Like concerned parents worrying over their kid's poor grades, we had high hopes that 2001's disappointing retail showing would be dramatically remedied for this latest report card. But after reviewing the situation nationally, we think summer school is in order for the majority of SACD and DVD-Audio retailers.
Although manufacturers have done a better job of increasing the awareness of SACD and DVD-Audio, the poor showing at retail is undermining that heightened visibility. Based on our experience visiting 18 music stores across the country, retailers still need to address three critical issues: poorly trained sales staffs, bad product placement, and nonworking demonstration kiosks.
In general, software availability in many chains and independent shops improved during 2002-although sales staffs often didn't even know where the discs were in their own store. In large music chains like Tower and Virgin or consumer-electronics outlets like Circuit City and Best Buy, finding the SACD and DVD-Audio sections largely depends on asking the right clerk, since signage is often poor or nonexistent. Some stores, such as the two large Virgin Megastores in New York City, have moved their displays from the main floors to harder-to-find areas downstairs.
In large chains like Best Buy and Circuit City, we found that sales staffs in the CD and DVD software areas seldom knew anything about the formats and were unaware of the demo kiosks located near the audio and video rooms. We did, however, occasionally encounter fairly knowledgeable staffers who were able to steer us in the right direction. Salesmen in both Circuit City and Best Buy stores suggested that we'd do better finding discs by visiting their Web sites than by looking in the store. In most stores, it's purely hit and miss whether you'll be able to hunt down the discs on your own. While some chains, such as Tower and Virgin, have signs that clearly identify the formats, they're only visible if you're right beside them. But even these chains had a tough time keeping the various formats separated in their bins, with many grouping SACD and DVD-Audio titles together with DTS 5.1-channel CDs, MiniDiscs, and even discs in the now-defunct DataPlay format.
The Sony SACD kiosks were typically stocked with titles from Sony labels, but many DVD-Audio kiosks, such as Panasonic's, didn't hold software, instead offering a list of the labels supporting the format. In general, we found the SACD racks to be consistently better organized, although SACD's multiple versions (hybrids versus SACD-only, stereo versus surround) make it the more confusing format.
The staffs in smaller independent record stores were often knowledgeable about SACD and DVD-Audio-even when, as in the case of Atlanta's Wax N' Fax, they don't stock them-but these stores often lack the floor space to dedicate to demo kiosks or separate racks. A few smaller indie dealers complained they weren't on the radar screens of the major record labels, so they haven't been approached to carry the formats. Some, however, like L.A.'s Amoeba Music, had a great selection of DVD-A and SACD titles, which were stacked together in a large bin. When asked why they were together, the clerk said that the store really didn't know how else to display them.
Sales help in many instances is oxymoronic. At a Tower in L.A., a tattooed clerk admitted he knew "nothin' about that stuff," while another acknowledged that until recently, "I thought you could play [DVD-Audio discs] on [any] DVD player and it would come out." (You can, but you'll hear the lower-resolution Dolby Digital version of the DVD-A mix.)
More confused was a salesman at a New York City P.C. Richard store, who, when asked about SACD, directed us to a Philips DVD player that touted SVCD (Super Video CD) playback. Admitting that he really didn't know anything about SACD, he pointed to the Philips and said, "If we had it, this would be the one." It wasn't.
Of even more concern is the indifference of many sales people we encountered. In fact, we frequently found ourselves explaining the technologies to other shoppers, who, confused about the need for new hardware, were hungry for more information but unable to get clear answers from the staff. Fortunately, there were a few bright spots, such as the helpful salesman at a Circuit City in Portland, OR, who immediately directed us to both the SACD and DVD-Audio displays, and the manager at Atlanta's Criminal Records who not only really knew the formats but also the respective merits of each technology.
Although there was an increase in the number of demo stations and kiosks, our survey revealed that few were fully operational. In the stores where the kiosks were working, such as the Best Buy in West Windsor, NJ, it was difficult to hear a proper surround sound effect because the levels of the surround speakers and the subwoofer weren't set correctly and the demo was drowned out by noise from the sales floor and soundtracks from the nearby home theater systems. We also encountered SACD kiosks set up for multichannel demos but playing two-channel discs! None of the stores had taken the initiative to move the SACD and DVD-Audio kiosks into their audio or home theater sound rooms, where the formats could be properly appreciated.
