Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment. Avi understands TV, video, audio, computing, and wireless, how all these are coming together, and which technologies are likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life. In his weekly column, Avi answers your questions, does your product research, and provides free advice.
SACD or DVD-A? Both DOA.
Question: Which of the two better-than-CD formats do you think will succeed?
AskAvi responds: (November, 2001)
First, a little background for anyone who doesn’t speak acronym. There are two new CD-size music formats out there – SACD (Super Audio CD, backed primarily by Sony and Philips) and DVD-A (DVD Audio, backed half-heartedly by everyone else). You need special players to play either new format, although some SACD discs can be played on regular CD players (at regular CD sound quality), and most DVD-A discs can be played on regular DVD players (at regular Dolby Digital sound quality). SACD uses a different type of digital sampling than regular CD; Sony claims it is theoretically superior, and some technophiles agree. DVD-A uses the old digital sampling method, but allows a lot of extra digital “room” for nuances and harmonics – out to the point where only dogs and bats can hear them. Both format have theoretically lower noise floors than CD, meaning that there could be more distinction in the music between really quiet and really loud. And both formats allow for 5.1 channel recordings, not just stereo, like a movie DVD, where the sound surrounds you.
It’s all pretty much a waste of effort. In general, the trend in music is towards portability, not sound quality (see the MP3 explosion). Growth of alternative music genres – especially hip hop and techno – simply don’t benefit as much from added musical resolution, anyway – the real beneficiaries of the format are jazz, big band, and classical. These aren’t exactly mass market music formats, which precludes mass market success right there.
But it’s worse than that. In order to hear the difference between a well-recorded CD and an equivalent SACD/DVD-A, you need two things: a) a fairly high-end audio system, preferably multi-channel and b) excellent high frequency hearing.
Assembling an audio system that is up to the task is pricey – not only do you need good amplifiers and speakers, for multi-channel audio you need five good speakers, preferably all full range (bass management is something of a problem with both formats at the moment). A good percentage of the people in their peak earning years who can afford this kind of thing have already lost their high frequency hearing, which starts to decline in the mid-50’s (or earlier if you are exposed to a lot of high volume noise).
Maybe baby boomers will convince themselves that they can hear the difference and pony up the dough for dedicated multi-channel audio rigs (that double as home theater systems, no doubt). But since the volume side of the market (youth) will be focused on other genres and the whole digital/portable thing, neither SACD or DVD-A has any reasonable shot at mainstream acceptance.
The record companies and retailers aren’t helping much, either. There are currently under 100 titles available for either format, they generally aren’t mainstream titles, they cost about $10 more than the equivalent CD, and good luck finding them in your local music store.
Won’t DVD-A piggyback on the runaway success of DVD?
It’s quite possible that future DVD players will all be able to decode DVD-A. Nearly all DVD players have DTS capability, more are getting progressive scan, and DVD-A may become the checklist item of the future. But just because people will be able to play a DVD-A on their decks, it doesn’t mean they’ll buy any DVD-A discs. If the consumer even understands the format, they’ll likely balk at the more expensive software. And if portability is an issue, they won’t be able to play the disc in their car or any other CD player.
It’s important to note that music on DVD and DVD-A are not the same thing. A regular DVD (“DVD Video”) can have multi-channel audio, and it can sound excellent, but it is still compressed by the Dolby Digital algorithm, which throws out information you shouldn’t be able to hear. A DVD-A uses a compression scheme that doesn’t throw out any information, whether you can hear it or not. (Now, I know this sounds funny, but the argument for DVD-A is “what you can’t hear may be audible after all, and could affect the overall musicality of the sound.”) DVD-A can have liner notes and still photos, but once the audio goes on the disc there isn’t enough room left over for regular video.
Won’t multi-channel audio help the formats succeed?
Multi-channel audio is cool. It can be used to add in the ambiance and reverb of live sound (often described musically as “air”). Or it can be used to place the listener in the center of the band. Or it can be used for other interesting artistic effects. But the only place you can play back multi-channel audio is in a home theater (or a really tricked out car). There isn’t a dramatic difference between multi-channel audio on a regular DVD-video disc vs. DVD-A or SACD, and many people simply can’t hear such fine differences at sane listening levels. Plus, it’s been proven that watching video de-focuses your mind on absolute sound quality, so even if you could tell the difference, music accompanied by live video may sound “better” anyway.
So while I agree that multi-channel audio is important, I expect it to succeed on regular DVDs, not special DVD-A dics. Concert videos on regular DVD have been selling well since the early days of DVD (ex: James Taylor Live at Beacon Theater, Eagles: Hell Freezes Over) and I see no reason for sales to start lagging any time soon.
I have heard both SACD and DVD-A on a $20,000 audio rig, and let me tell you, it was impressive. However, a regular CD on that incredible system and was also impressive! I suspect that one of the new formats may survive for enthusiasts, the way Laserdiscs hung on until DVDs came along. It’s also possible that neither will succeed but both will be around for a while – Sony has kept minidisc on life support forever; that doesn’t mean anybody uses it. But neither format is going to succeed in the way that CDs and DVD (video) have.
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© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart