You are reading the older HTML site

Positive Feedback ISSUE 8
august/september 2003


Audio in 2003
by Clay Swartz


The muddy waters of digital audio have started to clear slightly. SACD is growing slowly, with momentum added by the release of the Rolling Stones albums and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. The success of these releases has been helped by the fact that they are priced the same as standard CDs, or even less. There are about 800 SACD titles available in the U.S. right now, both remastered and new recordings. More and more SACD manufacturers are producing hybrid discs that can be played on CD players, and many have lowered their prices to between $16 and $20, though there are a few holdouts charging $25 to $30. Most of these are remastered audiophile recordings. I believe that there is a very limited market for these discs. Most audiophiles already have them in another format. If they buy the SACD for $25+ dollars, they still have an older copy (that probably also cost $25, and still sounds pretty good) that they can either sell for $3-4 dollars or keep, hardly ever played, in their collection.

The sound of SACDs is generally very good, but it can vary. I have heard a few that did not sound as good as a very good CD. Then there are the discs that have revolutionary sound. A good example is Santana's Abraxas album. You have no idea what was on the original tapes until you hear the SACD. SACDs tend to have more detail and ambience than other recordings. They also have the ability to play music with a sense of ease and pace that other media do not have. The advent of multi-channel SACD has been a mixed bag. When used for ambience, or in a musically appropriate manner, multi-channel can have a very beneficial effect. Unfortunately, some engineers go for the "Oh, wow" mix, in which instruments or voices come from all around you, and have a tendency to pop in and out of the mix. This hardly ever happens in a real concert. Though an "Oh, wow" mix can impress a listener on initial impression, most people become fatigued upon continued listening.

DVD-A seems to be growing more slowly, and it, too, offers a mixture of remastered and new recordings. DVD-A is more pop music oriented and, perhaps for this reason, has a decided tendency toward the "Oh, wow" mix. Probably 80% of the DVD-As I've tried have this type of mix. A good example is Neil Young's Harvest. The instruments sound much better than on the original CD, but Young's voice is mixed in all five channels and has no sense of presence. Because Harvest is one of my favorite pop albums of all time, this was a big disappointment. I hesitate to buy DVD-As because of the chance that the mix will ruin them. I have only heard a few DVD-As that were musically satisfying, and have yet to hear one that sounds anywhere near as good as a good SACD. I got a chance to listen to DVD-A on a very expensive Meridian Digital System. This should have showed DVD-A at its best, but I walked away disappointed. It did not sound bad, but it did not sound great. Some DVD-A makers have started to include DVD-V playback. This should help sales.

DTS audio seems to be at a standstill or losing ground. This compressed medium does not have the sound quality of DVD-A or SACD. There seem to be very few new releases and a dwindling stock of older ones. Then there is DVD-Video, a real growth medium with hundreds of new releases each month. Unfortunately, over 90% of DVDs have inferior Dolby Digital Sound. DD may be somewhat adequate for movie sound, but for music it is, at best, barely acceptable. It is a highly compressed medium that loses much of the sound quality in the compression. You'd think that the 48/24 or 96/24 sampling used would produce better sound, but then compression raises its ugly head. The less compressed DTS medium is used in less than 10% of DVDs. On discs that have both DD and DTS soundtracks, the DTS track is usually superior. The number of DVD concerts has tripled in the last year, yet few concert DVDs use DTS. Unfortunately the sound on most DVD music discs is mediocre, mostly not as good as a good CD. Nevertheless, having a concert on video can provide big benefits, as a big part of the concert experience is visual. One thing that would improve concert DVDs would be to make the concert playable without the interviews, which may be interesting the first time you view the concert, but less and less so with repeated viewings.

It also seems to me that little care is taken to provide good sound when putting older movie titles on DVD. A good example of this is the recently released movie Fame. This is a movie about music, and it demands a good soundtrack, yet the sound is mediocre. The level is also well below that of most DVDs. I had to turn my system up 8 dB to get my usual volume level.

