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Showcase DVDs for Surround Sound

Now let's look—or rather, listen—to some DVDs that will show off the audio component of your home theater system. In particular, we want DVDs with active surround soundtracks that envelop you in the movie's sound.

Note that a DVD's sound differs by the type of surround encoding used. Most DVDs come with Dolby Digital in the 5.1-channel configuration, which is plenty good. But if a disc offers a DTS soundtrack in addition to (or instead of) Dolby Digital, go for it; DTS uses a slightly higher bit rate to produce a noticeably wider dynamic range. And if you have a 6.1- or 7.1-channel system, look for discs that offer Dolby Digital EX or DTS ES soundtracks to take full advantage of the additional rear channel(s).

Now, to the showcase DVDs:

  • Saving Private Ryan. This may be the most impressive-sounding movie on DVD, especially when you listen to the DTS version. What makes this soundtrack so good is its accurate sound steering around the channels. You'll hear bullets zing from one channel to another, with each and every effect perfectly placed in the soundscape—no matter how many gunshots and explosions are happening simultaneously. During the beach-storming scenes, your point of view is from the perspective of a soldier whose head is sometimes above and sometimes below the water; you'll hear bullets flying above the water as well as plunging into the ocean's surface. The effect is frighteningly realistic, almost as if you're there in the center of battle. This is a true reference DVD.
  • Master and Commander. This disc is a visual and aural treat, especially in the battle and storm sequences. You'll hear cannonballs and shrapnel move from channel to channel while all the explosions will give your subwoofer a real workout. Even better are the subtle sounds of crashing waves, straining ropes, and tearing sails that come from all your speakers. Listen to this disc on a high-quality audio system and you'll swear you can hear sounds not only coming from the front and the rear but also from above and below where you're sitting. And here's a nifty detail—the film's engineers went to the trouble of recording period-correct cannons and muskets to give the audio an especially authentic ring.
  • Das Boot (Superbit Edition). Listen to this film on a good surround sound system and you'll feel as if you're actually inside the submarine; the effect is actually somewhat claustrophobic. You'll hear creaks and groans and drips coming from all around you. Voices can be heard from the front and the back with equal emphasis, assuming that your audio system is properly calibrated.
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day. To hell with subtlety—let's watch stuff get blowed up real good! You can't beat Terminator 2 for stuff blowing up; get the THX version of this film for the best audio. The surround usage is aggressive, especially if you're listening in DTS ES over a 6.1-channel system; there's important sound information in that discrete center rear channel. The frequency response is impressive throughout the film, certain to make your subwoofer sweat a little. The best demo scene is the truck chase, with lots of great surround effects. (Another good demo for 6.1- and 7.1-channel systems is The Perfect Storm, which is presented in Dolby Digital EX.)
  • House of Flying Daggers. This martial arts masterpiece features one of the best-designed soundtracks on DVD. Each of the five (plus one) channels is used effectively. Pay particular attention during the big fight in the bamboo grove—the rustling of the leaves surrounds you and immerses you in the action.
  • The World is Not Enough. As a whole, this isn't the best film in the James Bond series. It does have, however, the best pre-credits teaser sequence, in the form of a thrilling motorboat chase down the Thames. There is terrific surround steering in this sequence; water splashes all around you as the motor roars through the speakers. Mix in the classic Bond music and you have a demo scene sure to impress.
  • Apollo 13 (IMAX Edition). If you want the single best showcase for your system's subwoofer, you have to get the IMAX edition of Apollo 13. Go directly to the launch scene for the deepest bass you'll find on DVD.
  • Jurassic Park (Superbit Edition). Speaking of subwoofers, nothing beats dinosaurs stomping around for creating great low-frequency effects. Listen to any scene with the T. Rex and you'll find out just how good your subwoofer is. In addition to the bass, you're assaulted with sounds from all sides. This is one of the best multi-channel demos available today.
  • The Fast and the Furious. Get the DTS version of this DVD to experience one of the most aggressive surround soundtracks available. It's all about racing, and the furious surround effects make you feel as if you're part of the experience.
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