ROADBLOCKS TO DVD-AUDIOIt wasn't so long ago, just a few years really, that I got excited about the prospect of a really hi-fi replacement for CDs. Well, it's two years on and what a fine mess we're in. Let's face it: No public awareness that I've been able to discern, and no perceived need on the part of Jenny Q. Public, who's quite happy with her Barbara CDs, thank you very much. No consensus, good or ill, on intellectual property protection since the current crop seems to have been created either in a vacuum or a law office. Players that harken back to first-generation DVD-V, not in a nostalgic sense anyway. And let's not forget laughable content creation tools...
When was the last time you heard someone say, "Umm-um, gotta get one of them DVD-Audio players..." Ha! Few, if any, consumers are even aware of a replacement format for CD-DA, never mind forking over the dough for a playback device. Those yupsters, DINKs, YUCAs and early adopters who must have the latest e-toys already have DVD-V players and have run out of rackspace in their home entertainment centers. Of course, DVD-V players won't recognize Audio Zone content. That means that DVD-A discs won't play in legacy players unless explicitly authored to be backward-compatible. (Score one for SACD, with its backward and forward compatibility.) In turn, that choice means less capacity for the groovy, new DVD-A content, even though an AC3 stream is quite compact compared to PCM data.
This mess isn't helped by the dearth of players on the market. Seen any lately? Sony will make DVD-V/SACD players but isn't yet publicly supporting DVD-A, though Sony Music is sweating through the process of creating titles. If you stopped by the Sonic Solutions booth at AES, you got to see third-generation players with one from Pioneer being the first example of the long awaited omniplayer - one that offers CD, DVD-A/V and SACD support. But Pioneer is a welcome aberration in the CE world, so don't expect too many other examples anytime soon.
So, why should Jenny Q. Public drink the DVD-A Kool-Aid? Got me. There's little compelling value in the format, and creating market demand seems to be something beyond the ken of the DVD Consortium. How about the high-fidelity angle? Yeah, right. Most pop music is created on MI-class systems that give fidelity a bad name. Besides, it's the performance, stupid. The public doesn't care about the data-sampling rate. Yes, trained listeners and audiophiles can hear the difference, but we're a minuscule segment of the population and aren't likely to sway the consumer electronics and media giants that control the Consortium. But wait, what about surround? To that I say: What's wrong with AC3? Because the performance is conveyed just fine via 56k MP3, multichannel AC3 must be high fidelity by comparison!
I was at the AFIM conference earlier this year, speaking to indie music producers about the new optical distribution formats. The folks at Panasonic CE's Technics division were kind enough to haul an entire DVD-Audio rig down to the venue so folks could experience the format. I had brought along a newly minted DVD-A title, a Japanese domestic release that should have provided a welcome change from the repurposed DTS stuff that we were stuck with from the U.S. labels. In it went and boom! It froze the player up real good! Can you imagine having to reboot an appliance? Not a good thing. And I thought the Blue Screen of Death was only a Windoze phenomenon. This incident was a replay of bad times of yore, when DVD-V first appeared on the scene. Lack of compatibility plagued players into the third generation, making our jobs hell trying to produce titles that worked everywhere. What would you do if you were a label?
Speaking of labels, let's talk about that watermarking. The folks at Verance seem to be schizophrenic, offering to work hand-in-hand with the engineering community, while making it very difficult for manufacturers to offer production tools. Verance provides the data hiding technology that makes watermarking for DVD-A possible. And who thought up the audibility tests and licensing costs? Mammon only knows. At least watermarking is an option, not a requirement, so some labels have simply opted out on the whole watermarking issue.
What about the production tools? Try creating a DVD-A title with what we now have at hand. Yikes! Sonic and Matsushita are the only vendors out there. Sonic thinks the new audio formats are weak, in terms of consumer acceptance, so there's little political will to move the tools forward. Gotta agree with the weak demand. Of course it's weak. To make matters worse, the Matsushita offering is a geekfest and not available in stores, and the Sonic alternative requires hand-crafted coding with no debugging or validation tools. That means that only the hardiest/craziest souls or those shackled to the corporate treadmill would dare to create anything but a brain-dead, simple title. Hmm, wonder why there are so few DVD-A titles for the public to buy? Scary thing is, Sonic is a pioneer and champion of the format! Now, I love my Sonic, but give us something that creatives can work with.
You may ask if there is anything I like about DVD-A? Actually, I do. Whether you're talking about DVD-A or SACD, the higher cost of production infrastructure means that it temporarily puts engineering back in the hands of engineers. With fewer punters competing for the client's dollar, we'll be able to bill out rates that are more appropriate to our investment and expertise.
I'm no different from my colleagues in many other technical professions in that a significant portion of my annual income is plowed back into equipment. In fact, all this gloom and doom hasn't prevented me from diving head first into the maelstrom of DVD-A production. But, I urge all manufacturers involved, whether Pro Audio or CE, to fulfill your commitments to the production community and consumer. Stop the finger pointing and one-upsmanship and deliver on the promise of a unified DVD family. Let the consumer decide whether DVD-A is too weak to compete, but give us fully formed choices, not half-baked excuses.