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Showcase DVDs for Music Reproduction

Of course, another good way to show off your system's sound is with music. Here we have a number of fine concert DVDs to choose from, all of which reproduce not only high-fidelity music but also the full live concert experience, using all the surround channels.

In spite of what you might think, it's actually more difficult to reproduce music than it is to reproduce aggressive action movies. All those explosions and gunshots don't actually tax your system that much; the frequency range required is fairly narrow. In contrast, music requires full frequency and dynamic range. Poor-quality speakers and receivers often don't have the oomph to make live music sound natural and realistic—even though they might sound fine with action-oriented surround sound movies.

A good music DVD relies heavily on the front left and right speakers in your system to reproduce the performance as presented. Although some concert discs offer a 5.1-channel mix, the music still comes from the front; the surround channels are used for ambience, reproducing the reverberation from the concert hall. Listen in stereo and it's like listening to a CD; listen in surround and it's like you're sitting in the audience, with subtle sounds coming from all around you.

It goes without saying that you should almost always choose the DTS soundtrack on these discs when available; DTS has a much wider dynamic range than does Dolby Digital. If you want the fullest dynamic range, however, you need to forgo the surround sound and listen to the PCM stereo mix when available: PCM has the best possible audio quality, thanks to the significantly higher bit rate used.

To my ears, the best-sounding concert DVDs include these:

  • James Taylor: Live at the Beacon Theater. There may be no better concert disc available. The Dolby Digital 5.1-channel mix faithfully re-creates the atmosphere of a live concert—albeit an extremely well-recorded one. The recording is subtle in its overall ambience. The music itself is perfectly mic'ed and mixed, and the surround channels make you feel as if you're there in the concert hall. (And the concert hall has superb acoustics.) This disc fairly breathes—the sound is so clear and live. It also helps that Mr. Taylor and his band are in top form, which they most certainly are.
  • Peter Gabriel: Growing Up Live. This disc has an almost-perfect audio mix; bass and drums are rich and deep, while vocals and other instruments are clear and distinct. You can listen in PCM digital stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, or (the best option) DTS 5.1 surround. The 5.1-channel mix uses the surround channels for audience response and natural reverberation.
  • The Eagles: Hell Freezes Over. This is another concert disc with a superior DTS 5.1-channel mix; the engineers use the surround channels to completely envelope you in the sound. The disc has a great dynamic range as well, with rich bass notes and full, clear acoustic guitar sounds.
  • Alison Krauss and Union Station: Live. You can't beat Union Station for superb musicianship, and this DVD captures a terrific performance by Alison Krauss and the band. The best part about this disc is the recording of the instruments, which sound as clear as you're likely to get on DVD.
  • Concert for George. The George in the title is George Harrison, of course, and this is a 2003 tribute concert with performances by all his old friends and colleagues: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, and more. It's a well-shot concert with exemplary sound, particularly in the DTS 5.1-channel mix.
  • The Best of Sessions on West 54th, Vol. 1. This DVD highlights some of the best live performances from the PBS series. The artists featured include Rickie Lee Jones, Sinead O'Conner, Wynton Marsalis, Keb' Mo, and Yo-Yo Ma. Sound is a particularly well-mixed Dolby Digital 5.1.
  • DeJohnette, Hancock, Holland, Metheny in Concert. This is a 1990 concert from four jazz legends: drummer Jack DeJohnette, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, bassist Dave Holland, and guitarist Pat Metheny. The performances are inspired, and the recorded sound is first-rate. For this disc, switch to the PCM stereo soundtrack (instead of the Dolby Digital 5.1-channel mix), which uses a higher bit rate for crystal clear sound.
  • The Last Waltz. An older concert film, directed by Martin Scorsese, but still one of the best-sounding, especially in its DVD incarnation. You can listen in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo or 5.1 surround. In the surround mix, the rear channels are very active and help to fully immerse you in the concert experience.
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