CD sales are well down from a couple of years ago. The reasons for this are threefold. First, we have a weak economy, and consumers have become tighter with their money. The second is that there have been few really good albums or songs. In the last couple of years, only a handful of songs have been released that I feel will be played in five or ten years. The last reason is the high price of CDs. At between $18 and $20 dollars for a new disc, buyers are choosier about what they buy. I see fewer used discs. I also see used CD stores that find more than 80% of their stock difficult to sell, even at $4 or $5 per disc. In one reported conversation with a record company executive, on the subject of CD costs vs. DVD costs, the following reason was given for the cost of CDs. He said that the CD would be played many times and the DVD would only be played a couple of times a year. A good example is the recent Led Zeppelin DVD. There is over four hours of music video and another hour of video extras on two DVDs, and the DTS sound is equal to or better than the CD. The DVD was available at release on sale for $18, yet record companies insist that 30-40 minute CDs with mediocre sound and a likelihood of only one or two good songs are worth the same $18-19. I also have heard that Tower Records has been put into bankruptcy. This would be a big loss to the CD and DVD buying community. In Portland, there are only two stores that stock a full selection of discs, Tower Records being one. If Tower goes down, there will be very little reason for the other store to offer sales on discs that are not carried by the mass-market chains.

There have been some good things happening. More greatest-hits type albums have come out. The "Essentials" series has been very good, offering music by new artists at reduced prices to give listeners a reason to try someone new. This is what got Norah Jones started—when her CD first came out, it was selling for as little as $8. Best Buy has been selling SACDs and DVD-As at reduced prices for about a year. The problem is that they have a very small selection, but they have said that they are planning a campaign to promote these discs, and that they will be stocking a better selection. I hope this happens. A large selection is available from specialty mail order companies, but you end up paying full retail plus $3-4 shipping. The people that record video for concerts are really starting to get the hang of recording live concerts. They have also started issuing SACDs, DVD-Vs, or DVD-As at the same time that the CD comes out.

Audio hardware is also undergoing change. Many audiophile companies are starting to come out with multi-channel equipment, and there has been an explosion of omni players. A year ago there was only one—the Pioneer DV-47A—but now there are more than ten, with more announced each month. Omni players are necessary to the survival of DVD-A and SACD. If the buyer can only get a small portion of the music he wants on a certain medium, he has little reason for spending money on that medium. An omni player allows the user to play discs of any medium. For the audiophile, multi-channel devices will be very expensive. Each device will need six or more audio cables, video cables, a digital cable, a power chord, and isolation devices. I feel that multi-channel will have a negative effect on high end audio. With the need for extra equipment, buyers may be forced to spend less on each component than they would for a two-channel system. Also, when you have five channels of sound in a single chassis, there are bound to be compromises.

We are starting to see talk of players with digital DVD-A and SACD outputs. Disc manufactures are very worried about this, because of the possibility of high-quality digital copying. This will make disc producers use watermarking, and watermarking almost always causes an audible degradation of sound. This is one of the problems with many current DVD-As. On the other hand, the availability of DVD-A and SACD outputs will lead to the manufacture of separate DACs to accommodate them, and there is a good chance that the sound of these media will be further improved.

The big news for both audio and videophiles is blue laser players. These will offer a high-definition picture and high quality, multichannel SACD sound. I hear that blue-laser units are now available in Japan, and will be available in the U.S. by spring 2004. The first units will probably be recorder/players. I expect that they will be expensive, and that software will be slow to come out because of the limited numbers of machines available to play them. There are also some questions about the players' compatibility with other disc formats, and with many TVs. I feel that the picture improvement for people with screens less than 60 inches will be small compared to DVD using progressive scan. The big advance will be the combination of a high quality picture with high quality sound. As the screen size increases, the more difference high definition makes.

My suggestions to the recording industry to improve sales are multifold. First, give the buyer more value for his money. When reissuing older albums, combine more than one album per disc. When a new album from an established artist comes out, add hits from previous albums. With new artists, either combine several artists on one disc or charge less. When reissuing discs on a high-resolution format, make sure that both the music and the sound quality justify the remastering. If you are reissuing a disc that will sell for $25-30, it needs to be a great disc, with songs that people will want to hear over and over. For DVD-As, if you want to do a "Oh, wow" mix, also include a more musical mix. Keep putting out DVD-As, DVD-Vs, and SACDs at the same time as CD releases. Take more care in the sound on DVD-V.

Some albums I would like to see on SACD are all the main Beatles records, early Linda Ronstadt (with albums doubled up), Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell II, the Shaft Soundtrack, spaghetti western soundtracks, early Joni Mitchell, early Moody Blues, Simon and Garfunkel, Pink Floyd's The Wall, Joan Baez' Vanguard albums, Cleo Laine At Carnegie Hall, greatest hits by Peter, Paul & Mary, The Association, The Fifth Dimension, Judy Collins, Dire Straits, and Leonard Cohen, and compilations of 60s songs.