Coming into early 2003, the biggest news about the two high-resolution multichannel audio formats, DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD, might be that they're both still hanging in there. Neither one has really taken off, but there were strong signs during 2002 that SACD was beginning to pull away from its rival.
The DVD-Audio camp is in seeming disarray, unable to come up with a consistent message, high-impact promotions, or a steady stream of A-list releases. Meanwhile, the SACD camp has been carefully building a coalition between record-label titans, including Sony and Universal, and working hard to make sure people can get their hands on the necessary "universal" and dedicated players. A couple of years ago, just about everyone would have put their money on DVD-Audio, given DVD-Video's phenomenal success, and SACD semed destined to become an audiophile format. Today, SACD is poised to leap into the mass market, while DVD-Audio seems to be wandering aimlessly though the multichannel woods.
When we last did a report card, in December 2001, each format earned a solid C. Now that 2002 has passed and both sides have had a chance to make their best efforts to sell their wares, the time has come to judge again how they've performed in the areas of software, hardware, retail, and marketing.
Time for Spring Break! Just look at those two upstarts, DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD, running out the school door, so proud of themselves. Last year they were C+ students in the music department-"a couple of underachievers with plenty of room for improvement." So we're happy to note that their marks have indeed gone up. How did they do it?
First, the Warner Music Group released a bevy of Classic Rock titles on DVD-A, including the Eagles' Hotel California, the Grateful Dead's American Beauty, Carly Simon's No Secrets, and Neil Young's Harvest. Sony Music released fewer big-gun SACDs, among them Big Brother & the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills and Carole King's Tapestry. Then again, whereas Warner tended to ignore jazz and classical fare, Sony came up with the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra from Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic.
Thankfully, both labels also placed new emphasis on releasing multichannel editions of current albums. Warner focused on younger artists, issuing DVD-A discs of Björk's Vespertine, Barenaked Ladies' Maroon, Faith Hill's Cry, and Linkin Park's Reanimation. Sony had an SACD of the hit album Survivor by Destiny's Child but otherwise favored current releases by older artists, such as David Bowie's Heathen, James Taylor's October Road, and Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Journeys. Other major labels helped fill the racks, too. The Universal Music Group joined the SACD camp with titles like Beck's Sea Change, Ryan Adams's Gold, Diana Krall's The Look of Love, and James Horner's soundtrack for A Beautiful Mind. EMI began with a slate of classical titles on DVD-A, including Holst's The Planets from André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra. But then the label abandoned the classics in favor of various pop titles-some odd but good (Richard Thompson's Rumor and Sigh), others odd and bad (Queensrÿche's Empire).
Yes, you can fill those racks . . . but what are you filling them with? The independent labels are running the gamut from very good to very bad-from Telarc's SACD of John Pizzarelli and George Shearing's The Rare Delight of You through the remixed bag that is DTS's DVD-A of Queen's A Night at the Opera to Silverline's DVD-A of the Sex Pistols' No Future U.K.?
Still, that's not to say that the major players are always more reliable. To hear Sony's SACD of Celine Dion's A New Day Has Come is to wish that tomorrow would come quickly. And that's not to say the problem rests with Celine alone. Rather, the multichannel mix leaves plenty to be desired as well. Same for the Sex Pistols-and nearly everything else that Silverline is exhuming from the vaults of Sanctuary and remixing. However, Silverline/Immergent has also shown that it can take a decent album (Opaline, by one of its own artists, Dishwalla) and turn it into a handsome DVD-A disc by means of an effective mix and a host of useful extras.
Ah yes, extras. In general-with the primary exception of Warner discs overseen by its Rhino reissue arm-DVD-Audio extras continue to be either redundant with the booklet or, simply, nonexistent. Warner should stop touting DVD-A as not just a multichannel format but also a multimedia one until the label delivers the goods. And everyone should stop leaning on the prospect of DVD-A and SACD as mobile formats-"Just wait until you hear them in the car!"-until car-audio makers show some genuine interest in them by introducing a variety of in-dash players.
