Exploring the New Multichannel Matrix

Once upon a time, life was simple and all signals were analog. Pre-recorded music sources had, at most, two channels. Remember the analog LP or the beginnings of stereo FM (let's hope that your have forgotten the aborted stereo AM), in-dash stereo cassette or even the cross-talk-riddled stereo from 8-track or the now long lost, and by some even lamented, high-quality stereo of the L-Cassette. Every thing was like Noah's Ark: two-by-two.
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Once upon a time, life was simple and all signals were analog. Pre-recorded music sources had, at most, two channels. Remember the analog LP or the beginnings of stereo FM (let's hope that your have forgotten the aborted stereo AM), in-dash stereo cassette or even the cross-talk-riddled stereo from 8-track or the now long lost, and by some even lamented, high-quality stereo of the L-Cassette. Every thing was like Noah's Ark: two-by-two.

Then one day, the digital deities came down from their mountain retreat, high in the Audio Himalayas. They brought with them a new idea, that music would become a stream of 1s and 0s, and it would be perfectly reproduced, each and every time you played one of their little clear discs. Oh, the promises and the debates that ensured. Digital was good, digital was bad, digital was evil, digital would destroy music forever, digital sounds thin, digital has no highs, etc, etc, etc.

Well...they could debate all they wanted (and many continue to do so), but within a very short time the CD became the fastest market-penetrating consumer electronics product of all time, until it was eventually surpassed by DTH satellite TV and now the DVD.

So the consumers of the world found that the digital deities had indeed brought something useful down from the mountain. Nothing else in their "hi-fi" systems had to change to bring CD into their lives. Nothing had to change in their cars either, or their portable music systems or their table radios, or their shelf systems. Two ears, two channels, two speakers, one pair of headphones, and two speakers in the car doors and so forth. Life was still being lived under the Noah's Ark tenet of two by two. Everyone could handle this 2-channel world, and within less than a decade after the CD's introduction almost everyone.

But...the consumer electronics industry's modified version of Moore's technology law had not retreated into oblivion, and "new and improved" technologies were birthing in the labs even as CDs reached essentially total market penetration.

The young and unsatisfied acolytes of the digital deities had remained up in the audio Himalayas and watched with glee as the DVD came to fruition. They praised the Digital Versatile Disc idea and brought it to their temples for study. They saw that this new technology could give them a chance to surpass the power and glory that rained on their forebears who descended from the peaks all those years before with the CD. A second group of more traditional-oriented acolytes saw the new DVD testaments threats to their masters long-standing CD way of life and decided to make every effort to ensure that their concept was not pushed aside by the flocks of the new faith. They reached into their well of ideas and brought to the masses the SACD.

Thus was born the great and on-going series of format deliberations. The two groups of believers each with their strongly held conviction that they were the true and only answer went to down to the people and preached their message, evangelically, at every opportunity. They came to the people two-by-two in stereo, each with their support teams of technologists and engineers. Each brought their message of superiority to the hordes of consumers looking for an answer.

The people were asking, "Which of you can give us the real path to the next level of audio perfection? Which of you has the answer that does not become obsolete in a month, year or perhaps ever? Which of you has the depth of capability to give us true musical reality with many channels of capability and true re-creation?"

The armies of acolytes each told the people that they alone could bring them what they wanted. The people asked, "Is this VHS and Beta all over again? We don't want to live through that once more! We want to live peacefully and enjoy ourselves without listening to you rail against each other. And what about the multichannel issues? Which of you can give us one answer to audio, video, stereo and multichannel. Which of you can give us proof that the many facilities producing your hardware will be able to give us devices that are not incompatible with their forbears?" And that, dear readers, is the issue at hand. Your customers are "the people." They are faced with precisely these questions as they approach you for answers. They are coming to you, in the first place, because you are supposed to have the technical expertise to guide them safely though this maelstrom of confusion and claim vs. counterclaim.

If you think it was confusing to your customers and everyone else when we were just talking about the next level of stereo performance, now you must also introduce the various multichannel capabilities, or lack thereof, into the matrix.

The two competing camps, DVD-A and SACD, both offer two-channel and multichannel (at least 5.1 at better than CD performance) programming/playback capabilities, and both camps are continually moving access to these capabilities down in price. At the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show numerous DVD suppliers stated that by mid-year every DVD unit above $300 would have DVD-A, multichannel capability, to at least a basic degree. Commensurately the SACD suppliers have introduced machines far below the initial four-figure price points and more are in the pipeline.

