Struck by a Tornado?

It was the road signs alongside I-44 that first caught my attention, each with its twin supports neatly snapped halfway up. Then I saw the outlet center east of Oklahoma City, smashed flat as if struck by the mother of all baseball bats swung by a careless god.

I was driving back from HI-FI '99 in May, following the old Route 66 to Santa Fe, musing on all that I'd seen and heard in Chicago. And unlike the specific targets for the 318mph tornadoes that struck the Midwest in April, the current malaise that has afflicted high-end audio could have been foreseen.

In this space in April, Barry Willis wondered where the High End's next generation of customers is going to come from, quoting Krell's Dan D'Agostino as saying that "High-end audio is on its way out" because it isn't attracting a new generation of music lovers. As you can see from this issue's "Letters," there are Generation X audiophiles out there. The problem, as I see it, is that the High End waits to be discovered by new customers rather than actively seeking them out. It has so far also almost totally ignored the sea change taking place in the recorded-music industry as more and more young people bypass the traditional music distribution network in favor of downloading MP3 files from the Internet.

Specialty audio retailers report that traditional two-channel sales are flat or falling; their growth areas are now sales of home-theater systems and custom installations. Depending on whom I spoke with at HI-FI '99, high-end audio manufacturers were either experiencing growth in two-channel component sales or thanking their lucky stars that they'd moved the bulk of their production into home-theater products. But other than at the super high end, no one at the Show was reporting any significant sales of high-quality CD playback gear—the forthcoming launches of the Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio have successfully poisoned this part of the market.

Both Sony/Philips and the DVD Forum used the Show to announce their launch plans, with the former's Super Audio CD taking the lead. SACDs will appear in US record retailers this Fall, with more than 40 titles from such audiophile record labels as Telarc, DMP, and Mobile Fidelity initially priced at $24.95. Sony's SCD-1 SACD player is scheduled to hit dealers' shelves around October. At $5000, the Sony player is clearly aimed at the high-end two-channel market. "We are going to start at the top and work our way down," said Sony's senior vice president of home audio/video marketing, Mike Fidler, at the Show. He was adamant that Sony and Philips are committed to "revitalizing the audio industry"; many exhibitors at the Show other than Sony were using Sony SACD players and software.

By contrast, in his presentation at HI-FI '99, Jordan Rost of the Warner Music Group emphasized the fact that DVD-Audio seeks to embrace not only high-end audio, but also various forms of video and even Internet interactivity. He also made much of a DVD-Audio disc's ability to carry separate surround-sound, optional stereo, and even Dolby Digital mixes, in addition to the possibility for on-the-fly downmixes from multichannel to stereo (as described by Peter van Willenswaard in this issue's "Industry Update"), depending on the content provider's wishes (footnote 1). What he was less clear about was the exact date of the medium's US launch. (I understood it to be sometime between fall 1999 and spring 2000.)

What I'm excited about is the ability of both new media to offer better two-channel sound quality than CD—in the form of DSD encoding for SACD, or up to 192kHz sampling and 24-bit Linear PCM for DVD-Audio. And as both high-definition media sound better than CD (see Paul Messenger's interview with recording engineer Tony Faulkner on p.19 of the July 1999 issue to get one industry veteran's opinions), to regard SACD and DVD-Audio as being involved in a Beta/VHS-type format war becomes irrelevant. As the differences between a DSD decoder and a high-sampling LPCM D/A converter will involve upgradeable software rather than fixed hardware, to argue which is better becomes akin to arguing about whether a Mac-formatted floppy is better than a DOS-formatted one. As long as the drive recognizes the disk format and the music flows forth, it just doesn't matter. Some Japanese companies have already announced that their forthcoming DVD-Audio players will recognize and play SACD discs, though it's unclear whether Sony has plans to eventually introduce SACD players that will also decode DVD-As.

Unlike me, many industry commentators seemed more excited about the surround-sound potential of these higher-resolution digital media than about their capacity for better two-channel sound quality. Yet the audiophiles I spoke with at the Show, and the attendees at HI-FI '99's various seminars and workshops, seemed as keen on the two-channel hobby as ever. As Dennis Had of Cary reports in this issue's "Manufacturers' Comments" (see later), the current audio market is almost entirely two-channel. It does seem perverse to regard two-channel music reproduction as (at best) obsolete or (at worst) dead when 99.999% of music lovers play two-channel CDs on stereo systems. In fact, a show of hands at one seminar indicated that three quarters of the audience still regularly played LPs!

What we have, I believe, is a crisis of confidence on the part of the high-end audio industry. Hit by a tornado of confusion about which of many possible futures will turn out to be the future—surround sound or stereo; high-quality SACD or DVD-Audio, or sonically compromised MP3 or DTS or Dolby Digital; the much-touted convergence between music and Home Theater; the equally touted convergence between music and the home computer; even LP or CD—the High End seems to be forgetting what its existing customers are looking for.

There is now more music being made by more people than at any time in history, and there is also more prerecorded music being sold than ever before. I cannot believe that the high-end audio industry cannot continue to enjoy a successful niche among all that musical activity. As long as it doesn't forget that its role is to further its customers' enjoyment of their music in whatever form they prefer, the High End will have a future.

Footnote 1: I am skeptical about this downmixing concept. My experience from making my own surround-sound recordings is that a stereo mixdown needs to be "wetter," ie, more reverberant, than a surround-sound mix. A stereo feed assembled from the DVD-A's multiple discrete channels will therefore be probably too dry. Give me a separate two-channel mix on the DVD-A and don't ask me to pay a second set of copyright fees for the privilege.