Meanwhile, here is something truly scary. Back in the October 2002 issue, I wrote that most of those Sanctuary titles from Silverline were so uninspired that it seemed like they were done by a "Mix-o-Matic." Now comes word that two guys (not affiliated with Silverline) have invented something they call the Mixlab, which can take an original stereo mix, analyze its elements, and select "the optimum" six-channel mix from 2.5 million possibilities-all at the touch of a button! In fact, "the actual mixing takes less than one tenth of a second," says one of the guys, Scott Blum. The first title fed into the Mixlab was Warner's DVD-Audio edition of the self-titled album by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. As I wrote in my January 2003 review, the disc's uncredited mix is underwhelming. No wonder it's uncredited: it was done by a machine!
"Geez," you might be saying at this point, "with all this negative stuff you've brought up, it sure seems like you're grading on a curve!" Not at all. Happily, there are enough human remixers out there-people like Elliot Scheiner and Frank Filipetti-who are doing some stellar work. But the various negatives need to be dealt with and, ideally, every multichannel release should get the same personal care and attention. Until then, those two youngsters I see running out for Spring Break-though certainly improved-will remain B-boys, still striving for the A-list.
Like a bunch of students pulling all-nighters to ace an exam, Pioneer's engineering department must have been working long hours last year to bring to market the most important hardware advance in multichannel audio since its introduction-a FireWire interface for transferring multichannel data between components in digital form. In the February/March issue, we reviewed the first two products incorporating this technology, which allows bit-perfect movement of multichannel audio from the combi DVD-Audio/SACD player via a single cable to the receiver, where the latter can perform full and accurate bass management and speaker-distance compensation. Pioneer's components were introduced virtually simultaneously with the Texas Instruments chips that perform this function and in extraordinarily short order after the DVD Forum standardized the FireWire multichannel audio interface.
Unfortunately, at this writing, the only components available with this interface are still those two from Pioneer, and they are very-no, extremely-expensive. A FireWire interface alone, however, is not all that costly to design into a component, and maybe by next year we'll see more devices with this capability-which, considered alone, would merit a grade of A+.
Rating a solid B has been the introduction of more "universal" DVD-Audio/Video/SACD players at increasingly lower prices. So far, about a half dozen have appeared-from such companies as Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, and Yamaha-and we've tested almost all of them. Surprisingly, the performance of these players has not been proportional to price. Some of the most expensive models haven't performed as well on the lab bench as some less expensive models or cheaper players that handle one format or the other. Expanded use of FireWire connections will eventually make these considerations irrelevant, fortunately, since multichannel audio performance will be determined by the component that does the final digital-to-analog conversion, usually the system receiver.
These two positive developments-FireWire connections plus more and cheaper universal players-are counterbalanced by an area where hardware manufacturers are still lagging behind. With only a few notable exceptions (which we never fail to point out when we find them in our testing), multichannel players still screw up bass management and speaker-distance compensation, two important setup functions. Either they don't do all that's necessary, or they perform the necessary operations differently depending on the type of disc being played.
For example, most SACD-capable players still completely lack speaker-distance compensation when they play SACDs, which means that you can't get optimum imaging unless your listening position just happens to be equidistant from all five main-channel speakers. Some players turn off bass management altogether when playing stereo CDs or DVD-Audio discs. And in some "universal" players, the bass-management filter characteristics change when you switch from DVD-Audio to SACD playback. How can you call a player "universal" when its bass and imaging characteristics change from one kind of disc to another?
Bass management is important because unless you have a setup with five (or six) full-range main speakers-very rare, indeed!-the tonal balance that you'll hear from many recordings will be different from what the artist or producer intended. In some instances, the bass will even disappear! Until more of the A/V manufacturers start making players that let serious listeners achieve tiptop performance without the aid of things like outboard bass-management accessories, both students' overall grades will remain a C. Here's hoping for the widespread use of FireWire hookups in 2003, which should cure these frustrations by putting all setup processing where it belongs: in the receiver.