High-resolution audio formats, hybrid discs and new hardware were all high on the agenda at this year’s Hi-Fi Show and AV Expo, held at the Renaissance and Le Meridien Hotels, London, this past weekend, September 26-28.
The show’s main high-resolution related event was the Pioneer press conference, during which John Bamford presented in his usual charismatic style.
“Software growth is very slow, and it is slower than we predicted,”
“A couple of years ago we were predicting what was going to happen with DVD-Audio and SACD software, and we were wrong. Today we are least one year behind those predictions. Regarding DVD-Audio, studios are taking a lot of time to acquire the new tools to create the new discs. We thought that after two years there would be 1,000 DVD-A titles, whereas in fact today there are about 500-600. Similarly, we also thought that by the time SACD passed its third anniversary there would be 3,000 titles, when today in fact there are only about 1,500 around the world. So it’s not that it isn’t happening, it is just happening slower than we predicted, and I reckon this is going to be ‘slow-burn’, guys. In short, there is a business there and this business is growing, and it is not going to go away.”
On the hardware side Bamford paints a rosy picture:
“For the last couple of years we have been producing affordable universal players. And what a party we have had. Every Pioneer salesman is very glad to be a Pioneer salesman, because they are selling products which are in great demand. Thousands of them! Indeed, the new award-winning DV-565A received over 3,000 pre-orders even before they have even arrived at the docks.”
Notably, Bamford also announced the launch of a new i-link-equipped A/V receiver, the VSX-AX5i. “And very soon we will have a new flagship model, the DV-868AVi with both HDMI and i-link. Approximate price in the UK will be £1,100-£1,200. The prototype landed at customs 48 hours ago.”
Like Pioneer, Meridian also brought its latest products out in full force, the new G Series visible to all in the main foyer of The Renaissance Hotel. Not only that, but MLP and Meridian supremo Robert Stuart was also on-hand to answer any questions.
Meridian Audio: DVD-Audio hybrid “this year”?
Seeing Mr. Stuart in attendance, HFR did not hesitate to question him about the state of DVD-Audio hybrids – since this is likely to become a crucial issue regarding the long-term uptake of the format. But guardedly, all he would say, is:
“I’m sure it’s about to happen, but an announcement hasn’t been made yet.”
Well, coming from him, that sounds very positive indeed. This was further corroborated during a panel discussion attended by Dolby Labs’ UK MD, Tony Spath, Sony’s marketing manager for Europe, Eric Kingdon, Alan Clarke from Linn; Pioneer’s John Bamford, and, of course, Meridian’s Bob Stuart.
When I put to them the need for a hybrid DVD-A flipper, there seemed to be general agreement – well, certainly no denial from anybody on the panel. Moreover, Stuart affirmed that, yes, it would be for DVD-Audio, and not only that, but all the major record companies – which would even include SACD champion Sony – were behind its development.
Indeed, Sony’s Eric Kingdon even went so far as to say (albeit, semi-jokingly) that he’d “welcome” the opportunity to discuss CD royalties, presumably for the CD flip-side of such a hybrid. However, Meridian’s Stuart mentioned later to High Fidelity Review that the CD patents were about to expire, and was therefore puzzled at Kingdon’s statement. Stuart stressed that he couldn’t say anything more than that “at this stage”. He was also optimistic that a title in the hybrid format would be out “…this year”. In short, it seems there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than he was at liberty to say. Let’s wait and see.
It is worth mentioning that at Meridian’s exhibit, there was an impressive line-up of its new “G-series” audio and home theatre products. For DVD-Audio in particular these included the new G91DH / G91S DVD-A preamplifier/tuner and the G98DH / G98AH DVD-A player.
MHR Smartlink: High-Resolution Connectivity
Both the Meridian G91 and G98 include the MHR “Smart Link” functionality, permitting encrypted, lossless digital interconnection of multi-channel sources and Meridian surround controllers, including the G68. The configurable G91 DVD-Audio player/controller forms the heart of an integrated system, comprising audio/video disc player, stereo digital preamplifier, and AM/FM RDS/RDBS tuner in a single component. The addition of a pair of Meridian digital loudspeakers or active speakers (or a G Series amplifier and passive speakers) completes an effective two-channel A/V set-up. The G91 further functions as a multi-channel home-theatre system via its optional configurations with MHR Smart Link digital outputs to either the G68 Surround Controller or a set of Meridian’s DSP loudspeakers. Andrew Samalionis, marketing manger pointed out that the G68 basically replaces the combination of the 568 and 562V at a similar price point, but it also includes room-correction and adds a tuner.
Topping the G Series disc designs is the G98 DVD-Audio Transport. This can be configured with either MHR Smart Link digital outputs for connection to a Meridian processor or digital loudspeakers, or with six channel analogue outputs for use in other systems.
From October 2003, prices for the G91DH DVD-Audio player controller will range from £3,500 to £3,895 (circa $7,000) depending on configuration, while the G98 DVD-Audio transport will be available for between £3,350 and £3,625 (circa $6,000) – again, depending on configuration.
