DVD - Audio: Twelve Months On

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of Ian Morris, and not necessarily those of Michael D's Region 4 DVD Info Page. Nonetheless, Ian (again) makes some very valid points in this editorial.

    It is now well over twelve months since the official launch of DVD-Audio in Australia back in June, 2001, so as sort of promised I have returned to the format to see where it is going.

    I should perhaps preface my thoughts this time with a couple of salient points. Foremost amongst those is the fact that I am now the proud owner of a DVD-Video/Audio player. Okay, so why exactly is one of the biggest critics of the format on this site now the proud owner of a player? Has he relented and been seduced by the dark side? Well, no - what he has done is follow his own advice in his ramblings regarding the original DVD-Audio launch. As I suggested in that article, were I starting a system from scratch I would include a DVD-Video/Audio player rather than a DVD-Video player alone, simply as a hedging of the bets. As I also suggested, if I were to be in the situation of replacing my DVD-Video player, then again I would certainly do so with a combination player.

    Indeed, that is exactly the situation I found myself in. With a very sizeable tax refund cheque on its way and with the ever-reliable Pioneer DV-515 having earned the right of a well deserved semi-retirement, I felt it time to very regretfully replace the Pioneer player that has served me so well for three hard years. So, thanks to the good folks at Frank Prowse Hi Fi in Mosman Park, here in Perth, I have indulged in a Denon 1600 player - as well as some nice new high quality audio leads (sorry for the blatant plug, and poor pun, but they have done a fine job and have earned my appreciation for a job very well done).

    At the same time, my DVD-Audio disc collection has increased from the modest three discs I bought around the time of the original launch of the format, to a slightly less modest seven discs. Aside from the desire to change my player, the one other driving force for the change was the fact that there are a few upcoming DVD-Audio releases that I am very interested in. So this is the environment in which I make my commentary - as a critic as well as an owner of hardware and software.

    For a while there it looked like DVD-Audio was more moribund than Ansett. The switch in distribution from Warner Music, the prime movers of the format, to Warner Vision Australia seemingly had zero effect on the format here in Australia. However, it is fair to say that in the last two months or so things have certainly brightened a little for the format here, probably as a result of Warner Vision Australia coming to grips with the format as well as a relaunch of the product overseas.

    Notwithstanding the relaunch both here and overseas, which has generated some increased, albeit modest, enthusiasm for the format, it has to be said that widespread acceptance is still a long, long way off. In addition, we still have the SACD vs DVD-Audio "war" raging - a war that no one seems the slightest bit interested in. Neither format is exactly decking the shelves with product, with worldwide DVD-Audio disc releases being numbered around the 300 mark at the time of writing. So what has been the result of this re-launch of DVD-Audio? Are we suddenly seeing loads more stores stocking the discs? Are we seeing loads more discs being released? Well, not really.

    I have long ceased scouring the shops of Perth to locate any of the precious little DVD-Audio discs, so for all I know there may well be quite a few stockists out there. What I can say for certain is that of the four specialty, department and discount stores that I frequent regularly, you would have a snowball's chance in hell of finding a DVD-Audio disc between them. So as far as that little problem is concerned, six months has seen no change whatsoever.

    However, if I switch to the World Wide Web, things are looking up, at least just a little.

    For starters, Warner Vision Australia have decided to do something more positive about the format. At least they now have a listing of the available discs on their site - and surprise, surprise, there are some new releases and the list is actually growing! You will also notice that this site has published a few reviews of DVD-Audio titles too, thanks to Warner Vision Australia providing review discs - an indication of a more determined approach to the format, by at least getting the product out for review and thus (hopefully) generating greater enthusiasm for the format. Okay, their release list is not huge at 67 titles and if you are after more recent music, or, God forbid, alternative music, then you are still going to be seriously disappointed. Most of what has been released or is due for release is reissue material - and some of it is of significant age, hailing from times before a fair chunk of our readers were probably born. Now don't get me wrong, I like Hotel California or American Beauty as much as the next person, but there are only so many "old" albums that I will indulge in. The Eagles and The Grateful Dead might have recorded classics, but I have already been down the route of replacing LPs with CDs, so don't necessarily expect me to do it again!

    Add into the equation the fact that there is an abundance of e-tailers out there selling the product, right? Well, not exactly. Whilst there are certainly a few more than there were six months ago, one is still hardly overwhelmed by the number of Australian e-tailers carrying the format. There are only three that I regularly check out who carry the format in any great numbers and so far my entire collection has come from two of those sources. I believe that one of two others that I don't visit often also carry the product. Notwithstanding the extra e-tailers selling the product though, they mostly stock it from only the one source - Warner Vision Australia. Would it surprise you to know that there is at least one other local distributor with DVD-Audio in their catalogues? Yet where can you find this product for sale on the web?

