HERE'S DVD-AUDIO! NOW WHAT?

It's been a long time coming, but DVD-Audio is finally here. DVD-A players have been dribbling into U.S. stores for months, and (reportedly) the first
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It's been a long time coming, but DVD-Audio is finally here. DVD-A players have been dribbling into U.S. stores for months, and (reportedly) the first commercial DVD-A release - Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band's Swingin' for the Fences on Silverline Records - debuted a couple months ago, followed by a number of other projects. Meanwhile, as the latest rev of the DVD-A spec (Version 1.2) includes CPPM (Copy Protection for Prerecorded Media) and Verance watermarking technology, everybody should be happy. Well, almost...

Normally, the release of a new audio format would be a big deal. Major record labels have typically welcomed new formats as a means to remarket the same back catalog that Chris Q. Consumer had previously purchased on other formats. Catalog releases are low-risk/high-profit ventures, and record labels would love to re-create the CD gold rush days of the '80s and '90s.

But, today's consumer is extremely wary of new formats, and with little excitement about DVD-A on the part of the electronics industry and record labels, DVD-A may be in for some tough times. Major labels have been slow to implement DVD-A product rollouts; and with few titles available, hardware manufacturers have adopted a conservative, wait-and-see attitude.

Of course, the major advantage of DVD-A is the pristine audio quality it can deliver, but will this advantage be lost on consumers with "average" home playback systems? Most home surround playback systems are not $40,000 custom-engineered installations - rather, users supplement their existing home stereo speakers via an add-on pack with small center and rear speakers and an underpowered sub. Admittedly, we're early in the DVD-A game, but consumers have been less than enthusiastic about super-high-performance audio lately. It's a sad commentary, but these days, what consumers are really excited about is downloading MP3s over the Internet. Given a choice of paying for hi-fi or getting free lo-fi material, most music listeners opt for the latter. Surprise, surprise!

On the other hand, consumers have taken the DVD-Video format to heart, making it, depending on whom you talk to, the fastest-selling consumer format in history. Accustomed to years of watching stereo films at their local Bijou, moviegoers are upgrading and investing in 5.1 systems for home DVD playback. But are these same consumers ready to plunk down $19.95 (or more) for an audio-only DVD release and buy a new player for the privilege? Yes, onscreen lyrics, liner notes, a bonus video clip and still graphics are all incentives to buy a DVD-A disc. But is it enough? Or is it more than people want when they can get that information elsewhere?

In this issue's special focus on DVD-A technology, we look at various aspects of the format from several viewpoints - technical, marketing and creative production. Certainly, DVD-A offers a convenient means to store high-res stereo and surround recordings. But for the format to prosper, audio producers need to take the next step and design products that use DVD-A's interactive capabilities in creative, innovative ways that stimulate and inspire the consumer.

That may be the biggest challenge of all.