A Peek into the Audio Future

Time to yank out the old oxygen-free crystal interconnects and gaze into audio's future for 1999. Now that www.stereophile.com has a year under its online belt, we should be able to read the sonic omens with greater resolution, or at least confine our mistakes to minor stumbles. First, we'll see how our prognostications for 1998 panned out, and spin them a little to tune in 1999. We'll add reader predictions at the bottom. Got your own predictions? Send 'em in!

From 1998:
1) DVD-Audio standard will finally be set---but major record labels won't care.
1a) DVD-Audio standard will be set, but it will be crippled by music industry-mandated copy-protection and copy-inhibit laws.
We were close on this one, but surprised that the standard didn't settle until well into the year. We completely missed SACD, however, DVD-Audio's rival format proposed by Sony and Philips.

2) High-end audio component sales decline---then pick up again.
Still waiting for the happy ending.

3) Tweak multidisc CD/DVD players get hot.
At least they kept warm.

4) Downloading music from the Internet heats up---slowly.
High-quality downloads are still nonexistent, although MP3 made a strong showing.

5) High-end audio companies test the 1394/FireWire waters.
5a) High-end digital audio companies look for better interconnect scheme than 1394.
A lot of smoke in 1998, but little fire. The computer industry forged several new approaches, however, and Muse Electronics is pushing an encrypted version of its modified I2S connection standard.

6) Surround-sound audio-only discs pick up momentum.
Not quite, although the 24-bit/96kHz DAD made a decent showing.

7) "Breakthrough" speaker technologies still don't dent the high-end market.
We're talking about NXT and the weird hypersonic ATC here, neither of which dinged the high-end, or mid-fi, markets in any noticeable way.

8) Computer sonics improve at a blistering pace.
One could argue that we were correct here, considering how bad computer audio was in the first place. But the PC still poses no threat to the audiophile status quo.

9) No major high-end audio company mergers.
Technically, we were correct on this one, since the real news were acquisitions of troubled companies, not true mergers.

10) More consumers begin to purchase audio products online.
While online sales can never replace a good in-person demo, Internet sales have picked up in 1998 for those willing to brave the virtual shores.

For 1999:
1) DVD-Audio embraces SACD.
While a standards battle appears set to rumble, we'll go out on a limb and suggest that Sony, et al., are just posturing to have SACD included in the DVD-Audio spec on their own terms. After all, the DVD-Audio working group continues to maintain that there's room in the spec "for future formats" (DTS, perhaps?) and Sony and Philips are probably playing for time while the CD patent pool still has some revenue-generating life in it. Once they're part of the official DVD-Audio specification, Sony probably expects that SACD will likely become the dominant format once the labels start releasing SACD discs in quantity, thus killing two birds with one stone.

2) DVD-Audio maintains a low profile.
With the SACD ordeal to contend with, let alone the confusion over what format record companies will support, expect to see little actual DVD-Audio product in 1999. But there will be a lot of noise.

3) High-end audio sales stabilize.
Expect to see a few more manufacturers shaken out from the 1998 sales stall, but the worst is now behind us. Most of the remaining companies have either adapted with home theater products, or will shortly.

4) Music-on-demand remains lo-fi.
As much as it pains us to say it, MP3 or similar "CD-quality" (who believes that MP3 is anywhere close to CD anyway?) formats will likely prevail through the year, until more high-bandwidth pipes are laid.

5) Better-sounding Internet audio formats announced.
Although you won't see much product within the year, expect big announcements from the major labels of a new, higher-quality-than-MP3 format. The RIAA has already stated that the way to fight the pesky MP3 scourge is with better audio---we'll take them at their word. It will also be laced with anti-piracy technology, and a billing mechanism to meter consumer use of audio distributed online.

6) Digital radio gains ground.
With digital TV getting all the press, the conversion to digital radio has been lost in the noise. But expect to see steady progress as stations begin conversion late in 1999.

Reader Predictions:
I would like to offer a few twists to a couple of your predictions.

Sony's greedy SACD scheme is more likely to follow the route of Circuit City's Divx . . . it'll make a lot of flatulent noise and then eventually flush down the toilet. If you follow the recording industry trades, not very many producers or engineers are mentioning the format at all. Also, with Dolby Laboratories championing the Meridian Lossless Packing technology . . . well, there's not much else to say, is there?

As far as Internet audio, we should start hearing more about the MPEG-4 standard. It's driven by cross-platform Quicktime technology, so we'll have a universal standard for streaming/playing Internet audio without any specialized software.

Also, with FireWire already established as a connection standard for HDTV, it's a definite shoe-in for DVD-Audio as well!! Catch-phrase for 1999: Home Network!
---Jeff Perrin

By the end of 1999, Citation will still have not released its AC3/DTS upgrade/replacement for the Citation 7.0 it promised 4 years ago.

I predict that multi-channel audio formats will take off in 1999 once audiophiles realize that you can record an orchestra with surround sound and make it more "real" as a musical experience than with 2 channels.
---Joseph Morin