Hi-Rez Audio's Uncertain Future

"There's a flat screen in your future."

This remark pretty well sums up the impression most journalists took home from the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show [see the report in this issue—Ed.]. Flat-screen monitors and television sets, both LCD and plasma, are getting a huge push from major manufacturers, and an extremely enthusiastic reception from the press and the buying public.

The reasons are simple. Flat screens are elegant—a vast improvement over the big boxes of the 20th century. Show anyone, technophile or technophobe, a high-definition clip of an NFL game or Olympic figure-skating competition on a flat screen and they're sold. The superiority to legacy video is undeniable, astounding even, and the sale is a done deal. The only question is, "When will it reach my price?"

There's no parallel epiphany for high-resolution audio. To audiophile ears, SACD and DVD-Audio are clearly better than standard CD, especially when heard under optimum conditions—in acoustically treated rooms with megabuck equipment. The differences become much less apparent, if at all, when such recordings are played back on mediocre gear or, God forbid, on the public-address and dance-club systems we endured in Las Vegas.

The public-relations gaffe of playing hi-rez recordings on lo-rez systems might be forgiven as an act of ebullience, but it encapsulates one of the fundamental obstacles facing the music industry in its quest to convert lo-rez heathens to hi-rez connoisseurs: The audio systems owned and enjoyed by most people aren't capable of delivering the full performance encoded in ordinary CDs. Why should we think that the owners of such systems are going to appreciate the improvements offered by hi-rez recordings?

The music business is probably deluding itself that SACD or DVD-A is the cure for what ails it. At an SACD coming-out party in Las Vegas, an industry marketing chief enthused over the impending release of a multichannel, high-resolution edition of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, one of the most successful and enduring rock albums ever recorded. It's also one of the most appropriate for the loving multichannel treatment, and one that most audiophiles and rock fans will grab as soon as it's available. We can't wait to discover what's been hiding in the mix all these years.

Music-industry executives are hoping that this is a harbinger of an economic renaissance to come—that SACD or DVD-A, like the CD before them, will persuade music lovers to rush out in a buying frenzy and replace their libraries one more time, as they did in the 1980s and early '90s.

That probably won't happen. There aren't many Dark Sides in the pop-music repertoire, and there aren't that many music fans who listen attentively enough for hi-rez to make a difference. Audiophiles, opera-lovers, and serious jazz fans—together, an almost infinitesimal slice of the overall music market—will gladly sit motionless through a solid hour of recorded music. For us, music is a destination activity. For everyone else, it's something to enjoy in the background as they go about other pursuits—puttering in the kitchen or garage, lying on the floor doing yoga, reading the newspaper, driving to work. Precisely rendered voices and instruments aren't concerns for them at all. The very notion is alien.

Pitching the benefits of hi-rez to this vast audience ignores the fundamental truth about how people use recorded music—as a comforting sonic salve, a reliable mood enhancer, a barrier against the awful silence, a friend in your pocket. All those qualities we audiophiles go for like heat-seeking missiles—detail, dimensionality, palpability, realism—are without meaning to most music-lovers. They listen for other things, for other reasons. And DVD-Audio's reliance on a video interface for menu navigation ignores another reality of how people enjoy their music. You can't help asking, "What were they thinking?"

The multichannel problem is even more confounding. What value does precise localization have for someone who's listening from another room? How does it work for a group in the listening space? In the studio, a recording engineer sits at his mixing console in a "sweet spot," surrounded by an array of loudspeakers, making a disc to be heard by listeners sitting in similar sweet spots. Once you move out of the sweet spot the spatial illusion largely collapses. Automotive audio systems might seem the perfect environment for multichannel, but the localization problem persists there too. If the system is calibrated for the driver, it's of necessity not calibrated for the passengers. When more than one listener is involved, the benefit of surround sound shrinks to almost nothing.

Then there's the box problem. Flat-screen monitors and televisions are inevitable because they eliminate the big, ugly box. Anyone who has ever worked in an audio store will tell you that consumers' major objection to hi-fi isn't the price; it's the boxes. No matter how sweet their sound or how beautiful their finish, big loudspeakers don't win many buyers because they violate the popular vision of aesthetic tranquility. People may love what they hear, but they hate what they see when they look at a typical high-end system. Now try to convince them that, to enjoy the full impact of multichannel recordings, they need not two but five large speakers, plus subwoofer, and all the ancillary gear to drive them—amps, interconnects, cables. You might as well try to lasso the moon.

High-resolution, multichannel audio faces a difficult, uncertain future. Its emergence has made curious allies of the audiophile press and the music industry, for different reasons. We support it in our general quest for the elevated experience, they support it for financial reasons, but our shared dream of lifting the musical tide for all is likely to go unfulfilled.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the niche market for hi-rez music will become large enough to sustain that part of the industry that creates and delivers it. The world is full of arcane products for which there are small but permanent markets—everything from obscure surgical instruments to custom cowboy boots, made by companies that measure success in dozens of units sold, not millions. That's not a description of media conglomerates. Without mass acceptance, hi-rez audio may become just another promising but ultimately futile detour on the path to musical Nirvana.