Your CDs Are Obsolete The music industry says its two new digital formats, DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD, deliver better sound than existing audio CDs. Here we go again.
By Peter H. Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Combat veterans of the two great format wars of the late 20th century, Betamax vs. VHS and Macintosh vs. Windows, may still be suffering from post-traumatic technology stress syndrome. Brace yourselves. Here comes another doozy: DVD-Audio vs. Super Audio CD. The two rival formats both claim to be the successor to audio CDs, and both claim to take recorded music to a new level, just as stereo did when it replaced monaural sound.

Yes, folks, I know that you still haven't even finished replacing all your favorite old vinyl LPs with shiny new compact disks. (And yes, audiophiles, I know that some of you will never give up your turntables and vacuum-tube amps without a fight.) Furthermore, you probably don't want to hear that the new DVD player you just bought is doomed for obsolescence by the emergence of these new audio standards. Face it: It was probably doomed anyway because of the eventual shift to high-definition digital television and recordable DVDs. You can't take advantage of DVD-Audio or Super Audio CD in your current machine, and you need a receiver with six-channel inputs.

But you can relax, for a while at least. With the aid of my favorite audiophile store, High Fidelity in Austin, Texas, we've been testing a couple of new, high-end Pioneer DVD players, one that plays DVD-Audio (DVD-A) disks and one that plays both DVD-A and Super Audio CD (SACD) disks. After hours of listening so hard that our eardrums got cramps, the results are in:

Yes, both formats sound better than audio CDs. The sound is warmer and more natural. Unlike audio CDs, which are limited to two-channel stereo, both DVD-A and SACD can take advantage of surround-sound speaker systems, with up to six discrete channels of audio. (That said, not every DVD-A or SACD disk uses multichannel encoding.) How much better is the sound? For most people, the difference is probably too small at this point to justify spending thousands of dollars on new gear and software. But if you're determined to try to recreate a live musical performance in your living room, both DVD-A and SACD will take you closer.

To my ears, SACD may have a very slight aural advantage over DVD-A. But then, I thought Sony's Betamax was technically better than VHS, and look what happened. Once again, Sony and Philips, the original Betamax backers, are behind the SACD format, while nearly everybody else is backing DVD-A.

Initially, both formats will be of interest mainly to audiophiles, the kind of people who pay more for their sound systems than most of us pay for our cars. Prices are coming down for DVD-A and SACD players, but most of them are still more than $1,000, and disks are $25 and up. The rest of us will probably wait until prices come down and the format war is resolved.

Good luck finding the music you want to hear. As of this writing, the entire global catalog of DVD-A and SACD disks consisted of about 150 titles each. Chances are good that if you ask for a DVD-Audio or SACD disk at your local music store, you'll either get a blank look or be pointed toward the DVD video section. This shouldn't come as a surprise. You still can't get Citizen Kane or Star Wars on a DVD videodisk, even though more than nine million DVD players have been sold.

Another lesson: Setting up these audio-enhanced DVD players is not as simple as setting up a regular DVD player. Trained professionals scratch their heads over some aspects of setting up and calibrating the audio and video for optimum performance, especially on surround-sound systems. Some disks we tried would not play at all without going through a complicated menu on the video screen. If you're not willing to spend some time reading the manual and tweaking the sound system, save your money.

If you can't wait for the format wars to be resolved, and you were smart enough to cash out of the stock market before the rest of us did, and you're convinced that your hearing is refined enough that you can use words like "transparency," "sound stage," and "24-bit datastream with a 96KHz sampling rate over six channels" in a conversation without blushing, have I got a machine for you. It's the gorgeous $6,000 Pioneer DV-AX10, a universal media player that can handle progressive-scan DVD video, DVD-Audio, SACD, regular audio CDs, and video CDs, which are more popular in Asia than they are here. Of course, $6,000 is a lot to pay for a DVD player. Think of it as $100 a pound. "Solidly built" does not do it justice; the 60-pound DV-AX10 is the equivalent of a tank in the format wars.

While most consumer electronics companies are lining up behind one format or the other, the hybrid DV-AX10 does it all, and thus it is a relatively safe, albeit expensive, choice. There are some disappointments, however. There is an abnormally long delay between hitting the "play" button for a DVD-A disk and hearing the music come out of the speakers. No such delays occurred with SACD and regular audio CD disks, although this may vary by machine; there was a shorter lag on an SACD-only Sony DVD player we tried. And one DVD-A disk we tried, Buena Vista Social Club, would not play on the DV-AX10 even though it worked flawlessly on the second machine in our test, the Pioneer Elite DV-38A DVD player. At "just" $2,000, the DV-38A is an excellent choice for those willing to make a big bet on the DVD-Audio format. It has the Elite line's signature glossy black finish and meticulous construction.

Which format will win? At this point, it's academic for most consumers. But remember, DVD videoplayers started out costing more than $1,000 and quickly fell to about $200. We'll keep our ears open.

FEEDBACK: plewis@fortunemail.com