[Article - Soundtracks in Three Dimensions]

A few years after it was created in the 1980s, the compact disc (CD) has become the standard music delivery mechanism worldwide. Over 800 millions CDs are sold every year across the globe - and yet, there is a niche market of audiophiles who strive for something better than CD to give them the best audio experience possible. Enter the Super-Audio Compact Disc (SACD), and the DVD-Audio disc - two competing formats which both offer advanced resolution sound. For comparison purposes, the maximum specs allow for:

CD: PCM 16-bit, 44.1kHz stereo audio
SACD: DSD 1-bit, 2.8224MHz multi-channel audio
DVD-Audio: PCM 24-bit, 192kHz multi-channel audio

With SACD Hybrid discs, there are two physical layers, which allow for releases that will play on traditional CD players, and provide high-resolution multi-channel audio on SACD-compatible players. DVD-Audio is actually a regular DVD, but takes advantage of the "AUDIO_TS" folder (whereas traditional DVD-Video content is found in the "VIDEO_TS" folder on DVD-discs). This allows for "hybrid" discs based on the folder content, and the player's ability to discern between the two.

If all of this is a bit confusing, don't worry about it - just know that if you are one of the lucky ones who have an SACD-compatible or DVD-Audio-compatible player, there are a few soundtrack-related releases out there that will provide you with higher quality audio surround-sound, and that's what this article will be focused on. If you don't have such a player, there are cheap DVD-players out there that can play both SACD and DVD-Audio discs; the one I am using is a Samsung HD841 DVD player, which I got for just under $100 - so multi-channel soundtracks are certainly within everyone's grasp!

The key to enjoying multi-channel audio is, obviously, owning a receiver that can handle multi-channel recordings. Not any old receiver will do - most new ones typically just have optical and coaxial digital inputs for multi-channel sound. That won't work, since those only handle Dolby Digital and dts compressed multi-channel audio. No, you would need a receiver that has six analog inputs on the back, for the left, center, right, left-rear, right-read, and subwoofer channels. This is an inconvenience, but in the future, state-of-the-art players and receivers will allow for SACD and DVD-Audio to be transmitted via HDMI, thus reducing the need for multiple cable inputs. Until then, however, you're stuck needing analog inputs on your receiver to truly enjoy these albums.

Note: The following list is by no means complete, and will (hopefully) be updated intermittently as new titles are released. As this article focuses on multi-channel releases, we are intentionally omitting two-channel soundtrack releases.

A.I. - Artificial Intelligence (John Williams) (DVD-Audio)
One of the first DVD-Audio discs to be released, this version of John Williams' score mirrors the regular album release. Reportedly suffering from a low-frequency "rumble", the "remixed" multi-channel mix is lacking when compared to the included two-channel mix.

The Adventures of Mark Twain (Max Steiner) (DVD-Audio) (SACD):
This Grammy-nominated re-recording features William Stromberg conducting the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, and a slew of multi-channel options to pick from. Popping the disc into your machine, you're presented with three choices (two if you don't have a DVD-Audio compatible player): Dolby Digital 5.1, dts 5.1, and PPCM 5.1 (DVD-Audio). The sound quality is pristine, and the clear winner is the DVD-Audio track, due to the complete lack of compression artifacts. If you don't have a DVD-Audio player, make sure you can play dts - the higher bitrate makes a difference when compared to the Dolby Digital track.

The album has also been released as a CD/SACD hybrid disc, allowing those with a regular CD player to enjoy the music, as well as those who have an SACD-compatible player to get the wonderful 5.1 mix of the recording without any of the DVD version's menus and alternate audio choices.

A Beautiful Mind (James Horner) (SACD)
This SACD provides listeners with a sonically "wider" version of Horner's music. The level of quality is quite good, so much so that you can actually hear smaller details in the orchestra that you probably would have missed on your CD version. This is not uncommon, as you will find out as you continue reading below. Overall, a more expansive, immersive listening experience.

