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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
July 1999

Wait and See

Are you like so many audiophiles -- waiting for the introduction of a new two-channel high-definition digital format? The industry knows you’re holding your breath -- and money -- and companies making CD players can feel the slowdown in sales in their bottom lines. But they have no recourse; three new formats have been in the works for over two years, and as long as everyone is speculating about what’s to come, consumers don’t want to make a move for fear that their money will be wasted.

But should you be waiting and wondering, or is the writing on the wall in terms of the rollout of software and hardware? There are a number of companies involved, all with seemingly competing technologies. Thus, there are more than a couple of scenarios for the implementation of the Next Big Thing, from single-technology rollouts to ones that involve agreements between the major players. But only one scenario shows that the interested parties are doing the most to ensure your easy transition from CD, which is still a very popular format, and thus the new format’s best chance at ultimate success.

The SACD format, developed by Sony and Philips, was on prominent display in Chicago at the HI-FI ’99 Show. The claims for it are impressive: single-layer, dual-layer and hybrid formats; the ability to record and index up to 255 tracks on each disc; over 100 minutes of two-channel audio. DSD is the decoding/encoding process used, and it offers an impressive 2.8224mHz sampling frequency, 64 times higher than that of CD.

DVD-Audio, the competing format, is championed by Meridian and Warner Music among other companies. The important concept behind DVD-Audio is Meridian, Lossless Packing, MLP for short, a compression scheme developed by Meridian and its associates and adopted by the DVD-Audio consortium for use on DVD-Audio discs. Although DVD-Audio is a compressed format, it is not like MP3 because MLP is touted as "lossless" -- no information is approximated or discarded. Although DVD-Audio is still a PCM format at its core, claims for it include 24-bit resolution and up to a 192kHz sampling frequency, much greater than for current CDs.

We covered the SACD press conference in Chicago and reported that the sound from Sony’s SACD demo was terrific. We also attended the DVD-Audio demo, and here again we were impressed. The most straightforward plans for these two technologies are for the various companies involved to go it alone and roll out hardware and software that is mutually exclusive -- unable to accommodate the other guy’s discs and players. However, the likelihood of this happening is becoming increasingly slim. Sony has announced the intent to include DVD-Audio support in its SACD players. However, Sony originally announced that all SACDs would be "hybrid" discs playable in CD players at normal CD resolution and in SACD players at high resolution. Sony has since softened on this, saying that some of the discs would be "hybrids" and thus backwards-compatible with older CD-playback equipment, leaving the door open for single-layer SACD-only discs.

What are the odds that SACD and DVD-Audio will become bedfellows? Pretty good, I think. If there’s anything that will injure or kill the next audio-only format it's the perception that there are actually two new formats and they are not compatible. Add to this the cost of players and software -- the first SACD player with many audiophile-approved goodies will cost $5000 -- and the chances for a creative, inclusive solution increase.

But there is a wild card in all of this. As many audiophiles already know, there has been a high-definition format --hardware and software -- available for over a year. DAD/SAD discs have been playable on DVD-Video players, many of which are boldly labeled as having "24-bit/96kHz DACs," for some time as well as a select number of audiophile-grade DVD-Video players like the CAL CL-20 and Muse Eight/296 combination. Whenever you read audio writers crowing about the superiority of 24/96, they’re referring to this format. What’s most intriguing, however, is that there’s already a large installed base of the DVD players that can play the discs, as many as nine million by one estimate. Couple this with DVD-Video players that cost as little as $239 and suddenly this format looks like it can’t miss.

So why haven’t DAD and SAD generated as much excitement as SACD and DVD-Audio? First, the interested parties here -- Muse, Chesky, Classic Records and others -- are not Sony, Phillips, and Warner Music, which are some of the big names in the electronics and recording worlds and have a lot of collective clout. Also, there is the impression (perhaps because nobody can test it for sure) that SACDs and DVD-Audio discs will sound better than the DADs and SADs currently available. SoundStage! technical editor Doug Blackburn has been prominent in the "dump PCM" chorus (at least around us), and he may have a point in that DSD may produce better sound. (Once again, DVD-Audio is a compressed PCM format.) Finally, one of the future features of DSD and DVD-Audio is high-definition multichannel audio, which uncompressed 24/96 PCM doesn’t easily allow for.

Ease of transition is certainly a big advantage to DADs and SADs. There are all those DVD-Video players in use now, and existing outboard DACs are already able to decode PCM digital, so in many cases upgrading them to decode 24/96 signals is a matter of changing out the DAC chips and receiver. This is certainly possible with a good number of DACs on the market today, while others may need upgrades to certain internal parts to allow it -- while still others can’t be upgraded at all. In total, this is still a larger base of potential users than SACD and DVD-Audio have right now or will have for a long time. Moreover, there are already 24/96 discs available, and more of them are being readied for release. Classic Records, in fact, has had to re-press a few titles because the first run sold out.

If I were king of the audio world, I would decree that consumers should be able to choose how the discs they buy will be played. Software would include DSD or DVD-Audio and 24/96 PCM versions of the same programs so people can upgrade by buying a player that can decode DSD or DVD-Audio if they want to -- or not at all if their DACs or players are already 24/96 compatible and they are happy with the sound. Is this possible? Yes. It’s a matter of authoring the disc to allow it -- DVD stands for digital versatile disc, after all. Will it happen? Hard to say. Right now, it looks more like the hardware will have the compatibility built in and will only play DADs and SADs if it can play DVD-Video discs. This is fine -- as long as the software allows it too. Sony, at least, has not announced this possibility.

Will having multiple versions of the same music on each disc increase the cost of the discs? Perhaps, but because so much of the back catalog is already in PCM format, the conversion happens to SACD or DVD-Audio, not the other way around. Telarc, on the other hand, records in DSD right now; they also convert these recordings to PCM for CDs they are currently producing, so the process is not impossible. In fact, according to one knowledgeable source I spoke with, it's simple.

Having the software be the compatible piece of the puzzle would not only make just about everyone happy -- no brand-new software and hardware to buy, possibly in multiple formats -- but also help to increase the probability that the next audio format will smoothly overtake CD and not just trickle into mainstream use. Again, this puts the choice in the hands of consumers; if DSD and DVD-Audio are superior to PCM, we’ll want them. Will Sony, Philips, Meridian and Warner Music see eye to eye with Muse, Chesky and Classic Records? Will the mainstream have an easy convergence with the high end? Only time will tell, but we should know more soon.

...Marc Mickelson

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