Format War? What Format War?

What if they gave a format war and nobody came?

It could have been so easy. There were hundreds of thousands of audiophiles ready to lead the charge into the wilderness of new high-resolution formats. After more than 10 years' grumbling about the fractured sound of CD and the frustration of finding decent stocks of new LPs, we were primed to support the hi-rez audio future.

And then all format hell broke loose. A format war is never a pretty sight, and early adopters tend to be the bloodiest victims. Survey after survey conducted on reveals that Stereophile readers will wait out the battle, only buying in when players are "universal" enough that they no longer need to choose sides. Readers say they're also planning to wait to see what happens with multichannel audio.

After polling a Home Entertainment 2002 audience, our own John Atkinson concluded that, while there's a large market for multichannel home theater, and an even larger two-channel crowd—remember, attendees at HE2002 were overwhelmingly Stereophile readers—there appears to be no middle ground. In other words, so far there's been little interest in hi-rez multichannel audio. Should we really add the multichannel-vs-stereo struggle to the already debilitating war between SACD and DVD-Audio?

Proponents of both DVD-Audio and SACD are pushing multichannel as one of the primary ways forward, leaving the industry with the daunting task of growing a market where, apparently, there is none. This is a much tougher prospect than simply converting the existing two-channel crowd to a higher-resolution format, and, if such a market is ever actually established, only then trying to expand it into surround audio.

Back to the front lines. The SACD-DVD-Audio conflict (which, according to at least one of the factions, officially does not exist) took an interesting turn or two at last May's HE2002. Both camps took advantage of the Show to inform the audiophile community about their respective benefits, but that's where the similarities ended. The SACD seminar, supported by demonstrations in Sony's dem room, was carefully scripted and lavishly produced. By contrast, the formal DVD-A presentation appeared slapped together, with actual demonstrations of DVD-A left to dealer/distributor Hi-Fi Farm/Sanibel Sound (see Kal Rubinson's report on p.55). The DVD-A panel faced tough questions from the audience, and even some public rebuttals from an SACD advocate.

In addition, an article about SACD's possible rosy future published on our website around the time of HE2002 and our May issue report from the 2001 New York AES Convention (see "Letters," August, p.11), prompted a nasty note to the magazine's executive publisher from John Kellogg, one of the higher-ups at Dolby, proponents of DVD-A and the licensor of the Meridian Lossless Packing used by the DVD-A medium. Kellogg says we're giving his favored format short shrift at our shows, in the magazine, and online. He accuses us of unfairly coddling SACD, to the detriment of DVD-A. Instead of carefully outlining the advantages of DVD-A to help us see the bigger picture, the tone of Kellogg's words reflected someone who appears to be realizing that he's fighting a losing battle.

I've previously gone on record in these pages to state that DVD-Audio probably had the edge in this battle, and predicted that it would prevail in the long run due to the fact that, by default, there would be so many DVD-Video players equipped with DVD-A showing up in consumer homes. Another factor that might favor DVD-A is that as DVD-A discs carry a Dolby Digital version of the multichannel program—see reader Bill Jerome's comments in "Letters," p.9—they play on the existing base of DVD-V machines.

Now I'm starting to wonder. Part of the problem is that the new hi-rez audio formats, stereo or multichannel, are virtually invisible to the general media. Compared with the nonstop flood of PR we receive at Stereophile Guide to Home Theater about HDTV (which has had its own launching troubles) and the phenomenally successful DVD-Video, relevant news—even blatant PR puffery—about either audio-only format is virtually nonexistent. If the DVD-A camp wants us to run stories every week about what they're up to, how great things are going, and their big plans for the future, we're ready to go.

I'm disgruntled about the current situation because I love the higher-resolution sounds of DVD-Audio and SACD, but I'm not holding my breath that either format will catch on anytime soon. Instead—and this will get a few folks hopping up and down again—the hi-rez audio movers and shakers have taken almost every opportunity to blow their once-ripe chance, and continue to do so. Watermarked discs to restrict how we use the recordings (and pollute DVD-A's sound)? Still no uninhibited full-bandwidth digital outputs on players? Format wars? Stereo or multichannel? High-priced discs (at least until recently, see "Industry Update," p.14)? Paltry selection of titles? Virtually no PR to expose the general public?

Though these criticisms aren't new, they bear repeating because now, instead of the real issues being properly addressed, it appears from the Kellogg letter that it is the press that's being blamed for DVD-Audio's problems.

By contrast, Sony appears to be in it for the long haul. After all, there's more than just the glory of launching a successful format at stake: those nifty SACD and DSD patent royalties (as CD patents begin to run out), and the head start that Sony's music and audio-hardware divisions can gain as sales reach critical mass, can't hurt. But in the meantime, Sony has got to be losing money on SACD hand over fist. With no proven audiophile mass-market demand for multichannel audio or higher-fidelity music, only a long-term view would facilitate launching and sustaining something like SACD—especially with DVD-A lurking in the shadows.

Maybe Sony has a 10- or 20-year (or longer) plan for SACD. Is the current battle just an early bump on the road to a grander vision, in which the world is converted from PCM-based digital audio to DSD? Have we yet to see the real barrage of SACD PR, which is being held back until just the right moment?

Can DVD-Audio demonstrate a similar resolve and survive? Or, as the going continues to be rough, will its backers persist in pointing their fingers instead of getting down to work?