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The Absolute Sound

From The Editor...
August / September 2004
By Robert Harley



New Formats
It's All Up To You

  In his book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, James Gleick describes some of the ways in which the pace of life is speeding up. From the movie credits that spin by indecipherably quickly in the corner of the television screen while the newscaster pitches the upcoming news show, to the ability to instantly communicate with people halfway around the world, time seems increasingly compressed.

One trend not addressed in Faster, but that affects us as audiophiles, is the speed at which new audio and media formats are introduced. The rule of thumb used to be that a successful format would survive at least thirty years. Think of the LP record, first introduced by Columbia in 1948. Although one could argue that the LP is still viable, we can generally peg the end of its era at about 1990, three years after CDs surpassed it in unit sales. Even at that, the LP had a lifespan of forty-two years. Today, just fourteen years after CD's ascendance (and exactly twenty years since its introduction), we think of CD as in its twilight years, its era brought to a close by high-resolution digital formats (SACD and DVD-Audio) for those of us who care about sound, and by MP3 downloads for those who don't.

But CD's twenty-year lifespan -- remarkably short in relation to the LP -- seems an eternity when we turn to the DVD format. Although DVD may seem relatively "new" (officially launched in 1997), consumer-electronics companies and "content providers" (movie studios) are already gearing up for its replacement, a disc that can store high-definition video. Two formats are proposed: HD-DVD and Blu-ray. Whichever becomes the standard, it spells a short life for the most wildly successful format in electronics history.

Rapidly changing formats are a double-edged sword for the consumer. On the one hand, we're the recipients of improving technology -- who would argue that DVD isn't an improvement over VHS? On the other hand, we're forced to buy new hardware and software libraries as new formats supplant the old. CD taught the record companies that reselling their catalogs in a new format is an immensely profitable business. Moreover, the companies who invent successful formats reap astonishingly large rewards in the form of patent royalties. In 1999 alone, Sony received $1 billion in revenue from its share of the CD patents it jointly holds with Philips.

I've generalized about the life spans of media formats; in reality, it takes a long time to displace an entrenched format. Moreover, many consumers think that the introduction of a new format is equivalent to that format being fully mature and the old format obsolete. I remember that audiophiles back in 1996 held off buying CD players, CD transports, and digital-to-analog converters because of reports of the imminent introduction of SACD and DVD-Audio. Those consumers have had a long wait, and in the meantime, have missed out on greatly improved CD sound.

It may seem that consumers play no role in this accelerating revolving door of formats -- we buy into whatever is fed us. In reality, we determine a format's success or failure, as well as its life span, by weighing its value and deciding to buy or not to buy. It's the ultimate form of democracy. We are, unwittingly, masters of our own destiny.




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