DVD-Audio—Crippled by Copyright?

"Do you have another DVD player?" asked Classic Records' Michael Hobson. As is usual in important demonstrations, Murphy's Law had struck with a vengeance. The prototype Muse DVD player Kevin Halverson had worked on most of the previous night was refusing to play the DVD Mike had placed in its tray.

"So what?" you're probably thinking. "What's the big deal? DVD is just another video medium awaiting its chance on the stage of consumer success. What's of more concern to Stereophile readers is the long-promised DVD-Audio disc."

However, at the time of writing (Christmas Eve, 1997), the prospects for DVD-Audio, the putative successor to the CD, were murky. The industry working group is bogged down in debate over detail, and the waters are further confused by Sony's and Philips' Super Audio Disc dual-layer proposal, which combines a DVD-spec data layer with a "Red Book" CD-standard layer. What Mike Hobson was about to demo in Stereophile's listening room was actually something of more immediate interest: a DVD-Video carrying two channels of audio data sampled at 96kHz with 24-bit word depth! This is something that is contained in the formal DVD-Video specification, but—other than some Pioneer-produced discs available only in Japan, and a Sara K. album from Chesky that doesn't appear to play on US-spec DVD players—no one has yet taken any serious steps to exploit this medium for audio data.

We found a Pioneer LD/DVD/CD combi-player lurking in the Stereophile Guide to Home Theater office, hooked it up to a system based on the Thiel CS6 speakers I'm reviewing for the March issue, and dropped in a conventional 44.1kHz/16-bit Classic Records CD. Considering that the original recording dated from the mid-'50s, this was not sound to sneeze at. (While it had been transferred from the original analog tapes using the Pacific Microsonics ADC, it was not an HDCD CD.) Then Mike dropped in a DVD-Video made from the same master, using a prototype 96kHz ADC and DVD authoring system developed by Halverson.

Even without glancing at the "96kHz" legend on the Pioneer player's front panel, it was immediately obvious to all in the room that something special was happening. Compared with the CD, there was a vitality to the sound we were hearing from the DVD (which was played back at as close to the same level as the CD as we could achieve). Analog-like ease was coupled with the compression-free dynamics you get from digital or analog master tape, but never from CD. Most important, just as when we compared 96kHz versions of our Rhapsody in Blue master tapes with the 44.1kHz ones (see Stereophile, June '97), there was a better sense of pitch differentiation with the higher-sample-rate recording.

We then played an LP cut by Bernie Grundman and pressed by RTI from the same master, again matched in level, on my Linn LP12/Lingo/Ekos/Arkiv player, a Sutherland PH-2000 providing the RIAA EQ and extra gain. (No ticks or pops gave the game away!) While the LP was preferable to the CD, it sounded noticeably laid-back and softened compared with the 96kHz DVD.

Hobson was due to announce Classic Records' plans for music-carrying DVD-Videos at the January Consumer Electronics Show—we'll carry the news in our March 1998 issue. But what excites me most is that, even if DVD-Audio ends up stillborn, the existing DVD-Video format already makes a very nice 96kHz/24-bit carrier.

Am I being pessimistic, talking about a new audio format being dead before its launch?

First, we already have the seeds for a Beta-vs-VHS war, with the Sony/Philips Super Audio Disc squared off against the official DVD-Audio Disc. Assuming equal potential for improved sound quality, my bet would be on the Sony/Philips proposal: 1) it has the inherent support of two major software companies; and 2) provided Sony and Philips are prepared to eat the initial extra mastering and production costs of a two-layer disc compared with a CD, it will allow CD retailers to stock just one inventory. To a regular CD player, it will look and play like a CD; to a Super Audio Disc player, it will have the sonic advantages of Sony's wide-bandwidth DSD format, coupled with extra channels.

Second, while audiophiles eagerly await a high-quality audio disc, the mass market is happy with CD. As a result, the record industry in general doesn't see the commercial need for a CD replacement—particularly if it means making better-than-CD versions of their masters available to any would-be pirate who is prepared to visit a record store.

The following ideas are wafting around the DVD-Audio world. First, record companies are united in wanting to "watermark" digital recordings in order to trace pirated versions. I had assumed that this would be in the form of low-rate data buried in the noise floor. But what if record companies want this watermarking of high-quality audio recordings to be high enough in level and/or frequency to survive successive digital/analog/digital conversions? As with CBS's analog "Copycode" scheme from the late 1980s, this will destroy the very benefit the new medium is intended to offer. Or what if the music industry decides to offer only a compressed audio format like DTS or AC-3, because it offers more robust watermarking opportunities?

Second, while the Pioneer player produced a pretty good sound from Classic's 96kHz data, I really wanted to hear those same data decoded by a true high-end decoder. But what if the record industry, faced with the prospect of a pirate taking that data straight into a digital audio workstation, mandates that any hardware manufacturer wanting to take out a licence to make DVD-Audio players has to sign a legally binding contract agreeing not to provide a digital data output? Or if they do, that it be restricted to the CD's 16-bit/44.1kHz format?

The first hi-fi revolution was brought about almost a half-century ago by the LP. "[My baby] bought me a hi-fi for Christmas. Now I'm living in Paradise!" sang Chuck Berry in celebration. The second revolution was triggered 15 years ago by CD. With DVD-Audio, we are poised on the verge of a third paradigm in domestic music reproduction, in which even inexpensive mass-market playback equipment—like that Pioneer DVD player—will be able to produce sound quality better than the best CD player. And in which true high-end components working with multiple channels will give music lovers sound that might approach that heard in the concert hall. It would be a crime if we are to be denied it. And it would be a paradox if it is DVD-Video, courtesy of Classic's pioneering efforts, that give us some of what we want.