DVD players thrive at Comdex '97

When I first attended Comdex several years back, it was easy to feel like a fish out of water. My core interests were always high-end audio---and the computer biz at the time would get excited about anything that sounded as good as a telephone. But I was still curious about what all the brainiacs were up to.

Zip forward to Comdex '97.

Audio folk would almost feel right at home here, and the video folk thrived in the main aisles. In fact, Comdex is now starting to sound like the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) we know and love. There was even that continual nausea-inducing vibration from subwoofers on the main floors. They haven't caught up with the car-audio displays for sheer SPL idiocy yet, but give 'em time---some of the computer-game companies are getting close.

But sound quality? Here's where they've got a long way to go.

Multichannel surround was everywhere. It became obvious real quick that "DVD Theater" was gaining momentum across the industry, with surround-sound demos in darkened booths common (with long lines just like CES!).

DVD machines, some aimed at audio applications, were falling into the aisles. Pick your flavor: DVD-video, DVD-R, DVD-RAM, DVD-ROM, and DVDP. Most of these drives, in conjunction with a CPU-brained host, could play a variety of disc formats, including all types of CDs.

Several companies displayed DVD-Rom drives coupled with MPEG-2 decoder boards ready to replace that old CD-ROM player you just bought. There were dozens of these things lining the halls; my favorite was the one running the Karaoke demo.

For the hard-core audiophile, however, a DVD player in a computer would not likely be the first choice for feeding a tweak system. But scores of kids growing up today will no doubt see their audio equipment as extensions of their computers, and upgrade accordingly.

When queried about support for future high-end DVD audio formats, most manufacturers at the show responded with this standard line: "We'll incorporate any new format that comes along into future players and recorders."

The audio equipment manufacturers carefully sift through DVD proposals looking for the one standard to hook their hats on for the next decade, while the computer companies jump around, assimilating anything in their path. The audio companies do not want to confuse the consumer with multiple DVD-audio variations, at the same time ensuring broad support from record companies. The computer folks just want to sell you the box fast and cheap, confident that the content will come from some scrappy start-up. Which approach will take us into the next century is anyone's guess.

What I'm beginning to wonder is, how much longer will we wait, or how much extra will we pay, to have DVD as a component in our audio systems? How many of us will begin with a DVD in our computer, looking to upgrade its sound each year until it rivals that of our mother's or father's high-end rig? Therein lies the future of all things high-end audio.