Universal Music Goes with SACD

Have the format wars begun in earnest? Only a few days after Warner Brothers announced the DVD-Audio release of Paul Simon's You're the One, Universal Music Group announced its plan to release titles in the Super Audio CD format.

Universal, one of the music industry's dominant players, has apparently decided the time is right to make a move into high-resolution audio, and will throw its considerable weight behind the format jointly developed by Sony and Philips. "UMG looks forward to providing consumers with a compelling musical experience. Super Audio CD provides extraordinary resolution and sound quality, which truly brings the music to life," said Larry Kenswil, president of UMG eLabs. "Super Audio CD offers a new 'palette' to present our artists' music in more original and dynamic ways."

The company's SACDs will include both back catalog and new material, according to the August 25 press release. Many will take advantage of the format's multichannel capabilities. "With the increasing penetration of Super Audio CD players in the marketplace, UMG recognizes the substantial potential for this innovative new format," said Universal Music International CEO Jorgen Larsen. "By making titles available on Super Audio CD, UMG intends to help drive the growth of this high-quality, secure music format, with its many benefits for consumers and recording artists. The objective is to make Super Audio CD a standard for the industry."

Universal's endorsement could give SACD a big market boost. SACD's rollout has gone quietly and smoothly, with the first players from a handful of manufacturers introduced at the extreme high end, followed by others at lower price points. All have been well received by audio industry reviewers. Small specialty record labels began to produce a few titles and gradually have increased their output, so that now there are a few hundred titles to choose from. With a major label like Universal behind it, SACD could become the format of choice for the music industry as a whole.

DVD-Audio, on the other hand, has been beset by technical glitches, disagreement over standards, and the inability of the combined music and electronics industries to devise a workable copyright protection technology. The Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), a cross-industry organization, wrangled pointlessly over DVD-A copy-protection technology for the entire two years that SACD was getting established. DVD-A would seem to have an advantage in that over 10 million American homes are now equipped with DVD players, according to Consumer Electronics Association statistics. However, none are compatible with the new high resolution DVD-A format ( although they are compatible with any compressed Dolby or DTS 5.1 audio tracks that may reside on the disc), whose only real hope may lie in the eventual introduction of all-formats players. No news has come forth from SDMI for many months, and the organization now appears to be dead in the water.

Universal's engineers and marketing executives seem to be in agreement with audiophiles that SACD is the best that technology has to offer. "The combination of Super Audio CD's high-quality stereo and multi-channel surround sound enables consumers to get as close as possible to the studio master quality experience," UMG's announcement stated. "In addition, the Super Audio CD technology incorporates a unique set of copyright protection measures, providing better protection of artists' rights." Universal Music Group is a unit of Universal Vivendi SA, a French multinational conglomerate.