Mark Henninger takes a listen to the album's hi-res 24/96 5.1-channel mix—as well as the 2-channel CD version—using Atmos' new Dolby Surround upmixing.
Listening to Pink Floyd is practically synonymous with shopping for a stereo system. Over 40 years ago, Dark Side of the Moon cemented the group's reputation for quality music production. Thanks to its fidelity, that album continues to be a top choice for stereo-system demos, with "Money" and "Time" enjoying perpetual popularity as a result. So I was curious about The Endless River's Blu-ray release, which includes a mix in uncompressed 24/96 5.1 audio. When the album went on sale this past Tuesday, I went to my local Best Buy and bought it.
Before I get into the listening experience, I should mention that I recently set up an Atmos-capable surround system, which I plan to review in the near future. The Pioneer Elite SC-85 Atmos-enabled receiver includes a Dolby Surround mode that expands content—be it 2-channel or multi-channel—into an immersive-sound experience. I used that setting for my first listening session—using the 5.1 mix of The Endless River—and the result was sensational. The instrumental sounds appeared as distinct objects floating in 3D space. Ambient guitar drones swelled to immense proportions, and the bass was deep and tight. The immersive soundfield took stereo imaging to another level, and it was intoxicating.
As soon as I turned off the Atmos-powered Dolby Surround function, the 5.1 mix collapsed into two dimensions—the dome of sound turned into a disc. As a result, I lost the sensation of being in space, coexisting with the music. With Dolby Surround activated, the mix once again sounded fully enveloping, immersive, and spacey. At one point during the 5.1 listening session, my wife Danya started discussing astronomy and the recent comet probe landing. The association between Pink Floyd and outer space—reinforced by countless laser-light shows at planetariums—is a cliché that remains applicable to this day.
A switch to CD version provided another, equally impressive audio experience. In fact, I am convinced the stereo mix provides an even better experience than the 5.1 version. I immediately noticed the improved cohesiveness of the soundfield with the stereo mix—the 5.1 version actually sounds thin by comparison. The CD's sound was rich and full, and it filled the room despite the lower resolution and channel count.
As I listened to the CD, I toggled the Dolby Surround processing on and off, and quickly settled on leaving it activated—the result was my favorite rendition of the album. Simply put, the Atmos-expanded version of the 2-channel mix matched my expectation for how the album should sound. To my ears, it was as if the band was playing live in my own studio.
From a purely subjective standpoint, a switch back to the Blu-ray 5.1 mix did not result in better sound quality; instead, it provided a different perspective. Whereas the 5.1 version puts you in the middle of the soundfield, which is the musician's perspective, the stereo mix puts the band on a stage and you in the audience. Dolby Surround adds the element of room ambiance to the equation, and the result is sublime, if not groundbreaking—great production does not guarantee great art.
Ultimately, The Endless River is not as engaging from beginning to end as I would have wished. The album has four parts, which group the tracks into "sides" 1-4, reflecting the song arrangement on the vinyl double album. It does start off strong; the first three tracks—side 1—are my favorites. However, I did not write this article to criticize the music—my interest lies in the quality of the two mixes and the effectiveness of Dolby Surround upmixing. The experience cemented my impression that the new, Atmos-based iteration of Dolby Surround improves just about everything I play through it. In Pink Floyd's case, the improvement was such that it transformed the 2-channel CD mix into my favorite way to listen to the album, whereas the 5.1 mix sans Dolby Surround was my least favorite.
In my view, The Endless River is an impeccably produced demo disc for high-end surround-sound systems as well as 2-channel stereos. Depending on your taste in ambient instrumental space rock, it could qualify as good—or even great. Nevertheless, I suspect quite a few listeners who buy the Blu-ray version will listen to it once, take note of a favorite track or two, and put it on a shelf. Even though Pink Floyd's final effort is an imperfect album, thanks to The Endless River's excellent production values and the nostalgia I feel for the band, it will remain in my collection. I am grateful that Pink Floyd released its fifteenth album—this is a band that truly cares about audio fidelity, and it shows.
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