> New Formats and the Real World [DD]: Diatribes and Digressions- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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New Formats and the Real World.

by David Dyer

If like me you have been listening to classical music for twenty years or more, quite a lot more in my case, you will probably have a reasonably large collection of CDs, say a couple of hundred Ö or even more. You will also probably have a mortgage and various financial commitments which are part and parcel of normal mature adult-with-family life. The chances are also pretty strong that your enthusiasm for music will not be matched to the same degree by your partner. Your pursuit of music will therefore be subject to a certain amount of critical scrutiny by your nearest and dearest, particularly when it comes to spending on changes to the "family" sound system. I use the term 'family' because although you may be the principal user, it will have been funded with money which could have been spent on "more useful things" for the family, the house or whatever.

If at this stage you havenít a clue as to what Iím talking about, then count yourself as very fortunate indeed!

Returning to my theme. The advent of new, "better", sound formats is therefore bound to be a cause of mixed emotions. Eager anticipation of the prospect of superior, more involving, musical experiences in the home will normally be accompanied by a certain amount of unease and concern as to how to obtain the acquiescence of the aforementioned nearest and dearest. The usual inducements normally involve a quid pro quo but this tends to double the cost, at least.

Having spent much of my working life as a salesman I believe that to sell most effectively, whether it be a product or an idea, you need to have deep faith in what you are selling. So to sell the idea of the new technology to you-know-who, it will be of considerable assistance to have faith, lots of faith.

Perhaps I have been fortunate but most of the people I have met in my life have been basically honest and decent, and that includes the majority of my colleagues in sales. Because of that honesty, although we may be cautious or even sceptical, only the most embittered cynic expects professional organisations such as companies to tell lies. The problem is that when it comes to people who create advertising copy, we tend to forget that their sole mission is to instil a desire on the part of consumers to buy their product. This is quite different from telling us what we really need to know about it. Objective, balanced descriptions are the last thing they are there to provide. Regrettably, their message will be intended to "bring a little joy and happiness" into the lives of prospective consumers by telling them what they want to hear, and if that involves a certain amount of exaggeration or omission, so what. Not that they are entirely to blame. The senior executives who sanction their companiesí products being promoted in this way are, in my opinion, even more culpable.

If you think Iím being unfair then try to remember the last time you saw an advertisement which gave the cons as well as the pros. And while youíre at it, do you remember "Perfect Sound Forever", or even worse, that shameful effort from one of the hardware manufacturers which showed a compact disc having a gouge dug across its surface by a pair of scissors, yet implied that the disc would continue to play perfectly.

I therefore suggest that before embarking on a demeaning and possibly costly campaign to overcome the obstacles to the acquisition of this wondrous new technology so glowingly described, itís worth checking out the claims made with some care.

At the moment in the UK there are two new audio formats receiving considerable hype, these are DVD- Audio and SACD (Super Audio CD). Both offer multi-channel surround sound as well as two-channel stereo. DVD-Audio discs can only be played on a DVD-Video or a DVD-Audio machine. These machines will also play CDs, but the consensus of reviews in the technical press suggest that currently only the more expensive machines do so competently. The DVD-Audio discs themselves cannot be played on a CD player. Although I understand that DVD-Audio discs can contain images, many of the discs are audio only with perhaps a single visual Contents page. SACD machines on the other hand are compatible with only SACDs and conventional CDs, but appear to offer superior replay of CDs compared with DVD machines in the same price bracket. Super Audio CD is primarily an audio only format, although machines are now being offered which incorporate the replay of standard quality DVD.

Sadly neither DVD-Audio machines nor SACD machines provide an uncompromised digital output which could be fed to the separate DACs which many of us already have in our audio systems. The best we can get from them is a CD quality output. Recently Pioneer announced the imminent availability of a universal player which will handle all formats, but it remains to be seen and heard whether it performs all functions equally well.

If you are confused it is hardly surprising, with not only two new allegedly superior sound formats being promoted, but also surround-sound as an alternative to stereo. A cynic might be tempted to believe that the variety of choice and resulting confusion on the part of the consumer provides an opportunity which some companies will find irresistible, as you will see later.

At the moment the market is clearly a minefield, and only the very young or extremely foolish would ignore previous instances when competing technologies met head on. Experience shows that there is normally one winner and two losers, the second loser being the unfortunate consumer who chose incorrectly.

The emphasis currently directed towards surround sound software seems to be aimed mainly at those whose interest is in films. This is confirmed by the paucity of classical DVDs available. I have no argument with those who only want films, and good luck and many hours of enjoyment I wish them. However, films are not my own cup of tea.

