DVD-Audio 2002 Overview: Sales, Watermarking and a Digital Interface

A digital interface and watermarking were on the agenda, but the biggest news items to report from the DVD-Audio 2002 event was that DVD-Audio is taking off at a rate faster than that of DVD-Video upon initial release; by the end of 2002 there should be over 1.4 million DVD-Audio players in U.S. households alone (source M.E.I.).

Hardware and software manufacturers converged at Dolby Laboratories in Burbank on August 9th for the DVD-Audio 2002 presentation to hear that nearly 50 DVD-A capable players are currently available from 12 leading manufacturers, ranging in price from $250 to $20,000 and offering a variety of solutions from set-top and portable players to car models and home-theatre-in-a-box systems. Standout implementations include Meridian’s digital interface solution for their model 800 transport and 861 processor, Panasonic’s extensive line of 10 DVD-Audio players and Kenwood’s 400-disc DVD-Audio changer (how optimistic!) Also, Toyota has gone from equipping their Brevis luxury sedans with DVD-Audio systems to announcing that the DVD-A/V option will be available for all their upcoming SUVs. Aside from the number of players, other measures of success, such as how fast prices are dropping (hardware and software) and the amount of titles being released, all indicate that DVD-Audio is outperforming DVD-Video sales at the same stage in development; something that is being confirmed by sales figures.

To help educate the public and retailers, a cross-label DVD-Audio sampler is being created with the hopes of it being bundled with all DVD-Audio players to show off the format’s capabilities to the public, as well as being used by retailers to sell DVD-Audio players; with the varied genres on the recording, salesmen should have no problem going right to the track that a prospective customer would enjoy. Lessons learned from the marketing of DVD-Video were on one attendee’s mind as he recounted overhearing a sales rep at a mass-market electronic shop explaining the (then new) DVD format to a curious customer:

It’s just like a VCR except that it doesn’t record.

Naturally, everyone involved with DVD-Audio wants to make sure the public “gets it” as early as possible this time ‘round.

One of the things that is helping, according to John Kellogg, General Manager of Multi-channel Audio and Music at Dolby Laboratories, is the fact that DVD-Audio titles are being placed near DVD movies at many retailers. When I asked him why he preferred this instead of having DVD-Audio discs alongside their respective CD titles, he gave two reasons. First, there is a potential that music shoppers might buy the DVD-Audio and end up being frustrated that the disc doesn’t play on their home or car CD player, nor their computer. With the discs placed near DVD-Video titles, there is a much greater likelihood that the disc will get spun on a DVD player, allowing the user to, at the very least, enjoy the multi-channel Dolby Digital track. He feels that this more than compensates for the fact this placement strategy could mean that DVD-As end up on a separate floor or even a different building from a retailer’s music section. Second, placement near DVD-Video will hopefully suggest to the public a similarity between the two formats, especially where value added content is concerned. One of the most attractive aspects of DVD, besides the increased quality, is the bonus material and ‘extras’ that the public has now come to expect; note many people’s disappointed reaction upon hearing that a DVD contains only the movie and a couple of trailers. Similarly, Kellogg wants music buyers to know that DVD-Audio will not only give them higher quality, but so much more than that:

Folks these days want more than just a dozen tracks of music for the 16 bucks they spend on a CD.

Eventually, once the public is comfortable with and used to the DVD-Audio format, he’d like to see DVD-Audio discs moved over to the music section so that music shoppers can simply search by title or artist as they normally would. At this point, DVD-A’s higher profile super-jewel cases will keep them from being confused with their CD counterparts.

One of the more offbeat things Kellogg mentioned is that he’d like to see a stereo MP3 track on many DVD-Audio popular music titles, for use with portable players. Being properly mastered specifically for MP3 compatibility would mean that such discs would sound much better than pirated versions that would inevitably end up found floating around the Internet. It would also be very useful for people, like Kellogg himself, that enjoy music on-the-go. Not surprisingly, this idea is met with almost universal resistance from his fellow music industry members as they feel it would allow people to easily upload that music on to the ‘net. “But that’s going to happen anyway!” he argues back. In the unlikely event that he does get his way, I know several Rio owners that will want to thank him personally!

After the audio demonstration and lectures, the floor was (very briefly) opened up for questions. Naturally, the first two concerns raised were the audibility of some DVD-Audio disc’s watermark and the progress of a standardized digital interface. The watermark was described as being detectable and “necessarily audible” by one panel member. While digital copy protection will help prevent bit-for-bit copies of DVD-Audio digital content, the watermarks are to be used as a tools to specifically deal with analog piracy. For this reason, any watermark used has to be audible; at least to the extent that a microphone placed in front of a speaker playing pirated material will be able to clearly detect the original source’s watermark. As for being detected by us humans: while the potential is there for keen-eared listeners to hear the watermark, especially if you know what to listen for, the chances are not very likely according to the panel. Told again were the oft-repeated stories of golden-eared audiophiles subjecting the watermark to A/B/X tests and scoring less than 50%, a result that a panel member humorously compared to a lab-test animal randomly pushing one of two buttons. The “watermark”, we were told, is actually four watermarking streams running the length of the audio program and we were also reminded that it is always, always optional. The watermark issue was summed up as something that is not going to go away but also not something to be concerned with as it will not be noticed in everyday listening because of its inherent subtlety (certainly compared to some of the older watermarks, one of which was an all-too audible 72-bit monster).

The digital interface question brought no new answers, as panel members danced around particulars but re-assured us that a digital connection was coming “sooner than later”. Since the IEEE-1394 connection has already been settled on, one attendee asked why it was taking so long to go from the current version 0.9 of the protocol to a usable v1.x.

If you think the music labels are paranoid, you should see the movie studios!

came the reply. As had been hinted at before, the digital interface will carry DVD-Audio and Video content. And it is this video part that is really holding things up: even if the music industry were completely satisfied with a digital connection scheme, it would have to be the movie industry that would have to sign off on the interface before it would be ready to go. And in order for that to happen, the movie studios would have to be absolutely, positively, assured that their precious digital video content would be protected. The whole discussion made it seem like the fact that movies are available on DVD is nothing short of a minor miracle, especially in this day and age of CD-R, MP3, DeCSS and Macrovision busting. There had been talk of implementing a partial interface, one that would discard the video data and process only the audio, but it was felt that it would be best to have a completed audio/video interface: something that would not only handle DVD, but would also deal with DTV and other digital audio/video looming on the horizon.

The feeling one got from the DVD-Audio 2002 presentation is that the industry members involved not only want DVD-Audio to replace CDs as the primary music carrier, but they want it to happen in many of the same ways that DVD is replacing VHS: the public gets more for their money, with better quality, and all for a reasonable price.