February 2000

Toy Matinee - Toy Matinee
DTS Digital Surround
Reprise Records 71021-51030-2-0
Originally released: 1990
DTS released: 1999

by Greg Smith

Original Quality ****1/2
Remaster Quality ****1/2

[Reviewed on DTS CD]Toy Matinee stands out as one of my all-time favorite albums while also being a challenging recording that serves me regularly as a reviewing tool. So I jumped to obtain a copy of the new DTS version, remastered into surround. Little did I know this would plunge me into a several-month-long frenzy of upgrading my surround system. First off, compared with the Genesis APM-1 speakers up front, the little B&W 602s I was using for rear channels had neither the right tonal balance nor sufficient bass extension to do this recording justice. I tried returning the NEAR 50MII speakers to service in their place, which was a much better match. Still unable to get the bass sounding right, I discovered one of the woofers had been damaged somewhere along the line, so off it went for repair. Meanwhile, experiments with DTS began to suggest that operating with a phantom center channel was also a sub-par experience; some producers use the left and right speakers to support the center in a fashion that just doesn't sound correct when folded down into only two front speakers. I tried to obtain samples of the Genesis 700 speakers suggested as matching center and surround models to the APM-1s, only to discover they were being discontinued in favor of an improved replacement, which wasn't really available yet.   Arrrgh.

Finally, after months of delays, I had a home-theater setup with five speakers that almost match perfectly. The new Genesis 750 speakers use the same basic tweeter and woofer as the APM-1, but the drivers are shielded and the crossover tweaked to compensate for the lack of a midrange driver and subwoofer. Once setup correctly, the improvement in the all Genesis system from the stuff I'd cobbled together was stunning. The lesson I learned is this: If you're just looking for surround to play movies with, by all means save money on the rear speakers by recycling older units or avoid buying a center. But if you want to play the current crop of high-quality DTS recordings or the newer multichannel DVDs, a full array of matched speakers with decent bass extension all around (down to at least 60Hz) is a must. The DTS version of Toy Matinee sounded awful until I got all five speakers to sound homogenous and run full-range.

The other lesson I learned is that if you fast forward through the middle of a DTS CD, your surround decoder will probably lose sync with the DTS signal and turn everything into noise until you return to normal playback speed. The first time you try this it's quite a shock. Anyway, onto the comparison.

"Last Plane Out"

  • Stereo: The soundstage on this track is so expansive, it sounds like it's coming from all around you even in stereo. This is especially true if you're using dipolar speakers up front, as I often do. On the minus side, the cymbals could be better.
  • DTS: On the instrument sound side of things, the acoustic guitar strings have a fuller sound and resolve better with this mix. The bass is tighter, but there's not as much of the in-your-chest kick as the stereo release. Where things get interesting is the use of the rear speakers. Some of the little background sound effects are moved to the rear, which makes for easier discrimination compared with the denser stereo version. All background vocals go the rear, which makes it easier to distinguish all the guys singing along. At 2:30 into the song, there's a slightly different cut to the music that I find a bit disconcerting. Overall, the rear is used for two things: Some instruments and voices get moved there wholesale, but there's also a lot of ambiance that supports the material in the front speakers.

"Turn it on Salvador"

  • Stereo: There's just isn't enough space between two speakers to contain everything going on in this raucous tune.
  • DTS: Background vocals are again moved to the rear, but as they're less prominent here, it works much better than the previous track. There's also an occasional instrument thrown backwards as well, usually to good effect. What most impresses me is the extra resolution DTS's 20-bit remastering process brings during portions of the song that are mostly stereo. In particular, the percussion snaps are considerably crisper, and their room echo is supported slightly by some rear material. Out of all the songs on the album, I consider this track the best usage of surround to support the music.

"Things She Said"

  • Stereo: This is the first track on my CD of demo music I play when reviewing equipment; there's not much to criticize.
  • DTS: The background synthesizer is really enhanced by the surround here: it's enveloping and oppressive, which suits the music perfectly. The backup vocals stay up front on this one, but there's some rear-fill bleed on them I thought was well mixed. You do find the occasional tambourine or guitar lick in the rear, but that's about it. This track sounds the closest to the stereo version, but DTS delivers a bit more of a realistic sizzle on the cymbals while using surround to improve overall ambiance. It's not a song to play if you're looking for a flashy demo of multichannel music, but it's a great use of the extra speakers anyway.

The sound tuning required for DTS music is a bit more intensive than regular home theater. A lot of sloppiness that you can normally get away with sticks out playing this material. I find that for movies, I often nudge the volume control for the center channel down a bit from what noise-testing suggests is optimal because the dialog is too forward otherwise. With this DTS recording in particular, I found myself even wanting to increase the center volume a touch, as there's so much going on in the other channels the front vocal can get lost sometimes.

DTS music seems to come in three groups. The best titles released in this format, like Nathaniel Rosen: Reverie or Alan Parsons: On Air, make their stereo counterparts obsolete. Given the choice, I would never listen to either of those two titles in stereo again because the surround recordings are a better experience in every way. The second class of DTS releases include titles that use surround excessively, and in my judgment they fail to preserve the original music as a result. A popular DTS demo disc, Steely Dan's Gaucho, falls into that category. It recalls the old quad demos designed to show off how much you could put into the rear, rather than focusing on how surround can be used to improve stereo recordings in a more subtle fashion. Toy Matinee falls in the middle of these two extremes. I'm impressed that the DTS remastering shows improvements in overall sonic clarity at the instrument level over the near-reference-quality original release, as it suggests their gentle compression process can make outstanding-sounding CDs even if you ignore their multichannel capabilities. It would be instructive to hear some stereo DTS releases just to see how their compression compares against the popular noise-shaping techniques normally used to convert recordings with greater than 16 bits of resolution down to CD-storage capabilities. As far as use of surround goes, I find about half the tracks on Toy Matinee to be very well balanced. The other tracks use the rear too much for effects purposes to suit my tastes, although this can be entertaining or useful from a musical-isolation perspective.

When I go reaching for a Toy Matinee CD, odds are 50/50 I'll pick the stereo or the DTS version. I consider both well worth owning, and considering the original release is now out of print, I heartily congratulate DTS for putting a well-made version back on the market.

Special news: The estate of the late Kevin Gilbert, genius songwriter and the voice behind Toy Matinee, has finally released his long delayed rock opera The Shaming of the True. See www.kevingilbert.com for ordering details. Also still available directly from prarecords.com and many record stores is Gilbert's brilliant solo release Thud.