DVD-Audio disappoints on the PC

I spent most of last night conducting a round of extensive listening tests for an upcoming article, and after far too much fiddling, I've come to the sad conclusion that DVD-Audio support is painfully inadequate on the PC. As far as I can tell, there isn't one PC audio solution that delivers really good DVD-Audio support across the board, and that's a shame.

In a world where even integrated motherboard audio implementations support multichannel output with "high definition" sampling rates and resolutions, DVD-Audio should be the go-to format for PC enthusiasts craving a richer sonic experience than can be provided by CD audio. After all, CD audio is limited to two channels at 16 bits and 44.1kHz; compare that with DVD-Audio, which is available in multichannel flavors up to 24 bits and 96kHz, or stereo all the way up to 192kHz, and DVD-Audio looks like the format you want. The fact that DVD-Audio is the only commercially-available source for high definition audio content that you can put in a PC means it's also the only format you can get unless you're recording music on your own.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that DVD-Audio seems like the perfect format to exploit the PC's newfound high definition audio playback capabilities, it's not quite that easy. Content providers appear unwilling to allow high definition audio streams to pass through PC environments deemed hostile to copyright holders, and DVD-Audio playback software seems more than willing to accommodate that paranoia. Creative's MediaSource DVD-Audio playback software, for example, limits playback to analog output only. Try to output DVD-A tracks via digital S/PDIF output, and you're greeted with silence—pristine 24-bit, 96kHz silence!

But at least Creative's software will play back tracks in all their 24-bit, 96kHz glory. Try that with the latest versions of PowerDVD and WinDVD, and you'll find that the players scale the sampling rate back to 48kHz. PowerDVD and WinDVD will play that scaled back content over a digital output, and even give you the option of playing back multichannel DTS tracks if they're on the source disc, so they can do things that MediaSource cannot.

Unfortunately, neither solution gives me what I really want: the ability to play back DVD-Audio at its full resolution and sampling rate via whichever output method I desire. I suppose I can live with MediaSource's limitations for now, if only because all my speakers use analog connections, but it's depressing that the digital output limitation exists at all.

What really irks me here isn't that content providers have convinced software developers to enforce restrictive copyright protection measures, it's that it obviously hasn't made a difference. Browsing a few torrent sites reveals plenty of DVD-Audio content on offer, and even a few ripping apps if you want to make copies for your own "personal use." Clearly, DVD-Audio has become one more format that's fallen victim to piracy, and rather than admit to losing the war, the content industry appears intent on clinging to a small but ultimately meaningless victory on the playback software front. And PC users suffer as a result.

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