Super Audio CD—One Year Later

In his very English way, Sony's then managing director for the UK, Tim Steele, was getting a touch, er, desperate. His oh-so-cultured voice rose a smidgen as he resorted to a direct selling of the benefits of what he was talking about. "Look, you're all sitting on riches," was his fundamental pitch. "You can sell music-lovers your entire back catalog all over again—at a higher price!"

The scene was a London seminar scant months before the Japanese launch of Compact Disc in fall 1982, and less than a year before the official US launch at the 1983 Chicago Consumer Electronics Show. Sony was trying hard to get major executives representing all the major labels to understand what CD had to offer them.

It will be hard for you who didn't live through the CD launch to believe, but the record industry was very resistant to the introduction of the medium that has since made them so much money. You would have thought that, coupled with the opportunity to redefine the retail price of recorded music to almost double its existing level, Tim was making an irresistible argument. But the general reaction from the gathered music-biz folks at that 1982 seminar was that with prerecorded cassettes outselling the LP, why confuse the market? Even two years after the launch, I was having dinner with a friend who was at that time in charge of US back-catalog sales for a major label, and his skepticism about CD ran deep.

Now, of course, these same people—or their successors—not only take for granted the profits generated by the Compact Disc, but take credit for having invented the CD as well.

As I've pointed out before in these pages, dominant recorded-music media tend to appear once a generation—every 20 years. CBS first demonstrated the microgroove LP in 1948; Philips launched the Compact Cassette in 1963; and Philips, with Sony, introduced consumers to digital audio technology with 1983's Compact Disc. There were other media launches along the way—prerecorded open-reel tape, the 8-track cartridge, Elcaset, DAT, MiniDisc, DCC—but none of these had what it took to make it in other than specialized niches, if at all. And now, of course, there are two new contenders for the crown: Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio.

It was exactly one year ago, in the November 1999 Stereophile, that Jonathan Scull reviewed the first dedicated Super Audio CD player to reach these shores: Sony's $5000 SCD-1. This issue features Jonathan's report on the only DVD-Audio player you could buy in the US as of the time of shipping this issue of the magazine to the printer: Technics' $1200 DVD-A10.

As you can read in Jonathan's review of the Technics, the DVD-Audio launch has been nothing less than a fiasco, with just one disc officially available at the time of last summer's delayed launch. (To Technics' credit, at least they made their debut with a universal player, so its owners can play DVD-Videos and CDs.) With hindsight, the fiasco might have been foreseen, given the involvement of so many parties—not only hardware manufacturers but also the record industry, paranoid over the need to stamp the new high-resolution media with "watermarks."

Ah, the record industry. Of course, it's always easy to knock the people who control the flow of the music we crave. But their shortsightedness regarding what they've been offered by new media is nothing new—witness the efforts Tim Steele was having to make back in 1982. And when you look at the current size of the US recorded-music industry—an estimated $15.5 billion in 2000, according to a recent study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Wilkofsky Gruen Associates—it's hard to feel any sympathy for their claims that their current economic position has been significantly affected by CD copying by individuals, or by piracy in countries (such as China) that historically have adopted a laissez-faire attitude to copyright protection.

There were two areas where the CD didn't satisfy the record industry. First was that, for every disc sold, a royalty had to be paid to Sony and Philips, as the owners of almost all the patents embodied in the CD format. While this is trivial in the larger scheme of things, I'm sure it stuck in the throat of many an executive. Now, with many CD patents about to expire and the rest rendered more or less moot by the different physical nature of the DVD carrier, I'm sure this is why many more record companies have signed on with DVD-A than with SACD, at least in theory.

Second and much more fundamental was the fact that, with the unencrypted nature of its digital datastream, CD broke with all prior media in offering consumers access to the master. With the limitations of analog playback technology—or, to be more politically correct, the changes wrought in the music by the acts of mastering and duplicating in the analog domain—the LP a consumer could buy was, by definition, different from what the record company had in its tape vaults. And while you could copy an LP onto tape of some kind, the result was even more different. Provided the pricing of the commercial music media was appropriate, therefore, there would always be an inherent marketing advantage with the real thing: it was closer to the original.