So, exactly what are the key advantages of DVD-Audio? Essentially, DVD-Audio offers multi-channel, high resolution audio, with up to 192kHz/24bit audio being offered in stereo and up to 96kHz/24bit audio being offered in multichannel configurations using a lossless compression codec known as MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing). Better sound, and more of it. Fundamentally, that is the only advantage of the format from the consumer's perspective.
What are the key disadvantages of DVD-Audio? Firstly, it is totally incompatible with the massive installed base of existing CD players. As DVD-Video has proven, however, this is not an insurmountable obstacle. Secondly, the existing base of DVD-Video players will not be able to play back DVD-Audio discs unless a legacy low-resolution Dolby Digital track or DTS track are included on the disc. This, to me, is a key disadvantage of the format. Early adopters have already been burned once by DVD-Video's late adoption of DTS, and now they are being asked to upgrade a second time in order to enjoy the high resolution benefits of DVD-Audio. Thirdly, there is a competitor to DVD-Audio in the form of Super Audio CD (SACD), supported by Sony (VHS vs Beta anyone?). Fourthly, the audio is watermarked such that even if the audio is compressed into MP3 format, it can be traced back to its source. Whether or not this watermarking is transparent to audiophiles remains to be seen (and heard).
In view of all of the above, the DVD-Audio format is nonetheless being launched with the first slate of 20 titles being made available on Monday 4th June 2001 in Australia. It remains to be seen which of the two competing high resolution multichannel audio formats will succeed in the marketplace, or indeed if either of them will survive. My opinion is that one of them will definitely survive, mainly because of the compelling nature of multi-channel audio - once you've heard it, there's no going back. Which one will survive remains to be seen.
As part of the pre-launch hype, Warner Music and
Toshiba held a series of launches across the country, designed to inform
both retailers and the media about the format. We sent Darren
Walters and Ian Morris along to the Perth
launch to give us their assessment of DVD-Audio.
After the obligatory introductory drinks, we converged on the main meeting room to learn a bit more about what exactly DVD-Audio is and listen to some samples from the small range currently available.
The Warner Music representative introduced the night and offered a brief introduction to the format from a record company perspective. He then passed over to Edith Yip from Toshiba Hong Kong, who gave a presentation on the more technical aspects of the new format.
For the technically-minded, DVD-Audio can deliver up to 192 kHz/24 bit stereo (CD is 44.1 kHz/16 bit). Discs at this stage will be delivered on DVD5 – single layered/single sided. DVD-Audio discs can also contain Dolby Digital and DTS tracks so those without an actual DVD-Audio player can utilize them. The provision of these tracks is only optional but the Warner representative seemed confident that they will appear on most of their releases.
Of course you will need a DVD-Audio capable player to make full use of the uncompressed DVD-Audio soundtrack. There are several players currently on the market from manufacturers such as Denon and Toshiba. Prices for these players start at around $1500, with an entry level $999 player expected to be released soon. DVD-Audio players are also capable of playing DVD-Video and CDs. I would expect all of the next generation of players to support both DVD-Video and Audio.
Warner Music titles will be priced at $39.95 with a small range of 20 titles being released on Monday 4 June 2001. This a mixed range, with artists such as Stone Temple Pilots, The Corrs and Alice Cooper being represented along with several classical and jazz discs. In the first year of DVD-Audio, 100 titles are slated for release. This compares quite favourably to the first year of DVD-Video which saw 66 titles released. By the 5th year of DVD-Video over 10,000 titles were released (US figures).
Unlike DVD-Video, DVD-Audio titles will not be region encoded - though it has been suggested that any video content on a DVD-Audio disc can and probably will carry region coding.
The storage cases for DVD-Audio discs are interesting. Unlike the myriad of cases for DVD-Video, it seems there may already have been a standard developed that is more closely related to the current jewel case for CD. It is similar in style (transparent) but is about 2 cm taller and is therefore almost square. Looks like a complete redesign of all our storage racks again if this takes off.
A demonstration disc was played that held several songs from diverse artists. It contained both a standard PCM stereo track and the new DVD-Audio track for direct comparison. There is no doubt that it was a vastly superior sound. The rendition of LA Woman by The Doors was unlike any version of that track that I had heard before. It sounded very natural with an almost life-like quality to it (like we were sitting in the recording studio with the band). Breathless from The Corrs also displayed the same characteristics and exhibited some decent surround channel use as well. I won't discuss the classical demonstration provided as Ian is much more qualified to do so. My only criticism of this was that a classical piece with lyrics was used. Not the best example I would have thought to capture the complete range of all the instruments in an orchestra.
