HI-FI '98 Coverage Continues

From the Show:

June 12: "May you live in interesting times," said Stereophile editor John Atkinson, quoting an old Chinese curse as he introduced a panel of experts to discuss high-bit-rate audio. The panel represented a cross-section of high-resolution audio experts from both the hardware and software industries. Has this great leap forward become a Pandora's Box of unforeseen problems?

Question from the audience to the panelists: Are these new formats (DVD-Audio, DSD) going to create new monsters, the way jitter was discovered years after the introduction of the compact disc? Michael Pflaumer of Pacific Microsonics replied that, in his experience, higher bandwidth does lead to problems inherent in speaker and amplifier designs created in the age of low-bandwidth systems. David Kawakami of Sony Corp. stated that, as resolution goes up, the jitter target gets bigger.

Technical difficulties aside, the real issues are political and economic. At this early stage of development there is nothing even approaching universal agreement as to what the high-bit-rate format should look like. Will it be multichannel? Will it be two channels of ultra-high resolution? Will it use Sony's proprietary Direct Stream Digital encoding? Will it be linear PCM efficiently packed with Meridian's MLP? Or all of the above?

Political and technical difficulties can and will be solved. The truly big question is whether the consumer will embrace high-bit-rate audio of any stripe. "Implementation is the devil," said Meridian's Bob Stuart, "but there is no more exciting time than this."

"Pay per view" as a way of life: On Thursday, Gary Shapiro, President of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA), delivered the HI-FI '98 keynote address. He outlined his thoughts on the current and future digital revolutions.

"Several hundred years from now when historians study our era, they will not focus on Madonna, the Spice Girls, O.J., or even Bill Clinton. Rather, our era will be remembered and defined as the time when we as a society shifted to the digital age."

Shapiro encouraged his audience to help extend the benefits of a digital society into the home theater and audio systems of everyone, but to beware of the traps inherent in digital media.

He described his recent experience testifying before congress about legislation designed to force hardware manufacturers "to build products that respond to any copyright-protection scheme. This means we are moving to a pay-per-use world."

Finally, Shapiro announced a new contract with the Las Vegas Alexis Park Hotel to have a new building available for use by high-end manufacturers by the 2000 Consumer Electronics Show.

In a statement that may have repercussions for years to come, Meridian announced yesterday that its MLP digital transmission and archiving scheme has been licensed to Dolby Laboratories for subsequent re-licensing to chip makers, equipment manufacturers, recording studios, and record companies. MLP, which stands for Meridian Lossless Packing, is a digital audio coding technology developed by Bob Stuart, Peter Craven, and the late Michael Gerzon. Motorola, Crystal Semiconductor, and Analog Devices are among the chipmakers who have reportedly shown interest in licensing MLP.

Three years in development, the technology purports to "deliver the very best listening experience possible by fully exploiting all the information contained in advanced high-rate audio formats," according to a press release that accompanied the announcement. Although digital transmission and storage is commonly understood to be error-free, errors do in fact occur, resulting in copies that differ somewhat from original recordings. Engineers have noted that linear PCM digital test pressings frequently sound different from original master tapes. Bit errors are largely to blame, according to Meridian's resident genius Bob Stuart, and MLP is the cure.

Lossless compression is employed in the MLP scheme to save disc space and transmission bandwidth, in a manner similar to "zipping" and "unzipping" computer files, Stuart said. Even so, access time for finding any MLP-encoded audio track is less than 100ms, he told an auditorium full of journalists. Furthermore, MLP supports a wide range of potential uses, including high-rate multichannel DVD audio, three or four audio channels on an otherwise conventional CD, the usual two CD channels but with up to 24-bit resolution or an 88.2kHz-sampling-rate, DVD audio sampling rates of up to 192kHz, or even a "spherical" audio environment of up to 64 channels encoded with vertical as well as horizontal information.

MLP can be easily implemented and will not alter the decoded signal in any way, Stuart asserted, emphasizing its "cascadable" quality, meaning that there is no "error accumulation" in multiple generations of copies. The process requires relatively little computing power: six channels of 24-bit/96kHz audio can be processed by an inexpensive DSP chip, he said, and will offer the added advantage of much longer playing times.

Meridian demonstrated MLP with its 561 surround-sound decoder for the first time June 5 at a special presentation in Tokyo, using Nimbus recordings. MLP is optimized for new applications like DVD-Audio, the company stated, and will be included in all Meridian surround processors shipped after June 1998. Both Meridian and Dolby are members of the DVD-Audio Working Group 4.

June 11: For the first time in North America, the Super Audio CD was played for the public. Is the latest creation from Sony/Philips the future of recorded music, or the next volley in a protracted format battle?

A "hybrid disc," SACD is three technologies in one. The dual disc contains one conventional CD layer (16-bit/44.1kHz) for backward-compatibility with the world's installed base of more than 600 million CD players, and one high-density Direct Stream Digital layer for ultra-high-resolution, multichannel playback. The layers are sandwiched together and read by separate lasers in a DSD-enabled player.

To drive the point home about the format's backward-compatibility, the demo included playing an SACD disc on a prototype DSD player to demonstrate high-quality sound. That same disc was then placed in a cheap boombox, where it also played well. Critics charge that backward-compatibility is meaningless, since even Philips has projected that SACD discs will be more expensive than regular CDs. The estimated manufacturing cost for SACDs is approximately double that of normal discs. This means that SACD retail prices will be exhorbitant---thereby limiting their appeal---or that they will be priced unrealistically low, as loss leaders for what Sony/Philips hope will be the dominant new audio format.

Price is irrelevant, declared Telarc's Bob Woods, who pointed out that the entry fee for early adopters to new technologies is always high. Woods was among a group of high-end recording-label executives, including Tom Jung of DMP and two officials from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, who were trotted out to witness for the new format. Woods mentioned that Telarc has a huge collection of 50kHz digital recordings that have never been heard by the music-loving public in their native format. "SACD will let people outside Telarc hear the full potential of these recordings for the first time," he said.

The DVD Audio group press conference is scheduled for Thursday with news of the new "MLP" format for multichannel, high-quality audio. Stay tuned.

Earlier in the day, Sony introduced what it claims is the world's first 32-bit digital preamplifier. The TA-E9000ES, with a projected list price of $1700, is designed to be the heart of a multichannel audio/home theater system.

Previously available only in professional applications, 32-bit audio processing is beginning to appear in consumer products. The TA-E9000ES uses "exclusive 32-bit floating-bit decimal-point signal processors . . . for dramatic improvement over conventional 24-bit decoders and has been optimized for home theater requirements," said Jonathan Holmes, head of Sony's audio products marketing division, at a press conference Wednesday morning.

The TA-E9000ES will decode Dolby Digital, DTS, and MPEG multichannel formats. It also incorporates inboard 2-channel 24-bit/96kHz converters, and 29 different soundfield effects based on the SPD-EP9ES surround processor. Two additional 32-bit processors handle the surround effects. A "virtual mix" feature will synthesize surround effects in systems lacking rear speakers. The back panel sports six S-Video inputs, as well as five optical, three coaxial, and one RF digital input. An RS-232 serial port is included "for future upgradeability."

One unique feature of the new preamp is its two-way remote control, which feeds back information to the user, who can scroll through a system-optimizing menu from the listening/viewing position. The remote features a touchscreen similar to that of the popular Palm Pilot personal digital assistant.

A matching multichannel power amplifier, the TA-N9000ES, will make its market debut this fall at $1300.

More information will be posted as events unfold each day at HI-FI '98.