Does Multichannel Music Have a Future? (2005) Page 2

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DVD-Audio, SACD: M.I.A.The best formats don't necessarily become the biggest. By Ken C. Pohlman Illustration by Jack Gallagher Why have DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD failed? Wait! Hold the cellphone! Don't get me wrong! Those formats aren't being abandoned. Hardware manufacturers aren't recalling their players. Discs are still being released. But let's get real - neither format has exactly set the world on fire. multichannel music 2

Everyone knows what a CD is. Everyone loves DVD-Video. I'd rather get between a pit bull and its lunch than between a music lover and his iPod. The cool factor of flat-panel TVs is amazing. And there's even a decent buzz - a long time coming - about HDTV. But mention DVD-Audio or SACD, and you get blank stares. Walk into any music store, and the only SACD and DVD-A discs you'll see are in a dusty rack in the back - if they're there at all.

In today's fast-moving world, innovative technology has a shelf life as short as a Krispy Kreme doughnut's. If you don't buy when the "Hot Doughnuts Now" sign is lit, it just isn't as good. Introduced in 1999 and 2000, respectively - ages ago in technology-years - SACD and DVD-Audio are getting stale. By now, chances are that neither will ever amount to much. On a scale ranging from DVD-Video (spectacular success) to MiniDisc (what's that?), DVD-Audio and SACD fall toward the low end.

What happened? There are plenty of theories to choose from.

Theory No. 1 DVD-Audio and SACD aren't cool. The hot new thing is downloading. If you can get your favorite songs free, or for 99¢ each, why bother buying an entire disc? Music on disc is passé.

Theory No. 2 Multichannel is no big deal. No one has time for La-Z-Boy listening. Multichannel music shines only when you're as stationary as a deer in the headlights and surrounded by speakers. Many people don't have the time, patience, or attention span to really hear the benefits of surround music. Instead, we multitask - listening to music while we make dinner or do a thousand other things. Stereo is fine for that. (See page 17 for more on this.)

Theory No. 3 DVD-Audio and SACD are copy-protected. Ironically, that might have hurt sales. When you buy a CD, you can copy it to your computer, move tracks to your iPod, make a backup copy, and in general do lots of fun things. When you buy a DVD-Audio disc or SACD, all you can do is listen to the disc itself. No cloning allowed. Not as much fun or convenience.

Theory No. 4 The wiring is cumbersome. Thanks to copy paranoia (see Theory No. 3), most players don't deliver a multichannel digital signal from DVD-A discs or SACDs. You need six analog cables to connect the player to your receiver, and not all receivers have a set of six dedicated preamp inputs. What a low-tech pain!

Theory No. 5 Music's role is diminished in today's increasingly videocentric world. The success of DVD shows the power of video . Even in cars, that's the hot ticket. Unless music is accompanied by video, many people aren't interested in it as anything more than background accompaniment to their lives. High-definition TV, yes. High-definition music, no.

Theory No. 6 DVD-A and SACD are canaries in a coal mine. High fidelity is dead, killed off by file-sharing and MP3 players.

Success has a thousand fathers. Failure is an orphan. Lots of deserving (or not) people congratulate themselves for DVD's success. But who will step forward and accept responsibility for the lackluster sales of DVD-Audio and SACD? Hardware manufacturers shouldn't take the fall. They've developed a wide range of terrific players at amazingly low prices.

On the other hand, the major record labels deserve considerable blame for never formulating a coherent marketing policy or investing in retail support. Considering how many observers have characterized the labels as greed-heads, what on earth possessed them to pass up such a potential moneymaker? Even worse, they shot themselves in the foot with the always-fail approach of pitting two different (and initially incompatible) formats against each other.

But the truth is, most people just don't want DVD-Audio or SACD. They're content with CD (or lesser) sound quality - except when they're watching movies. What a strange outcome! With surround sound playback systems in so many homes and cars, and with so many DVD players that can also play DVD-Audio or SACD (or both), the success of the new formats seemed inevitable. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe too many people took that success for granted, so the word just never got out.

Actually, DVD-Audio and SACD haven't failed completely. Some labels are vigorously supporting the formats with excellent releases. Slowly, the catalogs are growing. Neither format will be huge in audio history - but that's no reason why a minority of us can't still enjoy superb sound quality and spatial realism that blows stereo away. Although the mass market may never applaud them, DVD-Audio and SACD are two of the best-sounding music formats you'll ever hear. So go ahead and buck the negative trend: buy a pile of discs and revel in their fidelity. Both formats are wildly successful at conveying an astonishing music experience. To be honest, the only losers out there are the people still listening in stereo.