HE 2002: Another View of the DVD-Audio Panel

The HE 2002 DVD-Audio seminar seemed almost as if it had been deliberately sabotaged. Compare and contrast…

The SACD seminar had been scheduled at 2:30pm in the afternoon on the first day of the show and played to a standing room only crowd. The DVD-Audio presentation was scheduled at 6:30pm on Saturday night after many had left the show and was half full at best. The SACD event featured a number of very famous engineers and producers, was clearly designed as a PR event and was even filmed by Sony. The DVD-Audio event featured primarily a group of record company executives whose identities are basically unknown outside of the industry and who were ill prepared to make a public presentation. To make matters worse, whoever made up the signs for the participants spelled several of their names wrong, and one participant had to make his own sign with magic marker. The SACD event had a competent demonstration set-up and many of the demonstrated discs sounded more than acceptable. No, I’d go further than that, they were good enough to get me to consider buying an SACD player. The DVD-Audio seminar was just a panel discussion.

Now whether these discrepancies were deliberate on the part of the show’s organizers (paranoid minds might note the fact that the SACD exhibit, which was only part of Sony’s exhibition space at the show, was by far the largest exhibit in the Hilton and was obviously quite costly) or the DVD-Audio proponents shot themselves in the foot by not being prepared and not doing any demos, is not a question one can readily answer. The presentation by the DVD-Audio group was about on a par with the typical HE 2002 panel (at least they had signs with names on them, unlike several other panels) while the SACD panel was a first rate and professionally produced dog and pony show. It was unquestionably the glitziest seminar of the show, and by a wide margin.

The second fundamental difference between the two panels was that the SACD panel was nothing but a scripted presentation and no questions from the audience were allowed, while the DVD-Audio panel was principally a question and answer session and the questions were pretty tough at that.

The third difference between the panels was that the message pushed by every member of the SACD panel was the audible superiority of DSD (the one-bit coding method used by SACD) over PCM (the traditional digital coding method used by CD and DVD-Audio). Virtually every SACD panellist said that once they had heard DSD, they could never go back to using PCM. One panellist even went so far as to claim that the output from his DSD recorder sounded even better than the output from the recording console that was feeding the recorder. He claimed that the DSD recorder magically added emotional content that had previously been missing. (He actually used the word “magic”, I swear.) If questions had been allowed, I would have asked why he felt comfortable with a medium that added emotional content to the recording that he and the artist had just labored to craft. Frankly, it seems to me to be a mistake for any format to claim that it adds anything to the recording that wasn’t there before, if for no other reason than then one runs the risk of having the recording criticized for an excess of artificial emotional content. The DVD-Audio panel, it should be noted, refrained from even mentioning the other format until I asked a question about it (more on that later).

In our first DVD-Audio panel report, fellow High Fidelity Review attendee Brett Rudolph was accurate in stating that the group spent a lot of time touting the many added features of the format and gave somewhat short-shrift to the improved resolution. I think that the reason for that is that the manufacturers of DVD-Audio for the most part don’t perceive a huge demand from the public for increased resolution (given the huge popularity of bit reduced formats these days) and that the CD is more than good enough for most of the music buying public. Thus their marketing approach (if you can call what they are doing a marketing approach) is to promote DVD-Audio as something new, i.e., a format that offers multi-channel audio and includes the same sort of bonus features that one has come to enjoy with DVD-Video. SACD, on the other hand, because it seeks to replace the current Compact Disc as an audio-only format, is forced to market itself as the superior audio format, and thus, out of necessity has to denigrate the other format, otherwise it has nothing to offer. The fact that the very companies who have touted 44.1kHz 16-bit PCM as perfection for all these years are promoting this scheme is more than a little ironic. That Sony and Philips don’t see this merely compounds the irony. One is reminded of the Betamax commercials, noted for their profound lack of effectiveness, where Sony argued that Beta was better than VHS and they should know because they created Betamax after they invented VHS.