So it sounded exceptional, of that there is no question. But was this more to do with the high-end amplifier (Onkyo TX-DS989) and Linn Speakers? My big question was - how would this translate down to Joe Consumer with his $400 shelf hi-fi system? It is unlikely he would notice that much difference.
Getting this product to be accepted by the general music listening population is going to be difficult. When CD was introduced, it offered, in relation to LPs, a durable, small, high quality alternative that didn't need cleaning. DVD-Audio can't gain on the durability, size, or cleaning because it is the same as CD in these areas. The quality is certainly an improvement but whether it is enough for consumers to consider replacing their home hi-fis, car and portable CD players is questionable. To fully appreciate the difference you would need to have a full surround processor and decent 5.1 speaker package and that is not a viable alternative for most people.
A question in regards to Sony's competing format SACD was asked. It seems Sony are supporting both formats at this stage and plan on releasing some titles from their range on DVD-Audio. Covering all bases or maybe the Beta experience still leaves a bad taste - take your pick.
© Darren Walters
31st May, 2001
Despite all of the above reservations, Michael D felt that I would be a most suitable candidate for attending the launch, simply because of my deep interest in music. And so I agreed to go along to see whether the hype was about to make sense in the marketplace. It also gave me a rare opportunity to catch up with some of those people I know in the music retailing industry and get their views on the product from a retail point of view. After all, they are the ones who are going to have to front up with their money to put the products on the shelf, in the hope that the buyers will come. No easy ask in the current, very depressed retail market. And by no means the least important part of the evening was the rare chance to meet a fellow reviewer from the site.
So the invitees from both the software and hardware sides of the music retail industry gathered at Rydges Hotel, Perth on a rather wet Wednesday evening with the expectation of indulging in some free food and drink, as well as a new recorded audio format. After a few pleasant drinks (soft only I hasten to add in my case, since I was driving home) and conversation, we all dutifully herded into the demonstration room for the main purpose of the evening - DVD-Audio. The launch was hosted by Warner Music and Toshiba jointly, and it is important to bear in mind that they can only offer their perspective on the format. One thing immediately became quite clear: they are both enthusiastically supporting this new format. We were about to hear whether their enthusiasm was warranted.
Perhaps it should also be pointed out that the demonstration room clearly highlighted the first hurdle that DVD-Audio is going to have to overcome. The equipment costs. This format is clearly targeted at a specific demographic initially: 40-50 years old, high disposable income earner (an almost endangered species nowadays it seems). The equipment told you that. Excellent Linn speakers, big projection screen, huge pre-amplifier, huge amplifier and the obligatory DVD-Video player and DVD-Audio player. We were not talking about a modest little system here - this is serious money. In fact, so serious money that I almost felt like slinking home and tossing a sheet over my home theatre gear in embarrassment. I have yet to understand why companies feel the need to demonstrate new products on the biggest and best (and by extrapolation the most expensive) gear, when the bulk of the market has much lower specification gear. One of the big reasons why CD was such a successful format was because your existing hi-fi system was often more than adequate to handle the addition of a CD player and give you vastly improved sound without any other serious upgrade costs.
That is clearly not the case here. Unless you have some serious audiophile/home theatre equipment, in addition to the actual cost of the DVD-Audio player you will more than likely have to upgrade other components in your system - and that is going to add serious dollars to the equation. Are those serious bucks going to be a worthwhile spend? Just to give you some idea of the dollars involved, the two Toshiba players demonstrated cost $1,499 (SD5200) and $2,999 (SD900E). Both are combination players so will play both DVD-Video and DVD-Audio discs, and the SD900E is obviously the really serious up-market piece of equipment. Both seem to do their job more than admirably judging by what we heard. Toshiba do expect to have a $999 combo player on the market early next year.
The demonstration DVD-Audio disc used for the launch comprised a number of diverse tracks from a range of the initial batch of DVD-Audio discs that will be available for purchase from 4th June. How diverse? How about tracks from L.A. Woman by The Doors, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, In Blue by The Corrs, Tigerlily by Natalie Merchant and Carmina Burana by London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta, amongst others? Well, the good news is that the popular music sounds utterly superb in the new format. Plenty of oomph to the sound and a feeling that is about as close to the real experience as I have consistently heard from a little silver disc. The bad news is that the classical music fared less well, lacking any natural separation of the instruments and a slightly muddy sound as a result. It did not sound like you were in a concert hall with the violins to the left, the cellos to the right, the woodwinds up the middle and the brass and percussion at the back.