    Now for this one can blame both sides of the deal. Sonart distribute Naxos product and those with some interest in the format will no doubt know that Naxos have released two DVD-Audio discs with a third due shortly. Okay the range is not big but how many people actually knew that the discs were available in Australia? If you have ever delved into the depths of the Sonart site, you might have found them - but it is not easy. Indeed, so quiet has Sonart been about these DVD-Audio releases that they were not even in this site's database - at least not until recently after I discovered the necessary information. Now exactly how is a product to sell if no one knows it it is available? I have been making this point for twelve months and yet the point still needs to be made, which really does speak volumes about the general level of commitment to the format.

    So Warner Vision Australia (67 titles) and Sonart (3 titles) have taken the plunge. Has anyone else? Well, as far as I am aware, no. Interestingly, this is very much the case with SACD too - my research wanderings have not been too successful in discovering too many SACD releases either. So on the strength of 70 current or forthcoming releases in the format, where are we going?

    One would have to say nowhere. The basic problem has been and continues to be the lack of software. Taking my own experience, my collection totals seven DVD-Audio discs in just over thirteen months since the launch of the format. I am an enthusiastic music lover who always seeks out new experiences in just about every genre you care to name. Just to give you some indication of how big a music lover I am, my CD collection numbers well into the five digits. In addition, I am right in the middle of the target demographic for the format. The fact that my total collection is only seven DVD-Audio discs tells you an awful lot about the problems the format is facing.

    Price continues to be a factor too. Sure, Warner Vision Australia have done the right thing and dropped the RPI to $33 or thereabouts, which equates to online prices down around the $28 to $30 mark. Whilst certainly appreciated, it still is not far enough and a couple more bucks off that mark would probably see a more level playing field established with CD. Indeed, the only real bargains to be had in DVD-Audio in this country are basically those difficult to find Naxos discs, which have an RPI of $19.95.

    By way of comparison, my CD collection after twelve months or so of the format was over five hundred discs - and I by no means owned every CD that had been released. To even approach that figure with DVD-Audio and SACD combined I would have to buy just about every available disc worldwide and then possibly some twice over. Sobering thought that!

    I have said it before and I will continue saying it until the message gets home - the format needs quality titles and it needs them right now.

    Just in case you might think it is just me getting on my soapbox again, I had a revealing conversation with the kind gentleman who came out to install my new player. He believes that the format will be a success, but that it is being hamstrung by two things. One is the lack of software and the second is the price point. Err, Houston, we have a problem! If your target market thinks that there is insufficient product and the price is too high, then I am afraid that irrespective of how good the product might fundamentally be, you will see it die. Anyone remember DAT? Sounds real familiar.

    Funnily enough, the hardware side of things seems to be getting better - Pioneer, Toshiba and Denon are brands that I know have local release players of excellent quality and I am sure that there are others out there too. The prices seem to be coming down again with the advent of new generation "play every format" type players. Sure you still have difficulty finding them in your everyday electrical chains, but at least they seem to be making the shelves of specialist retailers somewhat more frequently. However, one does have to question how much longer manufacturers will support the format unless there is some significant improvement in the size of the market. They need volume to make a decent return on their investment and specialist-only sales are not going to give them volume.

    So really what has changed in the past six months or so? Fundamentally, not a lot at all. The main problems confronting DVD-Audio remain the same today as they did at the initial launch: market apathy. Minimal software choice, coupled with a price disadvantage when compared to CD (especially for similar albums), and then the basic lack of obvious need to move on from CD are serious impediments to the format. The distributors could certainly address the software choice with reasonable ease and to some extent the price situation could also be addressed. At the end of the day though, I am not sure the lack of obvious need to replace CD can be addressed. CD is far too ubiquitous and the only way that massive body of consumers can be swayed to another format is through providing something much better or much cheaper - and preferably both. Until we can see some evidence of portable DVD-Audio players, in-car entertainment based around DVD-Audio and the like, we are unlikely to see any significant move away from CD and towards DVD-Audio (or for that matter SACD). At the end of the day, that means a format destined to die.

    This would be a very great shame based upon my initial listenings to DVD-Audio in my own home on my own gear. Okay, I knew it generally sounded pretty good from when I attended the launch over twelve months ago, but even that and the enthusiasm of a few reviewers on the site could hardly prepare me for the home experience. The album of choice was Alice Cooper's Welcome To My Nightmare, one of the true classics of the mid-1970s and one of the best theatrical albums ever released. This is an old favourite of mine and I thought I knew the album pretty well - having had three different LP pressings, as well as CD and cassette incarnations. I was staggered by how much additional detail could be found in the sound on the disc, and this was in a good but not superb effort overall. I would hate to think how good some of the truly superb discs are going to sound when I get a chance to listen to them.

    This is not a format that should be allowed to die and surely someone, somewhere in a position of influence can get the basic problems of the format resolved. If the average consumer can see them, then surely the extremely well paid corporate gurus can see them? Just get us more titles and get the price down to the same as CD (or better) and you will have a winner. Muck about for another six months or so and you will have the biggest bust since the aforementioned DAT.

© Ian Morris (have a laugh, check out the bio)
6th August, 2002