Though the benefits of the Hi-Vision format cannot be duplicated on a standard resolution laserdisc, nonetheless we are given a very sharp picture with a rich black level and vivid neon colors that never break apart into video noise. The soundtrack is composed entirely of a jazzy musical score with rich envelopment and some nice smooth bass.

Side 1 ends with a string of the various Dolby Digital logo trailers. We have the train spot (Ghost Train), the helicopter spot (City), the rock formation spot (Canyon), and the temple ruins spot (Egypt). Each is presented at least twice, if not more times, in a host of different aspect ratios and variations. Through this we can see the evolution of the Dolby Digital brand name. When the format was first developed, Dolby Labs experimented with several different names to differentiate it from standard PCM digital audio before settling on the generic Dolby Digital moniker. In the older trailers it is also referred to as “Dolby Stereo Digital” or “Dolby Surround AC-3 Digital”.

After the demo material on the first side has ended, Side 2 commences with a lengthy series of test tones and audio signals. Those who enjoying playing around with a sound meter will undoubtedly find this useful. A couple of musical passages from some sort of operetta that I am not familiar with are also presented to illustrate the effects of the Dialogue Normalization feature. The side ends with color bars and video test signals, but does not provide any instructions for how to use them when calibrating the picture quality of your television set.

For compatibility purposes, the disc also contains a standard stereo mix on the PCM digital tracks. I seriously doubt that anyone who bought the disc would ever use it.

Included in the disc jacket is a foldout pamphlet with a description, in Japanese text, of what Dolby Digital is and how it works. There are a few diagrams and some photos of a mixing room. On the back of the pamphlet is a page of full-color laserdisc cover artwork for titles that include Dolby Digital audio. There is another page of tantalizing photos of exotic high-end Japanese electronics, including laserdisc players, A/V amplifiers (or “amprifiers”, as they are labeled), and a nice 16:9 rear-projection television.

Dolby Digital Experience is an interesting demo and contains useful material for adequately calibrating a surround sound system, but it falls short of being all that it could.  The choices of demonstration material are a bit questionable. Of the five demo clips, only two of them (Gamera 2 and Ghost in the Shell) are what I might consider repeatable entertainment, and one of them doesn’t sound terribly good in Dolby Digital. The quality of some of the reference tracks also does not live up to the best that the format is capable of achieving. There is nothing on this disc, for instance, that can match the power or envelopment of the Dolby Digital track on the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace laserdisc.

Still, the disc is worth having and I recommend it to those who are interested.

Around the same time that the Dolby Digital disc was released, a competitor of sorts came out under the title DTS Experience. The format and packaging of the two programs are obviously designed to be complimentary.

DTS is, like Dolby Digital, a 5.1 channel surround format. However, DTS on laserdisc is issued through the digital audio tracks and does not require RF-modulation. It is also a less compressed signal, which may lead to a difference in the audio quality. It must be mentioned that this is a controversial matter that often sparks vehement protest from supporters of one sound format or the other.

I do not pretend to be an audiophile, or to have reference quality speakers or sound equipment. On what modest equipment I do have, however, I can’t help but notice a difference. Dolby Digital is fine, and if well mastered can be highly engaging. For my money, DTS usually has a fuller bodied sound with better fidelity, richer bass, and more enveloping directionality (Dolby Digital tends to bounce from speaker to speaker, while DTS seems to flow from one to the next). Much of this may have to do with the particular audio mixing and mastering of specific titles, but as a rule of thumb it is what I find to be true.

The DTS Experience laserdisc has a couple of minor differences from its Dolby Digital counterpart. The disc is presented in CLV format on one side only, and the disc-exclusive video material is mostly in full-frame format rather than letterboxed. On the other hand, it comes packaged with a foldout pamphlet very similar to the Dolby one, and it also includes an alternate stereo mix (on the analog channels this time) that will likely not be terribly useful to anyone who purchased the disc.

