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Are DVD-Audio and SACD DOA?

Before I read the riot act to the music industry for its miserable failure to promote DVD-Audio and SACD?two new high-resolution formats that just might become instrumental in the troubled industry?s survival?let me start by pointing out that I am the kind of person the record companies should love. I actually buy their products and have been doing so for decades.

My music library got started during the all too brief heyday of freeform FM radio when DJs got to play what they liked without being bound by a playlist. (Today that way of doing things is limited to college stations and public radio.) When I heard something that excited me, I went out and bought it, and I still have shelves full of vinyl to prove it. It didn?t matter that I was just a kid earning pocket change by mowing lawns and raking leaves?records didn?t cost much then.

With the advent of the CD, the music industry effectively doubled its prices, but consumers in love with the convenience of the shiny disc bought them by the truckload anyway. However, the CD had some unintended longer-term consequences: The digitizing of music would eventually become a Trojan horse that would come back to haunt the industry. And CDs didn?t quite live up to their early promise of ?perfect sound forever,? leaving the door open to a better-sounding successor. Or, as it happened, successors: DVD-Audio and the Super Audio CD.

Now the industry is reaping the bitter harvest of the CD. The Baby Boom generation have re-bought as much classic rock on CD as they?re going to and aren?t as interested in new acts. The bad digitizing of music has caused a distancing effect?I actually believe both CD audio and MP3 have a veiling effect that makes our relationship with music less intense, more casual, putting music at a disadvantage. And CD prices are too high for college students and kids who mow lawns, forcing them to look for cheaper alternatives.

Hey, if CD audio already sounds inferior?and let me assure you, a format based on early-1980s digital technology is not exactly a hot item at audiophile wienie roasts?why not compress it a little further and pass it around for free? Now the industry is well and truly skewered.

But there is a way out. If the music industry offers music, new and old, in a better-sounding format, it might have a fighting chance at getting affluent Baby Boomers interested in buying music again. And if younger people have a chance to hear music the way it should really sound?with lots of high-frequency extension and a more natural, relaxed feel?they might get more interested in both high-end audio and the high-resolution music formats that feed it. As they grow older, they?d become what I am?the kind of consumer music companies need if they?re to survive.

What do most businesspeople do when business is bad? They reexamine their products and try to find ways to make ?em better. Quality has to go up. Pricing has to go down. What do the geniuses who run America?s record companies do when business is bad? They sue their own potential customers! The insanity of this is self-evident. Today?s downloading teenager just might be tomorrow?s affluent music-library builder. But if the industry antagonizes the young today, its chances for building relationships with tomorrow?s consumers grow slimmer and slimmer, along with its chances of survival.

Instead of litigating against its future customers, the industry should be offering them a more attractive value proposition. Instead of two channels of early-?80s digital, they should be offering 5.1 channels of 21st-century digital. And the brick-and-mortar retailers who are looking extinction in the face should be installing high-end surround gear in soundproofed listening rooms to give people a chance to hear what Dark Side of the Moon sounds like when all those alarm clocks go off in surround. If they don?t do it, Best Buy and Circuit City will (or at least that?s the way it happens in my fantasy life).

I remember what it was like when the LP gave way to the CD. It was like a tidal wave. One moment the record stores of America were filled with vinyl. Then suddenly there was a single rack with a few dozen outrageously priced CDs, like a tiny island in a sea of vinyl. Within what seemed like minutes the vinyl had disappeared and suddenly America had a new favorite music format. Oh, and you couldn?t pay $7 for a new album anymore!

By the way, the term album should properly refer to any longform recording, and the term record to any recording. These terms are not vinyl-specific. But the CD tidal wave was so aggressive that it swept away everything in its path including the terms album and record.

I keep waiting for a high-resolution audio to trigger a similar tsunami. But tiny islands of SACDs and DVD-Audio titles in my local Tower Records have not grown into mighty continents.

There may be reasons having nothing to do with the failures of the music industry?s puny brain trust: Maybe journalists and critics like me haven?t done a good enough job of convincing people that one shiny five-inch disc is better than another. If so, we should try harder, and perhaps the music press would like to chime in too! And the format war hasn?t helped: DVD-Audio and SACD both sound excellent but one of them would be sufficient.

It?s also likely that music as a packaged-good product is on its way out and that the shift to downloading is a longterm trend in consumer habits. In that case, the music industry must figure out a way to make DSD (the digital language of SACD) and high-bit PCM (the digital language of DVD-Audio) available as affordable downloads?and by the way, $1 a song just doesn?t cut it. If I?m paying for the disc, or the hard drive, I?m not going to pay CD prices for downloads.

Another missing ingredient is community. Word of mouth is still powerful but it needs some assistance. When I was a kid, I had freeform radio to feed my head, just as today?s kids have the fraternity of online activity. So far the music industry hasn?t offered a compelling replacement for either.

But the biggest reason why DVD-Audio and SACD haven?t hit big is that the software simply isn?t there. Record companies persist in offering most of their new releases in antiquated two-channel early-?80s digital and virtually none of them in today?s high-res audio formats. You can buy an SACD/DVD-Audio combo player for less than $150 on the street (the Zenith XBV342) but you can?t buy much to play in those formats.

There are signs of life out there, little blinks of intelligence just barely visible on the horizon. If you go out and buy a copy of, say, Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones, you?re likely to get a hybrid SACD/CD release whether you know it or not. The hybrid SACD/CD release has replaced the plain-CD release. It?ll play on any CD player but will reveal its true colors on an SACD-compatible player. Quietly slipping SACD into the music libraries of CD buyers is a brilliant idea, and the fact that the format supports a regular CD layer makes it possible.

DVD-Audio is at a slight disadvantage?most DVD-Audio titles have no CD layer, though that may change in the future. But DVD-Audio releases do offer an alternate soundtrack in Dolby Digital that?ll play (and in surround!) on any DVD-Video player. As DVD players continue blow CD players right off our racks, that?s a good asset to have.

So you can have your Stones in SACD. But you can?t have Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street. And where are the Beatles? For that matter, why isn?t there a high-res release of the latest Outkast album? Why is Sony?the co-inventor of the SACD format?issuing fewer classical titles in SACD than Telarc?!

The music industry, as it is constituted right now, deserves to die (except for Telarc). It is too stupid to live. If it offers a better product, the prospects for its longterm survival may improve, but for that to happen we need to see at least half the albums in Billboard?s Top 200 offered in either DVD-Audio or SACD?including every title in every week?s Top 10.

Maybe not all artists are comfortable mixing in surround?at least, not yet?but even just offering the stereo mixes in high-res digital would be a big improvement. Surround would be icing on the cake.

It seems incredible that, rather than take advantage of a golden chance to phase out the CD in favor of something that?s more secure and sounds better, the music industry is instead adding onerous copy-protection technology to the CD, effectively making an obsolete product worse.

Until the industry is willing to demonstrate some commitment to the latest in high-end music-delivery technology, it will soon be as extinct as the dinosaur. Who knows? Maybe we?ll luck out and it?ll be replaced by something better.

Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater.

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