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Man of Steel: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Limited Deluxe Edition Review

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Man of Steel Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Limited Deluxe EditionI feel a little ashamed of myself right now. For the past few months, I’ve been pimping the DTS Headphone:X download included with the Man of Steel: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Limited Deluxe Edition as if it were the second coming of Superman himself or something.

And with good reason. The Headphone:X demo at CES was noodle-blowing. The vocal channel ID demo included with the Z+ Music App released this weekend was slobber-worthy. The score itself — well, I suppose some critique of that is in order, even though most of you are probably already familiar with the music from the trailers, preview clips, and even leaked bits of the score that have surfaced recently.

I’ve finally settled down for a complete play-through of Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel score — twice now — and despite my previous hesitant assessment that it lacked the melody and majesty of John Williams’ original score for Superman: The Movie, as a work in and of itself, when taken as a whole, I’m digging the hell out of it.

It’s much more memorable than Zimmer’s work on Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises, which all worked within the context of the film’s themselves, but I double-dare more than a handful of you to hum a single bar of any of those scores. Granted, some cuts of Man of Steel are more memorable than others, but standouts like “This is Clark Kent” (the piece featured in the third theatrical trailer), and the ever-popular-already “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” are, to me, some of Zimmer’s best work since The Lion King. Not that it sounds anything like The Lion King, mind you. In fact, if anything, at times the Man of Steel score evokes Blue Man Group, especially in cuts like “Oil Rig.”

The Limited Deluxe Edition also includes a second disc with a half-hour “Man of Steel (Hans’ Original Sketchbook)” that I can already see myself returning to again and again. Despite its name, it’s a really polished work that explores many of the themes fleshed out in the individual tracks, and works as a sort of aural color study for the emotional and musical ups and downs of the finished work. The bonus tracks are also a very welcomed inclusion, especially “Are You Listening, Clark?” which sounds like an early, alternate take on “This is Clark Kent.”

Man of Steel Z+ Music App

Seriously, at this point I cannot wait to hear these tracks in surround sound. If only. Yes, I know I’ve been touting the amazing surround processing of DTS Headphone:X. Yes, I know the format is capable of such an incredibly realistic 11.1-channel simulated surround soundfield experience from regular old headphones. Sadly, though, that potential isn’t even hinted at in the Man of Steel Headphone:X experience via the Z+ App.

After downloading the tracks into the app (via the download code included in the Man of Steel: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Limited Deluxe Edition packaging), I tested it out with in-ear monitors (RBH’s amazing EP2 noise-isolating earphones), on-ear headphones (B&W’s P3), and over-ear cans (V-Moda’s M-100 and Audeze’s LCD2), and via all three, the DTS Headphone:X experience exuded the sort of midrangey, bloated, smeared audio experience you get with really bad DSP surround processing, with a hefty helping of cheap electronic reverb dumped on top of it all for ill effect. The change in tonality and muddying of the music are bad enough; what’s worse is that there really isn’t any appreciable surround effect. At all. I thought I heard a bit of a distinct spatial effect in “Oil Rig,” only to switch over to the two-channel version and find that it was there, too.Z+ Music App headphone selection With no processing of any kind. All of which leads me to believe that, when encoding this mix, some sort of processed two-channel version was used instead of an actual 5.1, 7.1, or even 11.1 discrete mix. That’s a guess on my part, but for the future of this format, I really hope it’s a correct guess.

Worse still, the fidelity of the audio from within the app is really bad. Seriously horrifically tragically bad. You can easily toggle between the DTS and non-DTS version of the soundtrack at the press of a button in the app, and when comparing the standard stereo experience to even a middling 256kbps variable bitrate rip of the CD on the same iPhone, the CD rip delivers way more in terms of not only detail and clarity, but dynamic range, as well, and lacks of the popping, clicking, and stuttering that plagues the DTS Headphone:X version. Whether that’s the fault of the encode, the mix, or the Z+ app, I don’t know, but it’s troubling nonetheless.

