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How to Read a DVD & BR Label

DVD video and Digital surround sound technology are the coolest things to come along in our lifetimes, delivering an in-home movie (and music) experience that blows videotape away. But, inevitably, new technologies come with confusing new jargon and complicated product labeling, and DVDs are no exception. Here's a quick guide to understanding exactly what you're getting when you shop for new DVD software.

Don't assume that if a DVD is labeled "Dolby Digital" that it is a 5.1 discrete multi-channel soundtrack. "Dolby Digital" is an audio compression method, and simply describes the technical method by which the audio was placed on, and is retrieved from, the DVD disc. A Dolby Digital soundtrack can deliver anywhere from 1 (mono) to 6 (5.1 surround) channels of information. That means the DVD you just bought, the one with the "Dolby Digital" logo, may in fact be delivering full, glorious MONO! Old movies are rarely, if ever, re-mastered in any multi-channel format. Sorry pal, you're going to have to listen to that 1939 Buck Rogers movie in mono.

Look carefully at the DVD label to see what you've got. (And even then you may not know until you open the package: some of the early DVD releases didn't do such a good job of labeling and it was hard if not impossible to tell exactly what you were getting.) Often, the only clue is in tiny fine print on the back of the package. There is a special place in Hades for store personnel who put the price or security tag over the DVD's fine print. Happily it's getting a lot better. Many of the more recent DVDs use an icon system to clearly communicate the soundtrack type:

Dolby Digital Mono
That's right, just plain one-channel mono. When listening to a DD Mono soundtrack with your processor set to "surround" mode, the sound will come from the center channel speaker only. It will probably sound better if you switch to stereo mode--the mono information will play out of your left and right speakers, giving you the illusion of better soundstage.
Dolby Digital Stereo
It's two-channel stereo, left and right, just like the good old days. When your DVD displays this symbol, try engaging the Pro Logic surround circuit on your processor and you'll get pretty good "mock" surround sound.
Dolby Digital Surround or "Pro Logic"
This indicates that the soundtrack is "matrixed" surround for Dolby Pro Logic surround processing. The surround channels are mono and the center channel information is a "phantom" center image. Before the advent of discrete multi-channel digital, we all thought Pro Logic was pretty cool; so how bad can it be to listen to it now? Yeah yeah I know: you're spoiled.
Discrete Surround
This hybrid is pretty rare. This symbol indicates that the front three channels are discrete full-range signals (like DD 5.1 surround) but the surrounds are mono. That means you'll get great separation between front and rear channels, but no separation between the two surround speakers.
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
This is it, the Holy Grail of Home Theater--5 full-range discrete (separate) channels of sound plus a dedicated channel for extra bass sound effects.
Dolby Digital 5.0
There is a discrete Dolby Digital variation with this icon that indicates the soundtrack is 5 channel discrete digital but does not have a ".1" Low Frequency Effects channel. Does that mean you'll get no bass? No, no, no. The DVD producer can still pack plenty of deep powerful bass on the main 5 channels.
DTS
This is a brand of discrete digital 5.1-channel surround system that competes with the brand name "Dolby Digital." Just as you need equipment with a "Dolby" brand processor to access a DD soundtrack, you'll need DTS branded equipment to get 5.1 surround from a DTS-labeled disc.

At this point, only a handful of movies are available in the DTS format. DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks can coexist on a single DVD, but due to data storage limitations, you will rarely find both formats in 5.1 on a DVD. Most often there will be a Stereo or Surround (Pro Logic) Dolby Digital soundtrack on DTS 5.1 discs. Some movies have been released in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 formats (on separate discs), such as "Dances with Wolves." Inspect the package carefully to make sure you get the version you want. In the future may find more DTS DVDs with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack as DTS has recently (Summer 2000) elected to lower their sampling rate to make their surround format more space efficient.

Some DVDs are double-sided, with a PCM stereo soundtrack on one side and DD 5.1 on the other, like Fleetwood Mac's "The Dance." When you encounter one of these, be sure to put the disc into your machine on its correct side. There can be multiple languages on a single DVD. Usually (in North America) the English soundtrack will be recorded in 5.1 but the other language(s) will be in Dolby Surround (Pro Logic) or stereo. If English is not your first language, check the package very carefully to see what type of soundtrack is provided in your native tongue.

Now stop obsessing about all these nit-picking details and go out and get some DVDs that contain good movies and passionate musical performances and enjoy them, no matter what the audio format!

This article was last modified Apr 17, 2014

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