Marking Their Territory?

It's easy for us audiophiles to feel neglected. Consider that this year witnesses the debuts of not one, but two new audio formats that should answer the prayers of just about every frustrated audiophile out there: SACD and DVD-Audio. Both approaches represent the state of the art of recording and reproducing music, and finally fulfill for serious listeners the promise that CD teased us with more than 15 years ago.

But this, the biggest news for music-lovers in years, has hit the mainstream press with a resounding 24-bit thud. In fact, the recent brouhaha of Napster vs Big Music and the RIAA brings this point home so dramatically that it's almost embarrassing. When some lo-rez MP3 file-trading system (Napster) gets hot, the news is heard in every home that receives TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, or bullhorn. And the story stays in the headlines for weeks.

You have to wonder what's going on here. Sure, controversy sells, and the major record labels are blowing billows of smoke in everyone's faces about Napster's impact on their bottom lines. But note that what the press—and, presumably, the public—are getting all worked up about are the struggles regarding not the quality of music, but its distribution. There's plenty of controversy in the battle between SACD and DVD-Audio, but few beyond Stereophile's readership seem to care.

In other words, the focus is on how folks can get at their music, and on who controls that medium—essentially, it's a battle of the bottom line vs easy access. A secondary issue in most minds—a distant second—is what the audio sounds like when it arrives—call it "CD quality" and most are happy. And, as we've seen, this same issue of the control of music distribution has been derailing the progress of DVD-Audio for months now, and has led to having virtually no choices of full-rez digital outputs on SACD or DVD-A players.

Napster and MP3 are so popular because, for the first time in audio history, the Internet has made it possible for you to browse the world's library of music from your computer and grab just about anything that ever made it to tape. "Who cares what it sounds like?" say Napster users. "Look at all those sound files!" Remember the old days, when it used to take years of dedication to assemble one's collection of obscure Art Zoyd recordings or Bob Dylan bootlegs? The youth of today have no patience for such nonsense: "Give it to us now!"

What the kids are telling us with their compulsive Napster use is that they're willing to suffer the distortion of the MP3 format just to get access to the Alexandrian Library of tunes offered by the Internet. Napster took an existing, far-flung collection of millions of songs distributed on computers around the world, and tied them together overnight. Nor did it hurt that the price of a library card was nothing at all.

Back to the High End. DVD-A and SACD can render wonderful-sounding digital audio, but high-resolution recordings hardly even exist. A few weeks ago we ran a poll on that asked: "How many of your favorite music titles need to appear on DVD-A and/or SACD before you'll buy a new player?" The results formed a predictable bell curve centered on "101-500 titles," with a significant bump at "more than 5000 titles." Most readers emphasized that those titles had to be at the same price as CDs and that not just any 300 titles would do—they had to really love 'em.

The high-priced hardware is here, but the content pump has yet to be primed. And I'll bet that audiophiles don't even need to be tempted with free hi-rez discs. They just have to have a decent choice at a fair price, and easy access to those titles. But unless everyone's involved, there won't be many releases. So let's make DVD-A and/or SACD work at the mass-market level, and not position them as élite specialty products that are irrelevant to most music-lovers.

Doing this won't be easy, and everyone will have to give a little—even the record labels, whose insistence on a zero-tolerance anti-piracy policy is simply insane. Clearly, a high-resolution format will succeed only if it is driven by the mass market. This is crucial. Folks won't necessarily care what it sounds like; they'll react to how easily they can get it at a fair price.

Here's a sure-fire five-step program for making this happen:

1) Combine SACD and DVD-Audio. I agree with those who say that DVD-A will win in the long run (especially in the mass market), because DVD-A players will also play DVD-Video, and vice versa. Continuing to have two competing formats may kill both contenders. Sony needs to cut a deal with the DVD Forum and get SACD folded into the DVD-A spec now. Just do it and stop wasting money—the Forum has a place in the spec already waiting for you. (Imagine if all VCRs had been able to play Beta and VHS from the start.) Sony/Philips: If SACD really does sound better, then there will be a ton of compatible players out there (see #3), and you'll sell piles of SACD discs. It's the record labels who will have to choose which format to support.

2) We know that record labels want to sell us the Pink Floyd catalog yet again in yet another new format, so priming the hi-rez market will be very good for them in the long run. Release SACD/DVD-A discs at less than or the same price as CDs and put out at least 20% of all new releases on DVD-A (now with SACD as an option). What you don't sell right away will be sold as soon as players start to sell in large numbers.

3) Move those players: The major consumer-electronics manufacturers need to drop player prices below $300 now, and below $200 ASAP. Get the chip manufacturers to start cranking out those multi-format chips, and make sure all DVD players have those chips and will play everything—no "optional" formats. When this has happened, CE manufacturers can then build the really expensive players and decoders that all audiophiles want to know and love—but only after the rest of the market has been firmly established.

4) Plan on making all of this hi-rez stuff eventually available over some kind of widely distributed digital network. The bandwidth isn't here today, but will be in a few years. Cracking this nut would reap the biggest rewards in the long run, and a secure, hi-rez "Napster" would send such a market soaring—even if the songs cost $1 each. Whoever figures this out should get the Nobel Peace Prize.

5) Equip all SACD/DVD-A/CD players with full-bandwidth, unrestricted digital outputs. If Big Music prices the music fairly and makes it easy to get, then very few will use these datastreams to make illegal copies. It really is that simple.

And don't get me started about watermarking DVD-Audio releases to prevent piracy. I agree 100% with John Atkinson's stance in last month's "As We See It": Boycott any company that does it. It's as if the record labels and equipment manufacturers got together to build the world's most wonderful swimming pool. They filled it with ultra-pure mountain spring water and install a state-of-the-art filtration system, and then, every day, mark their beautiful new territory by peeing in it like dogs.