DVD-Audio a Hot Topic at DVD Forum Conference

Running close on the heels of the 105th AES Convention in San Francisco, the DVD Forum held its conference two days later in the posh Hyatt Regency near the SF Airport. Attended by a variety of computer and consumer-electronics industry folk who manufacture and sell DVD discs and hardware, more than half of day one was devoted to the emerging DVD-Audio format. Although the presentations became highly technical at times, the sheer variety of possible formats and applications for DVD-Audio became apparent. Whether this is a blessing or a fatal flaw, all agreed that the consumer will ultimately determine DVD-Audio's fate in the next 2 to 5 years.

Robert A. Finger of Matsushita started off the DVD-Audio part of the event by saying that, "to me, DVD-Audio is very exciting. With its multichannel capability, it gives us what we've always wanted---a truly different experience than 2-channel audio. You don't want to go back." You may want to read that opening statement again, because in it is a theme that was hit by every speaker who followed: To succeed, DVD-Audio must be equivalent to multichannel audio.

As a panel discussion about the new format began, Jordan Rost from Warner Music Group stated that, "Clearly, sound-quality improvements are not enough" to drive the new format. He suggested that use in portables, along with surround sound in cars, homes, and computers, would be required for success. Bill Allen from BMG added that "We're a little scared, as a mass marketer of CDs, of hurting CD sales with DVD-Audio. How do we charge for it?" He went on to state that "the jury is out about higher quality---but [multichannel] demos change people's perceptions. Multichannel is a daunting task, but a great opportunity."

Paul West from Universal Music Group took a different tack. "DVD-Audio will be able to deliver to audiophiles the two-channel format that has eluded that market for years," he stated. "But a lot of capitalization in studios has to take place to enable 24/96 and multichannel audio . . . you have to get the artist and producer into the [multichannel demo] room kicking and screaming. Then they love it." He finished by pointing out that "the music business will come down to how convenient the [DVD-Audio] format is. We all know that CDs weren't about sound quality, but offered convenience---they didn't require flipping like a record."

Convenience---this may be the sticking point for the DVD-Audio format. How do you set up your system for it? What kind of player will you buy? A presentation from Nick Kuroda of JVC presented a chart with 21 different ways to encode a DVD-Audio disc. Everything from high-quality two-channel to over a dozen different resolutions and configurations of multichannel are in the spec. Various text and graphics options are available. Mr. Rost later pointed out that "there are six channels at full bandwidth, but no restrictions on what you do with them. This will open up a whole lot of creative opportunities." (It should be pointed out that six channels of full-bandwidth audio are only made possible with the Meridian Lossless Packing algorithm, which has recently been incorporated in the DVD-Audio spec.) "There are no rules," added Paul West.

And there will be three types of DVD players: DVD-Video only, DVD-Audio only, and "Universal" machines that play everything. All of these machines will play CDs, but will the DVD-Audio machine play the current crop of 24/96 audio releases that work on DVD-Video players? What will the back panel of a DVD-Audio or Universal player look like? Apparently the back-panel question has not been resolved for the DVD-Audio and Universal players---Paul West added that the specifics are "under construction," but should be settled "very quickly." Rost added that "our hope is that we can come up with something that will satisfy business [read: copyright/piracy] and consumer needs."

A significant issue facing the DVD-Audio format involves protecting the copyrights of the software companies. Bill Allen pointed out that "the Internet has made it seem that information is cheap and should be free. We must work to increase music's value." Jim Fleming of the RIAA stated that "technology can solve these problems---specifically to create barriers to pirates and hackers. If we don't do it right now, we'll be suffering for a long time." Fleming explained the three things that the RIAA requires before being satisfied that DVD-Audio content will be protected: 1) watermarking the data, providing an audit trail; 2) encryption to control access to the data; 3) relying on other protection schemes, such as those used over the Internet.

Intel made a short presentation demonstrating how the PC, connected to high-quality amplifiers and speakers, could soon become the center of the DVD-Audio universe. According to Intel's Rajesh Shakkarwar, the next-generation Intel CPU will include "host-based" DSPs capable of all DVD-Audio decoding and processing, as well as digital virtual channels and tone controls. Shakkarwar pointed out that they expect 40 million DVD players to ship with PCs next year; with software upgrades, these will be able to play DVD-Audio discs, making them Universal players. A slide shown during his presentation illustrated his point with a PC connected to a multichannel amplifier via IEEE 1394 (FireWire). Intel sees the PC evolving into the family "media player" within a few years.

Assuming all goes well, the DVD-Audio 1.0 spec will be final by the end of this October, with a tentative launch date of sometime in late 1999. But a number of manufacturers in the halls seemed to feel that a year or two later is more likely. There are still big issues ahead, such as what to do about Sony's avowed commitment to SACD, a competing format to DVD-Audio. One manufacturer suggested that Sony, which has worked closely with the DVD-Audio group all along, was angling for licensing rights and would wait it out until just the right deal was offered---possibly at the last minute. JVC's Bike Suzuki, chairman of the Working Group defining the DVD-Audio spec, stated, "After version 1.0 is established, optional audio formats will be discussed."

The DVD-Audio spec allows for the addition of other formats in the future: "flexible and extensible" was repeated many times. But can they also say "confusing"?