The program begins with a talking-head interview from DTS Chairman Terry Beard. He speaks in English, but unfortunately his dialogue is drowned out by a Japanese voiceover. There are a number of other interviews throughout the course of the program, including musician Alan Parsons, and they are all similarly obscured. From the first interview we transition to an elaborate opening credits sequence with a strong musical score. The music is kind of trite, but it sounds amazingly lush and powerful, and it does wonders to sell the benefits of the audio format.

The first thing one will notice in regard to the DTS track is that it is set significantly louder than Dolby Digital. Some opponents claim that this variance is what accounts for most people being “fooled” into thinking that DTS is better. I can’t agree. Reducing the volume to a level comparable to Dolby, or even audibly lower, does not change my observations about its sound quality. 

After the opening credit sequence we are taken on a video tour of the DTS facility. There is a voiceover that I assume explains the benefits of DTS and how it works. Since the voiceover is entirely in Japanese, this section of the disc may serve limited usefulness to English-speaking viewers.

Following this there is a section of test tones, pink noise, and video test patterns similar to those on the Dolby Digital Experience disc.

Finally, we come to the heart of the disc, the demo sequences. The first is a good one called Stealth (Mainshow). This is a computer-animated simulation of a military aerial dogfight. We see the point of view of a stealth fighter plane as it engages in a bombing mission and encounters some resistance along the way. The animation is not photo-realistic, but is impressive for a simulation. The audio track is primarily focused on the rear channels as the pilot and co-pilot chatter behind the listener’s head. There are a number of sweeping sound effects that move through all the speakers, and the sequence provides an immersive audio experience. The program is animated in full-frame format with English dialogue.

Next are four more segments, each presented not once, but twice. At first glance it appears that each clip is shown initially in full-frame format and then again letterboxed to about 1.85:1. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the first seemingly full-frame presentation is actually an anamorphically enhanced "Squeeze LD" image, stretched to the top and bottom of the frame so that a widescreen television may unsqueeze it back to the original proportions with a higher resolution. For those without a widescreen television, the clip is followed by a repeat in standard letterbox format. The content and audio of both versions are identical. I’m not really sure why this was done or whether it was actually necessary, but it makes for an interesting surprise. The demonstrations are:

    Di-Giddy. This appears to be a clip from a video game. I don’t know what gaming platform it is designed for, but I must own it right away! The game is a futuristic racer with incredible computer graphics and an outstanding audio track that makes the music and sound effects seem to pulse from right inside your head. Just watching this clip of someone else playing is already an adrenaline rush.

    Something with an untranslatable title. I can’t adequately describe what this clip was other than to say that it is tedious beyond measure. It is an animated program, but without animation. The program moves from one cartoon still image to another very slowly, like a children’s picture book whose pages are being turned by a narcoleptic parent. It isn’t even much of an audio demo. There’s some dialogue, some subtle music, a train whistle, and a few rumblings from a volcano towards the end. The program has extremely limited use as a show-off sequence, and I can’t imagine sitting through it more than once.

    Gaia’s Daughter. The only live-action demo sequence on the disc, this is what I would describe as a classical music travelogue. There is no dialogue or plot, just some models or dancers posing in front of exotic and picturesque locations while classical music plays. The program is shot on video and experiences occasional shimmer artifacts, but the imagery is filled with vibrant colors. The musical presence is very lush and well represented by the audio track.

    Perfect Blue. An anime film with nice artwork and animation. The plot of the clip is a bit impenetrable without translation, but it looks interesting and surreal. Part of the scene involves a foot chase, and the music on the soundtrack has a driving beat to go along with it. Picture and sound quality are both outstanding.

Of the two discs, I found the calibration material on the Dolby Digital Experience disc more useful, but preferred DTS Experience for its superior audio demonstrations and generally better selection of show-off clips. They go hand in hand so nicely, though, that someone who can make use of both sound formats really ought to have both discs.

    Do you have a comment to contribute?
    email: jzyber @ mind spring . com (remove spaces)

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