Music industry gears up for the next digital wave

Audio: Retailers hope consumers take to SACD and DVD-Audio, sonically superior successors to the venerable compact disc.

October 24, 2002|By Crayton Harrison | Crayton Harrison,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The music industry's next great hope hasn't won the public's fancy yet. But record companies are betting that consumers will soon want to surround themselves with the richest sound available.

For a few years now, the industry has been quietly rolling out two formats to replace the compact disc by offering richer, warmer sound and added features such as video, photos and lyrics.

Last year, consumers bought about 100,000 albums in the two formats, DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD). In the same year, 2.4 billion CDs were sold.

This year, record companies have upped the ante for DVD-Audio and SACD, issuing hundreds of album titles in the new formats. The industry hopes to market the formats beyond the realm of audiophiles to mass audiences as an alternative to the CD and the increasingly popular MP3.

"The industry hopes that folks will begin, if they're going to buy their next CD, to look for their favorite artist on DVD- Audio or SACD, if it is available," says Stacey Herron, music analyst at market research firm Jupiter Media. "They'll say, `Why not go ahead and spend the extra two bucks? Why not repurchase my entire catalog?'"

In August, Abkco Records released 22 Rolling Stones albums remastered in the SACD format. Warner Music Group, meanwhile, released a DVD-Audio version of the latest album from last year's biggest-selling band, Linkin Park.

Both formats are the same size as CDs but offer crisper sound because they have more storage capacity, allowing them to sample a music performance at a higher rate.

Digital recording works by taking thousands of audio snapshots, or samples, each second. The greater the frequency of the sample, the closer the recording sounds to the original performance.

The CD, once considered the most pristine format, samples at a rate of 44,100 samples per second. DVD-Audio takes 96,000 samples per second, and SACD takes 2.8 million samples per second.

Both new formats are designed for home theaters equipped with surround-sound speaker systems, parsing out six channels of audio, compared with the CD's two channels.

Both require special players to elicit the best sound, though they usually work in older players. DVD-Audio plays in most DVD players, but only DVD players programmed for DVD-Audio can give the full, six-channel effect.

Most SACDs have a layer of audio to make them playable in standard CD players, but require SACD players for the richer sound.

The players for both formats will also play old CDs.

Prices for the high-end players are coming down, with the least expensive models costing about $200.

Because the formats work in older players, consumers will probably buy albums in the new formats before they buy new players, says Mark Faure, manager of Ultimate Electronics in Mesquite.

"As soon as DVDs hit the mainstream, players went all the way down to $60," Faure says. "The hardware is software-driven."

The idea is to make consumers comfortable with the formats before asking them to buy new players and rearrange their speakers.

"It's branched out to more pop and rock titles - Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, hip-hop artists like Ginuwine," says David Migdal, spokesman for Sony Electronics. "The anticipation is that it will continue to gather steam."

Sony, Pioneer, Philips and others have SACD players on the market. DVD-Audio players are made by Toshiba, Pioneer, Panasonic and others. Some makers have developed hybrid players for both formats.

The formats compete with each other, but might eventually reach separate audiences, says Chris Bell, a Dallas sound engineer and producer.

"Since a lot of people are getting home theaters, I bet DVD-Audio takes off first," Bell says. "Even some of my friends who aren't educated on surround sound are getting home theaters. I think as the movie industry goes to DVD, it's going to carry the audio side over."

SACD, meanwhile, could become the format of choice for audiophiles, especially those who enjoy classical music or jazz, because of its higher sampling rate, audio experts say.

But it's unclear whether consumers need a new audio format, some analysts say. The fastest-growing audio format is MP3, the digitally downloadable computer file that can already play in home stereos, cars and personal devices.

MP3 doesn't even have the sound quality of CD, "yet people seem pretty happy listening to it," says Herron of Jupiter Research. "Most people can't enjoy and appreciate the intricacies of music in these new formats. What people are looking to do is obtain music in new ways."

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