Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution

In this issue you can find a full report from the 2000 International Consumer Electronics Show, held last January in Las Vegas. By contrast to the 1999 CES, the Y2K Consumer Electronics Show was considerably more upbeat, both according to my own observations and to those experts who specialize in judging the size of Las Vegas conventions: the city's taxi drivers. Yes, there were some rooms where lonely exhibitors were more than usually pleased to welcome a visitor from the press, but to judge from the home-theater exhibits at the Las Vegas Hilton's Convention Center and the specialty audio exhibits at the Alexis Park Resort Hotel, as well as the companies exhibiting at the splinter T.H.E. Show at the St. Tropez, the joint was jumping.

Even the dealers I met at CES, usually the industry's Cassandras, were upbeat. Some were even smiling! In fact, according to figures released in February by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), manufacturer-to-dealer sales of audio products in December 1999 totaled nearly $568 million, a 6.3% increase in revenue over the same month in 1998. Total audio shipment revenues in 1999 surpassed the $8 billion mark for the first time since 1995, growing by 2% over 1998. Loudspeaker revenues increased by 17% in December, but the highlight in the Components category was receivers—in particular, Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround-sound receivers, sales of which grew by 77% compared with 1998.

One thing is certain: It isn't the much-heralded launches of Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio that have contributed to this growth. Sony's decision to target wealthy audiophiles as the initial customers for SACD might well result in a widening market for high-quality sound as the technology trickles down and the prices descend. (Both will be essential for the medium's commercial success, a poll of visitors to this website revealed in January.) But this is very much a long-term view, and, as I said in this space last November, will also depend on SACD offering multichannel capability. It was therefore heartening to see Sony and Philips putting on some superb surround-sound demonstrations in Las Vegas.

But DVD-Audio? After the fiasco last November, occasioned by the cracking of the DVD-Video security code, it was absurd to be told at a CES for the second year in a row about the forthcoming launch of DVD-A. The record industry's corporate paranoia about copy protection is wrongheaded, shortsighted, and the result of trying to apply a 20th-century mindset to a 21st-century situation. Long-term, the industry's intransigence will accelerate recorded music changing from something distributed on a physical carrier via the traditional retail chain to pure information distributed over increasingly wide-bandwidth data pipes into people's homes: "bits to be pushed" rather than "atoms to be pulled," as Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's Media Lab expressed it in Being Digital (1995, Alfred A. Knopf.)

My strong feeling is that the content provider's paranoid focus on copy protection will cause the launch of both SACD and DVD-A to falter, leaving CD in place as the traditional recorded music carrier...until Negroponte's predictions come true.

Yes, Classic and Chesky are giving us 24/96 on DVD-Videos, for which I thank them. But if the DVD Forum can't get it together to give me DVD-Audio just yet, and if Sony's expensive but great-sounding SACD players are devoid of DSD data outputs, I'll roll my own hi-rez music. I've been recording with 20-bit or greater word lengths since 1992, and have recorded two of the Stereophile recordings at 96kHz or 88.2kHz sample rates: Rhapsody, 1997's Gershwin CD with pianist Hyperion Knight; and the forthcoming Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintet album, with the Antony Michaelson Quintet. I archived the evening concerts at HI-FI '99 as 24/96 tapes. And in January I recorded a complete cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas with Stereophile pianist Robert Silverman at 24/88.2.

Jonathan Scull talks in this issue's "Fine Tunes" about music's migration to the desktop. As I mention in my review of the astonishing—and astonishingly affordable—PSB Alpha A/V speaker in this issue, even a hardcore audiophile like me is increasingly listening to music on a desktop system. Many of these hi-rez recordings have therefore found their way onto my computer's hard drive as WAV dubs. With hard-drive space costing cents a megabyte—I just paid $250 for a 27-gig drive—storage space for these big files is no longer a problem. And if you don't mind a disc holding 20 minutes of music, you can burn these hi-rez audio files onto CD-Rs to pass around to others.

So while the DVD Forum argues about increasingly arcane aspects of the DVD-Audio medium, and John Lennon's record-industry "men in suits" retreat farther into their lawyer-built fortresses, I have bypassed all they have to offer using a $50 24/96 DAW program (footnote 1) and a $450 soundcard with a digital output (footnote 2) to drive an inexpensive, 24/96-capable outboard DAC (footnote 3)—without having to put up with MP3-encoded sonic dreck.

Feels good. As a revolution should.

Footnote 1: CoolEdit 2000, downloadable from Syntrillium.

Footnote 2: The CardDeluxe from Digital Audio Labs.

Footnote 3: The now-discontinued Musical Fidelity X-24K. I won't be moving my Mark Levinson No.30.6 into the office just yet.