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THE MORNING BUZZ: The Uncertain Future of DVD-Audio

15 Aug, 2002 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Nobody's come out and said it, but let's face the facts: While DVD-Video has been a spectacular success, DVD-Audio has been a most unspectacular failure.

Sales projections for 2001 were as high as 40 million units, according to some starry-eyed record companies. Actual sales clocked in at a measly 300,000 units and many of those were returned.

I'm not surprised. The DVD-Audio universe is still plagued by format wars between DVD-Audio proper and the so-called Super CD; then, within the ranks, there's a split between Dolby and DTS.

And then there's the fact that DVD-Audio discs won't play to their full capability in DVD-Video players; record companies, realizing the stupidity of this, have taken to including regular two-channel CD versions on their DVD-Audio releases, which makes even more sense – pay $30, $10 more than regular CDs, and basically get the same thing.

To be sure, DVD-Audio discs have visuals, but these usually consist of lyrics or still photos that don't even fit the screen. That essentially makes them a lot like music DVDs with crappy video – and at a price tag that's close to twice the street price of DVDs, why anyone would bother is beyond me.

Audio purists might argue that with the right system, DVD-Audio does sound better and more natural than CDs, but again, I beg to differ. I still remember one DVD-Audio demonstration in which the background vocals came out of the left rear speaker. The photo of the performance clearly showed the backup singers on stage, with the rest of the musicians; I asked the demonstrator why the singing came from the back and he said “the producer remembers the choir being in the back of his church while he was growing up, so that's where he put the vocals.”

More natural? Give me a break. While 5.1 Surround Sound certainly is more natural for a movie, because it gives you the feeling you are in the middle of the action, like a room in which people are talking from all corners, for music it just doesn't work. Every concert I've been to has the musicians up on stage, in front of me – and regular stereo sound works just fine.

As my friend John Thrasher of Tower Records and Video recently told me, “We only have two ears.”

This reminds me of the big fad of the late 1960 and 70s: Quadrophonic sound. Instead of two speakers, there were four, each with different tracks. Quad was a dismal failure, because no one wanted to invest the big bucks to buy an additional set of speakers – not to mention a receiver that could properly decode the four distinct channels.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but is it possibly that DVD-Audio is headed for the same scrap heap of failed technologies?

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