DVD Audio: Where Do We Go From Here?
Article by Guido Henkel
Reprinted with permission from the March 2001
edition of Medialine
Gluido Henkel operates DVD Review.
For almost two years now we have heard the praises about DVD-Audio and how it will change the way we are listening to music. In these two years not very much has changed though, and I decided to take a look at the current state of the format.
While developers set a general timeframe for the release of DVD-Audio into the marketplace, a few other events sent the format into a maelstrom of delays and technical problems. When I had the chance to hear DVD-Audio for myself almost two years ago during a technology presentation I was immediately enamored with the format. I have never felt that CD Audio is an unsatisfying or underdeveloped format the way some audiophiles do, but the prospect of
multi-channel music productions immediately hit the right chord with me. I have produced three commercial Audio CDs myself, and more than once did I feel that the traditional stereo field was somewhat limiting. At the time,
multi-channel music productions were prohibitively expensive and nothing but a faint dream in the distant future. When this future finally arrived I was more than ready to embrace it... and yet I am still hesitant about DVD-Audio.
After the specs had been formalized and development had been completed, DVD-Audio was originally scheduled to be introduced into the market in the spring of 2000. Despite the fact that everything was moving along as scheduled, one single event ground DVD-Audio to an immediate halt. The DVD encryption had been cracked and publicized by a juvenile delinquent in Europe. Given its impact, it is hardly surprising that the DeCSS case is material for lawsuits and a lot of wishful thinking. Apart from fact-twisting and the ever-present excuse for freedom of speech -- and apart from the obvious copyright infringement associated with it -- it caused instantaneous, serious damage in the video and audio industry.
In terms of DVD-Audio, DeCSS stalled the entire market introduction of the format because suddenly publishers were concerned about the protection of their intellectual properties -- rightfully so I may add. The Napster scandal has further compounded to the problem as it created a delusional sense of entitlement and ownership within a whole generation. Nothing is sacred these days, and accessibility seems to justify even theft and piracy. In this day and age, no one in his right mind would be interested in releasing material that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to create into a market where it isn't firmly protected. The vulnerability of DVD caused music publishers to revert their plans and hold out until a protection scheme was in place for DVD-Audio that would fully satisfy their needs. In the end it would take until very late 2000 for the world to see the first DVD-Audio player on a retail shelf.
Once on the scene, it received a fairly lukewarm welcome, even from proponents of the
format. Chances are that as you read this, months after the introduction of the format, you still have neither seen nor heard a DVD-Audio title. Why is it that despite the format's grandiose capabilities, it doesn't seem to have the same momentum DVD-Video had upon its introduction?
The reasons are manifold and some may surprise you. While many people argue the improvements of DVD-Audio over the current standard (CD Audio) are too small to make it an attractive format, I tend to disagree. The differences range from noticeable to unmistakable. While DVD-Video looked great upon introduction, shoddy DVD releases made it a gamble and many releases at the time looked worse than their VHS counterparts. Even good releases were oftentimes only marginally better than their Laserdisc counterparts, and the real sense of superiority of the format came only about 18 months into the format's full introduction, when the authoring and compression software matured and producers became more familiar with the format and its pitfalls. And still, DVD-Video took off like a Saturn V rocket!
On the other hand, many people argue that the majority of consumers simply don't appreciate DVD's multi-channel capabilities. Who wants to sit in a fixed spot to enjoy their favorite record? How do you dance to it that way? What about headphones, and worse yet, what about casual listening over a boom box? I believe arguing this way has one simple but major flaw. While the productions on DVD-Audio may be 5.1 mixes, as with DVD-Video, they can be perfectly played back on a stereo system. Sure, you lose the depth, some of the vitality and most of the spatial dimensions of the production, but so do people watching
The Fifth Element on a DVD running through their TV set's speaker system. And trust me, there are far more of those than you would think. Sure, DVD Audio is not necessarily designed for stereo playback, but by the same token, DVD Video isn't necessarily designed for playback on non-anamorphic TV sets either. Does it break the format as a result? No, and it shouldn't.
Multichannel set-ups at home are more affordable than ever and will become more common, and virtual 3D placement through stereo systems will grow rapidly. Q-Sound and Spatializer have had the technology in place for years, and now they will actually begin to have real applications rather than gimmicky productions.
So what are the real problems with DVD-Audio at this stage of the game? Product availability is certainly one. Although I know that a majority of music majors have
multi-channel productions in the pipe, it will take some time for them find their way to the market. This is a serious problem -- DVD-Video was so strong upon inception because of the remarkably attractive title catalog.
Another problem lies within the artists themselves. Musicians have to embrace the format and its capabilities the way directors have embraced DVD-Video. Musicians will have to push for
multi-channel productions and conceptualize records that make real use of the
multi-channel capabilities. They need to understand that there is more than a left/right pan and that the
multi-channel experience can add tremendously to their artistic vocabulary. No one says that a studio production has to simulate a real-life 5.1 channel ambient set-up. Why would you? I can hardly wait to get hear the first 5.1 channel production that aggressively plays with the format and places instruments and sounds in a new perceived space. The music industry needs visionary artists and they need them fast!
Also, some technical issues remain, as is the case with any new emerging consumer electronics introduction.
Despite its tardy growth, DVD-Audio will become an interesting format over time, I have no doubt. DVD player manufacturers are already beginning to incorporate DVD-Audio capabilities in their next-generation DVD players. Soon this will happen at no apparent additional cost and, like we witnessed in the DTS revolution before, eventually all DVD players will be able to handle DVD Audio titles just as well as DVD Video releases. When the line blurs, the need for education disappears. People will see the DVD logo, perceive it as something good and buy the product. The consumer should never have to ask himself whether a DVD product is playable on their equipment or not, or what the technical implementation of the content is? The consumer needs a clean and attractive delivery and as soon as DVD Audio is making sure it can offer this perception, consumers will begin to take notice.