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It Took a While, but DVD-Audio Is Here.

Peter Jacso is associate professor of library and information science at the Department of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Hawaii. He won the 1998 Louis Shores--Oryx Press Award from ALA's Reference and User Services Association for his discerning database reviews. His e-mail address is

It has greater clarity than CD-Audio, but can we truly appreciate it?

It is ironic that DVD-ROM, DVD-RAM, and DVD-R devices (Read Only Memory, Random Access Memory, and Recordable, respectively) as well as DVD-Video were out of the gate sooner than an agreement on the DVD-Audio specification had been reached. After all, Philips and Sony started the whole compact disc business with CD-Audio in the early 1980s and achieved smashing success. Still, it was only this past February that the DVD-Audio format was agreed upon by members of the music and computer industries.

How Does It Sound?

I've heard from those who've had the privilege to attend demonstrations that DVD-Audio is fabulous. It must be. After all, it is capable of playing back audio recorded at a 192-kHz sampling rate and 24-bit sampling depth. These numbers refer to two characteristics of recording music: the frequency at which samples are taken and the amount of information that is recorded for each sample. Both measures are quite impressive considering that current CDs are recorded at 48 kHz and at 16-bit depth. The difference is four-fold in frequency and 1.5-fold in sampling depth; that's why the 4.2-GB capacity of the DVD 'is needed to accommodate that much in formation. The sound improvement factor is 6. As the capacity of the DVD-ROM is almost seven times that of CD-Audio, there's also more room left for music than exists on the typical CD-Audio disc.

Alternatively, album covers, lyrics, song lists with credits, and excerpts of video clips, for example, can be added to fill out the capacity. The other choice is to have six-channel sound instead of just stereo at a lower depth and sampling rate, such as 24 bits and 96 kHz, which still guarantees higher quality than the current CD-Audio technology.

Why Did It Take So Long?

If there is so much improvement in quality with the DVD-Audio format, why did it take so long to reach a consensus between the computer and music industries to finalize the specifications? It was because of the copy protection that also delayed the DVD-Video standard.

Interestingly, the DVD-Video copy-protection issue was solved sooner, even though it was more complex. It had to address not only the prevention of copying but also the regionalization issue. In other words, a movie released on DVD-Video in the U.S. should not be playable in Europe before the film's release in theaters there. With DVD-Audio, the bone of contention was that users would be allowed to make one--and only one--CD-Audio copy from a DVD-Audio disc for use on portable CD players. This is exactly what the key parties--IBM, Intel, Matsushita, and Toshiba on the computer side, and Sony, BMG, EMI, Universal, and Warner (the Big Five record labels) on the music side--agreed upon, using digital watermarking and encryption technology.

You may wonder why the progenitors of the CD-Audio technology--Philips and the computer arm of Sony--aren't in on the deal. Well, they're working on their own technology: the Super Audio CD (SACD). SACD is promised to feature only two-channel audio with the higher sampling and bit rates of DVD-Audio, but it may accommodate a version that could be played on current CD players. That brings me to my next point.

Who'll Hear the Difference?

Frankly, I am not too enthused by the DVD-Audio news. It's not as if I would not like surround music and the feeling of being enveloped in Enya's ethereal voice, or Chuck Mangione's trumpet, or the Gipsy Kings' flamenco music, or the dark sound of Mark Knopfler. I crave that. But I would need a DVD-Audio player because my third-generation DVD-ROM will not play DVD-Audio. And the price of the DVD-Audio player is likely to be around $800 when it is released in 2000. Then you would need six speakers--and perhaps a new receiver--to really get the most from your DVD-Audio player. We are talking about quite an investment here. Not only in terms of money but also in space.

You really need to space out those speakers to get the true feeling of a concert hall. Even if you have the space and money, you would need the consent of your family members because they too would be enveloped in the music that you like--unless you've built a bunker in preparation for one of the Doomsday scenarios that pop up every year!

Those who can afford all these things are the tiny minority of the music-buying crowd. In addition, I am also skeptical about how many of the audiophiles who can afford the investment can really perceive the superior quality of DVD-Audio. I certainly could not distinguish a 24-bit, 192-kHz recording from a 24-bit, 48-kHz one, and my hearing is deteriorating every day. Eh? What's that you say? Yours too?

Many of my generation went to rock concerts and systematically damaged our ears as we liked to be near the action-not so much to hear the music as to see and be seen. Now many of us are compelled to sit closer to the stage to hear.

And things are just getting worse, even after we wised up and mellowed out. Your neighbors or your gardener believe that the louder their leaf blower and lawn mower, the more efficient they are. You go to a movie theater these days to watch a romantic comedy but are blasted out of your seat by the trailers of three upcoming action flicks. You may go later, but then you won't have the most comfortable aisle seats. Sure, you can carry earplugs with you. I am just happy if I don't forget my glasses when going to my classes.

Perhaps our children will enjoy the quality of DVD-Audio? Don't hold your breath. Most of them already have as much damage to their hearing as their parents. My eldest son, who worked through his college years as a security guard in a giant discotheque, could not wear earplugs while cooling down rowdy customers, so he's unlikely to be able to enjoy DVD-Audio's quality even when he'll be able to afford the gadgets. Neither will the kids cruising with car stereos blasting at 120 decibels.

Will SACD Be Sacked?

I am rooting for Philips' and Sony's SACD, if indeed these discs can be played on your CD player; it could very well provide a bridge solution between CD and DVD. However, the SACD project may be sacked now that the DVD-Audio format has been agreed upon. But I have another idea for Philips and Sony: They could come out with a new Walkman-size player featuring a 200MHz processor. These chips are becoming passe--and thus very cheap--but they would be perfect to decompress on-the-fly compressed audio files such as Liquid Audio, Real G2, MP3, or MP4. The playback software of the player would need only a small memory chip, and you could have hours of CD-Audio-quality music on a single disc. Actually, using Microsoft's Audio 4.0 codec, which was released in mid-April, you can have 20 hours of hi-fi quality music on a single CD. And not only the prepackaged compilations from record labels, but also favorite tunes that are legally copied from your own CDs.

The technology is right here, the tools to bum your own CDs are very affordable, and the codecs--except for MP3--have the copy-protection mechanisms already implemented that limit you to making single copies, thereby soothing the greedy record execs. Seems to be good for the goose and good for the gander. In hopes of hearing about the launch of such a CD player, I'll hold off on my urge to buy the Rio MP3 player, which offers a maximum of 60 minutes of music. And if such a CD player does come out, remember that you heard about it here first,

Unrelated to DVD-Audio, the cover story of the April 26, 1999, issue of U.S. News & World Report is about how more and more hearing impaired we are getting. Huh?
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Author:Jacso, Peter
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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