Multichannel Audio Report Card (2001) Page 4

Specialty electronics stores fared better, and their staffs were, on the whole, better informed. A couple of retailers near Detroit even had DVD-Audio players hooked up for multichannel demonstrations. Rick Wigen, home audio merchandise manager of the Tweeter Etc. chain, says he plans to introduce more training in multichannel sound for employees this fall, but "until there's more software out there, customers are going to be sitting on the sidelines."

Not that there's much going on in music stores that would encourage multichannel-audio hunters to pick up a few discs. Except in an HMV store in Toronto, none of the salespeople we approached in the 14 stores we visited had a working knowledge of either format. Roughly half had heard of them but had no idea what they were. Our reporters often found themselves explaining the very formats they'd asked about!

Dave Alder, Virgin's senior vice president of marketing, admits that more has to be done to educate salespeople. He hopes to have in-store demonstrations and promotional displays of both DVD-Audio and SACD discs before the end of the year.

The widespread ignorance of multichannel sound has led to other inconsistencies, such as where the discs are located in a store. Most retailers put them in the music section, but separated from CDs. Shortly after the format's launch, DVD-Audio discs often appeared in the DVD-Video section, but except for a few places like HMV's Times Square store, few major retailers still do this.

Mainly because their boxes are the same size and shape, SACDs were more likely to be found mixed in with regular CDs - which can lead customers to mistake them for CDs. Not one store offered any help in differentiating between two-channel and multichannel SACDs or between single-layer discs that play on SACD players only and hybrid discs that play on both SACD and regular CD players. Buyers have to check the packaging for clues as to whether the discs are hybrid or SACD-only.

DVD-Audio's distinctive larger-than-a-CD-but-not-as-tall-as-a-DVD-Video package has helped earn the format its own display in almost every store we went to, but the Virgin Megastore in San Francisco also mixed some DVD-As in with the CDs. Adding to the confusion are Silverline's DVD-Videos and DTS's 5.1-channel CDs, which consistently turn up right next to - or in some cases, mixed in with - DVD-As. DTS has even begun to package its CDs in the oversize DVD-Audio cases.

After a long drought of multichannel-audio discs at online retailers, you can now click for them at sites like HMV.com and TowerRecords.com, both of which have easily spotted links for the discs on their home pages, as well as Amazon.com and SamGoody.com, where you have to select Music first. It's nice to see that discs in both formats are being stocked, but the legions of clueless salespeople are only hurting sales. DVD-Audio's packaging and placement at least reduces customer confusion. It has a slight edge over SACD on the hardware side, too, with more effective demos among the few we found set up. But no retailer is really taking the initiative to push these innovative formats. - Peter Pachal (with reporting by Bob Ankosko, Gordon Brockhouse, Laura Evenson, Tom Nousaine, Doug Newcomb, and Rich Warren)

Both DVD-Audio and SACD are still a mystery to the average music fan. Enthusiasts know about them mainly from reading magazines like this one, but the marketing efforts by both camps have left the public pretty much in the dark. You might be surprised, then, to find out that both formats have been faring about the same as the CD and DVD-Video did during their early months. But CD and DVD-Video didn't have to contend with a format war. (Divx doesn't count.) Each format is being marketed as if the other doesn't exist. SACD co-developers Sony and Philips have been more aggressive than the DVD-Audio camp at getting their message out, and it's not hard to see why. If DVD-Audio becomes the dominant disc-based audio format, they will lose the millions of dollars in licensing fees they get for having come up with the CD. Between them, the two companies own most of the patents relating to the 1-bit recording and signal processing used for SACD.

Don't expect to see much effort to make it easier to check out either format. No one - except enthusiasts, audio/video writers, and at least one independent hardware company - is talking about a player that can handle both. And while Telarc and Chesky each have a release in both DVD-Audio and SACD, that approach isn't likely to become common.


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