At the Sony Stand…
While most hi-fi exhibitors at the show were content to display their wares in stripped-out, yet cramped guest rooms (hardly the best environment in which to demonstrate audio and video kit!), Sony hired a much larger conference room on the lower ground floor to display an impressive looking array of audio and video products. On one wall were the latest amplifiers, another wall featured plasma and LCDs, while close to the entrance were SACD, CD, and DVD players. Moreover, beside the SACD players was a large poster displaying recent releases by major artists. While not embarking upon a press conference or presentation, Sony did provide press its corporate message in written form. A cut-down version of the release is as follows:
“Four years after the European introduction of SACD players in 1999, a vibrant business model has developed in Europe. All sectors of the audio industry are reporting strong demand for the new digital audio format.
“With majors such as Universal Music, Sony Music Entertainment, EMI/Virgin and BMG releasing a rich variety of new albums from international recording artists as well as local superstars, together with re-mastered versions of classic works there is a steady flow of music from all genres being made available on Super Audio CD.”
“Universal Music reports that shipments of the Rolling Stones Re-mastered Series have exceeded two million. Likewise, EMI reports that shipments of the multi-channel re-mastered Super Audio CD version of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ have topped the 500,000 mark.
“With CD sales showing a worrying downwards trend across Europe, Super Audio CD provides a welcome boost for our future business,”
comments Dirk de Clippeleir, director, new formats at Universal Music International. “It is still relatively early days for the format, but its multi-channel capabilities linked with the CD compatibility of the hybrid disc creates a compelling customer proposition which appeals to all kinds of music lovers from classical to pop and rock.
Currently, there are 867 titles available in Europe of which more than 70 percent are hybrid discs. Another growing trend is evident in terms of multi-channel releases with most new releases, and around 50 percent of all albums featuring multi-channel mixes.
Industry reports show strong sales of SACD with the European installed user base having doubled from one million to two million in the last eight-month period. There are now more than 65 SACD models available from 28 manufacturers. Several other manufacturers are expected to announce plans to introduce SACD players before the end of the year.
The biggest selling category of [SACD] player is home theatre systems which combine Super Audio CD with DVD-Video in a single unit. Sony has made SACD standard in all of its Home Theatre systems.
For the last 20 years, CD has served the market tremendously well and whatever replaces it must offer the consumer a considerably enhanced proposition. It must respect consumers’ investment in CD music and offer significant added value in terms of multi-channel home entertainment. As CD’s developers, Philips and Sony recognize this. Super Audio CD has taken many years to develop and now we are beginning to see the fruit of our labour in terms of a rapidly evolving business in Europe,” explains Jos Bruins, Marketing Director at Philips Standards and Intellectual Property. “We believe that Super Audio CD will reinvigorate the entire music industry in Europe. Not just the consumer electronics sector – it offers the same potential to the music recording industry and retail sector as well.”
At the show, Sony displayed its new 9000 Series hi-fi components. This comprises a flagship multi-channel digital amplifier (TA-DA9000ES), together with the SCD-XA9000ES Super Audio CD player.
Like Pioneer and Meridian, Sony equips its latest multi-channel amplification with an i.LINK (IEEE 1394) interface, providing a high quality single-cable-connection to the SCD-XA9000ES SACD player. This interface supports SACD’s native DSD signals! Very interestingly, the new models also include time delay and bass management features within the “DSD domain”! [most SACD players perform bass management within the DSD domain, so this is not new – SMR] The TA-DA9000ES and SCD-XA9000ES will be available from October 2003.
Overall, this year’s show could not be described as anything spectacular, and in particular those small hotel guest rooms hardly did any of the equipment justice sonically.
In terms of high-resolution audio, probably the only representative demonstration, albeit only in stereo, was hosted by none other than Ken Ishiwata of Marantz fame, who was showcasing the company’s latest SC-7S1 stereo control amplifier with two monaural MA-9S1 power amplifiers, coupled to a SA-12S1 SACD player. The occasion also marked the 50th anniversary of the company.
To be honest, however, the Redbook CD and SACD discs that were demonstrated through this system both sounded impressive, but surprisingly, the CD sounded no worse than the SACD. Multi-channel high-resolution demonstrations, however, were something of a ‘no-show’ at this event, apart from a few bursts from the Pioneer’s DVD-A/V HT system, before the volume had to be turned down again to permit conversations to take place.
In the York Theatre, however, there was a multi-channel demonstration of sorts, involving a huge stack of Bryston amps (ten 7B SST at 1,000watts each, one 4B SST at 300watts per channel and two 14B SST at 1,000 watts per channel) powering the most monstrous PMC speakers I have ever seen, their BB5XBD-Active across the front, MB2 in rear and IB2 to the sides. However, this proved to be a missed opportunity since in many cases the Linn universal player was running with DTS or Dolby Digital sources, even though several members of the audience (myself included) offered the technician the opportunity to spin their own DVD-Audio discs which they had eagerly taken into the room…