Super Audio CD Goes Surround Page 4

While it's been frequently cited as one of SACD's big advantages over DVD-Audio, the format's compatibility with existing CD gear might not be everything it's cracked up to be. Hybrid discs were meant to avoid making record stores carry dual inventories, but Sony has so far avoided hybrid releases precisely because it doesn't want to compete with its existing CD catalog. And at around $25 a pop, titles that are available only on hybrid discs force people who only want the CD version to pay a premium.

One final difference: SACDs lack the navigation menus you'll find on DVDs. This might not be a big deal for hard-core audiophiles, but as more and more home-entertainment components and services come to rely on the TV screen for access and navigation, not having menus could come to seem as quaint as manually cueing up an LP seems today.

United We Stand . . . Given that Sony Music and Warner Music don't have strong support from any other major labels, that SACD and DVD-Audio have to compete with MP3, cable and satellite TV, the Web, DVD-Video, flash-memory devices, game systems, hard-disk audio and video recorders, and a whole slew of other gadgets and services for limited home-entertainment dollars, and that higher resolution is the last thing on most people's minds, you'd think it would make sense for both sides to somehow pool their resources to give high-resolution multichannel playback its best shot in the marketplace. But therein lies the rub.

There are a lot of reasons why DVD-Audio and SACD just can't get along. Maybe the most significant is that the DVD-Audio camp truly feels its product is a significant improvement over both the CD and DVD-Video for music reproduction, while the SACD camp feels just as strongly that its product is even better than DVD-Audio. Money has a lot to do with it, too. As developers of the SACD, Sony and Philips stand to make a lot more from that format than they do as part of the large consortium behind DVD-Audio.

Both formats offer something for everyone - but not if you dwell on higher resolution. Most people don't listen to music under the critical conditions that would allow them to hear whatever differences might exist. And that's where SACD's strategy of courting the high end could come back to haunt it. The opinions of the audio gurus are one thing, but people are going to want to hear the sonic benefits of SACD for themselves before they invest in new gear and spend an average of $10 more per disc - and replace discs that are already part of their collections.

Convenience plays a key role in the success of any format. For most people, better sound, when excellent sound already exists, is gravy. Multichannel is the big drawing card for both formats, and it will come down to who offers the most creative mixes of the most intriguing titles from the biggest artists. Extras will help to draw people in, but it will be the total experience that will win them over.

The obsession with resolution, coupled with the limited catalogs, could mean that both SACD and DVD-Audio will end up as nothing more than audiophile and enthusiast formats. But do they deserve that fate? If enough inexpensive DVD-Audio/ Video players appear, DVD-Audio could ride its video brother's coattails indefinitely without ever becoming a huge success. And SACD could hang in there by catering to the audio elite. A broad offering of affordable universal players would up the ante a bit, but it still wouldn't eliminate the problem of quadruple inventories at the record store, where you'd have to wade through the CD, DVD-Audio, DTS CD, and SACD offerings in the music bins. Given the limited shelf space, store owners will be reluctant to free up the room to accommodate the expanding catalogs of multichannel releases.

The more difficult the two camps make things - with dedicated rather than universal players, splintered inventories, and confusing messages - the less likely it will be that either format will succeed in a big way. This is the first opportunity in a long time to get people interested again in listening seriously to music, and it could very well be squandered.

But even this multinational storm cloud could have a silver lining. Both Sony and Philips are members of the group that came up with the DVD-Audio specifications, and those specifications allow for DSD recordings to be included on DVD-Audio discs as an option, in much the same way DTS is an option with DVD-Video. While there are no indications that either Sony Music or any other record label is even considering this course, let alone taking the first steps to implement it, it is an option - one that would solve a lot of the problems dogging both formats and give high-resolution multichannel audio a fighting chance.