Super Audio CD—One Year Later Page 2

CD changed all that. To all extents and purposes, the consumer medium is the master. While the retail pricing of CD can still be kept low enough to minimize cloning—yes, you can photocopy a book belonging to a friend, but it's cheaper and less time-consuming to buy your own copy—the fact that a CD-R or DAT copy of a commercial CD is bit-for-bit identical both to it and to the master is a scary concept to music-biz lawyers.

With Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio, the record industry had an opportunity to correct this, which they saw as CD's fundamental flaw. This can be achieved in three ways: 1) by eliminating access to the unencrypted music data retrieved from the disc (SACD); 2) if access is required, by degrading its resolution (DVD-A); and 3) by marking the physical carrier (SACD) or the music itself (DVD-A, SACD?) with identifying marks.

I feel that, with the exception of the physical marking of the SACD disc, such hobbling of the new media is at best irrelevant, and at worst equivalent, as Jon Iverson delightfully put it in last month's "As We See It," to marking your ownership of a clear pool of water by peeing in it.

But by setting the watermarking of the music data as a serious enough goal to damage the launch of DVD-Audio, the record industry is fighting yesterday's war. Both SACD and DVD-A are logical extensions of the current music retailing system, in which the music and its carrier are one and the same. Yet, as Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's Medialab pointed out in his 1995 book, Being Digital (Alfred A. Knopf), the bits representing the information don't have to be tied to the atoms representing the physical carrier of that information. And as George Reisch argues in this issue's "Undercurrents," the Internet revolutionizes the distribution of "bits" by eliminating the need for "atoms." This is the real threat facing the record industry, because it is in the distribution of the music carrier that they have hitherto had a monopoly.

Crippling DVD-Audio with potentially audible watermarking does nothing to prevent the shift of music distribution to the Internet. That the record industry recognizes this is obvious in the rapid setup of download and streamed-music websites by the "Big Five" companies, and their laying of the groundwork for a subscription or pay-per-download business model. (This fundamental change in music distribution, which carries with it an abandoning of the very concept of high fidelity, has major implications for the high-end audio business. We have been covering these in depth on www.stereophile.com.)

By contrast with the disarray of the DVD-Audio launch, Sony's and Philips' rollout of Super Audio CD was on time, carefully focused, and took note of the existing realities of music distribution. As in 1982, Sony and Philips have worked with the record industry to fit what the new technology has to offer within the current framework of how music is sold. It is an old maxim that the more new technology is introduced at the same time, the more chance there will be that something will go wrong. So while a major purported benefit of Super Audio CD is its multichannel capability, the first three players on the market and all the 160 software titles available as of fall 2000 are conventional two-channel recordings. (The first multichannel SACD player, from Philips, will not be launched until the end of this year.) By contrast, by going for broke at the outset with a multichannel player and multichannel recordings, the DVD-Audio launch added mastering complexity and consumer confusion to a mix already sullied by the watermarking issue.

The technical story behind a product may be interesting, but the proof of the technology is in the hearing. Sony must be congratulated for the simply superb standard of its demonstrations of SACD at Consumer Electronics Shows, at AES Conventions, and at the HI-FI Shows cosponsored by Stereophile. Reviewers for this and other magazines were subsequently impressed by the sound the first players could achieve in their own reference systems. Plug'n'play excellence.

However, when you read the DVD-A10 review in this issue, you might sense that Jonathan Scull had some conceptual difficulties writing the review. Using the known technology of Linear PCM digital encoding, and offering up to 24-bit word lengths and sample rates of up to 192kHz, DVD-Audio has the potential for sounding truly superb. Yet only occasionally during the review auditioning did he and I hear flashes of that potential quality. As I described it to Jonathan in one of our many discussions during the preparation of the review, the problem is that Technics designed their first DVD-A player to be the best-sounding at what is really a mass-market price point. By contrast, Sony with its SCD-1 and , and Marantz with its SA-1 (reviewed by Jonathan in September), went for broke, leaving no audiophile-approved stone unturned in their designers' efforts to squeeze the best possible sound quality from SACD. Only now, as you can read in this issue's "Industry Update," with SACD technology proved, is Sony bringing to market less-expensive players.

So, with SACD a year old, DVD-Audio launched in a decidedly halfhearted manner, and both, in my view, in danger of remaining stillborn, I asked David Rich, technical editor of the sporadically published magazine The Audio Critic, to investigate the technology behind these new media. We also include the reaction of a typical audiophile to SACD. Because what really matters is the sound, right?

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