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Positive Feedback ISSUE 3
october/november 2002


Audio in 2002 - A summary of the present state of audio
by Clay Swartz


In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it is the season of Light, it is the season of Darkness, it is the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…." This is a good summary of the present state of audio.

It is the best of times. We have SACD, the best sound source in history. We have DVD and HDTV to give us high-quality pictures at home. We have surround sound to give us a more realistic theater experience. The cost of an SACD player with DVD playback has fallen to below $200. Receiver sound has improved greatly. Some SACD producers have reduced their price to about the same as a regular CD. There are good DVD concert videos available for between fifteen and twenty-five dollars. DVD concerts give you much more music than the average CD.

It is the worst of times. There are competing audio formats—SACD, DTS Audio, DVD-A, and 96/24. This makes for confusion. Buyers and manufacturers must choose which format they want to use. The format wars lessen the number of titles for each format. They are also a nightmare for the retailer, who must decide which formats to carry. Most retailers carry none. The multi-channel aspect of audio brings out the worst in recording engineers. Sounds coming from every direction are great for movies, but very unnatural for music, though it does appeal to non-audiophiles, who bring their friends over to impress them with sounds coming from all around.

There is also an increase in system complexity. It used to be that that you needed two speakers, a preamp, one or two amps, a CD player, a set of speaker cables, and two sets of interconnect cables. Now you have to add more amps, more speakers, more speaker cables, and more interconnect cables. With more equipment needed, the buyer is likely not going to spend as much for each piece. There is also the problem that with more than one surround source, most preamps, even high end ones, have only one set of multi-channel inputs. There is also a multi-channel format war. We have Dolby Pro-logic, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, DTS, DTS-ES, Pal 6. We have 3, 4, 5, 5.1, 6, 6.1, 7, and 7.1-channel sound, all of which need different speaker setups. Digital technology is changing so fast that year-old equipment is old hat. A three-year-old, $3000 piece of digital equipment is now worth only a couple of hundred dollars. SACD players that have been out for less than a year have been discontinued, and these are not entry-level players.

It is the age of Wisdom. We have created all the technology mentioned in the Best of Times section. We have learned what is important in making good-sounding equipment. We have brought music and video to the masses as never before.

It is the age of foolishness, mainly caused by greed. The record companies, faced with declining sales, raised the price of CDs. They could have considered higher-value discs (better sounding, better music, more music), but they didn’t. It costs less than one dollar to make a CD. They charge between seventeen and nineteen dollars for a new release. Most pop albums contain thirty to forty minutes of music, though a CD can contain close to eighty minutes. Most CDs are mastered to sound good on a Walkman or an all-in-one stereo. Most pop albums are next to impossible to sell on the used market a year later. You see stores filled with such albums, but good albums are hard to find. Record companies also force artists to produce albums. Instead of waiting for an artist to develop enough songs for an album, they are told they must make a specified number of albums in a specific period of time. The record companies want instant success, and do not allow time for artist development. They look for flash over content. Their method of picking music often seems to be: throw it on a wall and see what sticks. The record companies lament pirating and MP3 downloading, but they still produce albums with only one good song plus filler. This is practically asking people to download the one song they like.

It is the Epoch of Belief. Modern technology feels that it can overcome almost any problem.

It is the Epoch of Incredulity. We record music in a very unnatural way, then expect to fix it electronically. We close-mic voices and instruments. This makes the high frequencies artificially more intense, and swamps detail and ambience. We mic bands with each member in a separate room, then try to electronically fix the ensuing problems. This leaves the sound up to the recording engineer. We have made huge improvements in electronics over the last twenty years, but the microphones we record with have changed very little. Most mics have problems with sensitivity and dynamic range. And again, competing formats divide the creative forces, drive the retailers nuts, and confuse buyers.

It is the season of Light. We have the technology to create a theater or concert experience in the home. We can experience more types of music and video than ever before. The industry is learning how to better use recording technology, both video and audio. It used to be that concerts were shot with concert lighting—generally dark, with lots of flashing lights. The industry is starting to learn that for video there must be better lighting. The quality of electronics is going up. HDTV is getting better and cheaper. SACD discs are coming down in price and becoming more numerous.

