HE 2002: Update on DVD-Audio Panel Discussion

HE 2002: Today, it was the turn of the DVD-Audio camp to entertain the attendants of the Home Entertainment expo in New York; a panel of distinguished gentlemen, as it was for the SACD presentation just a couple of days ago. The approach of both camps was chalk and cheese, as was the effectiveness of each seminar.

Although the war between DVD-Audio and SACD still rages, walking around the Hilton one would never know it. The smaller audio companies exhibiting at HE 2002 appear to be, in the most part, embracing SACD. There are a number of high-end SACD players already on the market for that price-no-object customer and also a good number of machines in the more affordable range as well. As far as consumers are concerned, the ‘purist’ listeners are enjoying the stereo recordings while those with surround installations are getting their fix from the available multi-channel mixes, none of which need a video display to increase their worth. SACD is perceived as being a format without bells and whistles, illustrated by the upcoming Rolling Stones’ releases; they are and always have been stereo recordings, which is how they will be presented by ABKCO.

The HE 2002 DVD-Audio panel was moderated by John Kellogg, General Manager of Multi-channel Audio and Music at Dolby Laboratories and with him were Robin Harley from Rhino records, a subsidiary of Warner Brother Records, Gary Dolick from Warner/Elektra Records, Mark Waldrep, President of AIX Records, Jeff Dean, Senior VP, Sales and Marketing for the 5.1 Entertainment Group and Andy Regan, Vice President of Meridian America.

In his opening remarks John Kellogg talked about how widely accepted – by both record companies and hardware manufacturers – the DVD-Audio format has become in such a short time with sales expanding more rapidly than even the record-breaking DVD-Video market in its first year. There are now in excess of 300 titles and over 60 different DVD-Audio capable players from 20 different manufacturers. The panel then discussed the increasing importance of the format and the possible reasons why the market is growing so quickly, concluding that DVD-Audio was able to capitalize on the popularity of DVD-Video and the ability to deliver high-resolution audio on the same platform as folks are buying movies. Also cited as a big selling point were the added extras that make the entire DVD-Audio ‘package’ more attractive to collectors – still images, short videos, lyrics, and even the behind-the-scenes commentaries of some albums. The production complexity of DVD-Audio does have a disadvantage however and is one reason why the number of available titles is still so limited, but the panel expected that this would soon change as record companies find their feet.

However, the biggest difference between the DVD-Audio panel members’ approach to that of Thursday’s SACD panel was that the DVD-Audio camp are working to “…improve the music”.

On Thursday the adopters of SACD stressed the point that while they are releasing multi-channel as well as stereo only SACDs, however many channels are involved they want to keep the music “…as pristine and real as it was the day it was recorded”. In the case of the Rolling Stones releases, the message was yes, they could have been made ‘better’, but instead ABKCO chose to release the material in the form everyone remembers it, only with more resolution and detail.

John Kellogg and Robin Harley appear to be taking a completely different approach, they said they were going to ‘improve’ the sound and quality of the music, in some cases with the assistance of the original artist, by creating a surround mix. That is why just about all the releases to date have been multi-channel and will continue to be so.

Unfortunately, once the floor was opened and attendees were allowed to ask questions, the proceedings soon degenerated into farce, unlike the polished and confident performance of the SACD camp just a couple of days before. The phrase “ill prepared” was heard more than once, and one eagle-eyed attendee even noticed that both John Kellogg and Mark Waldrep’s place-name banners on the front of the table were misspelled “Kellog” and “Waldrup” respectively.

The trouble started when someone asked why the panel believed DVD-Audio was superior to SACD. Having explained that all the tools used in production operate in the PCM domain, implying DSD material is either converted or compromised, there then followed a number of disparaging and, in my opinion, unnecessary comments aimed in the Super Audio CD direction.

At this point an SACD proponent in the audience took exception to the panel’s approach; he got to his feet and asked them to stick to the facts and suggested that John Kellogg’s statement about there not being any mastering tools for SACD was untrue. Thankfully an argument didn’t ensue, but by now the members of the panel appeared to have completely lost their composure.

When someone asked about the possibilities of a digital interface and external MLP processor or digital-to-analog converter, having said the format was still in its infancy and a standard interface would appear in time, Andy Regan again appeared to drop the ball when he said that Meridian were the only company with an external D/A, which isn’t true, Denon, Pioneer and Sharp all have proprietary digital interfaces between player and processor. To make matters worse, Regan then suggested that those who could afford a digital interface could have one today, if they wished. Although not intended, this gave the impression of an elitist approach to the problem and did little to endear the brand with those attending the event. The road to music enjoyment is not just about spending as much money as possible, it is about getting the best sound you can out of your equipment without a nervous industry imposing restrictions.

The panel blundered again when asked if DVD-Audio players were able to output a PCM 96/24 signal to an external DAC given two-channel material. The answer was “yes”, in that all DVD-Audio machines could output 96/24 PCM when either the audio on the disc is PCM or MLP. I haven’t found this to be the case, most DVD-Audio players downsample their S/P-DIF output to 48kHz, including all those we use here at High Fidelity Review (Panasonic, Pioneer, Toshiba etc).

In short, it was a disappointing session for DVD-Audio, in more ways than one. Unlike their SACD counterparts who were content to make the most of a bad situation, at least in public, some members of the DVD-Audio team had to resort to mud slinging and when that didn’t work, they started to squabble with each other.

See Part 2 of this report: Another View of the DVD-Audio Panel

HE 2002 DVD-Audio PanelHE 2002 DVD-Audio Panel