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review added: 2/10/99



Dances With Wolves (DTS)
1990 (1999) - Orion (Image Entertainment/DTS)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Encoded with DTS 5.1 Digital SurroundEnhanced for 16x9 TVs

Film Rating: A+
Winner of the 1990 Best Picture Oscar, and deservedly so. This story, of one man's journey of discovery into the heart of Native America, will linger in your thoughts for a long time.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A+/B
This disc features the same digital film transfer used in the Dolby Digital version, but oddly, prior to THX's involvement. The DTS 5.1 sound is excellent, adding a slight measure of clarity and improved cohesiveness to the sound environment. Extras here are the same as the Dolby Digital version.

Overall Rating: A-
Image's first version of Dances With Wolves on DVD was a winner on all counts. For this release, DTS has added a small measure of quality to the audio, but having to watch this film split over 2 discs is irksome. DVD is supposed to make multiple disc releases unnecessary, isn't it?

[Editor's Note: This is a comparative review. Many references will be made to the Dolby Digital version of this film on DVD, a full review of which can be found here. You may wish to read it first, to fully appreciate the comparisons.]

Specs and Features

181 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, 2 discs (disc 1 - single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at the start of chapter 9, at 58:09), disc 2 - single-sided, single-layered, starts at approx. 122 mins into the film), dual Snapper packaging with slip-case, new audio commentary track by director Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson, cast and crew filmographies, animated film-themed menu screens with sound effects, scene access (25 chapters over 2 discs), languages: English (DTS 5.1 and Dolby Surround 4.0), subtitles & captions: English

Review

I've already reviewed the Dolby Digital version of Dances With Wolves on DVD, so I'm not going to waste time discussing the film itself here. You may wish to click the link above, or here to read that review before you continue. All of my comments here will be dedicated to that all important question - in what ways are this DTS version different (either improved or otherwise) from the Dolby Digital version. So let's get down to business.

We'll start with the video. As with the Dolby Digital version, this DTS release of Dances presents the viewer with an anamorphic widescreen picture. The film transfer itself is identical on both versions. However, some of you may recall that the Dolby Digital version was THX-certified. DTS, it appears, has simply used the same master, prior to THX's involvement. Why they made this decision is puzzling, although cost may have been a factor. Still, THX did clean up a few minor defects in the print (dust, print damage, etc...). These do not appear in the Dolby Digital DVD, but are occasionally apparent here. It's not a major issue - all in all the quality is still very, very high.

The next issue, with regard to the video, is DTS's claim of using a higher video bit-rate to improve the image quality. Sure enough, looking at the bit-rate meter on both the Sony 7700, and Pioneer DV-414, the DTS version holds to almost a constant 7.5+ megabits per second, while the Dolby version varies considerably (at a much lower average rate). There's good news and bad news here. The bad news (for DTS) is that this seems to have made virtually no difference whatsoever in the picture quality. Keep in mind, I'm watching on a properly-calibrated Mitsubishi rear-projection TV, via the component inputs. And my trained eye saw very little difference, other than a few minor things (I'll talk more about that in a minute). The good news, for everyone who loves DVD, is that properly done MPEG-2 compression REALLY can look tremendous. The information lost when using a lower, more variable bit-rate, appears to really be redundant for the most part. The extra space can thus be used for longer films, more extras and the like. That said, one wonders why this film had to be split over two discs (again, I'll talk more about that in a moment).

Back to those minor differences I talked about in the picture quality. Image and DTS used different authoring facilities to prepare these two DVD releases. Occasionally, as I compared the two, I would notice VERY slightly better color rendition or detail resolution in one version. Then, examining the other version closely, I'd notice a similar difference in some other scene. The bottom line is that the video on both is excellent. Any minor differences are the result of the fact that two different facilities were involved. But there's simply no way to say that the quality is better on one than the other, other than the THX issue.

On to the audio. There's been much said on the Internet about DTS mixes being somewhat "louder" than comparable Dolby Digital mixes. I had no experience with this, until I listened to this DVD. I heard an audibly louder sound. Using a Radio Shack-issue audio meter, I checked to see if my ears were deceiving me, and the evidence was undeniable - the DTS mix was slightly louder. And it's basic physics that when sound is louder (up to a certain point), it's perceived to be "clearer" to the human ear. So, armed with this knowledge, and using my trusty sound meter (and calibration discs with a series of test tones), I set out to match the sound levels on my Dolby Digital and DTS decoders. There will be no bias here, thank you very much.

With matched levels, we began our audio comparison again. It's important to note that the 5.1 sound mix is excellent on both DVD versions. Dialogue sounds natural, bass is good and deep where appropriate. But I did still notice something of an improvement in the DTS version. The DTS mix still seemed to be slightly clearer, and "cleaner" (or more transparent) when resolving certain sounds. There seemed to be a slightly wider range of sound - bass seemed richer, while high-frequency sounds seemed more clear and crisp. During the Civil War battlefield sequence, a perfect example is the "pot-shot" that a Confederate soldier takes at Dunbar when he's standing in a daze - the report is clearer and more full sounding on the DTS version.

The DTS audio also seemed to be somewhat more enveloping, for lack of a better word. There was a fuller and more realistic sound environment created by the DTS, whereas the Dolby Digital version tended to be more directional, front to back. All in all, though, both audio mixes were first-rate. Neither will fail to please.

In terms of other features, Dolby Surround 4.0 sound is also included on the DTS disc, and it's fine (but nothing compared to either of the 5.1 mixes). The same commentary track that is found on the Dolby Digital 5.1 DVD, is included here. The DTS version also includes the same filmographies.

One thing that disappointed me about the DTS release, however, is that it was split over two DVDs. The first is an RSDL dual-layered disc, containing the first two hours of the film. The second is a single-layered disc, with the remainder. On both discs, you must select whether you want to listen to DTS 5.1 or Dolby Surround 4.0, before the disc starts playing (when you make the DTS choice on the first disc, the DTS logo will play before the film). Look, I was never a huge laserdisc buyer, because I really dislike having to get up and switch discs in the middle of a film. Some early DVDs needed to be flipped (until the RSDL process was perfected), but since then, most longer films are included on one dual-layered disc. I don't mind a DVD disc flip, in cases where the original film had a built-in intermission (Oliver for example), but I don't like to have to swap discs on DVD in cases like this. The Dolby Digital version of Dances With Wolves fit just fine on one disc. I would rather DTS had dropped the commentary track if necessary, to get it all on one disc, than use two separate DVDs. That's a big point off in my book (accounting for my A- overall rating), and I hope DTS doesn't do it again.

Bottom line

Both of the available DVD versions of Dances With Wolves look and sound spectacular. If you don't have DTS-capability, don't fret - the Dolby Digital version really delivers. If are DTS-ready, you might appreciate the subtle improvements in the audio on this DVD version. On the other hand, if you've never really been a laserdisc user, you might find having to swap discs annoying. That said, I heartily recommend both versions. If you love Dances, you can't go wrong with either.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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