Will DVD Audio Be A Commercial Flop?

DVD audio is on the horizon. The question is, will it be commercially successful?

In 1985, Sony and Philips jointly released their digital marvel known as the compact disc. Soon after, millions of people worldwide began dumping their large collections of vinyl LPs in favor of the digital "perfection" offered by these new shiny five-inch wonders. Despite the fact that CD prices were relatively high, early digital recordings as well as remasterings sounded poor, and early players were brash and unmusical, the compact disc not only survived but thrived. Why did consumers so readily accept an initially (and many would say still) inferior medium like the compact disc, and why might DVD audio not be so lucky?

No More Scratches, No More Pops

The average consumer of commercial recordings saw the compact disc as a significant improvement over the long playing record - compact discs were relatively immune to mishandling, and surface noise and wear were non-existent since there was no physical contact between the CD's surface and the reading mechanism. Convenience was another major asset of the compact disc as the discs themselves required no real maintenance and could be played in small portable players and car stereos. In addition, compact discs were more visually attractive and technologically intriguing than Edison's one hundred year old invention. While audiophiles balked at the compact disc's inferior sonics, most consumers reveled in the joys of the new medium. The only drawback was that a significant monetary investment in software and hardware was required in order to take advantage of the compact disc. Nonetheless, slowly but surely, people made the investment and migrated their collections of recordings from analogue to digital. Consumers were happy, electronics manufacturers were happy, and the record companies were ecstatic as the compact disc revitalized a sagging mid-80s music industry.

Fast forward to 1997: DVD video is a commercial reality, with DVD audio on the horizon. Will DVD's advantages over the compact disc give consumers the necessary incentive to make DVD audio a commercial success?

DVD Audio: Boon or Bust?

While the compact disc had several appealing advantages over the LP, can the same be said of DVD audio when compared to compact disc? What are the major benefits of DVD? The higher storage capacity of a DVD disc means that such a disc has the potential to contain more music than its CD counterpart. Unfortunately, the fact that record companies rarely even come close to fully utilizing the CD's capacity of approximately eighty minutes of recorded music, leaves one wondering whether their utilization of DVD discs will be much better. While a DVD disc does have the potential to contain more recorded music, hopes are that this larger storage capacity will be used to store digital data with significantly more resolution than that offered by the compact disc. If the prayers of audiophiles are answered, DVD audio should address many of the sonic failings of the 16 bit/44.1 kHz Sony/Philips red book standard with a new standard boasting a 24-bit word length and a 96 kHz sampling rate. While the prospect of 24 bit/96kHz digital audio is very exciting for the audio enthusiast, the question is will the large percentage of consumers who listen using inexpensive rack systems or portable players, care? Most of the people I know who fall into this category are blissfully happy with the sound of compact discs and don't need, or want, yet another new digital format promising better sound.

Another potentially major impediment to the success of the DVD audio disc, could be its lack of compatibility with existing compact disc hardware. While it appears that the current crop of DVD players fully supports the playback of red book CDs, it is not clear whether the, as yet unspecified, DVD audio disc will be compatible with standard CD players. Without this level of compatibility, DVD audio discs could languish on retailers shelves, as consumers refuse to invest in the hardware required to play them. Of course, this assumes that the discs will even be on retailers shelves. Given the large install base of CD playback hardware and the problems associated with dual inventory, is there enough incentive for retailers to stock DVD audio discs at all?

The solution to the compatibility problem is clearly the specification of a two-layer DVD disc, one layer containing DVD-encoded data and another containing data conforming to the red book standard. Such a disc would allow retailers to stock a single disc satisfying the requirements of both CD and DVD software consumers, and allow consumers to acquire the new discs while not rendering their current hardware obsolete. While a two-layer disc is being considered by the industry, it remains to be seen whether the industry's executives agree that backward compatibility with CD hardware is crucial to the success of DVD audio.

Hope For The Future

Audiophiles have suffered long enough with the inadequate word length and sampling rate of the CD standard dictated by mid-80's technology. With an appropriate specification of a DVD audio "superdisc", offering a 24-bit word length and a 96kHz sampling rate, we may soon have a digital audio disc that fulfills the promises made by Sony and Philips more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, the fact that the average consumer would appear to have no use for such a disc casts doubts in my mind as to its commercial viability. These doubts could be lifted, however, with the specification of a disc that offers bi-directional compatibility with the current CD standard. This would allow retailers to maintain a single inventory of discs for playback on both CD and DVD hardware, and would allow consumers to purchase discs compatible with both existing and future hardware. If compatibility with existing hardware is not part of the DVD audio specification, then DVD audio discs may simply become a niche-market item, produced only by specialty labels catering to audiophile consumers. This would undoubtedly result in limited availability and choice of titles. We can only hope that industry executives see the light and finally give us a commercially viable medium with the potential for superior sonics. All we can do is wait and see.

-- Dan Webster