What is not clear is when the currently-less-than-satisfactory, and "klugey," connections for multichannel audio playback will migrate into something easier with less potential signal degradation due to multiple D-A-D-A passes. The insanely convoluted copyright and copy protection issues at that heart of this problem, unfortunately show only limited signs of being resolved in any timely or logical manner.

Looking at this situation unemotionally you and your customers are faced with determining not only what hardware will meet the system requirements, but also with interfacing that equipment into the lifestyle of the customer. This means determining what type of programming they want to be able to enjoy and what their future desires may be.

Six months ago the decision might have been easier due to the substantial differentiation visible when looking at the availability of software titles in the open market. At that time the DVD/DVD-A camp had a clear advantage both in pure numbers of titles and in number of supplier supporters. However, both of those substantial advantages have been somewhat eroded by the continually increasing amount of both SACD titles and SACD hardware.

Perceptively, there still remains a view that SACD is the audiophile-oriented format, while DVD/DVD-A is the more mass market format. This belief is reinforced within certain segments of the consumer media and by high-end reviewers and writers, much in the same manner that they supported DTS over Dolby Digital and for many of the same "reasons."

The minute and seemingly endless details of the technical debate that produces these positions have been covered to excess within the same publications, and on the web, and in the newspapers and in technical journals. If you want to review, yet again, the specifics you can access probably more information than you can absorb via the following web sites:

www.dolby.com includes information on DVD, DVD-A, MLP lossless packing and much more.

www.dtsonline.com offers information on their technologies and software.

www.highfidelityreview.com is an independent website offering reviews, commentary technical information, forums and lots of details about contents of discs, and a very complete listing of labels offering DVD and SACD software (see sidebar).

www.sonymusic.com/sacd provides details on that format and other information

www.philips.com/informationcenter describes Philips' perspective on SACD, DVD and lots more. You will have to drill into this site a bit to get what you want.

Additionally many of the software suppliers also offer information on their individual web sites, most of which can be accessed through one of the sites above as links.

How do you deal with this? Do you tell your customers that they need to buy both a DVD/DVD-A/CD-capable unit and a separate unit for SACD/CD and playback, leaving them with two players for CD and one each for everything else? Do you suggest that they buy one of potentially forthcoming players ("Sometime this year" was what we were told at CES) that could play everything, thus forcing you to wait perhaps many months to complete their job or perhaps lose them to someone else who made a more convincing case for another option? What will the performance quality of the "everything units" be? What level of performance do they really need?

Are you hyperventilating yet?

If you do your customer homework, you can probably develop a reasonable plan for each one by determining a few key points:

What kind of software do they primarily want to use? They will choose among movies, stereo music and multichannel music.

What styles do they prefer? This will then lead you to the labels offering that type of software which will define what format is available or if both are. The www.highfidelityreview.com site has a nice breakdown of this information.

Does their/your budget allow for duplicate units?

If yes, will they be able to understand the need for two players and the difference?

Is there an audiophile issue on the table or even a perceived one?

Once you have answered these questions, you can, with some degree of comfort, decide how to proceed. Alternatively you could install one of the current-generation, excellent-quality, higher-end, almost-totally-multi-purpose units and agree to update that unit for some additional cost at a later date, when the true play-everything, multi-format players come to market.

Realistically, the duality of formats is going to be with us for a considerable time. In fact it is reasonable to assume that there will be no winner here and both will co-exist, like Dolby and DTS for the foreseeable future. Given the size and marketing power of the corporate players in each camp, it is highly unlikely that one will surrender to the other.

Therefore, it is also reasonable to assume that within a year or less there are going to be several quality and price levels for hardware that can accommodate DVD/DVD-A/SACD. Any such device would also automatically be back compatible to conventional CD, and the other variations such as SuperBit discs, and HDCD, depending on how many licenses the manufacture wants to pay for and how much room he has for logos on the front panel. Planning for this and figuring out how to use either currently specified or installed hardware in another location or application is going to be well worth your time. It will give you the edge on others who may not present this issue to their customers, and also ensure that you are telling your customers the truth, and showing them how to guarantee minimal obsolescence and disruption to their systems as this situation continues to evolve. After all, you did not create the problem, but you can win if you have a solution.

Frederick Ampel is president of Technology Visions, a consultancy based in Overland Park, Kansas.