If we are to predict and perhaps guide the progress of today’s new digital audio formats, it may be useful to ourselves seek the guidance of history. And there’s lots of that when we look back at audio and video formats that have succeeded or failed, or, more likely, limped along mired in conflict and confusion for years until superseded by technology that clearly appealed more to the consumer. We remember the successes, like Cassette, VHS, CD, and DVD, because they still flourish or survive; but the failures can tell us a few important things about what people want and will accept in consumer technologies, and what they will, as a group, reject or ignore. Introducing new consumer formats, especially those involving software, cannot be done successfully without foresight, of course, but most importantly, must involve hindsight.
Beta vs VHS: The Best Format Doesn’t Always Win
I’m probably unusual in not only owning both Super VHS and Super Beta machines, but in owning and still using two recorders in the Beta format. Super Beta 1 provided the best picture quality in a consumer VCR until the emergence of Super 8mm, something I can still show interested doubters.
But Beta failed, after a long limp, and the inferior VHS format succeeded. Maybe this shows that the market can be manipulated by cartels of manufacturers, or maybe it shows that the consumer really doesn’t care about quality.
Both VHS and the Philips cassette may tell us something about consumer tastes and value judgements in video and audio. Keep this in mind when we come to the subject of MP3, which we will shortly.
The Quadraphonic Quagmire
I started writing about audio professionally in 1972, a column called QuadrAnswers in The FM Guide, a magazine I bought years later, that was the progenitor of Audio Ideas Guide. In that column, way back then, I was called upon by the editor to attempt to clarify the technical and qualitative differences between the four-channel formats.
You may remember some of them, or may be, mercifully, too young. JVC, inventor of VHS, provided a system that, technically, sort of doubled up FM stereo, using subtractive high-frequency subcarriers to derive the rear channels. But phono cartridges of the day had neither the frequency response nor the phase accuracy to make this work consistently, so the result was like a poorly aligned FM tuner front end: Birdies, whines, whistles, and excessive surface noise.
SQ and QS were phase matrix formats whose separation was also limited by the phono cartridge technology of the day, and the use of logic steering circuits to boost apparent separation was only partially successful, leading Dolby to later go back to one rear channel in their Surround and Pro Logic systems, and to add a summed centre channel for image stability.
There were other contenders as well, and though SQ eventually stood pretty much alone, it was a hollow triumph; by the time it did, nobody cared much about surround sound for music listening. And in the audiophile community of today I have sensed a quite strong resistance yet to surround formats. I’ll come back to this point, too.
It is worth noting that SQ and Beta were both developed by Sony Corporation, though the former quad format came out of research at the then separately owned CBS Laboratories by a team led by the brilliant Benjamin Bauer. And it’s also worth pointing out that SQ was supported by many record companies, led by CBS/Columbia, EMI/Angel, the BBC (I still have some excellent BBC transcriptions of concerts, Proms and the like, all in SQ), and by many hardware manufacturers.
Why did it wither with such widespread backing? I think the word “gimmick” probably sums it up. Stereo stuck, even after the criticism of ping-pong effects (I think I still have a recording of a ping-pong game among my early stereo LPs), but quad required more amplifiers and speakers, and most of the consumers of the 70s just didn’t buy it: neither the idea, nor the amps and speakers, nor the monster quad receivers of the day. It would take surround effects in movies, pioneered by Spielberg and Lucas in ET and Star Wars to bring the consumer onside.
What Do The Elcaset, DAT, AM Stereo, And Digital TV Tell Us?
I could go on talking about various formats that succeeded, failed, or limped into obscurity, their rear channels between their legs. But what I really want to talk about is what they say to us in their success or failure.
The Elcaset and DAT were both touted as replacements for the amazingly robust (at least in its consumer confidence) Philips cassette format. The former, another Sony innovation, was bigger in physical size than the cassette, and didn’t gain much support outside its corporate womb. And consumers didn’t see any great advantages, that is, those who didn’t simply ignore it completely. The latter, DAT, found its niche, as you all know, in professional audio, but relatively few consumers took to the cute portable recorders made by such companies as TEAC, Denon, and Aiwa, or to prerecorded DAT tapes.
The first lesson here is that excellence of operational use, which both had, and quality of sound, again shared by both to different degrees, do not predict success. This can also be inferred from the Beta/VHS competition. I repeat, a superior system doesn’t always win.
The second lesson can be seen in 1) the quad quagmire, 2) the utter failure of AM Stereo after the infamous “Marketplace” FCC decision, and 3) in the continuing slow progress in acceptance of digital television. Too many competing formats confuse consumers, and the result is rejection and indifference.
The reaction to “Kitchen Sink” formats, with too many options or variants, and not enough clarity or transparency to the consumer, has historically and collectively been rather like the reaction you and I have looking at the undone dishes after the wife or partner’s been away for a week. We put the growing stack on ignore until we have to do them. Many consumers won’t buy digital TVs until there’s nothing else to watch.
