Capturing Lightning in a Bottle: the 96/24 DVD Revolution

In his impassioned "As We See It" in May (Vol.20 No.5, p.3), Robert Harley pleaded that the Compact Disc is actually quite a bit better than it sounds, and requested that audiophiles focus instead on the significant improvements wrought in digital sound since its inception. Bob's point—that picking on CD's shortcomings has become a ritual bloodsport within the High End—is well taken: witness my own catty swipe at it in the first sentence. The fact is that the glaring imperfections of the first generation of digital products are now mostly distant memories. Most of us do derive hours of musical pleasure from our CD players and CD collections.

About the time I first read Bob's essay, we received an equally passionate letter from Parasound's Richard Schram (reprinted at the end of this piece), mirroring Bob's sentiments. Schram argues that John Atkinson's and Larry Archibald's opening and closing columns in the February issue encouraged readers to hold off from purchasing today's digital products, instead waiting for newer and better ones based on an advanced audio standard for DVD. While Schram and Harley agree that the new format offers promise, it might be years before high-end audio-only players and software are available.

In the interim, Schram complains, articles such as JA's and LA's, extolling 20-bit or 24-bit/96kHz sources, convince consumers to wait, to purchase nothing while fantasizing about unavailable or unreachable technologies. If people don't partake of today's finest products, Schram argues, smaller companies may not survive until the next generation of digital is a reality, which will leave the new technologies disproportionately controlled by the giant corporations, whose very diversity makes them less sensitive to the two-channel music listener's needs.

Such a scenario frightens me. I want the ethos of the High End to guide us in these matters. As I see it, however, the "heavyweight companies" already control the new technologies. The standards for DVD weren't hammered out by companies like Spectral, Audio Research, Mark Levinson, or Krell; they were set by Toshiba, Philips, Sony, and Matsushita—much like those for CD before it.

Furthermore, CD now offers such great musical enjoyment precisely because certain members of the audiophile press were courageous enough to insist that it was far from perfect—and because designers working for such companies as Meridian, Theta, Wadia, and, yes, Parasound worked very hard to deliver on the promise inherent in the technology.

I'm not happy either with the amount of control that those major players exert upon the marketplace. When Bob Harley asked Nobuyuki Idei, Sony's President, if they planned a high-quality audio version of DVD, he responded, "I don't think there's a need for a new audio format." (This from the company that tried to foist the sonically inferior MiniDisc upon us!) I interpret his statement as shorthand for "It would be a hard sell." I agree, it would be—not least because people are tiring of format changes that promise much, yet mostly deliver potential.

I heard 96kHz/24-bit sound several times at the WCES, and again at JA's on Easter Sunday. It's not all that different, yet it's all the difference in the world. It does not result in that gross night-and-day revelation that the majors probably need to sell a new medium to the average background-music consumer, yet it sounds substantially more like music and music-making than 44.1kHz/16-bit. Once I'd heard 24-bit/96kHz digital, going back to the CD standard was almost painful. We played 24/96 masters of his new Gershwin CD for Hyperion Knight after his recording sessions in Santa Fe. When we went back to the 44.1kHz tapes, his face collapsed like a cake left out in the rain.

Here we have the potential for a giant, musically significant step forward in musical reproduction. I, for one, am not willing to idly hope that someone decides I deserve it. I'm going to agitate for it.

Does this mean I'm betraying the High End by underselling today's best digital products? I think a glance through the pages of this magazine offers sufficient refutation of that charge—month after month, we feature reviews of the finest products we can find, written by people who are excited by the musical pleasures they provide. We support those products with our recommendations and enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm—and that of our readers—is the flip side of the skepticism that created the demand for better digital sound in the first place—a demand that was met almost exclusively by specialty audio companies. If we're going to get 24-bit/96kHz digital in the near future, I suspect that it's going to be because those same companies will lead the majors to the market for it, just as they did with higher-quality CD sound.

Joseph Joubert said, "It is better to debate an issue without settling it than to settle an issue without debating it." I agree. I suspect that if I remain silent—if we remain silent—we will end up accepting what the major electronics manufacturers want to give us. From their current actions, I deduce that they think we will settle for "good enough."

My mentor in carpentry used to tell us that "good enough" was lazy and obscene, which I reckon is about right. Just once, I'd like to hear an electronics company executive explain, "We've spent so much money developing this technology that the extra amount we'd have to spend to perfect it is negligible in comparison. Therefore we ask you not to accept it until we've done so." They sure aren't saying that now.

In 24-bit/96kHz digital, I've heard something that was far, far better than "good enough," and I want it. I'm sure you do too. If the big corporations don't think it's worthwhile to satisfy us, then that creates a market niche for the innovative smaller ones to fill. Perhaps instead of telling me to be quiet about what I've heard, Mr. Schram should be telling me about how he's going to give me what I want.

