Sonic Solutions, Wolfson Microelectronics Push High-Rez Audio Development

Little noted by the mainstream media, technology companies are pushing ahead with research and development programs for high-resolution audio. Two announcements in late April indicate that neither DVD-Audio nor the Super Audio CD is a passing fancy.

On April 24, Novato, CA–based Sonic Solutions announced a partnership with Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. (MEI) that will integrate a DVD-Audio authoring system developed by Matsushita into Sonic Solution's DVD production system. Panasonic's parent company, Matsushita is one of the founding members of the DVD Forum and helped develop the specifications for the format. Sonic Solutions was the first company to create and market a commercial DVD-A production system. The partnership will "yield a complete set of feature-rich, productivity-enhancing tools that will assist audio and video professionals in creating the first wave of DVD-Audio titles for the retail market," according to a press release.

The announcement was made in Las Vegas at the 2001 convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. The significance of the venue and timing for the announcement is that big-league professional broadcasters may be starting to take high-resolution audio seriously. "We are extremely pleased to be working with MEI, who played an important role in determining the DVD-Audio specification," said Sonic's Yuki Miyamoto, director of business development. "Including the MEI toolkit in our product line will ensure that our DVD-Audio authoring systems continue to provide the most extensive range of features as well as offer the top performance that our customers have come to expect."

Including MEI's DVD-Audio authoring interface in Sonic's DVD production system "will enable professional production facilities to dramatically increase their throughput of DVD-Audio titles." Among the benefits will be a simplified user interface that will not require deep technical knowledge of DVD-A on the part of the system operator. Improvements in automation could mean easier expansion for production houses wanting to get into high-resolution products.

The MEI/Sonic Solutions system adheres strictly to industry specifications for DVD-A, said executives from both companies. MEI's deputy director of multimedia development Kazuhiro Tsuga said his company believes "that our DVD-Audio toolkit is the best available technology to use, based on our experience in DVD-Video authoring, already in use by leading studios for producing high-quality DVD movie titles . . . joining forces with Sonic, the leading provider of DVD-Audio solutions, demonstrates our confidence that Sonic's system is the most efficient solution for the next generation of audio production."

There is also progress on the playback front. On April 23, the day before the MEI/Sonic Solutions announcement, chipmaker Wolfson Microelectronics Ltd. of Edinburgh, Scotland unveiled its first two-channel digital-to-analog converter with support for the Direct Stream Digital (DSD) audio data format. In addition to supporting PCM formats for CD and DVD, with word lengths up to 24 bits and sampling rates up to 192kHz, the company's new WM8728 provides two channels of 1-bit Direct Stream Digital with a sampling rate of 2.8224MHz. Players built around the WM8728 will offer "full compatibility with CD, thereby safeguarding consumers' investments and providing them with a smooth migration path from CD to SACD," said the announcement. SACD offers listeners "the highest possible audio quality as a result of breakthroughs in the fields of recording technology, data encoding techniques, data storage, and laser optics," said Wolfson CEO David Milne. "The quest to offer new, more innovative features is never-ending."

Wolfson's four high-resolution audio chips (the WM8716, WM8728, WM8706, and WM8729), it is claimed, are 64 times less sensitive to clock jitter than typical 1-bit DACs. The 8706 and 8729 chips are not DSD-compatible, but are intended for use in DVD-based home-theater products. OEM pricing for the 8728 is $2.14 each in quantities of 1000, as of late April.