Of Digital Audio and Lettuce Leaves Page 2

DVD-Audio is another story. It seems DVD-A releases from the so-called "major" record labels will be watermarked. Do you want these crippled discs? I sure as hell don't.

That's not the only reason I'm hoping format confusion kills off both new digital audio formats. I don't want multichannel sound, either, and that seems to be a good part of what DVD-A—and, probably, SACD—are about. (SACD was designed as a six-channel format, and Sony is said to be archiving new recordings in six channels. So, for that matter, are other labels, including Naxos.)

Would Sony have us adopt two-channel SACD now, at considerable expense, and then multichannel SACD later, at still further expense? Is Sony trying to introduce SACD two channels at a time?

Multichannel. That's what I'm really afraid of.

I lived through the quadraphonic fiasco of the early 1970s—one of the sorriest eras in the history of hi-fi. LP pressing quality turned to shit and, with more channels to get wrong, recording engineers mucked up the sound as never before. Fortunately, there was format confusion then, too (three competing surround-sound formats), which is part of the reason that stereo—and sanity—prevailed.

We have CD to thank for the fact that interest in our hobby revived and that high-end audio survived and prospered. Bitch and moan about digital vs analog as some of us might, CD probably revived specialty audio and saved the asses of more than one high-end manufacturer.

The Compact Disc has been good to us—why not be good to CD in return? Do we all have to jump because Sony or Technics, or Stereo Review's Sound and Vision, says we should? The CD format isn't half as bad as some writers might lead you to believe—and you don't need a $40,000 turntable to get the most from it!

Hmmm. I think I'll make myself the Michael Fremer of CD, and dedicate my life to preserving an obsolete format. Sounds like fun—a man with a mission. I even have a rallying cry: Perfect Sound Forever! Maybe I'll start my own magazine: The Laser!

The LP had a 30-year run before it was eclipsed by the compact cassette, then finished off by the CD. Dr. Goldmark passed away in 1977, five years before the CD got going. But he probably would have been philosophical about the demise of the LP and today's confusing format scene. "If they want it on lettuce leaves, I'll give it to them on lettuce leaves," he said.

I don't know about you, but I'd like to stick with CD for another five or 10 years. For the time being, Sony Classical, which should be leading the SACD charge, gives me no other choice. If I want the latest from Volodos or Perahia, I have to settle for Perfect Sound Forever. Meanwhile, the DVD-A forces are diddling with their watermarks and poisoning their own well, as it were.

Not that I'm really worried.

While folks couldn't wait to ditch their LPs in favor of CDs (they'd already started doing so because of cassettes), I see no sign that the average Jane or Joe is ready to now say sayonara to CD. I've been a marketing and advertising man my entire adult life; I know a tough sell when I see one, and SACD and DVD-Audio are tough sells. I can also spot an easy sell—like the LP in 1948.

CD has a number of virtues.

It's here. You and I have already "adopted" it, and better the devil you know than the devil you don't, as the Irish like to say. Most of us have already accumulated libraries of CDs. Would you like to buy that library all over again?

CDs are cheap to produce. Virtually anyone can make a recording, and almost anyone can set up a CD production facility—even a bootlegger in Russia or China. As John Atkinson said to me over lunch one day, "The CD is a very democratic medium."

JA should know. The Chief issues CDs from his Brooklyn basement. Another Stereophile writer, John Marks, has had his own eponymous record label for nearly a decade. There must be thousands of record labels in the world—hundreds of classical labels alone are listed in the Berkshire Record Outlet catalog.

Do you want to sacrifice this diversity and democracy for a few extra bits—or five or six or however many wonderful watermarked channels? Do you want more control over your listening life by the likes of Sony Music, BMG, Time Warner? Go make them happy—adopt a new format and empty your wallet.

Now comes a new reason to expect—or hope—that there're lots more years of life left in the CD format. I refer to what JA hesitates to call "The Magic Bullet": Upsampling.