Multichannel Audio Report Card (2001)

Our readers are intensely curious about both Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio, if recent mail is any indication. But most have stayed on the fence, unsure which format is going to come out with the music they want - or is even going to be around in a year.

Unfortunately, the respective camps haven't done much to coax these sitters down from their perches. Given all that, an early assessment of the format launches seemed to be in order - and thus this report card.

But the situation isn't completely chaotic, and some things have come into focus lately. For instance, we now have a better idea of which major record labels are in which camp - but there doesn't appear to be any logic to where they landed. EMI, for instance, is releasing classical titles in the "populist" DVD-Audio format and plans to release mainstream boomer pop in the "purist" SACD format. Universal Music Group, the world's largest music conglomerate, was originally a vocal supporter of DVD-Audio but, for reasons unknown, has since defected to SACD - maybe. Since situations like these have been typical of both launches, we decided to use this report card not only to judge how the formats have fared in the early going, but also to clear up some of the considerable confusion that they've created. - Michael Gaughn

Software DVD-Audio: C+ SACD: C+ Grading the selection and quality of multichannel releases on DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD reminds me of the time five years ago when I considered the launch of the enhanced CD format. And what did I write back then? "Reviewing a stack of enhanced CDs reminds me of the time seven years ago when I stared down a similar stack representing an earlier format, the CD-Video." Yes, friends, there's an alphabet goop of dead or dying formats: ECD, CD-V, DAT, DCC. Will DVD-A and SACD be joining them PDQ?

First, let's look at some of the names involved. No, I don't mean the Warner Music Group and Sony Music, the prime backers of DVD-Audio and SACD, respectively. I mean Larisa Stowe and Christy Baron. Forget about the relative merits of Stowe's DVD-A and Baron's SACD - has the average person even heard of these singers? Accordingly, are they sensible choices to help launch new formats? True, both are on small, independent labels. But a surprising number of multichannel discs are coming from indies, with their limited rosters - primarily, DTS and Silverline on the DVD-Audio side, Delos and dmp on the SACD side, and Chesky and Telarc straddling both.

If you want to talk Warner and Sony, then yes, we're in more recognizable territory. Stone Temple Pilots? Check. Mozart and Midori? Check and check. But did STP's relatively rudimentary Core belong in Warner's first batch of DVD-A releases? And were Mozart's relatively small-scale Sinfonia Concertante in E and Double Concerto in D the best choices for Sony's first multichannel classical SACD?