It is the season of Darkness. With the escalating price and complexity for systems, it is less likely that the highest quality components will be used. There is the promised watermarking of digital signals. There is also an increasing movement toward cheaper construction of electronic components, along with a throwaway attitude. Electronics are also getting more dependent on microprocessor circuits and very small traces.

It is the Spring of Hope. We have everything in front of us. Sony’s blue laser technology promises a high-definition home picture source for the first time. It also incorporates multi-channel SACD sound. Televisions can be flat panels on the wall. There is a good chance you will be able to download movies and concerts to play at home.

It is the Winter of Despair. We have nothing in front of us. We will always be dealing with corporate thinking: What is the cheapest we can make things? What is the least that people will accept? What is the most we can charge without the buyers rebelling? There is a question whether the better formats can survive. Can small audiophile companies compete in a world where new generations of electronics occur every six months to a year? Will consumers increasingly go to all-in-one electronics? Will the masses ever demand quality over cheapness?

What I See Happening

I see two-channel audio becoming less and less important. I also see more combining of audio and video. Most people can‘t afford separate systems. Due to expense and the inability of rooms to handle more speakers, I can’t see more than a 5.1 surround system. I see fewer separate D-to-A converters. I see a definite split between the high end videophile and the high end audiophile. Most videophiles want their room to look pleasing. They use in-wall speakers and go for more impressive rather than more accurate systems. Audiophiles long ago gave up on looks, and just want good sound. They will be more likely to have speakers out into the room than hanging on the wall. If you go into most high end video stores, the sound is poor by audiophile standards. The average consumer will have a receiver-based system, but the audiophile will still want separate amps and preamp.

I see front projection TVs as remaining in the world of the wealthy videophile. I see an increased movement to flat-screen TVs as they get better and cheaper. I see HDTV becoming more popular. I definitely see the death of VHS. As more people get larger TVs, the more unacceptable the VHS picture gets. I see DVD concerts as becoming more important. Video definitely adds an important aspect of the concert experience. I see the upcoming blue laser technology with HD picture and SACD multi-channel sound as being a slow starter. It will suffer from a software/hardware dilemma. Not many manufacturers are interested in putting out software until there are enough players, and buyers are hesitant to buy hardware that doesn’t have much software. I see more multi-format players coming out. This will help the consumer, who will not have to be limited in titles and can choose between technologies.

Now for the really big question: What about the audio format wars? First there is HDCD. This is just a bandaid for an inferior CD standard, and is basically dead. Almost no players or processors include it in their current models. I feel that the remastering of standard CDs is also mostly dead. Then there is DTS audio. This format suffers from a lack of titles, and from watermarking, overzealous surround engineering, and the high cost of discs. The fact that it is playable on most DVD players may keep it as a minor format. 96/24 has the same advantages and disadvantages as DTS, whether stereo or multi-channel. Then there is DVD-A, which requires a compatible player. It is one of the two big competitors in the war. Most of the discs will be watermarked, with a reduction in sound quality. The selection of discs is in the hundreds. They are high priced, but prices seem to be moving slowly downward. It is a multi-channel format, which often has gimmicky surround sound.

The last—and, I feel, best—format currently available is SACD. The choice of discs is now close to 1000 and growing fast. The price of discs is also falling, with list prices for most labels between sixteen and twenty dollars. Distribution of both DVD-A and SACD is inadequate. Many record stores do not carry either, or have only a few titles. Dual-layer SACDs have the advantage that they can be played on standard CD players. This is important because they can be played on portable players and in cars. It is strange that Sony itself does not provide a CD layer on their SACDs. Multi-channel SACDs are now coming out. This is SACD’s answer to DVD-A multi-channel.

For either of these formats to make it, certain things need to happen. If people are expected to replace their existing CDs, they need to be given bonus material. This is already happening on some SACDs. Issuing collections and greatest hits is also a very good idea. Compatibility with current CD players is very important. Most CD buyers listen to music on portable stereos, all-in-one stereos, or poorly set up receiver systems, and sound is not that important to them. I do not see many people rushing out to replace their current CD collections, though if the new formats are about the same price as CDs, they may replace some of their favorite albums if there is enough sonic improvement.