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Old 15th March 2003
Thumbs up Part II

Beyond the CD - PART II: A Bid to Burnish Records' Sheen -

March 13, 2003

...Make no mistake, there is a war going on between DVD-Audio
and SACD. Sony and Philips, co-inventors of the original
CD, created SACD primarily as a platform for stereo and
multichannel music, with a high-resolution technology
geared at recreating the fluidity and frequency response of
analog sound. Most SACD's on the market have a hybrid CD
layer, meaning that they play CD-quality audio in regular
CD players and high-res audio in SACD players. (While the
SACD platform supports multimedia content, no current
SACD's carry onscreen graphics or video.)

DVD-Audio, introduced by Panasonic, Toshiba and the other
patent holders in the DVD Forum, is a music-centered
variation on the standard DVD, usually containing a
high-resolution multichannel mix of the album and
additional content like lyrics, photos, band interviews and
music videos. You need a DVD-Audio-capable player to take
advantage of its high-resolution tracks, but any DVD player
can read the video content and play a low-resolution stereo
mix of the music.

Stuart Robinson, editor of, said he
believed that both formats were of equally high quality, a
leap beyond CD audio.

"Both of them sound amazing," Mr. Robinson said. "Now
what's important is the quality of music on the format, and
not the format itself." High-resolution audio alone may not
make much of a difference to the average consumer, however.
"I'm not sure how many people are going to appreciate the
differences between Dolby Digital and high-resolution
DVD-Audio," he said, "but everybody can tell the difference
between stereo and multichannel."

Everybody who has heard it, that is. Sales figures are
still quite low: for every 2,000 CD's sold in the United
States last year, only one DVD-Audio disc went out the
door. Nielsen SoundScan reports that just over 300,000
DVD-Audio discs were sold last year, nearly triple the
previous year's total but a far cry from the 650 million
CD's sold. SoundScan lumps SACD's in with CD's because of
the backward compatibility, so it is harder to estimate
their sales figures. (This will change within six months.)
However, it is safe to say that sales exceeded one million
in 2002, owing largely to Abkco Records' release of 22
remastered Rolling Stones albums on hybrid stereo SACD last

While most of the people buying the disc had no idea that
it was anything more than a restoration of the original
master tapes, SACD proponents chalked it up as a major
market-share victory.

"Abkco's launch of the 22 albums thankfully triggered
similar ideas with other labels," says David Kawakami,
director of the SACD Project for Sony Corporation. "Record
labels just need to understand, like Abkco does, that
hybrid SACD can be sold like any CD." In May, Sony Music
will be rolling out 15 classic Bob Dylan albums in hybrid
format, remastered in stereo for both CD and SACD players.
And by the end of the year, Universal Music Group will have
released hybrid albums by the Police, Steely Dan, Johnny
Cash and Peter Gabriel.

"It's going to take a long time before the world's billion
CD players are replaced totally by SACD players," Mr.
Kawakami said. "Certainly when that happens, however,
record companies will have the option to go to high-res
only. Hybrid SACD is a perfect transitional product."

By this summer, the DVD-Audio camp will introduce its own
half-CD half-DVD. Industry executives confirm that owing to
the specifications of most DVD players already in homes,
the initial run will be a dual-sided disc, much like the
DVD movies with wide-screen on one side and standard view
on the other.

This year, as competition within the formats heats up, the
number of available titles will grow into the thousands for
each, and will no longer just include audiophile favorites
and baby boomer classics.

"Previously, we've had to look at the older demographic,
with its disposable income," said Robin Hurley, vice
president of Warner Strategic Marketing, which is in charge
of Warner Music Group's DVD-Audio back-catalog releases.
"My feeling now is that it's irrelevant. DVD is for youth,
and DVD-Audio will be the next wave." The goal for many
labels is to release an SACD or DVD-Audio at the same time
the CD comes out; Warner expects new Linkin Park and
Madonna DVD-Audio versions to ship alongside new CD's this
year and at a similar price.

While the SACD had a head start in development and in
selling the more compatible hybrids, the DVD-Audio group
has been quicker at moving its technology outside of the
living room. Last fall, Creative Labs introduced the Audigy
2 soundcard, which combines with the PC's DVD-ROM drive and
5.1 speaker system to create an ad hoc DVD-Audio player.
The next stop for both platforms will be the car.

"When I first heard surround sound, I said, the perfect
environment is in the car," says Elliot Sheiner, a
Grammy-winning mixing engineer who is currently at work on
surround-sound versions of both the Steely Dan and REM
catalogs. "You get DVD-Audio in the car, and people listen
to surround sound for the first time, they will want it in
their home."

Still, the multichannel content and security requirements
of DVD-Audio and SACD make it a physical challenge for
aftermarket hardware makers. Multichannel tracks require
not just stereo's Left and Right, but six discrete
speakers: four "satellites," a subwoofer, and the
all-important center channel. Only a handful of cars,
including models from Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo,
have been designed with room on the dashboard for that
center speaker.

For DVD-Audio, the biggest news will come from the
automakers themselves, possibly as early as the New York
Auto Show in April. Industry executives say that Detroit's
Big Three are all gearing up to launch DVD-Audio as an
option, and it may become standard in some luxury cars by
the fall.

The third domain deemed crucial to the success of either
platform remains relatively unexplored. The only "portable"
on the market is a DVD-video and audio player from
Panasonic, but it was not designed for music-only playback,
and you cannot really wear it on your hip when you go
jogging. No one has announced a specialized high-resolution
audio-only portable, but the SACD group at least has an
excuse, since SACD hybrids play in portable CD players.
(The SACD camp begrudgingly acknowledges that the hybrid CD
layer can also be ripped into MP3 format for use with other
portable players.)

Perhaps DVD-Audio and SACD are not yet meant for joggers,
for whom sound quality takes a back seat to skip protection
and feather weight. Some audiophiles eye the MP3-playing
masses with suspicion, puzzled as to the enjoyment that can
be had from less-than-CD-quality sound. Although even the
record companies are hung on the quality judgment, they all
agree that boring old stereo may be the problem.

Surely, sitting in the middle of an audio hologram of
"Roxanne" or "Hotel California" is more interesting than
hearing those tunes emanate for the umpteenth time from a
pair of speakers. Perhaps that, and some "bonus material"
that the movie industry uses to impress shoppers, will help
turn music lovers back on to the shiny silver disc.