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The State of DVD Audio
The State of DVD-Audio

My first introduction to multi-channel music presentations was in 1998, when Iíd first listened to a DTS 5.1 CD re-issue of the "Titanic" soundtrack. While Celine Dionís music isnít a favorite, I instantly became hooked on the fresh experience of listening to music in 5.1. Quickly following "Titanic" were 5.1 DTS CD releases for Stingís "Ten Summonerís Tales" and "Brand New Day" both electrifying in 5.1. In addition to these early 5.1 releases DTS also released a few DTS-ES 6.1 discrete titles including: "Studio Voodoo" and "Sheryl Crow: Globe Sessions". After a brief run the DTS CD run fizzled out only to be remembered as a format only adopted by a small group of die-hard listeners.

The successor to DTS CDs was DVD-Audio. DVD-Audio (also referred to as DVD-A) allows listeners to hear music titles in high-resolution MLP audio delivered discreetly to 5.1 channels. With DTS CDs a user had to have a DTS decoder either on their tuner or player, DVD-A titles played (at least in low resolution) in almost any DVD player, and in high-resolution in DVD-Audio capable players. DVD-A's formatís early titles included some real clunkers including Stone Temple Pilotís "Core", which sounded harsh with a mix that left a great deal to be desired. As the format has developed the mixes have greatly improved and mixers like Elliot Scheiner (Faith Hillís recent "Cry" DVD-Audio) have come aboard, providing multi-channel mixes that make much better use of each album.

At the start it was JVC who seemed like it was going to be one of the only manufacturers producing DVD-Audio players but other companies such as Panasonic, Onkyo, Pioneer and others soon followed suit. According to a recent report from the DVD Entertainment Group there are now over 1,000,000 DVD-Audio players sold to date and that number doesn't include standard DVD-Players which can listen to the lower resolution 5.1 mixes on most DVD-Audio DVDs.

Recently Sony debuted another high-resolution audio format 'Super-Audio CD' (also known as SACD). Unlike DVD-A, SACD delivers high-resolution audio based more on the CD format than the DVD. While DVD-A discs can play a lower resolution 5.1 audio in almost any player, many SACD's can ONLY be played in SACD capable players. Sony has addressed the 'portability' of their SACD titles with a number of 'hybrid' releases which play in high-resolution in SACD players and in standard audio on any CD player. Like with DVD-Audio it looked like Sony would stand alone in manufacturing SACD capable players, but Phillips and Pioneer both declared their support with others hinting that they may join the SACD camp as well. Sony has done quite well with sales of their SACD capable players including their best selling 'Sony Dream Systems (which support SACD). At this point in time though only a few companies such as Pioneer and Yamaha offering universal players that can play both formats.

So why aren't DVD-A and SACD players taking off like a rocket ship? Either way you go nearly all of the SACD and DVD-Audio players require (due to copyright worries) the player to be hooked up via the 6-channel analog inputs to the receiver to listen to the high-resolution material. Given that most reasonably-priced receivers have only one set of 6-channel inputs, users who already have one format and want to upgrade to another will find it nearly impossible. Retailers are also finding it difficult explaining the need for the 6-Channel hook-ups to customers who are used to the plug-and-play ease of CDs. Many users have also complained about the lack (or lackluster) bass management in several players capable of one format or the other.

While SACD may not be found in as many players as DVD-A, the SACD camp is clearly succeeding where the DVD-Audio side is not: the software. Although DVD-Audio titles from Warner Music, EMI and others were coming out at a fairly rapid rate a couple of months ago, the releases have slowed to a trickle. At the same time, SACD has kicked up its release rate with titles like The Whoís "My Generation", the Rolling Stones catalog and the soundtracks for "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" Most recently SACD performed a coup convincing Pink Floyd to move their DVD-A planned release of the best selling 'Dark Side of The Moon' over to the SACD format. Debates about technical features aside, the only way one of these formats is going to succeed is if they have enough software to interest potential viewers. In that area, SACD has not simply turned the tide in its favor, itís winning by a clear margin. Checking out DVDempire.com for pre-order information on DVD-Audio titles, the only ones coming soon were from Queen, Todd Rundgren and Insane Clown Posse. While probably all fine albums, a total of three releases in the span of a month is clearly not nearly enough to power the format.
DVD-Audio releases from R.E.M., Faith Hill and the Grateful Dead went over well last Winter, but thereís nothing else currently on the horizon for the format. A recent price drop on many of the Warner Music DVD-Audio titles may have gotten more sales from DVD-Audio owners, but it doesnít seem to have pulled many additional consumers towards the format. I personally love DVD-Audio and think there are releases on the format that sound extraordinary, but with the lack of titles coming soon, I would have a hard time recommending DVD-Audio to someone interested in the format.

So why the sudden drout in DVD-A Releases? There has been some discussion that production cost of DVD-Audio titles is very high, given the light returns. And rumors have been circulating that Warner is going back to the drawing board to find a way to release Hybrid DVD-A's which can also be played in CD Players. Across the board sales could clearly be improved if some funds were spent on advertising and education. Iíve seen a few advertisements for SACD, but I havenít seen any for DVD-Audio. There also doesnít seem to be much effort to educate store employees - most of whom Iíve spoke with in various stores about DVD-Audio or SACD have educated themselves about the formats.

A problem for both the DVD-Audio and SACD camps is at the store level, although thatís improved. Iíve begun to encounter more and more employees who are familiar with multi-channel music and stores have started to dedicate areas to the format. A local Sam Goody even had a section for both in the front of their store. The local Virgin Megastore had a fairly impressive section of DVD-Audio titles, although it was a bit of a disappointment to see that the kiosk demonstrating DVD-Audio was hidden under the storeís escalator (and not on, which was also a problem). Some Circuit City stores have offered kiosks for both SACD and DVD-Audio, although at one store, it was a little difficult to clearly hear one or the other, as both kiosks were only about 10 feet apart. Tower Records have only recently begun to offer some mild sales on their multi-channel audio titles.

DVD-Audio certainly isnít "over", but if it continues at the rate that itís currently going at, it wonít be long before DVD-Audio is the loser in this format war. Thereís certainly enough SACD, DVD-Audio and universal players, itís a matter of who has the titles that are going to get people interested and right now, DVD-Audio is hardly offering consumers enough to carry the format for much longer.

In the middle of a difficult time, the music industry clearly needs something new. SACD and DVD-Audio offer a greatly improved listening experience over CD. Although not many have taken advantage of it, some DVD-Audio titles have offered added value materials such as commentary, videos or interviews. Players for both camps have become more affordable, and the kind of improvements in sound quality that both offer should not make multi-channel music a hard sell to music fans. Hopefully, the industry will start putting more weight behind both formats especially DVD-Audio which is starting to lag further and further behind.

DVD-A and SACD Related Info

- Aaron Beierle

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