The Crazy You Get From So Much Choice

I don't know how many of you buy disposable diapers, but while Harry (now 6) and Emily (now 5) were still toddlers, diapers played a large role in my life. I can still remember my panic when I first saw the miles of drugstore shelves devoted to Pampers and Huggies—not just large, medium, and small, but such a variety that it could almost have been possible that each child had a diaper tailored for him or her. I'm sure that even the weirdly shaped backside of Tommy Pickles could have been securely wrapped.

According to a recent article in The Economist (footnote 1), the explosion in diaper variety (and in toothpaste and cough and cold remedies) was based on the idea that if you increase consumer choice, you will increase the size of the overall market. You may sell less of each variety, but overall sales will be greater.

As you can see from Stereophile's "Recommended Components," I am a big believer in choice. But from my experience of overwhelming choice when faced with more diaper varieties than I had ever thought existed, I would have thought that consumers would panic and resist buying anything.

Apparently, this was how it played out in the drugstores. According to The Economist, more choice in diapers resulted in fewer overall sales. Consumers apparently prefer to be offered choices in a single dimension: disposable diaper vs cloth, one brand vs another brand, but not multiple varieties within each brand. The greater the number of options, the more confused the consumer, and the greater their tendency to walk away without buying anything. As Joni Mitchell said on "Barangrill" (For the Roses, 1972): "The crazy you get from too much choice."

Sounds like common sense, right? Tell that to Procter & Gamble. My musings on the rugrat wrapper market were triggered by the news that the DVD Forum's Working Group 4 (WG-4) is due to deliver the "0.9" version of its official DVD-Audio specification this month, with "1.0" to follow shortly. And judging from the preliminary information I managed to scrounge at press time, unlike all previous launches of new media—the LP in 1948, the cassette in 1963, the CD in 1982—DVD-Audio will be complicated.

In its zeal to make DVD-Audio future-proof, WG-4 is talking about four different kinds of disc, each of which will be playable on one or two of three different kinds of players. And that doesn't include Sony's and Philips' "Super Audio CD" proposal (see Peter von Willenswaard's report on SACD in this issue's "Industry Update" for details), or the Classic Records-led "DAD" format, which uses the provision of the DVD-Video specification for 24-bit/96kHz audio data. (DADs will play on DVD-Video players that have appropriate D/A sections.)

The WG-4 proposal is that there be two kinds of DVD-Audio disc, one with additional video content (an AV-Disc) and one without (though the pure audio A-Disc can have optional still pictures and text information); and two kinds of DVD-Video disc: the pure-video V-Disc and what's termed a VAN-Disc. (VAN stands for Video+Audio Navigation, which will enable a pure DVD-Audio player to play the video disc's audio content if permitted by the copyright owner.) The three different players are, as you might expect, a pure video player that will play only DVD-Video discs, a pure audio player that will play DVD-Audio discs and the audio content of VAN-Discs, and a universal player that will play all DVDs. To add to the confusion, while all DVD players are expected to be able to play CDs, the existing universe of CD players will not play WG-4 DVD-Audio discs, but will be able to play the Sony/Philips SACDs.

The DVD Forum estimates that the potential exists for 1.5 million DVD-Audio players to be sold in the US in 1999, as well as 10 million DVD-Video players, half of which will be able to play DVD-Audio discs. This bodes well for high-end audio.

But the DVD-Audio specification is also complex. It appears to cover all possible bases with respect to audio content: scalable linear-PCM, multichannel content with 48kHz/96kHz and 44.4kHz/88.2kHz sample-rate options, 16/20/24-bit quantization, and up to six channels of audio data. (The sample rate and quantization can be independently set for each channel.) Producers can provide on-the-fly mixdown instructions so that those with stereo systems or low-cost two-channel DVD-Audio players can still access the multichannel data. Optional data-reduced tracks—Dolby Digital, MPEG-1 and 2, DTS, and SDDS are all mentioned—can be included. And, at the WG-4 presentation at last September's Audio Engineering Society Convention, it was confirmed that the specification will be sufficiently flexible to allow for Sony's DSD coding, for lossless compression of high-bit-rate data, and for the 192kHz sample rate proposed by Samsung and dCS.

Both 120mm (4.5") and 80mm (3") DVD-Audio discs can be made. Other than disc size, the only restraint on the disc's contents is that the maximum bit rate for data retrieval not exceed 9.216Mb/s. This is higher than the DVD-Video's 6.4Mb/s, but is still not high enough to allow for 5.1 channels of 24/96 data. However, the maximum data rate does allow three channels of 24/96 data and three channels of 16/48 data to be played back simultaneously, with a maximum playing time for a 120mm single-layer disc of 64 minutes (117 minutes for a dual-layer disc).

Many commentators welcome this flexibility; indeed, I find it intellectually appealing. And the complexity of the audio possibilities will be hidden from consumers by the players being smart enough to reconfigure themselves according to the A-Disc's data format. (Still, I suspect that many A-Disc player owners will leave their players set for automatic stereo mixdown.)

According to a report from the music industry's NARM conference in the March 23 issue of industry bible Audio Week, enough DVD-Video titles (1000) have been mastered and enough DVD-Video players sold for the format to have reached critical mass. But this involves one type of disc and one type of player. If the WG-4 specification for DVD-Audio is adopted, how successful will the industry be at informing consumers that the DVD they have just bought might not play on their player? If that problem is not addressed, I fear that customers will sit on their hands—or choose the Sony/Philips proposal, which both reduces consumer choice to the single dimension that proved optimal in the diaper market, and offers backward compatibility with the existing population of CD players. And that is only if the people who need high-quality audio are not all like reader Lee Holcomb, who writes in this issue's "Letters" that he really does not want to buy his recorded music collection all over again.

Footnote 1: "Market Makers," The Economist, March 14, 1998, p.67.