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March 2003

Backward Compatibility and High-Resolution Audio

The marketing strategies of the companies promoting SACD and DVD-Audio are very telling. To get the wisecracks out of the way early, we could term it the lack of marketing strategies -- or even the fumbles and foibles of the consumer-electronics and recording industries -- that have served to hobble the two participants in our little format war.

But there’s more going on here than meets the eye. While we’re all armchair quarterbacks to an extent, myself among the well enlightened, there are larger forces at work that have only come to the surface recently and serve to broaden the discussion. Most of this revolves around backward compatibility, which as you’ll see is wholly connected to multichannel audio and even bigger issues.

Two forms of backward compatibility

Backward compatibility can mean different things depending on which format you’re discussing. After all, there are two massive-but-different system types you can be compatible with. One is the venerable CD player, which sports a history built on the back of a format that’s been with us for over 20 years. The second is DVD, taken on its own terms, a mechanism entirely superior to the CD from a data-storage perspective.

DVD is now the official "fastest-growing electronics format" in history. Have a look at the May 2002 issue of Business 2.0 and their article "The Meteoric Rise of the DVD." According to their sources, it took a scant five years for DVD-player sales to reach 30 million units. By comparison, it took CD players eight years, the PC 10 years, and the cell phone 12 years! The DVD, in its DVD-Video guise, has reinvigorated both the audio and video communities. The public just loves movies encoded with surround sound.

Sony’s SACD format was touted from the beginning as a replacement for the CD. Although conflicting reports exist, there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of two million players in the homes of users worldwide. (Admittedly, a large portion of these have SACD compatibility bundled with Sony DVD players, which may have been purchased primarily for DVD-Video. Then again, the same could be said for players with DVD-A capability.) SACD was spec’d for backward compatibility with the CD from its inception. The Sony folks had no intention of going head to head with DVD-Video, a format they enthusiastically embrace with a massive selection of players. What Sony wanted was to replace the CD that they created. (Sony’s royalties on the CD is another column altogether.)

The first batch of SACDs -- and many to this day -- are not backward compatible with CD simply because the makers chose this. An SACD that will play in a CD player must be a Hybrid SACD, which incorporates two different physical layers bonded together. If it’s a Hybrid, a CD player will read the CD layer automatically, ignoring the SACD layer. If you plop the same disc into an SACD player, it will default to the higher-resolution SACD layer. Either way, you get sound.

A Hybrid SACD is also compatible with DVD players. Every DVD player has the ability to play CD, so when a Hybrid SACD is inserted into a DVD player, the machine reads the CD layer, just like a CD player would. That’s true backward compatibility. If it’s a Hybrid Multichannel SACD, you have the best of all worlds for surround-oriented audiophiles. Thumbs up to Sony for this, but one hint: Every SACD released should be a Hybrid Multichannel SACD. Don’t tease us, and don’t shoot yourself in the foot by not producing them. Of course, Sony and its partner Philips know this, and they have recently established the manufacturing capabilities for the express purpose of producing Hybrid discs.

The DVD-Audio disc from the beginning had a measure of backward compatibility, though not with CD players, but rather DVD-Video players. This is not an inconsequential number, with tens of millions of DVD players in use today. And that number is growing by leaps and bounds. The DVD-Audio disc, when inserted into a DVD-Video-only machine, should revert to a Dolby Digital track (DTS tracks are also available on many discs). Dolby Digital, being the standard for DVD-Video, is suitable for multichannel music to an extent, although the sound quality is easily eclipsed by DVD-Audio. What DVD-Audio discs can’t do is play in a standard CD player. The Achilles heal of DVD-Audio? Yep, and the DVD folks know it. They’re working feverishly to rectify what is really a monumental error in their initial planning.

On the table right now is the a hybrid DVD-Audio disc -- either double sided or dual layer -- that is truly backward compatible with CD, like the Hybrid Multichannel SACD. But why would they really want to go to that much trouble at this stage to make the DVD-Audio disc compatible with older CD players? It really doesn’t seem logical, does it? If DVD players are selling at such a profound rate, including to those consumers who are buying them to play back their CD collections, why would they care? Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

Where is this going?

The point of the backward-compatible disc -- be it DVD-Audio or SACD -- isn’t just to play in all those CD players in the homes of audiophiles out there. There’s a far more important market, financially speaking. Sony calls it their "reverse pyramid" marketing plan. The top of the pyramid was where their focus began, you could say, with the introduction of the SCD-1 audiophile-grade two-channel SACD player. This robust machine was never meant to sell in the hundreds of thousands. Its purpose was to start the ball rolling and give Sony an entry point into the top of the pyramid. They’ve been steadily expanding downward into, first, multichannel audio, then mass-market players, home-theater-in-a-box systems, and finally, when they reach the base of the pyramid, where this marketing push was really going all along. It’s best summed up by what I heard a top-level Sony executive state to a group of SACD enthusiasts at the 2003 CES: "The car is key."

That’s right. Car audio is a major reason for backward-compatible discs. Sony knows this, and the DVD camp is catching on late, but they now know it too. The simple truth is, for record stores to sell one inventory, whether it be DVD-Audio or SACD, the disc must be playable in the car. And in today’s car, CD still is king. Most consumers won’t buy a disc they can’t listen to on the way home from the store, on the way to work, or on family trips. So it’s either the highway or no way.

There’s no question that audiophiles -- you and me -- want high-resolution audio in our homes. Many of us want multichannel music as well. Those over at the home-theater camp are, by and large, with us. But the point is, for it all to be financially viable in the eyes of the big record companies, there can only be a single inventory of discs in the stores. For that to happen, the car and the home are one. Don’t underestimate the importance of this, because it will likely decide the fate of what we’re going to be listening to in the future.

...Jeff Fritz


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