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The Absolute Sound

From The Editor...
August/September 2002
By Robert Harley

  "Format wars" have been an integral part of the audio scene since the invention of the first sound-reproducing machines. The stakes have climbed ever higher as multinational conglomerates pour vast resources into developing and marketing new technologies. To the victor go the spoils, and in the case of decades of patent royalties, the spoils are staggering That’s why the proponents of each format fight tenaciously for market dominance.

Competition is usually a good thing for consumers, but not when they are forced to choose between two formats. One format is likely to become obsolete, and with it, the consumer’s hardware and software investment. Moreover, there’s been an uncanny tendency for the technically and sonically inferior format to win in the marketplace (Beta and VHS, LP and CD, open-reel tape and cassette, and now portable CD and MP3 players). Not wanting to buy into the “losing” format, many potential buyers are sitting on the sidelines waiting for a clear winner to emerge.

Today’s format war is, of course, between the Sony/Philips Super Audio CD (SACD) system and the DVD-Audio format. Both offer vastly better sound quality than CD, along with the potential for high-resolution multichannel audio. Both formats are breakthroughs: For the first time in the history of recorded sound, listeners have a source equal in quality to the studio master tape.

But which system should one buy into?

Fortunately, that decision has been made easier by advancing technology -- technology that renders moot the old rules of the format war. The lines between one format and another are becoming increasingly blurred. Witness the compatibility between the “hybrid” SAC B disc and your CD player. CD player owners needn’t make a conscious decision to stop buying CDs and start buying SACDs; they are sometimes buying into the new format without realizing it. Similarly, manufacturers are moving toward a truly “universal” machine that plays CD, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio SACD, CI)-R, and MP3-encoded discs. The Pioneer DV-47A reviewed by Shane Buettner in this issue is a harbinger of a future in which all machines play all formats. ‘The consumer won’t even need to know the disc’s encoding format; if it’s round and shiny, it will play on any player.

This once utopian view; in which format wars are rendered obsolete by technology, is becoming reality Today's integrated circuits can easily include both DVD-A and SACD decoding. Even accounting for royalties, this multifunctionality adds only a few dollars to the cost of a player. The stumbling block, however, is corporate pride; inventors of one format are loath to include in their machines the technology of a competing format. But as independent manufacturers offer consumers a real solution to the format war, the patent-holding manufacturers may be forced to follow suit and produce universal players of their own.

One day the idea of different and incompatible formats will seem like a quaint anachronism from a bygone era.

On another note, I’d like to call special attention to this issue’s HP’s Workshop. HP begins with an essay on the history and role of he line stage in audio systems, and follows with a critical, in-depth analysis of five contenders for the state-of-the-art in line stages. This landmark piece is not only singular in its comparisons of the five line stages; it provides a fascinating insight into the listening behind the product evaluations.


  Robert Harley



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