DVD-Audio Forum Addresses Questions about New Format

On November 16, Technics and Panasonic presented their DVD-Audio Q&A Forum to answer questions online about the new high-end audio format, players, and software. After introductions and an opening orientation about DVD-Audio, the first "questions" appeared, canned, as the panelists read "answers" from their notes. Still, some interesting information came to light.

Within minutes of beginning the Forum, Alberto Reggiani of Technics broached the subject of when the first players will appear, although his predictions were frustratingly vague: "We are now in the beginning of what we call the demonstration stage for DVD-Audio. We'll have, around the country, numerous dealers that will be ready to demonstrate DVD-Audio and work closely with [Universal and Warner Music Groups] to have some software available for this demonstration period." Reggiani went on to say that "our plan is to have the players available for consumers to actually purchase and take home before Christmas. And if that's not possible, right after the holidays, in the first quarter of next year."

Universal and Warner said that they will be supplying sampler DVD-A discs to dealers who demonstrate the players. Jordan Rost of Warner emphasized that he expects a wide variety of music to eventually be available for the new format. He stated that "ultimately we envision that every kind of music form will sound better with DVD-Audio as artists learn to use the new palette available with the format." Examples cited for Warner's sampler disc include "high-quality" recordings from the Berlin Philharmonic "using brand-new techniques," and jazz titles from artists such as Pat Metheny.

Universal's Jim Belcher said that his company's sampler would include selections from Sting and Diane Krall, as well as Deutsche Grammophon recordings of Orff's Carmina Burana and Puccini's La Bohème in both stereo and surround sound. "To hear some of these songs for the first time [in DVD-Audio] is an amazing experience—they sound great," Belcher remarked.

Forum moderator Gene Kelsey, VP of audio for both Technics and Panasonic, asked if consumers would go for multichannel. Jordon Rost responded immediately, claiming, "I have no doubt we'll change how people listen to music." Rost also added that all five of the major record labels have demonstrated support for the new format. The panelists also emphasized that future multichannel DVD-A players in cars are expected to be a major reason that folks will buy the new discs.

Rost commented that his label is also discussing including Dolby Digital multichannel mixes on the DVD-A discs in order to make them compatible with current DVD-Video players. The discs will then reveal their high-resolution mixes when the customer buys a DVD-A machine. "The same piece of software would work both ways," he said. Universal's Belcher said that they will likely put DVD-V-compatible 24/96 files on the discs "that would be compatible with today's players."

Will DVD-Audio sound as good as or better than SACD? Panasonic's Bob Finger, after joking about getting the "easy questions," said, "Certainly. . . . Frankly, it would be hard to believe that any other system would be better than DVD-Audio." Rost added, "the DVD-Audio format is the first specification that was created by the collaborative effort of the music companies as well as the hardware side . . . thinking how can we make this an ideal format for the music industry." Finger than added that DVD-A is currently the only format that is compatible with all of the standards available in major recording studios, including 24-bit/96kHz production equipment.

Finger next explained the copy-protection system—developed by IBM, Intel, Matsushita, and Toshiba—that will be employed on his company's players. He made it clear that, for now, digital or multichannel copies will be verboten. "This copy-protection system has been designed in such a way that it will not impede the normal functioning of the audio product like the consumer has been used to using, and certainly won't interfere with the listening enjoyment of it. So certainly the consumer would be able to use the analog output, like one would normally be able to do with CD, and be able to record a two-channel stereo program onto a VCR's analog inputs, or, for that matter, the analog inputs of any other audio recorder," said Finger.

What about digital recorders? Finger was clearly uncomfortable with the touchy issue of high-quality digital streams issuing forth from DVD-A players: discussing the issue "hasn't been completed by the DVD-Audio forum yet, so that's something that is still in the future."

Finger noted that one of the more compelling features discussed for DVD-Audio is its ability to allow consumers to scan the lyrics or score (if encoded on the disc) for a musical work on a video screen, then jump right to that spot on the audio track and begin playing the piece from the selected point. Finger commented that "it's really a cool feature—and I think people are going to like that. Frankly, it's a feature that DVD-Video doesn't have."

Finally, how will consumers cope with the various multichannel mixes on two-channel playback systems? Finger states that "in the case of multichannel and boom-boxes, we can give a very realistic multichannel environment from two speakers as long as we have a very-good-quality multichannel source. The process is called Trans-Aural Stereo . . . digital signal processing. You'd be able to enjoy multichannel with two physical speakers in the future . . . in a number of years."

For now, we'd just like to see the players.