John Dawson: Inventing The Future—Properly Page 2
Is the system needlessly complicated? I suspect it is! I saw a lovely piece on one of the websites the other day which said, "For God's sake, with all this interactivity, and getting the director's comments in multiple languages blended in with the video, and all the other things streaming off the Net at the same time for the Easter eggs that are supposed to be there, and the game-playing, why not have a big button on the front marked PLAY THE BLOODY MOVIE?"
There was a paper from Harvard Business Review published recently on the needless complexity and "feature creep" of products, which is very pertinent. Because one does wonder if the marketing people, in their eagerness to try to make the system more compelling than DVD, have made it needlessly complex to implement, with all that that implies for actual playability and support—because we know how bad it was with DVD in the early days.
We wouldn't wish to suggest that you shouldn't buy an HD player of your choice to play the handful of HD movies available. However, for playing the tens of thousands of standard DVDs, not to mention your audio CDs and the high-resolution audio formats, we believe that a modern, high-performance DVD player such as Arcam's DV137 will outperform the first- and second-generation HD players in almost every way.
Harris: Coming back to DVD, your first player was launched in 2000. How did you manage to get up and running with that technology so quickly?
Dawson: We teamed up with Zoran, based in Silicon Valley, the first company to make the DSPs for Dolby Digital audio—very experienced in audio as well as video. And we reached an agreement for a material sum of money to take their reference DVD design, and to have some training on how the kernel of the system worked and the support around it that was needed, so that we could adapt the basic design to our requirements. From that came our DV88 player.
Following that, we were then able to cooperate with Zoran on a later generation of chipset, both to support DVD-Audio and to do a better job on regular audio and video. It cost us a lot of money to make the move. We were even able to have a comprehensive bass manager written for that on the audio DSP part of the chip, which I don't think anybody else has done. The relationship with Zoran continues, with the first of our third-generation players, the DV137, just hitting the market. This has still better video and audio performance!
That detailed knowledge of Zoran's parts, and the support we've had from them, allowed us to be first out of the gate (or second, really, after Pioneer!) with HDMI, which was built into our DV79 player. We wrote all our own support code and implemented Silicon Image's HDMI solution pretty much as soon as it came out. We're very proud of that. In the third-generation products we've also worked closely with another Silicon Valley company, Anchor Bay Technology, to get the very best possible video processing in place after Zoran's MPEG decoder.
Harris: Things were obviously moving toward A/V in the late 1990s, but then you worked closely with system design house Roke Manor Research, and with the BBC, in the race to be the first to market with a DAB digital radio tuner. Was it worth the effort?
Dawson: Would we do it all again? Knowing what we know now, and how the broadcast people would degrade the potential performance of the system [with low bit rates], I'm honestly not sure. There are so many advantages to the system that it's very frustrating when the quality gets thrown out to some degree by the pressures for programming and more content.
We got our money back on the first-generation DAB products—just. And since then, the kind of interface we invented is pretty much copied worldwide. But it's good to be able to include it in a product like Solo, our one-box music system. No question—it's a differentiator.
So I'm very glad we did the work on DAB; it's been a lot of fun. And I still have hopes that if more spectrum becomes available, then at least the BBC will see its way to increasing those data rates. And then, suddenly, people would realize what this format is capable of.
Harris: This touches on the whole broader issue of quality of carriers, like downloading music. People end up not being aware of the quality that they could have.
Dawson: And that's a shame. We will continue to make products that support very high quality. In fact, the iPod, which does have two-thirds of that market in terms of product value, is capable of very-good-quality sound. There's an iPod just sitting on a bench here (because I cracked and bought one for myself) that has got 50 or 60 albums on it, losslessly. And that, I have to tell you, is pretty good. Our view has been to embrace it as another format or source and to try to provide a bit of education to at least a percentage of that user base, especially that they don't have to use it at the default 128k bits per second setting. You've probably seen that note from the [British Federation of Audio] about this! Turn up the data rate, you've probably still got more music on there than you can listen to, and it'll sound quite a bit better.
We now have a little lead you can plug into Solo, into the serial port and into the audio inputs, that gets you decent audio quality and allows you to control the iPod from the remote on the Solo, with the display on the front panel doing the job. There will be more products, I'm sure—not just from us—to do this.
But I still think there's a very decent market for CD. People still like hard copies of things, not least because otherwise, if your hard disk crashes, you've lost the lot! So I think disc-replay systems are going to be part of our future for as far ahead as I can see; it's not all going to move to downloading. Two-thirds of the world, even the developed world, doesn't yet have broadband! Whether there's much of a market for deluxe audio is a different issue.
Harris: Meanwhile, you've continued to develop better home-cinema products, with the HDMI-equipped FMJ AV9 processor, new receivers . . .
Dawson: Our first AV receiver, the AVR100, was based on an existing platform developed for another company and made in the Far East. We did a lot of work on it, changing its power supply to use a toroidal transformer, for example, and respecifying literally hundreds of parts. We did get a surprisingly good sound out of it.
Now, separately, in Arcam's FMJ range, we'd been developing the AV8 THX processor, which was state-of-the-art when we launched it. But we were able to learn from that and reuse some of the circuit techniques, which we took across to the receiver, albeit with cheaper parts. And second, we'd learnt a lot about the user interface and the whole way the software for the control of the system should look like. From this the AVR300 was born. And that was a truly collaborative effort between us and our Chinese colleagues, who designed software to our spec.
We also worked with Wolfson, our Scottish semiconductor friends, on a new audio-codec part they had—which we'd inadvertently helped specify at the previous [Audio Engineering Society] UK conference by giving a recipe for what we wanted to see in a general-purpose audio/video codec. We were able to integrate that part, with its very-high-quality DACs, and build our own audio-processing board. We also had developed what was, for the time, an absolutely state-of-the-art video upconversion system and a top-quality audio power-amplifier module. The result was the AVR300 receiver, which has sold many thousands around the world and has since been further refined into the AVR350, which we've managed to make sound even better.
It shows just some of what you have to do. It's a lot of engineering. And there's going to have to be a lot more work done in the future to cope with some of the new format requirements that are emerging. This won't be a short job. Because we want to do it properly.