Thankfully, the DTS Headphone:X download isn’t the only mobile extra included in the package. The booklet also includes a number of glyphs at the bottom corners of select pages, and when you aim the WaterTower Music app at said glyphs, you’ll be treated to some neat (if terribly compressed) behind-the-scenes videos of Zimmer at work, all of which I hope end up on the eventual Man of Steel Blu-ray. Unfortunately, they’re not included on the CDs themselves, which is a shame, because I’d really like to watch them in higher resolution, with better sound. Nonetheless, their inclusion from within the app is appreciated.

WaterTower Music Man of Steel app

Despite all of the negativity above, I feel like the Man of Steel: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Limited Deluxe Edition is a worthy purchase. The steelbook packaging is super swanky and the bonus disc is one I think I may end up listening to more than the main disc itself. It’s just a shame that the DTS Headphone:X experience is so lackluster.

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15 Comments

  1. Can you take a photo of this steelbook packaging? I want to know if it’s the same like European version, because on visualization it doesn’t look like a steelbook:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Man-Of-Steel-Original-Soundtrack/dp/B00C5WR6JY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1370983212&sr=8-1&keywords=man+of+steel

    and if it’s not the same, than I will order it from US Amazon :P

    Tom
    • Tom, I posted a quick snapshot earlier on our Instagram account: http://instagram.com/p/abb6aon5aN/

      It definitely does not look like that image on the Amazon.co.uk page. That could have been an earlier mockup, though.

      Dennis Burger
  2. Dennis,

    Thanks for full out review about the DTS Headphone:X version of the Soundtrack. I was just on my way to order this from Amazon simply because of this. Having already gotten my hands on the FLAC version I thought the DTS might be a new way of listening to this beautiful soundtrack. Again, thanks.

    roberto
    • Well, it’s definitely a new way of listening to the score. It’s just not a very good one!

      Dennis Burger
  3. Without telling us the run time, & file size of the bad version we can’t tell if it was the compressed audio or the application responsible for the bad DTS result. And the fact that you found the audio of the extra disappointing, makes me wonder what the point of buying a Deluxe version would be? If the difference in price gets you disappointing content, why recommend it at all?

    M Noivad
    • As I said, the bonus tracks on the second CD are fantastic (well, assuming you like the score), the packaging is nifty, and the WaterTower Music app unlocks some interesting videos, even if they are overly compressed and should have been included on the discs themselves.

      Oh, and for the file size, the Z+ app grows by about 400 MB after all of the soundtrack is downloaded, which is right at an hour and 55 minutes’ worth of music.

      Dennis Burger
  4. Then the audio is over compressed: 400MB is only enough to store the audio at less than 10% of its size if it was original just 16-bit 44.1kHz audio (given than 1 minute of audio is ~5MB/channel). That is assuming only 5 channels. You cannot expect to have anything even remotely decent at more than 5–6:1 compression with current technology. The better your equipment and the better your ear for imperfections; the more flaws show at higher bit rates. Basically, you are expecting fidelity out of what is probably close to 128Kbps compression at just 5 channels, which, on halfway decent equipment, even novices can hear when A/B’ing the audio. If you heard a slight warbling phase effect that is a telltale sign of lower bit rates. If it was 11 channels it would have been around 64Kbps, and the only people who can’t hear that difference are half deaf.
    Re-reading your review, the sketchbook, only included in the LE, is reason alone to buy the extra content, though. I thought the main draw was the downloadable content since you opened with it and put much emphasis on it. Thanks for the review.

    M Noivad
  5. The compression is certainly part of it (although my 256kbps vbr rip of the CD clocks in at about 210MB, and sounds positively revelatory compared to the in-app DTS experience). But I don’t think it tells the entire story. Lossy compression alone doesn’t account for the radical shifts in tonality (the bloated bass, the jacked-up midrange), nor the ridiculously brickwalled dynamic range. Also, for what it’s worth, I really don’t think there’s any way anything more than two channels of audio were encoded here.

    It’s such a shame, because the technology is capable of oh-so-much. The implementation for the Man of Steel score, though, is absolutely dreadful. And dreadfully flat.

    Dennis Burger
  6. You are comparing a file with 2 channels to a 5 or 11 channel stream, file size at the same bit rate would be 2.5 to 5.5 times higher. So, that explains at lot when you think of it that way.

    M Noivad
  7. The DTS track is just stereo, with perhaps 11.1 virtualised speaker signals, so the A/B comparison between the two versions is absolutely correct and valid – and informative if the bit-rates are the same.
    Recent investigations (BBC for example) have shown that for music, over headphones, normal ‘in-your-head’ stereo is preferred to virtualised ‘out-of-your-head’ binaural – and for all the same reasons that are listed in the article.
    So perhaps it’s not a fault of the DTS algorithm.

    Mike
    • What’s interesting, though, is that the Headphone:X demo at CES included music and movie samples, and they sounded really fantastic. Unlike any other virtual surround headphone tech I’ve ever auditioned. There truly was a sense of space, a feeling of distinct front and rear soundstages. Quite frankly, it blew Dolby Headphone out of the water.

      But with the Man of Steel score — even setting aside the radical tonal shifts — there just isn’t any sense of dimensionality at all. It’s just fat stereo. Fat, bloated, bass-boosted, brickwalled stereo.

      Dennis Burger
  8. But the comparison that you made at the CES, between DTS-HPX and real loudspeakers, is not the same as the comparison that you’re making with the CD.
    Headphone reproduced stereo always sounds clean, dynamic and well controlled when compared to reproduction over loudspeakers – the listening room can introduce muddiness, bass resonances, loss of high-frequency detail etc etc., and these problems could then transfer over to the DTS-HPX version of the CD.
    Perhaps if you were to compare the DTS-HPX version with a real loudspeaker version, it might not sound so bad – not sure though.
    Certainly this is not an ideal way to introduce DTS-HPX to the masses.

    Mike
    • Hey Mike,

      You’re right, of course. It’s apples to rutabagas. But I’ve also done a lot of comparison between the Headphone:X version and the CD played over both my hi-fi system in the den (Anthem D2v, Paradigm Studio 100 speakers, both in stereo and processed surround), as well as my desktop system in the office, using Paradigm bookshelves and an Emotiva DAC.

      The point, though, there are really two distinct issues here. The Headphone:X demo at CES demonstrated that the technology is capable of creating a convincing surround soundstage, which isn’t in evidence on the Man of Steel score. It’s completely flat. Furthermore, even the stereo version of the score from within the Z+ app is dynamically brickwalled and tonally “off.” Not as bad as the “surround” version, but still noticeably so.

      I’ve made virtually every useful comparison I could make — stereo in-app to stereo CD rip; surround in-app to DTS Neo:6 (and PLII) processed surround via the CD in the home theater; stereo and surround in-app to stereo playback in the home theater — and the DTS Headphone:X experience with this soundtrack comes up seriously lacking in all cases. In terms of fidelity, dynamics, and tonal balance, it’s awful compared to both the CD and an MP3 rip, both through speakers and a room, and with headphones. And when compared to the CES demo, it’s utterly lacking in any form of surround effect.

      Despite all of that, I really do still believe in the potential of this technology. I just think the implementation — for whatever reason — was horrible in this instance.

      Dennis Burger
  9. I disagree that the themes in Man of Steel are more memorable than TDK. There are about 4 recurring themes in the Dark Knight Score I constantly hum all the time, on demand, without reference. You’d have to be tone def not to. The motifs repeat all the time.

    zeroalias
    • zeroalias, I think that makes you a member of a very select group! In my defense, I did say, “I double-dare more than a handful of you to hum a single bar of any of those scores.” I think you’re part of the handful. HA!

      Seriously, though, as much as I love the Dark Knight score in the context of the film, it has just never stuck with me purely in and of itself. I have the CD. I’ve probably listened to it five times. It just didn’t infect me the way the Man of Steel score has.

      Dennis Burger