Warner Reprise Video; TV Aspect Ratio,
One Side; Dolby Digital 5.1; 70 Minutes
Produced for MTV, this show in the Unplugged series showcases the folkier side of Eric Clapton, and was a bestseller on CD, laserdisc, and VHS. It was interesting to hear it in discrete surround, and to compare that with the CD with its uncompressed digital audio.
But first to the picture: I was surprised at the relatively poor resolution of the video on this DVD, bad even compared to off air images on my TV. By comparison, the LD of Hell Freezes Over is much superior in quality (I didn’t have the laser of Unplugged to compare with the DVD), the picture on the DVD’s cover pretty much summing it up: grainy and lacking in colour values.
As a onetime guitarist (though never a very good one), I enjoyed seeing Clapton pull out and play his various axes, ranging from a classical through a steel-string to a National. His virtuosity is certainly underlined by seeing him play, the lightning left hand and interesting claw-hammer picking style a model of economy and precision. His slide guitar playing is truly something to behold and hear.
What about the sound of DVD vs CD? This question is pretty important with respect to the potential of Dolby Digital, so I did some critical listening to both with the picture turned to avoid being seduced by the visual distractions (and his two female backup singers are definitely distracting!). Switching back and forth between the CD (played on our reference Pioneer Elite DVL-90 through its internal 20-bit/96 kHz-capable stereo DAC) and the DVD (played on a Panasonic DVD-A300 and decoded via the Technics SH-AC300) with carefully matched levels, differences began to emerge. The DVD had a fuller spatial quality, as you would expect from discrete surround sound (I did not add any matrix processing to the stereo CD sound), but the CD’s sound was a little more defined and solid, with firmer, more articulate deep bass, and greater overall resolution. These differences were more audible when I switched the DVD to straight stereo, the bit-budgeted AC-3 sound just a little thinner than that of the CD. Now these differences could also be attributed to the differences between the DACs, so I switched the two discs around, listening to the CD through the Panasonic’s internal DAC, and the DVD through the Pioneer and Technics, again using the Through path of the SH-AC300 to switch between them.
The differences were still audible, though the CD’s edge in sound quality was a little less noticeable, perhaps because the Panasonic DAC is not the equal of the Elite’s. The DVD still seemed a bit (pun intended) brighter and thinner, while the CD had more snap in the midrange and punch in the bass, especially the very low frequency foot-tapping sounds.
It should also be noted that there are differences in the mix between the two versions, the DVD having Clapton’s voice more centred, and a little more crowd sound even in stereo. There are also differences in dynamics between the two versions, the DVD seeming a bit peak limited. However, my listening notes say that the “surround almost makes up for [the] resolution loss.”
An interesting further comparison might be with the DTS surround CD of Hell Freezes Over, which places backup vocals and percussion behind the listener in the discrete soundstage, an obviously unnatural mix that disturbed me; with Unplugged, everything is in its proper place relative to the stage placement of the players and singers, something I like.
Since I have the Unplugged CD, I decided not to buy the DVD (hence the price sticker on the rented copy shown), partly because of the so-so picture, but do recommend it to those who want the great surround sound. What this DVD proves is that a Dolby Digital surround sound music mix can sound very good indeed, though we shouldn’t forget when saying this that even 44.1/16-bit digital audio is still not good enough to capture all of a good musical performance, and bit-starved digital audio works to an even lower sonic threshold. But as long as we have the picture to occupy our minds, Dolby Digital can be more than adequate for dramatic films and just good enough if we don’t listen too carefully with music programs.