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New functions on the display make up for the lack of buttons on the remote
Xbox 360 HD DVD drive now with better aural pleasure

Last week, the Xbox 360 received its Spring Dashboard software, and today the console gets a software update for its HD DVD add-on peripheral. The most notable in this update are improvements to the player’s ability to decode audio streams.

Prior to the update, the Xbox 360 HD DVD player had difficulties decoding Dolby TrueHD audio, leading some titles, such as Nine Inch Nails: Beside You In Time and Poseidon, to exhibit “static popping” and “clipping” during playback. The new software resolved all such audio issues.

While the HD DVD player supports all audio formats for the spec, the Xbox 360 hardware itself is unable to output the true lossless Dolby TrueHD stream. Instead, the Xbox 360 downsamples the lossless stream into a lossy bitstream that can be outputted via the console’s optical toslink connection. Added in the new software update is a full bitrate 1.5 Mbps DTS and WMA Pro as an option for downmixed audio output, along with the previous 640 kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 option.

Even movies without Dolby TrueHD tracks will likely get a boost in audio quality. The original software for the drive ran the audio in a perpetual “night mode,” which dynamically compressed the range of the soundtrack. The update now allows the user to disable the dynamic range compression, leading to a greatly expanded aural experience.

“[The old software] 360 HD DVD audio is reducing dynamic range and that makes the sound worse than it needs to be,” explained Amir Majidimehr, corporate VP at Microsoft’s Consumer Media Technology Group. “The new software unlocks the dynamic range and will give you a pretty big boost in performance.”

Tests of the HD DVD add-on’s playback before and after the update demonstrated that the new software does indeed resolve all known Dolby TrueHD decoding issues. The audio from the Nine Inch Nails concert disc sounds noticeably better after the update, though audiophiles would still be able to identify differences between the downmixed track and a lossless Dolby TrueHD track from a standalone HD DVD machine. Majidimehr is confident that the improved audio options offered by 1.5 Mbps DTS and WMA Pro streams will make the compressed streams nearly indistinguishable to all but the most dedicated audiophiles.

Compatibility of the player has also been improved, fixing certain disc-specific issues. Some users reported that the audio would fall out to of sync with the video on certain Dolby TrueHD titles, such as Batman Begins, though all those issues are now said to be resolved. “Let me say that we have fixed all the lip sync issues reported. So there should be no concerns about that in general,” assured Majidimehr.

The last bit of noticeable change in the new software is the additions of subtitle, camera angle and audio buttons – functions that do not exist on the Xbox 360 media remote. Now users can toggle those settings from the display button rather than having to navigate through the disc’s software menu.

The new Xbox 360 HD DVD software is available now and is automatically downloaded as soon as a user is connected to Xbox Live and attempts to play a movie. Along with the great strides in audio, Microsoft has also improved image quality for those using a VGA output on the Xbox 360, helping the console match up even better against standalone HD DVD players.

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