Utopia Theater: The DVD is Dead!

The DVD is Dead! Long Live Whatever We Get!

Like the CD, the DVD was a great idea born prematurely. Claims for the 16-bit/44.1kHz CD's "perfect sound" by the music business and electronics manufacturers—and, worst of all, hi-fi press cheerleaders and whores—were absurd and frustrating for those of us who bothered to listen and who savored the emotional satisfaction that lifelike analog sound was capable of delivering.

Yes, CDs were high-tech, sexy, convenient, and a big improvement over vinyl in terms of what wasn't there, but the sound—especially in the early days of steam-powered D/A and A/D converters—was glassy, icy, and mechanical. As Neil Young once described it, "The mind is fooled but the heart is sad."

The distinct disappointment of sonic expectations wrought by those claims of "perfection" for early CD sound paved the way for the next giant step back: MP3. With the bad-sound genie out of the bottle and the great recording studios and spaces disappearing, some of the early digital cheerleaders are now, belatedly, sounding the alarm. But it's probably too late. The great recordings are mostly from the dimly lit corners of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Thanks to reissues on vinyl, SACD, and DVD-Audio, a younger generation finally has the opportunity to hear worthwhile facsimiles of those recordings—or what's left of them on aging analog master tapes. But judging from sales so far of SACDs and DVD-As, few care, even with the "lure" of new surround-sound mixes.

The DVD Difference
The DVD was based on the stone-age NTSC TV standard, so the best visual resolution it could manage was a meager 480 lines. Whether you deinterlaced it or not, the image's resolution remained 480. At best, the horizontal resolution was little better. But thanks to processing tricks, craftily applied algorithms, and a format invented and crafted with a realistic view of NTSC video's true limitations, film-to-DVD transfers can look remarkably filmlike, even on relatively large screens—until you see the high-definition transfer. Then the DVD looks blurred, more like video than film.

But DVD was an enormous improvement over the VHS videotape or even the laserdisc, and its introduction was immediately embraced by videophiles and, to the surprise of most industry observers, the general public as well. When Warren Leiberfarb, then with Warner Brothers, championed the DVD, he was derided as misguided and worse—especially when he suggested that consumers might actually buy more movies on DVD then they'd rent.

Other than the small, diehard audiophile community (which includes me), the acceptance so far of SACD and DVD-Audio has been, at best, tepid. What can eager videophiles (again, me included) expect from the two forthcoming, incompatible, hi-def formats, Blu-ray and HD DVD, that now appear ready to duke it out in the marketplace?

In early December, Toshiba—a key developer and supporter of HD-DVD—announced content agreements with Paramount, Universal, New Line, and Warner Bros.—as many as two dozen titles from each studio are expected to be available on HD DVD by Christmas 2005. However, none of these deals is exclusive, which leaves the studios open to issuing the films on Blu-ray as well. HD DVD players will be available for around $1000, giving the Toshiba camp a big jump on the Blu-ray group, which is not expected to have hardware or software available for the US market until well into 2006.

No one knows how this hi-def format duel will play out, but those predicting that Blu-ray and HD DVD will suffer the same fate toward which SACD and DVD-A seem to be hurtling are probably mistaken. Early adopters and video fanatics will probably sell off their favorite DVDs as those titles are released on Blu-ray and/or HD DVD, just as they jettisoned their LDs when DVDs hit the shelves. These are the folks with big screens, on which they'll easily see and appreciate the difference.

But the biggest difference between the hi-rez audio and video scenarios is the playback gear of the general public. Most CD buyers don't have audiophile-quality gear and aren't likely to buy it in the future, making the sonic differences between CD and SACD or DVD-A academic. However, the move to big-screen HDTVs is just beginning to gather mainstream momentum. The installed base of sets capable of displaying the awesome visual power of Blu-ray and/or HD DVD will blossom just as the new formats reach the consciousness of the mainstream. These buyers won't be as likely to jettison entire DVD collections as readily as will hardcore videophiles. But they'll replace favorites with HD transfers, and buy spectacular-looking video productions shot in HD, because the improvement in picture quality will be so obviously apparent on their new HDTVs.

There are some big "ifs" associated with this scenario. It will occur only if the format war is resolved quickly and cleanly, either by the manufacturers themselves or by a decisive marketplace victory for one of the formats. And a hi-rez video format can succeed in the mainstream market only if the industries restrain themselves from pricing players and discs beyond the means of mainstream consumers. Sure, charge the max to begin with, but drop prices in time to catch the crest of the HDTV wave.

Meanwhile, signs of DVD's end were everywhere this past holiday season: $20 progressive-scan DVD players, second-tier DVD releases priced at five for $30, and older big sellers, such as American Pie, available for $10. Nor is there much left to mine from the studio vaults. How else to explain stuff like Paramount's 2-DVD set of Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica—The Complete First Season? Is anyone really going to buy that?