Don't kill our horses!—Richard Schram

Editor: I eagerly anticipate reading each issue of Stereophile, and I've had no reason to dispute Stereophile's claim to be an opinion leader, particularly regarding two-channel digital product reviews.

After reading the February 1997 issue—the San Francisco Symphony was still on strike, what else was there to do?—my heart sank. For the past six months, sales of high-end DACs and CD transports have been eroding industry-wide. (You'd be amazed how candid manufacturers are with each other when there's no editorial person around whom they're trying to impress.) Despite Parasound's fantastic overall growth in 1996, our own digital models have also been affected. These include our DAC and belt-drive transport—fresh Class B recommendations that earned so much praise in Stereophile (and many other) reviews during 1996.

Of course, there's been lots of press heaped on DVD and the promise of an advanced audio disc format. Many people are forestalling the pleasure they could be deriving today, to await something undefined that is due at a time to be determined. You know, vaporware.

What kept me up last night were the pieces in February written by you guys: John Atkinson as the Editor on p.3, and Larry Archibald as Publisher and CEO on p.242. You tutored your readers about the deficiencies of the present CD Red Book standard and, in effect, you've all but counseled them not to buy present digital equipment or recordings because they are inferior compared to what might be available in the future. Yours are not the opinions of product reviewers; they carry the full weight of your leadership influence as industry spokesmen and opinion shapers.

But you neglected to caution readers that this future technology is not so imminent. The standards for the advanced audio disc have not even been established; the next standards meeting was to have taken place in Japan this April, a year after the last meeting. Even if a consensus is somehow reached this year, five years will probably elapse before there are many advanced audio discs people can buy.

Until a better technology is available to the public, what's your point in dwelling on the technical shortcomings of the equipment and CDs that currently fill industry warehouses? Many of us who honor music have invested our capital and worked hard to achieve some very convincing music reproduction in spite of these constraints. We've created the best values in the history of recorded music and consumer electronics, and for the past years countless music lovers have enjoyed music reproduction by this "flawed" medium. Thousands of new buyers would have been thrilled with what they might have purchased last year or this year. I think Robert Harley, writing in the August '96 Stereophile ("As We See It," p.3), has this perspective; he demonstrated his concerns about music lovers unnecessarily depriving themselves while waiting for Godot.

I don't fault you for rhapsodizing about the superiority of your nifty Nagra digital recorder compared to the best possible CDs you could make from its masters. Your commitment to recording live music is great for staying in touch with music, provided you have the money to afford it, and for differentiating Stereophile from competing publications. Sure, your masters are better. What else is new?

But Stereophile readers simply can't buy masters, any more than LP enthusiasts have been able to buy those 15 or 30ips master tapes over the past 50 years. What is missing in your enthusiasm is some perspective that would be less injurious to the only products and recordings that are likely to be available to readers for some time to come.

Using the very authority and influence of your own editorials to advise readers (you've assured me, in your self-promotion mailings, that they are also buyers) how unhappy they should be is an unwarranted challenge to our present commerce. We are losing sales and credibility because of your combined advocacy of an undecided future format, without your equally vigorous support of the present equipment and recordings—which is the only business we have.

It's going to be a long wait for specialty audio companies if Stereophile fails to remind its readers how much pleasure they're missing if they don't buy the best of what we can sell them today, next year, and the year after. Some companies won't survive long enough to make their unique contributions to the new technologies, despite the fact that today those companies are building some of the best products in the world. As a result, the new technologies will be disproportionately controlled by the heavyweight companies whose diversity (including nonaudio products) enables them to weather the current loss of two-channel digital sales. Since this scenario would be counterproductive to Stereophile's own interests, I imagine you have not considered the manner in which Stereophile has become a liability to our entire industry.

I don't mean to suggest for one moment that Stereophile should be any less diligent in reporting the news, or that it should stop agitating for whatever standards will improve reproduction of music in our homes. My plea is simply for you to stop beating the horse that's our industry's only means of transportation. Please be less hasty to drag it to the glue factory before our new ride is born.—Richard Schram, President, Parasound Products

Robert Harley's "As We See It" in the May Stereophile basically agreed with Mr. Schram that, as CD is all music-lovers now have, we had better make the most of it. On the other hand, as Wes Phillips points out in this month's "As We See It" in response to Mr. Schram, Stereophile does have a responsibility to write about advances in sound quality. See also my comments on higher-quality digital in "The Rhapsody Project" elsewhere in this issue, and Steven Stone's remarks in this issue's "Industry Update." And while it is true that the standards have yet be finalized for a high-quality, audio-only medium based on DVD, I believe that video-standard DVDs carrying 24-bit/96kHz music data are already on sale in Japan.—John Atkinson