I am of course aware that during the past year or two there have been a number of highly favourable reports from respected sources, that multi-channel recordings can represent a major step forward, even for those like me whose interest is mainly in classical music. At present I find this irrelevant because, having invested heavily relative to my financial means in optimising the stereo replay of music, I have neither the space nor the cash to provide additional amplification and speakers of comparable quality. I suspect that I am not alone in this. As a consequence, my current concern lies solely with ordinary DVD for audio/visual replay of opera and ballet. I remain wedded to CDs for audio-only stereo replay of orchestral, instrumental, and chamber music. However, I am very interested in any format which provides improved two-channel audio from my own existing collection as well as the benefits to be expected from forthcoming recordings using new technology.

Despite the hype and a veritable proliferation of new machines, the availability of DVD-Audio discs and SACDs of classical music are very few. Admittedly SACD offers a larger, albeit still miserly, catalogue at the moment, so even those fortunate souls blessed with cash to be spent without hindrance will find that there are probably more machines available to buy than there are discs which can be played upon them.

Although more and more of the record companies are stating an intention to reduce this famine, so far their efforts have been lamentable. This may not be so surprising if you consider the way in which many of them have been bemoaning the reduction in their sales of classical recordings. Even the braver and more farsighted companies who recognise the new technology as an opportunity to regenerate sales may be deterred by the prospect of backing the wrong format. However, the sceptic in me can well understand that the prospect of selling-off old recordings under the banner of new technology might be quite attractive to all but the most ethical. With this in mind it may be instructive to read an article in the January 2002 edition of Hi-Fi News by the respected technical journalist Barry Fox. This examines among other things the issue by a major recording company of alleged DVD-Audio discs based on seventies recordings. If I have understood the article correctly, it appears that these discs, rather than being a remix of original multi-track master tapes, are actually derived by replaying the stereo recording through loudspeakers in a recording studio. That acoustic output has then been re-recorded for release as surround sound DVD-Audio. How long will it be I wonder before we are offered DVD-Audio recordings of Caruso.

You must draw your own conclusions about this sort of manipulation, preferably after reading Barry Foxís article for yourselves. Mine are unrepeatable. A further aspect of this sort of activity is that it could damage the prospects for sales of the genuinely new recordings made using genuine DVD-Audio technology.

So, given the present state of the market what is the best option for the music lover with a substantial investment in ordinary CDs, and good kit on which to play it? Well honestly I donít know and I donít think anyone else does either. It does seem, at present that, if your interest lies more in the audio than the visual, SACD is the best bet providing it survives; which I hope it does. If contemplating change however, the fundamental question before committing to any expense should surely be the magnitude of the prize to be gained.

I have heard neither DVD-Audio nor SACD played to their full potential ie. on the appropriate machines, possibly even in multi-channel sound if necessary. Whatís more, until the catalogue becomes considerably more attractive, I have little interest in doing so. But I am interested in the way these new machines perform with my present collection, because even a marginal gain may be justified if it offers greater rewards as the new software becomes available. With this in mind I have conducted two brief comparisons in recent months with examples of each format played in its "fallback" mode. The first was to compare an SACD and a CD version of the same recording both played as CDs using my Proceed transport feeding a Chord Electronics DAC. In principle I know of no reason why there should be any perceivable difference, however my impression, albeit on only a very brief hearing, was that the no frills CD sounded better focused with a richer bass. I hope to repeat this evaluation at proper length before too long.

The second comparison was more leisurely, in this case the DVD Audio version of the Simon Rattle recording of Mahlerís tenth symphony, again compared against the CD version of the same work. In this instance the difference was readily perceptible, with the CD sounding to my ears, and those of our esteemed web-master, altogether better integrated, giving a much more satisfactory overall impression. In all fairness some or all of the superiority noted in this case may be attributable to the difference in equipment and cables. The DVD (stereo) version was played on my well regarded but hardly audiophile-quality Arcam DV 88 with phono / BNC-terminated digital lead. The CD, as in the previous comparison was played on the Proceed (at approaching three times the price), with a balanced feed. The Chord Electronics DAC was used in both cases. Whatever the reason, under those conditions the theoretical advantage of the claimed "higher resolution" format of the DVD-Audio disc was clearly less satisfying.

So what conclusions can be drawn from this? Clearly with such restricted and superficial comparisons - none. Only a good dealer has the facilities and expertise to perform a truly meaningful comparison, as well as advising on the best combination of formats to suit your own needs. Both DVD-Audio and SACD are hybrids. They perform two functions, and it would hardly be surprising if manufacturers of both the hardware and software were to devote the bulk of their efforts and expenditure on the new format, leaving compatibility with the old formats as a token bonus.

As for me, well ... if I were thinking of changing either my CD player or my DVD player for one of the new generation, I would be sure to take some of my existing discs along just to make sure that what I gained on the new-format roundabouts, wouldnít be lost on the old-format swings.

Now I wonder if that Pioneer universal player has uncorrupted external digital outputs, or will there perhaps be a transport-only version?

David Dyer

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