DVD-Audio Redux?

DVD-Audio proponents, ranging from record labels execs and mastering engineers to CE manufacturers, staged a press event on August 9 at Dolby Labs in Los Angeles in the hopes of rekindling interest in their format, which has been quietly trying to launch for the last year or so. Warner Bros Records has gone so far as to call this current effort a "re-launch", but after spending over four hours with the DVD-A folks, this reporter thinks there's a good chance we may be seeing yet another official launch once most of the current issues (detailed below) are sorted out.

Curiously, there was no mention at any time during the presentations of the competing SACD format and how the DVD-A camp would handle this threat. One of DVD-A's spokespersons suggested privately that they did not want to disparage Sony and SACD's future. Fair enough. But it was stated at the beginning of the presentation that there really isn't any conflict, implying that by default, DVD and its stepchild DVD-A are all that consumers will need to consider for the future of home entertainment.

This was the first sign of denial on the part of the DVD-A adherents.

Before the formal presentations got under way, we were treated to a DVD-A cut from Linkin Park's latest release, Reanimation, which is slated for a DVD-Audio street date in October. After an apology from Dolby that their room was optimized for film sound, not music (I'm still wondering why there should be a difference, since accuracy is generally the goal), the tune began. In spite of the odd room tone, it was quickly apparent that this was a great surround mix for a contemporary track—inspiring, without obvious gimmicks like putting key instruments in the rear, etc. A great demo, if you like this kind of music, and it clearly set the mood for the meeting: DVD-A will be aimed at the mass youth market, not just audiophiles.

Ted Cohen from EMI kicked off the presentations with an enthusiastic delivery that emphasized "getting the [DVD-A] message to music fans," and praised the surround options possible with the format. Cohen also stated that DVD-A offered the industry a way to "keep the physicality of music retailing alive," adding that over the next year, we'd be seeing an "amazing selection" of DVD-A titles from EMI.

Toshiba's Craig Eggers followed, articulating a theme we would hear many times over: DVD-Audio will ride on the coattails of DVD-Video's success. Eggers said that almost every DVD player over $200 in the marketplace next year would include DVD-A. (Although, confusingly, a chart used near the end of the final presentation seemed to imply that about a third of all DVD machines sold would include DVD-A in the coming years. Maybe he was referring only to Toshiba DVD players?) Eggers went on to emphasize the format's "two-channel [audiophile]" quality, and its potential for success in the automotive environment.

Next up was a presentation from John Trickett of the 5.1 Entertainment Group, which includes both Emergent and Silverline Records, among others. Trickett announced the first major title to be released simultaneously in both CD and DVD-A ("day and date," as they like to call it ), Dishwalla's Opaline disc, as well as a price drop to $17.98 per DVD-A disc for all of its labels. DVD-A's promise for car audio was again mentioned as well as the boast that DVD-A discs cannot be copied. Trickett added that "as CD sales fall, DVD-A sales will rise. This is a format that literally can save the music industry."

Technical presentations were next, with Robin Hurley from Rhino records running us through the process of getting the artist and label contracts in order and securing all necessary art and audio tracks. Hurley says that if things go smoothly, a minimum production time needed to bring a DVD-A title to market is around 16 weeks, and added that in the scheme of things, it "doesn't cost much to produce a DVD-A disc." Hurley noted that with DVD-A, as with other audio formats, it was the artist's appeal to consumers that sold discs, not the sound quality of the recording. As an example, he used Metallica's robust sales compared with modest interest in "audiophile-appropriate" works from Steely Dan. In closing, Hurley stressed the importance of getting the original artists involved in the project.

DVD-Audio consultant Craig Anderson of Craigman Digital broached the touchy subject of watermarking DVD-A discs. Anderson explained that most mastering facilities "do not want to touch watermarking" and that this chore is typically passed to the authoring house, implying that there will still be non-corrupted high resolution masters available in most cases for future use. Anderson was satisfied by ABX studies that showed that, even though the watermarking process is an audible distortion ("it has to be, so that music played through speakers cannot be recorded"), it will not deter music lovers from buying discs. Anderson also said that, once—for just a second—he was able to reliably hear a watermarked passage out of the dozens of discs he has worked on.

What was not addressed was whether or not consumers will stand for having not only their sonic sensibilities compromised in this way, but their fair-use rights as well. Although it was stated many times that watermarking is optional, the odds are overwhelming that, audible distortion or not, every major label or artist will choose to include the watermark. The labels clearly don't care that consumers are already resisting this approach in CDs and MP3 downloads.

Another sign of denial?

Jeff Dean of 5.1 Entertainment told us that 230 DVD-A titles are currently available, with another 70 planned for release by the end of the year. He mentioned that DVD-A samplers will soon be appearing in DVD player boxes and that discs are currently being sold through 160 retailers with 2000 retail locations. Dean said Circuit City will soon be adding a DVD-A display in all of its stores and reminded us that the DVD-A format does not have unpopular zone restrictions built in like its DVD-V sibling.

Jeff Samuels of Panasonic stated that factory-installed DVD-A players will start showing up in cars in 2004, adding that his company sees promise for DVD-A with Home-Theater-In-A-Box (HTIB) products. Jeff Skinner from DTS recited the hardware numbers: 40 DVD-A players from 12 manufacturers are currently on the market, with the total expected to be sold by year-end reaching 1.4 million units. By 2004, the manufacturers expect 9.9 million DVD players to be sold with the DVD-A feature.

Questions at the end of the session asked when a digital connection scheme would be finalized (soon, very soon, says Dolby's John Kellog) and how many DVD-A discs have actually been sold and are projected to be sold in the next few years? This last question, which more accurately judges the format's real success, left the DVD-A representatives fumbling for an answer until a Warners attendee said that in 2001 and 2002 his label has so far sold 170,000 discs to consumers. He added that Warners expects the Linkin Park DVD-A to reach 100,000 units alone when it is released. Nobody, however, would commit to future projections, insisting that there are too many variables and that it is far too early to tell.

Although DVD-A will be a boon to audiophiles if it can succeed—especially if the smaller labels refuse to add watermarks to their releases—possible confusion in the marketplace about the various surround and resolution options could be a problem. Other challenges facing the DVD-A supporters include how to market the format simultaneously to both audiophiles (who want two-channel, highest resolution) and the mass market (who possibly want surround sound and the extra features) without alienating either or both. The youth market has demanded that music must be portable as well: Young consumers must be able to take a song from a disc and feed it to their iPod, computer, or car stereo without any hassle. DVD-A will not allow this, and in fact makes it tougher to accomplish than do today's CDs.

And how much money are DVD-Audio proponents prepared to spend to spread their message into the mainstream consciousness? Have they even planned to spend a fraction of what it took to get DVD-Video launched? Will they be able to match Sony's marketing budget and determination for promoting SACD? None of these issues were addressed at the meeting. Record companies also need to come to grips with the real reasons for their decline, which will likely not be solved by locking down their products any tighter than they already are.