Given that both camps have had a year to get things right, and the situation has instead gotten worse for the most part, both DVD-Audio and SACD definitely deserve their Ds.
-James K. Wilcox
The Big Pitch
The DVD-Audio and SACD camps both offered more titles and players last year, which is commendable. But both could have done more to promote their products-especially the DVD-Audio boys. In fact, that camp's frequent early stumbles have worsened into a persistent limp that's allowed Super Audio CD to take the marketing lead, which is why SACD gets a healthy B+ while DVD-Audio drops to a D.
DVD-Audio continues to be a well-kept secret. Advertising is practically nonexistent, and education-for both salesmen and the public-runs the gamut from sad to pathetic. Warner Music all but abdicated leadership of DVD-A during 2002, causing many hands to fumble for the crown, which in turn caused the format to stall. Word of mouth didn't help much, since it amounted to little more than the usual internecine squabbling between the various audiophile factions about whether SACD or DVD-A is the superior format. And the more mainstream public seemed content to explore the rapidly expanding catalog of surround music titles on DVD-Video. For two years, the DVD-Audio folk have told everyone to be patient and wait for a big holiday push, and for two years that push has failed to materialize.
Because SACD actually has someone at the helm (namely Sony), that camp's efforts have been far better coordinated. While ads were few and far between, SACD print catalogs were updated regularly, samplers were relatively easy to find, and there has been some effort to educate salesmen on the format. (Although one well-intentioned clerk, proclaimed by his cohorts the multichannel expert, explained to us that SACD sounds better than DVD-Audio "because it has more layers.")
SACD scored big in 2002 when it got over 1,000 listening kiosks into Circuit City and Best Buy stores nationwide. True, these open-air installations can make it hard to demo a track when there's any amount of store traffic afoot, and their bare-bones electronics can't make the case for the format's vaunted high resolution. But their robotic alien appearance does tend to lure the curious and has probably tempted more than a few brave souls to check out the format.
DVD-Audio was supposed to have had similar kiosks out before its rival, but once again allowed SACD to steal its thunder. Ironically, as the DVD-A booths began to trickle into stores in late 2002, the SACD camp began to pull its kiosks from the larger chains, realizing that they were too high-maintenance. You're now more likely to find them in specialty retailers like Tweeter and Ultimate Electronics, where there's enough staff to make sure they're well stocked and functioning properly.
That SACD began to seep into the mass consciousness last year is due largely to the 2 million-plus copies sold of the reissued Rolling Stones catalog. But those were two-channel releases and not entirely relevant to our multichannel bent here. Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon was scheduled to be released as a multichannel SACD this March, which should give us a much better sense of whether Mr. and Mrs. Average American has a hankering for music in surround sound. It was announced more than a year ago that tracks from DVD-Audio discs would be played before the feature in movie theaters across the land to help people become familiar with the format. But as far as we can tell, this only actually happened in one theater in Corte Madera, CA. Conceptually a decent enough idea, it might have done more harm than good had it come to pass, given the sorry state of the sound systems in many theaters.
For the most part, both formats seem to be relying on magazines like this one to spread the word-which is all well and good, but that's like relying on Car & Driver to introduce next year's big model without heavy TV, radio, and print ad support from the manufacturer, and without the salesmen on the floor having a good idea what the new car's all about. That approach wouldn't work in the car business, and it's not working here.
Lost at "C"
While the final marks aren't too surprising, they're especially disappointing for anyone who's been rooting for DVD-Audio. Not that DVD-Video's kid brother is in danger of flunking out, but the format's supporters obviously need to spend a lot more time hitting the books. And it's not a done deal that Super Audio CD will remain at the head of the class. But SACD has shown itself to be a hard worker over the past year, which makes it the format most deserving of an E for effort.