Multichannel Audio Report Card (2001) Page 2

Of course, each format is gaining momentum. DVD-Audio has Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and SACD has Billy Joel's The Stranger. But these are the exceptions, and if either format hopes to survive, it must go after the heaviest Classic Rock hitters: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. But it shouldn't live in the past, either. Current albums by Madonna, U2, and Radiohead are perfect for surround sound. Then there's P J Harvey and Pearl Jam. Beck and Björk. In fact, a DVD-A edition of Björk's Vespertine should be out by the time you read this. DVD-Audio, having gotten a head start on SACD with multichannel titles, boasts a richer catalog. And its coming releases, though still leaning to the past, include potentially awesome entries like the Eagles' Hotel California and Queen's A Night at the Opera. So at this point in the grading, my red pencil is poised to give DVD-Audio the edge.

Not so fast! When it comes to extras, SACD never promised us any and never gave us any. Fair enough. But DVD-Audio always promises extras and rarely gives us anything extraordinary. Memo to "creative teams": If you're putting lyrics in the booklet, I do not need them on the screen. If you're providing a bio, it should not be a reprint of record-company hyperbole. If you're offering photos, please do not require them to be browsed by remote control!

Marketing: DVD-Audio: C SACD: B+ Commentaries are a hit on DVD-Video, but I've found only three on DVD-Audio: the Big Phat Band's Swingin' for the Fences, Foreigner's self-titled debut, and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. The first commentary is good, the second is not, and the third is compromised by competing material on the disc. But at least they're there.

"Okay," you're saying, "but which format sounds better?" No one can answer that question without direct, double-blind comparison of identical source material reproduced in both formats. And despite what anyone else has claimed anywhere else, no such scientific comparison has been done. On their own, some discs sound wonderful (Buena Vista Social Club on DVD-A, Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells on SACD), others woebegone (that Foreigner DVD-A, that Christy Baron SACD). Remember, however, that any title's success also depends on the quality of the original recording as well as the skill and artistry of the surround sound remixer. And as we've seen, some remixers deserve to go to the head of the class, while others are lagging behind, unable to do the new multichannel math because they're stuck on the old dawn-of-stereo Ping-Pongorean Theorem.

Retail: DVD-Audio: C- SACD: D Teacher's comments: "The amount and quality of multimedia content can vary greatly." Oops! That's what I wrote about ECD five years ago! "The kind of hit-and-miss releases we've seen so far are to be expected from companies struggling with a format in its infancy." Oops! That's what I wrote about CD-V 12 years ago! Looks like we've got another couple of underachievers with plenty of room for improvement. - Ken Richardson Hardware: DVD-Audio: C SACD: C When it comes to both their hardware features and performance, DVD-Audio and SACD are practically the same. So it's not surprising that they share many of the same virtues and flaws.

Variety and Availability: DVD-Audio: B SACD: C There are more DVD-Audio players available, but that's mostly because the format got a head start. If you open up the cases of these players, however, you'll find that, except for the name plates and chassis styling, many models are identical. There's also a limited assortment of DVD-Audio decoder chips, and this situation is even worse in the case of SACD, which leads to the same set of features being repeated from player to player.

Pricing: DVD-Audio: B SACD: B Player prices have finally descended to levels more appropriate to the cost of the parts used to build them.