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DISCS DIVIDED
DVD COMES IN A VARIETY OF FORMATS

DVD IS here. The first major application of this CD-size digital disc is to bring movies into the home. Its proponents hope that it will displace both videocassettes and laser discs. Whatever happens with the format, we know now that it is much more flexible and versatile than most of us imagined from the initial demonstrations and early announcements. In fact, DVD is so flexible that it works more like a home computer than home entertainment products like VCRs and CD players.

Put a videotape in a VCR and you're ready to view. Just press the Play button. The only significant difference in VCR operation is that some players automatically go into play mode when you put in a ready-to-view tape. And even that difference is determined by the hardware. That autoplay feature is built into the VCR, not the tape.

But nearly everything about how a DVD player functions depends on the disc it is playing. The disc throws a menu of choices on the screen and that menu is programmed at the studio. The companies producing DVD discs have developed highly distinctive (using as kind a phrase as I can muster) ways of putting their movies on DVD. So when you put DVD software from Warner into your player, you'll use the player in a very different way from the way you'll play a disc from Columbia TriStar, and familiarity with those discs will do little to prepare you for the way MGM/UA discs work.

So when a number of months ago I told you about the way DVD discs would let you show the movies on them in your choice of letterboxed or pan-and-scan formats, I was talking only about theoretical possibilities. The same with the parental lockout, surround sound capabilities and every other DVD feature.

Those are all things that the DVD format will allow. Whether a movie studio puts them on its DVD video releases is another matter entirely. You could own a whole rack full of movies on DVD and never experience any of those interesting features.

Will movie distributors eventually agree on a common user interface? Let's answer that with another question. Did Netscape and Microsoft agree to make their Internet browsers look the same and work the same? Of course not. Each believed that it had a better idea, and while the programs do essentially the same things, there are significant operational differences between them.

With computer software, that's less of a problem. Users generally decide to use Navigator or Explorer, to follow the example above. But with DVD movie presentation software, users are going to have to deal with all the varying operation schemes. The alternative would be to buy only movies from one or two studios. Hardly the way to get the most out of your home entertainment hardware investment.

Any discussion of DVD naturally leads to consideration of the other "D" developments: Dolby Digital and Digital Theater Sound (usually referred to as DTS). These systems offer alternative ways of putting multiple channels of audio on DVD.

Both provide a fully independent, full-range digital signal for each channel of home theater sound. Both use special coding and decoding algorithms so that all those digits for the sound will fit on the disc with all the digits for the video. How they do it is quite different and there's considerable controversy over the relative sonic merits of the two systems.

I'm not going to get into that argument now and I'm also going to avoid the political maneuvering by both camps. I do want to say that I see both Dolby Digital and DTS as audio-for-video systems. I claim that they have little importance to music listeners. And I know that I'd get an argument from both camps on that. There are even Dolby Digital and DTS music-only CDs on the market right now. But they are temporary anomalies.

A music-only DVD will be able to hold all necessary surround sound channels using full-frequency, untreated signals similar to those on today's CDs. Without video taking up space, there will be no need to use either Dolby Digital or DTS encoding on such discs.

Right now you can surround yourself with music in a spectacularly realistic way by using the oldest multichannel technology of all -- binaural sound. You probably already own all the equipment you need to listen to binaural sound. It takes a regular two-channel stereo system and a stereo headphone set.

So all you have to do is acquire some CDs or tapes that were recorded using the special binaural technique. That technique involves a pair of microphones spaced to approximate the location of a pair of human ears. Play the result back through headphones and you hear precisely what the microphones heard at the original performance.

Where do you get binaural recordings? The only place I know of is the Binaural Source. That company has a list of about 100 titles on CD and cassette that range in price from $6 to $35. You can contact the Binaural Source at (800) 934-0442 or online at http://www.btown.com/binaural.html

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