Bob Stuart: The Prime Meridian Page 2

The reason that all happened is that Faroudja had ended up being owned by the semiconductor house Genesis Microchip, and Genesis no longer wanted to manufacture boxes. There's a huge difference in scale. The chip company was much bigger than the box company, and it's very hard to run a business like that. It's hard to provide the focus. Whereas, for Meridian, what Faroudja were doing was a perfect fit. Same kind of dealers, same kind of distributors, same goals—to make the very best home theater, and from home theater up to screening rooms. So we were very excited. The terms of the deal are also quite unusual. It's a very modern sort of arrangement that we reached. We took over the business operation, so we make the boxes, we make video processors, we make the projectors. We'll make other things—there'll be display devices coming, and we'll be making other video processors.

But we also have access to all of Genesis Microchip's video R&D, including all their new video algorithms. So if they've come up with something that we think is cool, we can put it in the product, and we can end up with it in the marketplace two years before they can bring it out in a chip. Which helps us both. Because we have the technology wholly, we can lead the market, which is what we need to do. But they can have their technology field-tested, and they can also have it exposed, so they can say, "Look, our new chip, coming in three years, will have this feature."

So it's a kind of win-win thing on both sides, which is unusual. We were very happy to take it over, and since we were able to do that, it's led to other things for us. Because to establish yourself as the best video-processor maker could take any company five to seven years; you've got to build a brand for that. What we were able to do was to take the Meridian brand, which is very strong in audio—and not weak in video, because the DVD players have a good reputation—and attach to it a 30-year-old brand which, in most parts of the world, is equated to the best in video, which is Faroudja. And put the two together. It's pretty exciting. We're glad we did it, even though absorbing anybody else's business is a traumatic thing to do.

Harris: Adding Faroudja, then, has finally enabled you to complete the Meridian Digital Theatre line?

Stuart: Yes, very much. Because it's what we've worked for at Meridian, right through, we always had a goal. My view has always been that the longer we can keep the data in the digital domain, the better. And that's why we were the first company, I think, to do an outboard DAC (footnote 1). As soon as the S/PDIF digital interface was available, we moved into digital speakers. In fact, in 1985 we showed a prototype digital speaker at the London show. By 1988, we had a digital speaker in production. That idea led to digital surround-sound processors that would help with the rendering—do all the delays and equalization, all the things you need to do to paint a picture with the number of speakers you've got—and then the digital speaker itself.

When DVD started to get popular and people wanted surround sound, we started to talk about Digital Theatre. Digital Theatre to us at that time was the sound—digital all the way from the DVD to loudspeakers that were playing back in surround sound—but we couldn't develop the picture.

Some of the things that we learned from audio we brought to the video table. Things like transparency: What does it really mean when you can have low noise and uniformity in the picture? The answer is, you can see further, with a greater sense of depth. Questions that video engineers didn't ask, like "What happens if you reduce the jitter on the video?" And the answer is, the picture looks better.

So we were able to do those sorts of things, but there was still an area of video processing that would have taken us quite a long time to acquire. And we wanted to be on the display side of it, because we felt that we could provide the best experience by closing the loop. The thing that I really like about it is that the picture quality we can make is outstanding. As you know, we're doing projectors based on the D-ILA technology.

Usually, pictures that you see will have been processed several times—once in the player, and then finally in the projector itself, with the projector scaling—and if they're not using the right sort of dither or the right sort of algorithms, then you get grain building in the picture. But we do the digital processing in the Faroudja DVP-1080 video processor and then straight into the projector, which is digitally connected, pixel to pixel, in the panel. The thing that's really cool about our projector is that there isn't a processor inside it. If you don't give it 1080p, you don't get a picture. So we put in this progressive 1080p, 1920x1080 pixels—it's a lot of pixels—and that works very well. With the DVD player, the digital surround processor, the digital speakers, we're digital all the way right up to the speaker on the audio side. On the video side, we take digital video over HDMI from the player into the video processor (the player actually deinterlaces it, because that's the right place to do this), you take 480p into the video processor, where it's scaled. Seventy percent of the picture you looked at here this morning was manufactured by resolution enhancement. But wasn't the detail amazing? And that was DVD!