Now it is important to note that the sampling provided was a small one, and with the classical music the performances are in any case not the best (the CD versions have not exactly set the world on fire) so perhaps some allowance needs to be made here. However, after the quality displayed in L.A. Woman - by far the best the song has ever sounded in my view - I was certainly expecting a lot better.
The overall quality of what we heard was excellent, and the switching between the CD quality soundtrack and the full DVD-Audio soundtrack highlighted exactly how much better the DVD-Audio sound is. And when you add in the sort of additional features available on DVD-Audio, there seems to be plenty of improvements upon the CD format. However, those pros are well and truly balanced by the cons, not the least of which is a retail price of around $40 per disc. Now since you can buy In Blue from discount stores at a price of about $22, one does have to seriously question whether the lyrics, photos, minor video stuff and the like are really worth that extra $18 (well, maybe the huge picture of Andrea Corr displayed on the screen was a reasonably convincing argument). Okay, discounted prices of around $32 to $34 for DVD-Audio discs could be expected from online sources or (eventually) the discount stores, but even so the difference is still going to be $10 to $12 per disc. Not an insignificant difference in a depressed music market in my view, where endless poor quality new release $30 CDs are sitting on shelves gathering dust. Being really cynical, one could argue that the record companies would be in favour of any new format, so that they get another chance to reissue their back catalogue at a premium price, just like when CD first appeared.
And that was precisely the issue that one of my music retailer friends was dubious about. Now it is important to understand that he was amongst the very early adopters of CD in Western Australia, as was my other friend in the industry. I can remember that when CD first appeared these people had a real buzz about the format, an enthusiasm that certainly was communicated well to the buying public. They sourced product from anywhere they could get it to feed a demanding market. That buzz was not there with DVD-Audio. And that was the over-riding impression of the evening: the lack of real buzz after the demonstration. In fact the one retailer hardly mentioned the format at all - preferring instead to talk about how they were going to be expanding the DVD-Video display at their store, as it was doing so well and they never sold movies before. Not the sort of "buzz" that the proponents of DVD-Audio would be looking for I would suggest. Basically the feeling is that in the current market place, trying to sell a full price CD is a hard enough task, let alone trying to sell another product that is 25% dearer.
And it needs to be pointed out that in terms of actual music content on the DVD-Audio, there is initially (using the DVD-5 format) no more music than on a CD. Sure you get the lyrics on the disc, maybe some video (totalling about 12 minutes, such as video clips or interviews), a photo gallery and production notes/biographies/discographies or similar (as long as the record company is consumer friendly), but certainly I would be wanting some more bang for my big bucks. After all, you are at a party having a good time - are you really interested in any photos/lyrics/notes on the disc? The use of DVD-9 or DVD-10 formats may address the length of available music, but call me cynical again - I would not bet on a record company wholeheartedly embracing a DVD-Audio format giving 150 minutes of music at a price point of $40 (compilation discs excepted).
And so the format boils down to the pros and cons. The pros are:
However, would I rush out and buy a DVD-Audio player to add to my existing gear? No, not unless my DVD-Video player needed replacing. I just don't see the value in doing so. The quality of CDs is now pretty good, with CDs coming out with recordings sourced from 96kHz/24bit masters (at least according to the blurb on the CDs). A CD can be played in my portable player, my car player as well as my DVD-Video player: I would hate to contemplate trying to replace all those with DVD-Audio players (even if it were technically possible, of which I am not certain). The price of the discs is too high in the current market, bearing in mind that several of the first release titles are well and truly superannuated: the last time I looked, I saw L.A. Woman for sale at $15 on CD, so $40 for a DVD-Audio disc is way beyond what I would contemplate. And to some extent the presence of the DVD-Video compatible soundtrack, which was noticeably different to the DVD-Audio soundtrack on the demonstration disc but still pretty good on at least Warner Music discs is a further disincentive to an immediate upgrade, even if the price of the discs were dropped to something more sensible. At the end of the day, to the ordinary non-technophile, all you seem to be doing is replacing one silver disc with another silver disc that really does not look anything different - barring the logos and the larger jewel case (squarer than a CD jewel case) which requires yet another storage medium.
Yes, it is a superb sounding format but the marketing of it is going to be difficult. I would seriously suggest that if all hardware and software companies are truly serious about this format, in order to overcome the lack of a natural and obvious upgrade reason, they need to address some issues:
I personally would like to thank both Warner Music
Australia and Toshiba for putting on the evening and allowing
me to attend. I was most impressed with the product, but I fear that the
hurdles in the current marketplace are going to prove more insurmountable
than optimism alone will overcome.
© Ian Morris (have
a laugh, check out the bio)
29th May, 2001.