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APAR's WORKING WEEKEND: Is DVD-Audio Too New for Its Own Good?

29 Jun, 2001 By: Bruce Apar

We feel bad for Lee Gomes. A writer for The Wall Street Journal, he went to great lengths in the paper’s juicy June 25 supplement on “What’s Ahead” in technology to explain why DVD-Audio might well be a non-starter.

Unfortunately for Mr. Gomes, who, like every Journal staffer, cannot be faulted for his intellect or writing skills, he simply doesn’t comprehend the nuances of how a new platform extension like DVD-Audio finds its way into people’s homes.

He seemed too preoccupied cataloging carefully constructed reasons against DVD-Audio to recognize a simple fact: people don’t have to buy DVD-Audio players for this improvement on CD to take hold.

How can that be? Well, since DVD-Audio players also will be de facto DVD Video players, future buyers of DVD-Video hardware will be getting DVD-Audio playback capabilities as well. It’s much the way millions of TV buyers ended up with stereo sound whether they intended to have it or not.

TV makers tried to charge consumers a premium for the stereo step-up models in their first incarnation, but the public wouldn’t hear of it. When the upgrade is transparent, not to mention the added cost, the incremental feature -- whether stereo TV or DVD-Audio -- is no longer a considered purchase.

Gomes also painstakingly explains how his audiophile friend’s ultra high-end equipment revealed nary an improvement in the sound of DVD-Audio over CD. At the same time, he also notes how supposedly golden-eared audiophiles have been known to sniff snobbily at the sound of CDs, favoring -- believe it or not -- “the allegedly superior sound of old-fashioned LPs.”

Audiophiles are like that -- yeah, they are. They likewise are notorious for preferring pristine, high-end tube amplifiers over those synthetic-sounding, Johnny-come-lately transistor components.

In fact, I’m not qualified to refute their claims about certain characteristics of tube amps and 12-inch long-playing records trumping transistor amps and 5-inch CDs. At the same time, sometimes I don’t wonder if what they are listening to so intently is less the music itself than the sound reproduction quality of the equipment.

There is a difference, I think, in the sensory experience between those two aural fixations. To me, classic live recording Sinatra at the Sands sounds sensual even on the CD system in my Avis-rented Pontiac Sunfire compact vehicle. The Count Basie arrangements are exciting and lush and the reproduction for a 40-year-old recording is a revelation. That’s just fine by me. My suspicion, though, is that the kind of audiophile The Wall Street Journal’s Lee Gomes consulted for his DVD-Audio test would not so much hear the sweet sounds I heard in my Sunfire as agonize over the awful speakers they were coming through. It’s the cross they bear for wearing golden ears with which the rest of us can only be thankful for not being afflicted. It’s as if they are canines who hear things they’d rather not.

Logic also suggests if the audiophile contingent professes a bias toward LPs over CDs, it stands to reason they would be consistent in also hearing askance the current “next generation” of home entertainment sound reproduction. They are technology Luddites.

Another folly Gomes committed in his selective but misguided trashing of DVD-Audio is the false analogy to four-channel quadraphonic sound of the 1970s. That was tried on the limited-frequency LPs the golden-eared swear by even today, not on a high-density digital technology capable of multiple channels.

Besides, it’s like saying that since 12-inch laserdiscs never surpassed about 3 or 4% market penetration, DVD doesn’t have a chance. Laserdiscs, some of us remember quite well, were introduced just as another playback platform was quietly coming along -- the VCR.

Conversely, DVDs have come along at a time when the world has been both conditioned by digital audio CDs, and saturated by VCRs, creating a clear path for their successor. That’s DVD, whether video, audio, rom or ram.

Since audiophiles are by definition in the vast minority of music consumers, record labels and player makers won’t be going broke anytime soon if the golden-eared contingent stubbornly sits out DVD-Audio.

To my tin ears, the few DVD-Audio recordings I now have sound better even on a regular stereo system than do CDs. But what do I know. I just love listening to music.


Comments? Contact Bruce directly at:bapar@advanstar.com

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