Groups Look to Replace Compact Discs

By | October 9, 2002 at 12:00 AM

Anyone old enough to remember spinning vinyl records also remembers relegating them to the nostalgia pile when CDs became the listening standard more than a decade ago.

Now, CDs may be headed for the same fate. Over the last couple of years, manufacturers and record companies have rolled out two new musical formats – DVD-Audio and Super Audio Compact Discsthat they hope will replace the CD.

“It’s really getting rolling. The number of titles is increasing rapidly,” says John Trickett, chairman of the 5.1 Entertainment Group, which has produced almost 100 DVD-Audio titles. “If you compare it to the launch of the CD… It’s actually following the same pattern, but actually a lot faster.”

SACDs and DVD-Audios, when coupled with the right speakers, sound superior to regular CDs. Parts of a recording that were buried in layers of music – a drumbeat, an extra guitar, perhaps some backup vocals – are now revealed, crystal clear.

Yet the new formats require an investment from consumers – many of whom seem satisfied with CD sound and have not even heard of SACDs or DVD-Audios. While the new discs cost about the same as a CD, or a tad pricier – about $19 – you’d likely need to upgrade your entertainment system to hear their advantage.

“Most people aren’t looking for a multichannel experience. They are just looking for a convenient, good-sounding, inexpensive format,” says Jon Iverson of Stereophile magazine.

Both DVD-Audio and SACDs can hold several times the data contained on regular CDs. They are also multichannel (surround sound), instead of the two-channel (stereo) CDs. (Some SACDs are two-channel, made to enhance stereo sound.)

Jazz great Dave Brubeck recently heard a remastered SACD version of his classic album “Time Out.” The difference, he said, was startling.

“Nobody was even aware that there were limitations – now you can really hear that before you weren’t hearing anything,” says Brubeck. “You can hear the individual instruments better, and in a more natural way, as if you were hearing them live.”

That might sound similar to what consumers were told back when CDs came along.

But Iverson says that CDs, while more convenient and durable than vinyl, were actually found by many audiophiles to be inferior in sound.

“A good vinyl setup will get you a little better to the real performance than a compact disc set up,” says Iverson, and DVD-Audio and SACDs are “certainly a better sounding format than CDs.”

David Kawakami, director of the SACD project at Sony, which pioneered the format along with Philips, says, “if you talk to the man on the street, I think most people would say the CD is fine.

“But there has always been a portion of the marketplace that… has found the CD lacking in certain respects. The things that they say we sacrificed when we transferred from vinyl to CD are things like warmth and the ability to record air around the instruments.”

Kawakami calls SACD “basically a three-dimensional experience. Music has depth, width and height, and just as if you’re sitting in a concert hall, you’re hearing music not only coming directly at you but coming to you… it’s also ricocheting off the walls.”

The sound of DVD-audio is comparable to that of SACDs, and the format offers bonus features similar to DVD videos. Listeners might watch videos, for example, or sing along to lyrics that flash on the TV screen.

An added bonus for record companies and retailers, who are engaged in a battle against piracy, is that the relative complexity of DVD-Audios and SACDs makes them much harder to copy. At the same time, that might turn some consumers off the format.

“Both incorporate watermarking, which means ultimately the record companies can control how you use the disc,” Iverson says.

It’s also unclear whether listeners will pay extra for the high-quality sound and bonus material.

The two formats began hitting the market about three years ago, aimed chiefly at audiophiles – people willing to spend $5,000 and more for a system that could replicate that perfect sound.

Today, DVD-Audio discs play in any DVD player. But to experience the 5.1 surround sound, an entertainment system consisting of five speakers and a subwoofer is needed. Costs have come down, but a bare-bones, no-name brand will cost at least $200.

Most SACDs can only be played in SACD players. Sony offers bargain SACD players that also play DVD videos for about $300. Those players don’t let listeners hear DVD-Audios’ enhanced sound, because it is a competing technology. (The new players do play CDs, so listeners don’t have to upgrade their entire music library.)

“The unfortunate thing is, instead of coming up with the next audio format, we ended up with two competing formats,” Iverson says. “A format war of course is never really good for anyone until it’s over.”

Another drawback: Unlike CDs and MP3s, which you can play just about anywhere, DVD-Audio and SACDs don’t have that portability. Cars, portable CD players or boomboxes don’t have the technology to play them yet.

To achieve the ultimate sound experience, you have to be in the middle of the speakers.

If you are just sitting and listening, “it’s pretty amazing,” says JR Richards of the rock group Dishwalla, whose latest album, “Opaline,” was released in DVD-Audio.

But “if you’re working around the house, then it (the enhanced sound) doesn’t really matter.”

So far, there are about 300 albums available in DVD-Audio and about 450 in SACD – a minuscule amount of the thousands of CDs released each year. Sony Music Group and Universal Music Group have backed the SACD format, while Warner Music Group has backed DVD-Audio.

While many of the early releases were classical or jazz, contemporary albums have been added: Faith Hill’s upcoming disc will be in DVD-Audio format as well as CD, for example, and the Rolling Stones’ catalog was recently rereleased on SACD (a hybrid SACD, actually, which can be played on either a CD or SACD player).

Iverson says it will take more must-have catalog releases before consumers start replacing CDs with the new formats in mass quantities.

He recalled a recent trip to the record store where he spent a half-hour explaining to the store’s personnel what SACD and DVD-Audio was.

“Educating the public is a key issue here for these formats to become more successful,” Iverson says, “and I don’t really see people making a big effort in this regard.”

But proponents say it took the CD format years to make real inroads among consumers.

Producer Frank Filipetti, who has remixed albums for the SACD format, says all it will take is a listen for the new formats to catch on.

“Once they hear the multichannel version,” he says, “they can’t get over it.”

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