This is not to say that the DVD-Audio panellists didn’t make some potentially serious gaffes. I asked the first question which went as follows:

If you go to any record store here in New York, you will find DVD-Audio discs in the video section with DVD-Video discs, while the SACD discs will be found in the CD section with other music discs. Also, in yesterday’s SACD seminar, virtually every participant made a point of touting the superiority of DSD over PCM. Moreover, you acknowledged that most DVD-Audio releases are multi-channel and take a long time to produce, while Sony is releasing huge numbers of catalog titles in two-channel SACD as fast as they can master them. Faced with retailer confusion about what your product is, customers who can’t find it, production delays and competitors criticizing the format itself, how can the DVD-Audio format successfully compete?

I wasn’t looking for a pat answer about how DVD-Audio is better than SACD. I knew that they believed that. I viewed this inquiry as a softball question that was opening the door for the panellists to give a positive marketing spiel about how they are trying hard to improve their public profile and that they are committed to promoting high-resolution multi-channel audio without regard to what the other format was doing.

That wasn’t the answer I got, however. To the first part of my question, Jeff Dean of 5.1 Entertainment said that for the moment he was happy having his discs stocked in the DVD section because DVD-Audio will play on any DVD-Video player and every DVD-Audio player will also play DVD-Video, so the DVD section is the natural place for customers to look for his product and he didn’t want customers to find a DVD-Audio disc in the CD section and take it home only to be disappointed because it was unplayable in his or her CD player. Consider the logic of that when you realize that in many stores, the video section is a long way away from the audio section. In the downtown Tower flagship store, video is in a separate building across the street!

To the second part of my question, John Kellogg replied that it was impossible to master a multi-track recording in DSD without converting either to analog or PCM at some point, at which point David Kawakami of The SACD Project, who had been the moderator of the SACD panel, shouted out “Tell the truth, John!” and stated that DSD multi-track production equipment did in fact exist. Kellogg challenged him to name one 24-track DSD recorder or DSD mixing console, at which point Kawakami accused him of changing his story. The discussion got quite heated with other audience members joining in to support Kellogg.

It is clear, however, that both the panellists and the SACD proponents in the audience missed the thrust of my inquiry. All of this infighting is overlooking the big picture which is the fact that for any of these formats to succeed it is necessary to get the public to want to buy a high-resolution product and the squabbling will inevitably lead to the public’s getting turned off to both formats. Right now all of the advocates of both systems are merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic while the iceberg that is MP3 looms ever larger (if, indeed, it hasn’t already struck). If the manufacturers want to get people to buy a higher resolution format, they have to present a case that as yet they haven’t been able to make both to the general population that is happy with what it has now (i.e., CD) and to the rapidly expanding group that is satisfied with even lower resolution. I’m concerned that telling the public that CD isn’t good enough merely serves to devalue that format and pushes the general public further into the camp of cheap or free MP3 rips. After all, if the sound quality of CDs is really so bad, why should any one want to buy them.

My personal opinion is that DVD-Audio started with the better approach to the problem of finding a successor to the CD. In the same way that CD became a runaway success because, in addition to arguably higher sound quality (and I don’t want to get into an analog vs. digital debate here), it had a number of additional and highly attractive features: random access, portability and durability. DVD-Video is rapidly overtaking VHS because it offers all of these same features and, in addition, provides numerous content enhancements that are quite popular and all of which are unavailable with VHS. If any high-resolution format is to make a dent in the CD market place, it needs to offer more than just better quality sound. It needs to offer something new. That fact that the missing ‘something’ is multi-channel audio is to me self-evident. Just as CD offered more in terms of features than LP and DVD-Video offered more than both CD and VHS, a new audio format must, at a bare minimum, offer the consumer at least as much as DVD-Video, and that means that multi-channel audio and bonus features have to be part of the mix, with high resolution is merely the icing on the cake.

Although late to the party, SACD has at last jumped on the multi-channel bandwagon. Now is the time for the two camps to stop fighting each other and to start getting the public sold on high-resolution (hopefully multi-channel) audio. Then let the chips fall where they may as far as formats go. I am in the DVD-Audio camp now primarily because I perceive them as having a stronger commitment to promoting multi-channel audio while SACD seems more committed to striking licensing arrangements. But they are making multi-channel SACDs now and those discs are undeniably great sounding. A few multi-format players have appeared too, and hopefully more will follow. This may render the format wars irrelevant. But if high-resolution audio is to make a dent, all manufacturers have to get on the same page and promote the concept, not the carrier, because the public could care less about what the carrier is. It’s the music, stupid.