Hi-Rez Media: When Will They Learn?


I was somewhat surprised by my lack of equivocation. The time was January 2005, the scene was the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and I had just been asked by a high-end audio company if they should devote their engineering resources to developing a Super Audio CD player.

My response was perhaps even more puzzling because, the day before I flew out to Las Vegas, I had turned in the report on the dCS Verona Master Clock that appears in this issue (p.115). That review turned out significantly longer than I'd expected because I ended up including a "Follow-Up" on the complete dCS SACD playback system. As you can read, I felt that SACDs played back on this $45,000, four-box rig produced the finest sound I have experienced in my system. So why did I not hesitate to answer "No!"?

A writer was once asked what he thought about something. "I don't know," he reportedly replied. "I haven't written about it yet." His point was that the act of writing forces opinions to crystallize from an undigested soup of ideas and experiences. Similarly, while I had been absorbing data on the state of SACD and DVD-Audio over the past months, it was the manufacturer's direct question that "collapsed the wave function" and forced me to integrate those data into a single-word answer.

Five years after the launch of SACD and four after that of DVD-A (originally scheduled for 1999, the DVD-A launch was delayed by a Norwegian teenager's hacking of the CSS copy-protection code used by DVD), the hi-rez media are showing many signs of health. Almost 250 record labels have offered a total of almost 3000 titles on SACD, and more than 110 labels offer DVD-As. (The number of DVD-A titles is hard to determine, but appears to be around half the number of SACD releases.) The advent of low-cost DVD-A burning programs, such as Minnetonka Software's Discwelder Bronze program for PCs and Macs (see "Letters," p.11), and the introduction of new SACD mastering systems at last November's AES Convention are also welcome portents.

Recent major releases from modern mainstream artists are appearing on the hi-rez media—Jamie Cullum, Diana Krall, Tierney Sutton, Alicia Keyes—but so are significant numbers of back-catalog titles. Obscure rock artists such as Nick Drake are now available on SACD, the Grateful Dead can be found on DVD-A, and even the Carpenters' Singles 1969–1981 has been released on SACD. Classical music lovers are enjoying the release of the RCA Living Stereo, Mercury Living Presence, and Philips (Pentatone) catalogs on SACD, and the Nimbus catalog on DVD-A. Jazz lovers can browse the Concord, Vanguard, Fantasy, and Groove Note catalogs on SACD. And Classic Records continues to promote DVD-Video as a carrier for hi-rez music with its post-CES release of that audiophile favorite, the Casino Royale soundtrack, in both 24-bit/96kHz and 24/192 formats.

Things also look healthy on the hardware front. The 2005 CES witnessed new high-end SACD, DVD-A, and universal players from Ayre Acoustics, Conrad-Johnson, Cary, Denon, Esoteric, Meridian, and Sony Qualia. Musical Fidelity and dCS say they will introduce new SACD players later this year. And you'd think that the existence of something like the Pioneer DV-578A-S universal player, which I recently purchased from www.audioadvisor.com for just $129, could catalyze the acceptance of the new media by the mass market.

The underlying reality, however, is that neither SACD nor DVD-A has yet developed significant market traction. Despite the appeal to some listeners of the media's multichannel content, the public is voting with their wallets (when the record industry can persuade them to part with cold cash) for downloadable, data-compressed, two-channel music files.

The news last November that, in the first six months of 2004, deliveries to US record retailers of SACDs and DVD-As combined were lower than those of the supposedly obsolete LP gave me pause. Yes, there may be almost 3000 SACD titles available, but if the overall US shipments were 300,000 in January–June 2004, as claimed by the RIAA, that means that only 100 units, on average, of each title were offered to retail customers in that period. Even if you consider that the RIAA figures appear to omit hybrid SACDs, which are racked in record stores as regular CDs, and which account for half of all SACD titles, these statistics do not describe a market that has much to offer, other than engineering prestige, to an audio company thinking of offering a new SACD player.

The mystery, to me at least, is why Sony's own labels have not been more aggressive in promoting SACD. And as Jon Iverson wrote in this space in January, the DVD-Audio folks appear to be abandoning DVD-A in favor of DualDisc.With DVD-A or -V data on one side and CD on the other, the hope is that the DualDisc, like the hybrid SACD, will spread by stealth (footnote 1) (see "Letters," p.15 and "Update," p.17).

But, of course, that strategy does not take into account the forthcoming battle between two mutually incompatible disc media that use a blue-laser pickup, the 25GB Blu-ray format and the 15GB HD-DVD format (both figures refer to a single-sided, single-layer disc). As well as high-definition video, Blu-ray offers standard Dolby Digital and DTS-HD for audio, and is supported by Sony, Pioneer, and Panasonic, all of whom demonstrated Blu-ray players at CES. (There was no indication at CES whether the DSD encoding used on SACD will be used on Blu-ray.) HD-DVD, supported by Toshiba, Microsoft, and the DVD Forum, offers hi-def video and audio specifications similar to DVD-Audio, with MLP, DTS-HD, and Dolby Digital Plus, and is said to be coming to market later this year.

First we lived through VHS vs Beta, where there was a clear winner. Then we almost had a war of Toshiba-Warner-Matsushita's SD vs Sony-Philips' MCD, averted only when the two sides came to their senses in 1995 to collaborate on DVD. Then we lived through DVD-A vs SACD, with neither format winning. And now we have Blu-ray vs HD-DVD, which, as well as further confusing consumers, could well draw their progenitors' attention away from the current hi-rez audio battle.

When will they learn?

Footnote 1: An important difference is that, while SACD was designed from the outset to be a single-sided hybrid medium, DualDisc, as discussed by JI in January, is a double-sided kludge. I am told that there is no technical problem in manufacturing a single-sided hybrid DVD-A that would be an exact equivalent of a hybrid SACD. The problem is that only a small number of the millions of DVD players sold since 1996 would recognize the CD layer of such a disc; their transport mechanisms' firmware has not been programmed to expect to find a "Red Book" CD layer under the semitransparent DVD layer.