AAC in the Chips

Chip manufacturer ESS Technology is no stranger to audiophiles interested in new formats. It was responsible for one of the first "universal" SACD/DVD-Audio decoding chips and more recently was the supplier of a special-purpose chip for Linn's SACD "Silver Disk Engine" designs.

The latest format to gain ESS' attention is Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), which, the company reports, it is now integrating into its Vibratto DVD chip family. AAC, an audio compression technology that is part of the MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 standard specifications, was developed by AT&T, Dolby Laboratories, Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, and Sony Corporation.

AAC was designed as a very flexible next-generation format providing up to 48 channels of audio at sample rates of up to 96kHz. According to ESS, "Broadcast quality 5.1-channel audio programs can be transmitted at 320 kbps," and its supporters claim that AAC offers significantly higher music fidelity than MPEG-1 Layer 3 (MP3) audio while generating files that are approximately 30% smaller.

For the past few years, many record labels have been hoping that AAC's audio coding technology (including built-in copy protection and use restrictions) might become a possible successor to MP3 audio compression. Their vision is a future where the format eventually becomes the preferred music distribution technology for many broadcast and consumer electronic applications, including music downloading, Internet streaming, TV broadcasting, and audio archiving.

But MP3 has proven a tough format to displace. With AAC being incorporated into the latest generations of DVD players (and with DVD players quickly becoming the primary machine for playing audio and video media in many homes), the market has a greater chance of falling into place. Dolby's Andrew Fischer says, "Next year's hot products will be new DVD players with hard-disk drives capable of storing users' personal music collections. AAC's superior sound quality and compression efficiency are ideally suited to this application, and we are encouraging product developers to create these exciting next-generation products."

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