Harris: Which brings us to the new hi-rez video formats, Blu-ray and HD DVD. But don't we need to talk about DVD-Audio and SACD before we get to what's happening next?

Stuart: I suppose so. It's all kind of interrelated, isn't it? I've said what I've said about the sound quality of CD. We've always felt that there was room for something better. You've heard it. Whenever you've heard a high-resolution recording, it is better. But we tried to bring DVD-Audio and SACD to market at a time when the music industry was at its sickest. The five majors were just shedding people all the time, consolidating, their market share was falling. There was nobody in the music industry anywhere that really had the bottle to say, "We're going to invest in this and make it happen," because when the company's losing money and everything's sort of imploding as far as the music industry itself is concerned, that kind of decision could lose you your job. It was a very bad time to try for higher quality.

Everyone in the upper part of the music companies definitely understood that if you could make a premium product that you could charge more for, then that would be good. But they did try to get the whole thing tangled up in an agenda—copy protection—which was nothing to do with the customer's benefit.

We came at it from the ARA [Acoustic Renaissance for Audio] and Meridian end—of sound quality—saying that if you give people surround sound in higher quality, they'll hear it and they'll like it. The music industry said, "Yep, that'll be cool, but they're not going to notice the sound-quality improvement so much, so we've definitely got to give them surround sound. We've got to give them this feature and that feature, we want pictures, and we want menus. But also, beyond anything else, we want copy protection, because our biggest problem is that we're being ripped off."

I think history has since shown that this is not true. There is leakage with copying of music, but things like iTunes have legitimized downloading. A lot of people are quite happy to pay for a song—the fact that they were copying discs and downloading illegally was just that there wasn't a better vehicle. I don't know if you agree with that, but there's certainly some element of truth in it.

Anyway, sharing music gets people interested in music, but there's always this tension...any content provider is always worried about copying machines. Do you remember all the fuss about [audio] cassette recorders? And Hollywood tried to stop the sale of VCRs! Because they thought that if people could copy things that were broadcast on television, they'd lose their revenue. As it turned out, in the pre-DVD era, half their income was coming from the sale of tapes. Slightly off the track, but this is all relevant to the whole picture of high-resolution audio.

Even if it had been the right time, a format war is a nightmare, because the consumer quite rightly says, "Well, I don't know which one to buy. I'll buy nothing." If the entire industry had been behind DVD-Audio, it would have gone a lot further and faster than it did. As it turns out, DVD-Audio is alive and well—but it's in DualDisc. It's not where it started. But I do know that in the first three weeks of DualDisc being launched, with the CD on one side and the DVD on the other, they sold more discs than had been sold of DVD-Audio or SACD in the five years previously.

This is a distraction, but we'll go there: I think DualDisc is a very powerful format because you get the CD, you get the higher-quality audio, and you get video content. And although I don't believe for a minute that people should sit watching concert videos instead of listening to the music—it's a very different experience—just the fact that you can have this information about the artist, I think helps connect you to the music. The one I keep quoting which I think is a really good example is Time Out, from Dave Brubeck. [According to Sony/BMG, this title's release date is yet to be confirmed. It is currently "on hold while business agreements are being sorted out." ] On one side you've got the CD, which sounds like it's always sounded. On the other side, you've got the same music in high-resolution surround. But in addition to that, there's a 30-minute interview with Dave Brubeck. And there's a multi-angle session where he shows you how to play "Take Five." And to me, these two things tell me so much more about the artist. You just see it once, and you listen to the music again. It's so much better than any liner notes could have been.

Footnote 1: Sony, Arcam, Musical Fidelity, and PS Audio also launched standalone D/A processors in 1987.—Ed.