[SoundStage!]Max dB with Doug Blackburn
Back Issue Article
January 2000

Hard Thinking About the Future of Digital Audio

How are we high-end audiophiles supposed to be looking at digital audio these days? We are on the brink of finally being able to get a wide variety of new and re-issued music in one or more new digital audio formats that will finally do away with any possible argument that "LP sounds better." I have heard enough demonstrations of the new digital audio formats to know that there is no aspect of LP playback that can hope to be as pleasing as any/every aspect of these new high-resolution formats. Let’s look at where we are now and a possible scenario for where digital audio could be going. The prognostication on developments and the timeline may turn out not to be 100% accurate, but they will at least give you an idea for how much digital audio could change in the next five or more years.

Here and now

At this very moment in time, your only real digital audio choices are 16/44.1 playback hardware or 24/96 playback hardware which uses DVD-movie playing technology as the main guts. My experience is that CD players and DACs employing 18- or 20-bit (or single-bit) DACs for CD playback are outclassed by DVD-based products at similar prices. For all practical purposes, then, traditional CD-only playback hardware has been passed by as a serious contender for the best in digital audio sound. Some people may bristle at this, but my ears tell me it is so.

Besides 24/96 playback hardware, just appearing now is affordable upsampling hardware that will make all of our listening to 16/44.1 format audio CDs far more pleasant than we have experienced in the past, possibly even catapulting the CD PCM format beyond anything achievable in LP playback. You should understand that I’m no anti-LP digital fascist. LP was my primary music format from 1964 to about 1988. I own 6000 LPs and have an almost embarrassingly expensive analog front-end. LPs still feel right in my hands and there is certainly a nostalgic sensation when listening to them that I never get from any digital audio disc. But today’s 24/96 playback systems sound so good playing 16/44.1 CDs, let alone 24/96 discs, that it’s getting really hard to remain a very frequent LP listener. Upsampling 16/44.1 hardware could be a great purchase since it will benefit the entire existing CD collection. But upsampled 16/44.1 and 24/96 playback are not going to be state-of-the-art for long.

SACD is here, but hobbled by two-channel playback hardware and two-channel SACD discs. The power of SACD is in its not-yet-implemented features: backwards compatibility and high-rez six-channel sound on a single disc. SACD offers some significant features that should make it the digital audio format of choice. PCM audio should, by all rights, be killed dead and not mourned. Our best bet for the best-sounding digital audio playback systems would be systems which are not based on the PCM digital audio format. SACD is the only digital audio format in use today that is not PCM. SACD decoding is much simpler, it requires fewer parts to decode and it can be decoded with near total transparency. SACD is really the format of choice for high-end audio enthusiasts even if most of them don’t know or understand that yet. Because the SACD samples are so close together, jitter is a non-issue. The freedom from jitter, the simpler and cheaper decoding, and the shucking off of the PCM digital shell make SACD the obvious choice for the highest-quality digital audio sound. If there is any justice, SACD will replace PCM audio as the audio format of choice for the DVD. Unfortunately, it may take a long time for justice to be done.

DVD-Audio is just beyond the horizon and threatening to appear at any time the industry gets their copy-protection fears, marketing indecision, and production concerns under control. This could happen next week or next year -- or never. Yep, that’s right. Even though DVD-Audio standards were "approved," there is still a chance you will never see any commercial software released in that format. There are internal reasons at work as well as obvious public reasons. The public at large is not clamoring for a CD replacement. That fact alone could kill DVD-Audio if the powers that be don’t feel the premium market could sustain the format. The desires of high-end-audio enthusiasts carry virtually no weight in the huge audio mass market.

Gazing ahead

Hardware manufacturers will have a solution to our immediate decision problems. During the year 2000, it is very likely that at least one "universal disc player" will appear that can play any CD-sized video or audio disc that is manufactured or threatened to be manufactured. You’ll be able to have one box that plays movies, CDs, SACDs, 24/96 discs from Classic and Chesky, DVD movies and DVD-Audio discs if they ever appear. This may sound like an ideal solution, but the future will remain in a continuous state of flux. It’s unlikely that we will ever see a period in digital audio like the one we had from 1983 until 1999 where standards were stable and predictable. This will make purchases of expensive digital playback gear harder and harder to justify. If the playing field changes every three to five years, your satisfaction with your playback hardware is likely to change with that same frequency. I would not necessarily recommend being the first one on your block to get any new digital audio technology; that’s fine for people who like being first and for whom the expense is unimportant. But most people will lag the market by one, two or three years. Even if you are of the persuasion that you will never be an "early adopter," you’ll still find yourself in a three-to-five-year hardware change cycle as new capabilities become available.

Let’s say you get your new "plays all formats" single-box player in 2001. By 2002, you might see the first DVD-Recordable players. So by 2003 or 2004, your two- or three-year-old box won’t be able to record DVDs, so you might be thinking about replacing it or adding a recorder (which may or may not have two drives in it). In 2004, you’d probably see re-writable DVD, which puts your writable player purchase in the back seat already. In 2005, we might see the first commercial blue-laser hardware with even more storage than is possible in the DVD format we have today. This capacity increase will yield more new digital formats for video and audio, perhaps leading to interactive music discs where you make choices about how the music is played back by selecting different mixes and different versions of instrumental or vocal tracks. You may even see "combo discs" which have 75% of their capacity pre-recorded and 25% of their surface area recordable, possibly even re-writable, so that you can edit the disc any way you see fit. You could permanently program the tracks you want to hear in the order you want to hear them, select the vocals and instruments you want to hear, possibly even position various tracks in various speakers in your 5.1 (or 10.2) surround system. Then you can record all of that information directly onto the disc in tracks your player would read before playing the disc for you. The way the market works and the way technology works down to affordable prices, you’ll never see all of these changes happen at the same time. They will trickle out to the marketplace, one or two new things every year from now until who knows when.

You can’t go back, so where to from here?

The future of digital audio is not going to be limited to two channels. The future of digital audio is not in the audio CD format. The future of digital audio brings only one guarantee with it: it will not be the same as what we have today. Your buying habits regarding digital audio playback hardware are likely to change significantly beginning right now. If you have jumped into 24/96 audio and/or DVD, you are on the track to the future and you will want newer better digital audio playback hardware in the foreseeable future. The sooner you understand this and decide how you will deal with the rapid changes that will come in digital audio, the less frustrating you will find your choices and options to be as things develop on the digital audio frontier.

...Doug Blackburn


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