Chicago (Various Artists) (SACD)
This SACD features the same content as the CD release, but the multi-channel doesn't enhance it too much. What definitely stands out, though, is the clarity of the recording - you would swear that the cast was in your living room! (Just don't feed your speakers...)

Christus Apollo (Jerry Goldsmith) (SACD)
Okay, it's not a soundtrack, but Jerry Goldsmith's concert work (actually, any of his works for that matter) deserve the best treatment available, and this Telarc recording is no exception. The London Symphony Orchestra does an excellent job, and the surround sound allows you to feel as though you were alone with the orchestra performing just for you.

E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial (John Williams) (SACD)
How, you ask, does a 1982 film score get a multi-channel release? Good question, but this 20th Anniversary edition release seems to have been mixed from the original 24-track masters, thus allowing for a surround-sound listening experience. One of Williams' best scores, this one is a must-have, even if you already have the soundtrack as a regular CD!

The English Patient (Gabriel Yared) (SACD)
Another Oscar-winning score gets the multi-channel treatment, with improved audio quality, and an immersing sound mix - but no directional effects, so it's not distracting and doesn't take you out of the listening experience. The drawback to such high-quality sound is that any recording errors (stage noise, mastering glitches, etc.) are all easier to spot - much like how High Definition video will show you how much makeup actors need to use to look "pretty".

Epics (Various Artists) (SACD)
This compilation album from Telarc features Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra performing a selection of film scores from Ben-Hur to Pearl Harbor to Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones to The Magnificent Seven. While they don't match the original performances, it's a solid re-recording album, and as it was intentionally recorded with multi-channel audio in mind, you can definitely hear the difference, especially with the enormous low-end in such pieces as "Also Sprach Zarathustra" from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Film Music of Jerry Goldsmith (Jerry Goldsmith) (SACD)
One of the first Telarc SACD releases, this album features Jerry Goldsmith and the London Symphony Orchestra performing suites of music from his films as well as television shows. (It's a companion piece to the "Goldsmith Conducts Goldsmith" compilation album.) The multi-channel makes nice use of the surrounds, dropping you right next to Goldsmith as he conducts the orchestra (you could almost pull on the pony-tail)!

The Great Train Robbery (Jerry Goldsmith) (SACD)
This is truly an unusual scenario: a 1979 film score getting a full 5.1 multi-channel release! In this particular case, Varese Sarabande went back to the original 24-track masters, and performed a high-resolution surround-sound remastering. The result is a score that - while almost 30 years old - sounds exceptional, with a fidelity and range rivaling most scores recorded today. The only drawback is that the analog artifacts are as clear as ever - but that doesn't detract from the overall experience. As a hybrid disc, if you got this at all, you have the SACD version too!

The Legend of Zorro (James Horner) (SACD)
This SACD came out in 2006, a few months after the original James Horner soundtrack was released. The differences in sound quality are noticeable, with an expanded range in the sonic quality, as well, as a more immersive mix. The only drawback to this (as with the other Horner scores on this list) seems to be that the reverb in the surrounds makes things just a tad slushy.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings - The Complete Recordings (Howard Shore) (DVD-Audio)
Speaking of slushy, the fourth disc on this monster of a box-set contains a very "wet" sounding recording, but in five varieties! Three CDs contain the PCM audio for Howard Shore's Oscar-winning score, and the fourth disc contains a DVD-Audio hybrid release, including both Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 mixes for those without a DVD-Audio player, and for those lucky enough to have one, they get PPCM 2.0 and 5.1 audio, at 24-bit, 48kHz. It's not the best quality they could have had, but it still sounds very good and has a great range. The only drawback is John Kurlander's recording, which was already too "wet" for my tastes - and now it feels even wetter in the surrounds.

Miklos Rozsa: Three Choral Suites (Miklos Rozsa) (SACD)
This was one of the best re-recordings released in 2005, and delightfully it was also released as a multi-channel SACD from Telarc. Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops, along with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir do a great job performing three suites of music by Rozsa, but what is best about it is the way the choir creeps around you to make it a wonderful experience - and the sound quality is just exquisite.

