Bold new formats to rock audiophiles

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Don't look now, but after this Christmas season of hot-selling DVD players, all your old audio compact discs may soon be as dated as those vinyl records you recently gave away.

A new technology war is coming over the hill, and those old CDs will be caught in the crossfire.

The new opposing forces are called Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD audio, a variation on digital-videodisc systems for movies that are supplanting VCRs.

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Both promise much better sound quality than today's CDs, though the discs will look and feel the same.

"Audiophiles have always criticized CDs for sounding cold and austere," says David Migdal, marketing vice president at Sony.

So far, equipment to play both formats is expensive, so only audiophiles are likely to invest in changing over. But make no mistake: As prices come down, these formats are aimed at you.

Don't worry, both SACD and DVD Audio players will play today's CDs. But consumers may not be satisfied with their sound quality for long after trying the new formats.

SACD "feels more alive, it feels more presence ... it's closer to reality," said master cellist Yo Yo Ma in a taped interview with Sony producer Steven Epstein. "When I heard SACD, I was amazed to hear things I actually thought only existed on old analog recordings [such as LPs]. CDs kind of cleaned it all up."

Only two SACD players are on the market. Both made by Sony, they cost $3,500 and $5,000. So far, just 40 recordings come in SACD format, but that number is expected to double in the first quarter of 2000.

A handful of DVD audio discs are available from specialty makers. But manufacturers postponed the launch of DVD audio players when Norwegian hackers in October bragged that they had cracked the security code designed to prevent piracy of DVD content - both video and audio.

Panasonic is expected to sell a DVD audio player for about $1,200 in about six months.

The anticopying standards are still developing for both SACD and DVD audio. But for now, it's next to impossible to make a digital copy of either a SACD or a DVD audio disc, onto a recordable CD, for example, says Paul Gluckman, the technically plugged-in New York bureau chief of TV Digest.

But consumers can still make a lower quality analog copy of either digital format (onto a cassette tape, for example), as they do from today's CDs.

In the future, recording studios will be able to put technological (not just legal) restrictions on who can make copies, how, and in what quantity, Mr. Gluckman says.

The SACD format was developed by Sony and Philips Electronics, the same companies that developed today's compact discs, says Jeff Joseph, spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association in Reston, Va. Most other electronics manufacturers are adopting DVD audio instead.

Both sides insist they don't want a format war, but intend the products for different audiences. Indeed, Sony plans to build DVD audio players and discs as well.

"SACD clearly is aimed at the high-end audio market, and DVD audio is for the home-theater crowd," says Mr. Migdal.

Unlike surround-sound-capable DVD, for example, SACD so far plays only in stereo, which the most finicky audiophiles prefer, Migdal and others insist.

SACD reportedly does have better sound quality than DVD audio, a majority of reviewers say.

But DVD audio's surround sound should appeal to many early technology-adopters, especially at its lower price.

The battle is really over licensing revenue, says Jim Penhune, entertainment analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston.

Sony and Philips own most of the patents on today's CD audio technology and don't want to lose the revenue they earn from other manufacturers and recording studios who license the technology, he says.

Migdal calls licensing a nonissue.

Whether or not the manufacturers want a format war, the front lines have historically been drawn at record stores, which can stock only a certain variety of products.

When CD popularity boomed and consumers demanded more selection, they squeezed out vinyl.

If consumers demand the same selection of SACDs or DVD audio discs (much less both), the stock could well supplant "old-fashioned" CDs - and there may not be room for both.

*Comment to evarts@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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