The audio CD as we know it has been around for almost 25 years now. Initially promising perfect sound and durability far beyond records or cassette tapes, it was quickly regarded as a great leap forward in sound fidelity and convenience by most consumers. Coupled with the major labels' decision to limit production of records and cassettes, the audio CD took off. The labels made money hand over fist as people bought CDs to both replace their existing records and to acquire new music.
Over the past 25 years, however, there's been a small minority that has constantly maintained that recordings simply sounded better on vinyl records than they did on CDs. As more researchers and manufacturers considered the arguments put forth by the vinyl crowd they found that their arguments had some merit. Recording an analog phenomenon (music) with an analog recorder (vinyl record) and reproducing it with an analog player (turntable) manages to capture some subtle nuances that digital audio CD technology misses. This doesn't imply that it is impossible for digital technologies to capture these nuances, merely that the current audio CD standard (commonly called the "Red Book" standard) doesn't do so.
Recognizing that audio CDs could be improved upon, the organization that controls the DVD standards (DVD-Forum) solicited proposals from manufacturers for an improved format. Sony and Phillips, the original creators of the audio CD, proposed an entirely new way of recording data called Direct Stream Digital (DSD). Toshiba proposed using DVD media to store a higher resolution version of audio CD's Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) data. The two formats are incompatible, but both manage to capture the subtle nuances lost by regular audio CDs. Both could also play multi-channel sound—a 5.1 soundtrack just like a movie on DVD (stereo front speakers, a center front speaker, stereo rear speakers, and a subwoofer)—in addition to plain old stereo. DSD would require entirely new recording and playback hardware, while Toshiba's DVD/PCM could be played in any DVD player (albeit with slightly degraded fidelity). When the dust cleared in 1999 the DVD-Forum selected Toshiba's proposal to be the new DVD-Audio (DVD-A) format.
Sony and Philips, not content to see their ideas shelved, then announced a new format called Super Audio CD (SACD) to compete with DVD-A. SACD is simply the DSD-based format snubbed by the DVD-Forum. Round two of the battle was on, with labels choosing to release only in DVD-A or SACD. Player manufacturers were only allowed to license one playback technology or the other, so they ended up choosing sides as well. To top it off, the record labels priced the new formats at nearly twice the price of a conventional audio CD, hoping to cash in even bigger than the last time formats changed. Retailers weren't happy with either new format since CDs were rapidly becoming "loss leaders"—items sold for little to no profit just to generate store traffic in the hopes that folks will buy something else with a nice profit margin. Both new formats were also priced at nearly double the wholesale cost, so retailers wouldn't be making any more money on the new formats than they would with the old format. The more space retailers have to devote to new formats, the less room they have to display profitable goods.
Even audiophiles, those vinyl-loving folks who've been grousing since 1982 about standard audio CDs, were turned off from both new formats because of the onerous copy protection the music labels insisted on including. Unless you're willing to pay a $500 premium on both the player and the pre-amp, the only surround sound output you'll get from your SACD or DVD-A player is analog. Yep, all that work that the recording engineers go through to produce a quality digital product is converted into a sloppy analog signal prone to interference and distortion before it can leave the player and head to the pre-amp. (Even normal audio CD players can send a digital data stream from the player to the pre-amp via optical cables.) To top it off, you'll need six cables to carry the analog information from the player to the pre-amp, driving up the cost and creating a rat's nest of wiring.
The predictable result was that neither format has been a success over the last seven years. In fact, if you walk into your average Best Buy today and ask where the SACD's or DVD-A's are you'll typically be greeted with a "Huh?" The hubris of the format inventors, the greed of the music labels, and the reluctance of the retailers all combined to result in a pretty big belly flop into the pool of the consumer marketplace for both new formats.
So, can you comfortably continue to ignore these new formats? Maybe, but in my next post I'll tell you why the situation isn't quite a bleak as I've described to this point and why things may be looking up.