Therefore, in the case of HDTV, and these new high resolution digital formats, if the consumer does not get a clear message from an essentially unified group of technology providers, in both hardware and software, even from this brief historical overview we can predict the general reaction. As you can see from history, it is not good for the technologies to compete (or, as the consumer sees it, bicker) in the marketplace, especially with new formats that involve software that will have to be purchased in large quantities by the consumer.
Stereo vs Surround: Recent History
And there is a quite recent precedent that should not be ignored. For the past several years DTS has been pushing hard at both the hardware and software levels to be included in the home theatre world. Their claim is that their surround system codec is better than Dolby Digital, and this has credence with laserdiscs, where it occupies greater bandwidth and can have higher audio resolution. However, it does not always have that same advantage on DVDs, so the sound quality argument is less cogent.
But here I want to talk not about DTS movie DVDs, but DTS Music CDs with surround sound. DTS has been promoting their surround CDs with great energy, but the result has so far been widespread consumer indifference. Even those who do listen to the gimmicky surround mixes of pop tunes and cavernously ambient classical remixes are not convinced by DTS CDs. I have not had a flood of letters or E-mails from readers praising DTS surround music CDs. Most correspondence has been highly critical. And these recordings have not been big sellers at their premium prices.
Again, that should tell us something. Surround recordings of music, in their numerous commercial iterations, have never been more than moderately successful in the marketplace. If either SACD or DVD-Audio is to succeed, and supplant CD, it must be on a basis of sound quality and convenience, not surround sound.
Is CD Really “Perfect Sound Forever?” In Other Words, Is It Good Enough For Most Consumers?
One of my writers moved from a quite large house to a downtown condo recently, and I helped him move his high end hi-fi system. In the process I inherited a few relics, one of which was a Hitachi DA-1000 CD player, circa 1983 or 4. It was still operational, and just looking at it tempted me to hook it up and have a listen. And there again was that early CD sound: sterile, glassy, hard, and etched, with a sound on strings especially that was genuinely ugly.
CD audio has come a long way. First it was oversampling, and now it’s upsampling to get the filtering artifacts out of the audio band, using 96 kHz or higher DACs. At home I can make my CDs sound pretty damn good, with Meridian 518 noise shaping and 24-bit interpolation, and an Assemblage upsampler and 96K DAC from Sonic Frontiers. Any of you who have played with the dCS pro gear that does these same digital tricks will know what I’m talking about.
In this light, if such CD improvements become common in consumer players (and they certainly are starting to at the audiophile level at which the new formats are aimed, with numerous upsampling systems currently available), what then is the future for the true high resolution formats? Just asking…
A Quick Overview of DVD-A, SACD & MP3 From The Consumer Point Of View
Since you’ve been hearing about these new formats from technical and other points of view, and will hear more, I’m going to take a rather different and succinct approach. First, there is the question of which is more important to the ultimate user: sheer sound quality, or multi-channel capability? Or is it convenience and convergence?
There are two schools of thought on this, and a few facts are becoming available from the sales to early adopters. There is so little DVD-A software in the field that no conclusions are possible, but at both Montreal and New York consumer audio shows this year, sales were brisk for SACDs and what DVD-As there were. Most buyers seemed to prefer dual-layer SACD discs, that is, those compatible with CD players as well. Perhaps many were planning for the future purchase of a player.
This is what my sources tell me. In this leading edge audiophile community, SACD is winning the software war. And none of this is multi-channel, which has only been demonstrated in this format at recent shows, not sold. Whatever this warns us of, one thing does stand out, and has done so historically: audiophiles are 2-channel listeners, and favour sound quality over surround capability.
But the average A/V consumer may not necessarily follow the early adopters. Can SACD or DVD-A win over the boombox, rack-system, and Dolby Pro Logic crowds? History tells us that to do so, those behind the two formats will have to cooperate to the extent that future players reproduce both types of discs, and are still as affordable as CD players. Then both may prosper. If not, look out!
If the average Joe Consumer is forced to make choices, first in hardware, and then in software, without a clearly articulated preference, obvious perceived benefits, and is pushed to do so to replace a music format that he’s comfortable with (CD), then he will probably just wait and see.
And while SACD and DVD-Audio “bicker” in public, consumers, especially young ones, will continue to do what they’ve been doing industriously for the past couple of years: DOWNLOAD. If SACD and DVD-Audio are out there on the edges, MP3 is running a draw play right down the middle, until recently with blocking from Napster and MP3.com. The big record companies are not hounding Napster into submission in court, and buying MP3.com to control it (both at great expense) for nothing. But other such similar beasts will spring out of cyberspace, and people will continue to download and exchange music.
So let’s look quickly at the audio implications of the MP3 phenomenon. It is conceivable that we could have the better part of a whole generation who don’t know what high fidelity…good audio…is all about. Manufacturers have been trying to replace the cassette format, MiniDisc being the latest largely unsuccessful contender, but the decision has been made by a youthful consumer mass, keyboards clicking and mice scurrying, to adopt the MP3 file, via streaming and computer and CD storage, as a direct successor.
If Sony, Philips, and the DVD-A consortium couldn’t predict that, then maybe they all have some serious thinking to do about the future…and the past.