Of Digital Audio and Lettuce Leaves Letters

One letter on this subject, from Jeff Ziesmann, also appeared in February 2001. Letters in response to Sam's rant appeared in the April 2001 issue:

The most likely outcome?

Editor: I agree with John Howard's contention in November's "Letters" (Vol.23 No.11, p.12) that failure is the most likely outcome for the SACD and DVD-A format introductions.

History teaches us things, if we are willing to look back and study. The reason the introduction of the CD was so successful is that the average consumer received great benefits by personally adopting the medium. This is not the case with SACD and DVD-A.

In order to understand this concept, you have to look back at the playback equipment used by the average consumer in the early 1980s. Note that I said "the average consumer," not audiophiles. The average consumer was not using a $10,000 turntable and a $5000 phono cartridge. The equipment they were using could be (and often was) as bad as a cheap rumbling changer with a ceramic cartridge feeding a compact music system. These items produced poor frequency response, very high levels of record damage, and high noise levels. Most of these consumers did not clean or preserve records. Instead they beat them up—adding groove grunge caused by fingerprints, and even more noise caused by the scratches that occur when records are carelessly handled.

The alternative to this situation was in many ways worse—the prerecorded cassette. This medium also had severe problems. A slight azimuth error in duplication or playback (both were common), and there went the high-frequency response. Signal/noise was terrible, as was dynamic range, due to high-speed duplication, cheap tape, and cheaper shells. Music on the road was limited to popping one of these gems into a car player—with additional wow and flutter caused by road bumps and so on.

For the average consumer, the LP record is fragile and difficult. In fact, look at the rituals audiophiles go through to coax the best out of a groove—vacuum cleaning machines, endless VTA and tracking adjustments, and so on. For the average consumer, the cassette was the ultimate in bad sound. Saddled with two inferior mediums, the average Joe was ready for change.

For these consumers, the CD was a godsend: much more durable, flat frequency response, compatibility from player to player, far less noise and distortion, and decent in-car reproduction. With the introduction of CD-R machines costing a few hundred dollars, these consumers not only get a player but a recorder as well. A CD-R recorder outperforms any cassette deck, and offers performance that equals or exceeds (in many parameters) studio open-reel machines costing thousands of dollars. The cost of blanks has dropped like a rock, and the performance of these high-performance cheapies gets better with each generation of hardware. For the average, non-audiophile consumer, there is no comparison between this reproduction and their old, cheap record changers and cassette decks. For them, the CD revolution represented a huge leap forward.

As a result of these developments, the average consumer was willing to repurchase their record library on CD, willing to junk cassette libraries, players, and recorders. This is not the high-distortion, lo-fi sound they used to have. It is good, decent reproduction without the hassle. Mr. Howard is entirely correct when he says that these consumers are not dissatisfied with CD sound.

SACD and DVD-A do not represent the leap forward for these customers that CD did. The improvements these media bring are smaller in scope and in degree. In order to be appreciated fully, they require an audiophile-grade, high-resolution system from start to finish. Average Joe consumers do not own (or want to own) this equipment, yet I doubt if there would be any audible improvement over CD through the average shelf system. Certainly, there is great doubt about the willingness of these consumers to junk a CD library and repurchase every title again on SACD or DVD-A.

The LP represented a major improvement over 78s. The cassette put music in your pocket. CD kept it there, and improved frequency response, noise floor, dynamic range, and durability. I see no comparable benefit, in terms of scope, from SACD. DVD will survive as a medium because it offers very substantial improvements over VHS tapes in terms of resolution and durability. But DVD-A? It might survive—but I think most players will be sold for their video capabilities, not their audio performance.

Or, to put it another way: In history, how many audio formats have survived and prospered that were adopted only by audiophiles and did not find their way into the mainstream? To survive, SACD and DVD-A must be embraced by the average consumer. I just don't see it.—Jeff Ziesmann, jziesmann@ee.net

Sam took the words out of his mouth

Editor: I finished reading the February Stereophile and was very drawn to two items. The first was Jeff Ziesmann's letter, "The most likely outcome?" (p.12). The second was Sam Tellig's "Sam's Space."

To make it short and sweet, you guys took the words out of my mouth in regard to CD's demise (or lack of) and the premature declaration of SACD or DVD-Audio's certain victory. I agree with you both: that the death of the CD is far off, and the course most likely for the vast majority is to improve the playback hardware and to continue to refine the CD's mastering process. We don't need to be throwing our limited resources into an entire new format when the CD's potential hasn't been fully realized.

Sam, I think you definitely should become the champion of the CD: "Perfect Sound Forever!" If Michael Fremer can peddle his ancient-technology analog mantra to all those golden-eared dinosaurs, you should have no problem with the CD.—Virgil E. Glew, Jr., michtuna@voyager.net