Monster (BT) (dts DVD)
This double-package comes with both the regular CD soundtrack version of BT's score, as well as a "bonus" DVD containing over two hours of music with dts 5.1 audio, interviews, a "scene breakdown", trailers, and more. It's a rather impressive package, even if it's not for the best soundtrack out there.

The Phantom of the Opera (Andrew Lloyd Webber) (SACD)
It's unfortunate that such a great musical didn't turn out the way it should have when translated to the screen. I'm not sure why Sony Classical picked The Phantom of the Opera to release as an SACD (I can think of a dozen other soundtracks that would be more deserving of the multi-channel honor), but all things considered, the sound quality is amazingly clear. The organ in the opening track comes from the rear channels with just as much power as the front, making the whole thing a truly engaging experience. The only problem with the vocals is that they're so clear - and so horrible - that you wish you could take the center channel out altogether. Still, it makes for an interesting listen, and for the few out there who thought this was a good recording, now it's even better!

Seabiscuit (Randy Newman) (SACD)
Randy Newman had a lot of problems with the score on this film - and so I doubt he really cares how it sounds on the SACD. If he's curious though, it sounds pretty good - the fidelity is strong and clear, but the use of surrounds is so limited as to be virtually non-existent. This is one to get for the sound quality, not the immersiveness.

Star Trek: Nemesis (Jerry Goldsmith) (SACD)
Score mixer Bruce Botnick says in the liner notes that Star Trek: Nemesis was the first feature film score ever to be recorded directly to DSD (Direct Stream Digital), and so the music heard on this SACD are as pure as you would ever get them - no remixing was done. I have to say, it does sound pretty darn good, and the fusion of electronics with the 96-piece orchestra make it a wonderful listening experience. The movie, however, is another story.

Timeline (unused score) (Jerry Goldsmith) (SACD)
Wow - it really seems like Goldsmith is very well represented when it comes to multi-channel releases! Released at the same time as The Great Train Robbery, this Varese Sarabande is definitely another example of how an SACD can sound just wonderful. Goldsmith's use of surround once again provides a delightfully immersive experience, and the increased sound quality range puts this up there as a great example of a "demo disc" - one to show all your friends what a multi-channel soundtrack can sound like.

Titanic (James Horner) (SACD)
Nothing says "multi-channel surround" like Celine Dion coming at you from all sides. All kidding aside, the best part of the SACD version of Horner's Oscar-winning score is that the fidelity is so clear that you can truly hear things that you missed on the CD. Little touches, like the synth pads and some low-end elements give it a more realistic and tangible quality. A fine release, but the rear-channels are used more for expansive reverb than anything truly discrete.

War of the Worlds: The Musical (Jeff Wayne) (SACD)
This isn't really a film soundtrack, but Jeff Wayne's 1978 musical version of "War of the Worlds" features Richard Burton and has become a worldwide cult phenomenon, and in 2005 (timed to tie-in with the Spielberg film, one would guess), they released an SACD two-disc set. The music was remixed from the original 48-track masters, and it sounds amazing! Say it with me: "immersive sound and exceptional range". Very good, class.

Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone (Ennio Morricone) (DualDisc)
DualDisc isn't really anything more than a CD and a DVD glued together to look like one disc. This yields a thicker disc that is likely to get stuck in a slot-loaded player, so buyer beware! The CD side of this Yo-Yo Ma album is just the regular CD version, but the DVD-side contains the whole album in PCM 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1. Not the best quality audio out there, considering, but there is also some video content, including a video about the recording, and the USC Student Films that were filmed based on the works performed. In recent years, DualDisc has dropped off, with record labels instead opting for a "bonus DVD" approach, which is basically the same thing - except that none of them have thought to offer the soundtrack in 5.1 along with it.

Special thanks to Messrob Torikian. Last updated on February 19, 2006.