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July 2002

The Technology Wars: An Eyewitness Account from the Front Lines

It’s nice not to be tied down. And before my wife starts asking questions, let me hasten to explain that I mean tied down to a particular technology. When it comes to multichannel music, things are totally in flux, so not being too heavily invested in a particular format is the only way to avoid being trapped by unthinking partisanship.

The DVD-A and SACD formats each have their proponents and detractors. Depending on whom you listen to, it’s mighty easy to be convinced either way. Then there are some folks who are almost religious in their affiliations. Don’t get those people started. Being too emotionally involved can cloud common sense. I am personally convinced that multichannel music enhances the musical experience in the home, but how to get there on a regular basis is another story.

On the technical side, the war has been raging through the Audio Engineering Society (AES). Stanley Lipshitz and John Vanderkooy have made a fairly strong argument against Sony’s DSD technology, while James Angus and others have countered in its defense. Who’s winning? MP3! (Sorry, wrong argument.) It’s hard to say, at least for an innocent bystander like myself. I do have questions though.

For those of us who are not engineers, verifying technical claims can be next to impossible -- and the spin-doctors are out in force, which only serves to confuse the issue more than the latest buzz out of Washington. There is some controversy about what Sony has termed DSD-Wide. In the beginning, Sony generated quite the marketing buzz about the benefits of SACD’s 1-bit sigma-delta converters, but recently recording professionals adopted the use of an 8-bit system. Is there a problem with 1-bit?

Then there's the high-frequency-noise issue examined by Hi-Fi News in the UK. Keith Howard charges that there's so much hash above 20kHz that Sony has been forced to employ analog filtering (around 50kHz) to protect our tweeters! Wasn’t 100kHz frequency response necessary for the sonic benefits of SACD to come through to the listener?

These are the types of issues that make you think for a moment. Before too many SACD enthusiasts write me, understand that I own a lot of SACDs too. And have heard them sound really good. I just want some straight answers.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a multichannel-music seminar held by Steve Davis of Sanibel Sound and Hi-Fi Farm, and Mark Waldrep of AIX Records. It was intended to educate the consumer and demonstrate the musical enjoyment that can be had listening to tunes in multichannel format. Steve and Mark are both firmly in the DVD-A camp, and it is a pretty convincing place to be at times. I was there attempting to make some sense of it all for the average music lover and consumer. One thing was quite evident from this experience: Even though I have a multichannel system in my home, and am therefore quite comfortable with the concept, the comfort level of the average Joe is nil with all this stuff. From a consumer standpoint, there are just too many issues.

Does the hardware drive the software? Do we need tons of music before people start adopting en masse? Do the high-resolution formats dictate multichannel music only, or can they offer better two-channel sound, if that’s my thing? Will I need to ditch my current system, or can I easily convert it? There's no end to the questions these new formats raise.

At the seminar, Steve Davis set up a system consisting of Piega speakers, Aloia and Chapter Audio amplifiers, a Lexicon processor, Cardas cabling, and an Integra Research DVD-A player. Playing back the AIX discs, the sound was striking, enveloping, and very convincing. Everyone attending had a great time. The room at the Greensboro, NC Sheraton remained busy all day long, as people came and went, asking lots of questions. A few die-hard two-channel audiophiles wanted to make their case, and some attendees wanted to configure their systems to play back this new magic right now. Mostly, people there simply wanted to learn and listen -- and isn't that something we could all stand to do?

If we look at DVD-Video as an example of the proper launch of a new format, we can derive a few answers. First, folks were ready for something better than VHS. There was so much going for DVD-V, it’s hard to figure out what struck first: the hardware guys or the movie people. It seemed almost simultaneous. Boom! There was software rolling out and players were hitting the market before you knew it. The video rental stores came on board and, well, the rest is history. Here we are five years later and we have an incredibly successful rollout of a consumer-electronics format. But that was movies. It raises some really tough questions for the music side of things. Are folks looking for a replacement for the CD? Most aren’t, and won’t. So far, most people have not been convinced they need anything better than CD.

This is where I think DVD-A has an advantage at the moment over SACD, and that’s what I said at the seminar. First, you get additional material on a DVD-A disc. On one of Mark Waldrep’s releases, you get music tracks from different perspectives (audience or stage), and video footage of the performance, including various camera angles. And not just DVD-A, but Dolby Digital and DTS versions of the audio tracks, too (and if you have a DVD-V player, the AIX discs are backwards compatible).

But people also know what DVD is -- with the explosive growth of DVD, most people either have or know someone who has a DVD player. Does this mean DVD-A will succeed and SACD will fail? I’m certainly not willing to go that far -- yet. However, DVD-A was botched from an introduction standpoint and it may never recover that lost momentum.

As for SACD, Sony is a powerful force in the industry -- no, make that industries. The corporation has major pull in both the hardware and software sides. Factor in that there are more than a few folks who believe in the sonic superiority of the SACD format. However, Sony still has its work cut out for it on the average-consumer side of things. Conduct your own experiment to see what I mean: Out of 100 acquaintances, how many have even heard of SACD? Now, contrast that with DVD. Sony still has a lot of marketing to do.

What’s next -- again!

When I started "Surrounded!" back in October, I really didn’t know where it would take me. Since then I have talked about hardware, lots of software, some industry politics, and some technical issues -- and I'm no closer to having definitive answers than I was when I started.

But, as crucial as getting to those definitive answers is, I believe that the process of discovering them is even more important. If we leave the discussion off until the industry presents us with its solution, we will have abdicated our part of the process -- and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves if we don't like it. So let's stay active. We can have a good time trying to figure it all out, and we're finally starting to see some great multichannel music coming out that we can enjoy while we wait.

From the beginning, I told you we’d be here for a while. The way things are shaking out, it looks like our voyage of discovery will be even longer than I anticipated. That's OK. I'm in it for the long haul -- and I sure hope you'll be keeping me company along the way.

From the front lines of the technology wars, see you next time.

...Jeff Fritz


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