DVD-Audio Review

Wednesday, August 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

My job as a technology reviewer is safe for now.

If consumer electronics companies ever learn from their failures – or even from their successes – they'd stop making big mistakes, and reviewers like me would have much less to write about.

DVD-Audio is a perfect example of how the industry gets seduced by new technology, then blindly assumes customers will tolerate bungled marketing, forced hardware obsolescence and a general disregard for common sense.

The idea, at first hearing, sounds appealing: a new format for recorded music that offers far more sound quality than today's compact discs, is compatible with the popular DVD-Video format for movies and delivers a full "surround" experience on six-speaker home theater systems.

Listen a little longer, however, and sour notes emerge.

Panasonic (www.panasonic.com) put the first DVD-Audio player on the market, the model DVD-A7D, in mid-July at $799. Technics (www.technicsusa.com), the company's upscale sister brand, simultaneously introduced the DVD-A10 at $999.

In a towering act of marketing stupidity, Panasonic decided to ship DVD-Audio players weeks, if not months, ahead of DVD-Audio music discs.

The major record labels have made vague promises to support DVD-Audio. But they're panicked about the possibility of hackers making flawless digital copies of the discs and are still arguing over the details of copy protection.

Not one of the major labels has said when it will ship DVD-Audio titles, what specific titles will be available or how much they will cost.

Whatever happens, it's crazy to have DVD-Audio hardware in stores now when salespeople can't give a firm date for the availability of music titles.

This is all the more shocking because the big electronics companies and the Hollywood studios, which have close ties to the major record labels, went to such great lengths to avoid these pitfalls with the launch of DVD-Video in 1997.

The idea of converting movies into digital files and putting them on compact discs, offering significantly better picture and sound quality than VHS videotape, gained momentum in the early 1990s. But an ugly format war split the industry into factions, with Sony leading one group and Toshiba another. Meanwhile, the Hollywood studios were very nervous about piracy.

Cooler heads prevailed. Sony and Toshiba were pressured to join forces in a single hardware standard that became DVD, and the launch of DVD players was delayed more than a year until Hollywood felt enough anti-copying protection had been added.

The DVD-Video format arrived with players from several manufacturers, more than a dozen movies immediately available and specific commitments from most of the major studios to quickly bring more movies to DVD.

There is no such momentum behind DVD-Audio.

I'll concede, for all my disdain, that the situation could change in three to six months.

First, a number of big electronics companies, including JVC, Kenwood, Onkyo, Pioneer, Thomson/RCA and Toshiba, are promising to bring DVD-Audio players to the market.

Second, hardware prices could quickly come down. The initial Panasonic and Technics DVD-Audio players, which also play DVD-Video movies and music CDs, cost twice as much or more than DVD-Video players. If DVD-Audio/Video combination players only cost slightly more than DVD-Video-only players, perhaps a 20 percent to 30 percent premium, the installed base might grow slowly.

Third, the record labels might unleash a flood of DVD-Audio titles. They might even more place a modest premium, say $5, on DVD-Audio albums over conventional music CDs instead of attempting to gouge consumers for an extra $10 or $15.

Even if all these things happen, DVD-Audio is far from a slam dunk.

For starters, DVD-Audio isn't designed for easy installation or portability. The only way to hear the full quality of a DVD-Audio recording is to connect six cables from the player to a home theater A/V receiver with six analog inputs. That's one cable for each of the six surround channels – left and right front speakers, center speaker, left and right rear speakers and a subwoofer – creating a wiring nightmare.

Many, if not most, of the A/V receivers already in homes don't have these six analog inputs. The majority of midrange and top-of-the-line A/V receivers now on shelves do have analog inputs, but entry-level models, the most popular at $300 or less, don't.

So the early adopters of Dolby Digital home theater and DVD-Video – the most likely market for DVD-Audio – will need to shell out for a new A/V receiver as well as a new DVD player.

Panasonic and other DVD-Audio boosters are compounding this problem by hiding it; promotional information doesn't make it clear that DVD-Audio won't work without those six analog inputs on the A/V receiver.

Nor does DVD-Audio offer much benefit for on-the-go listening. Boom boxes have only two speakers and can't create true surround sound. The limitation is even more pronounced for portable disc players with headphones.

I certainly wasn't impressed with an informal DVD-Audio sound check.

After borrowing a Panasonic DVD-A7D player, I discovered my Sony STR-DA30ES home A/V receiver, which I purchased in May 1999 for $780, doesn't have analog inputs.

However, Panasonic says the A7D will "downmix" DVD-Audio to play through standard RCA jacks, the familiar red and white cables used for connecting CD players to receivers, and still offer superior performance to CD.

So I connected the A7D to my receiver with stereo cables and loaded the DVD-Audio sampler disc included with the player. I played Steely Dan's "Janie Runaway" from the album Two Against Nature, switching between the DVD-Audio sampler and my copy of the same song on CD. I couldn't tell any difference between the downmixed DVD-Audio and the CD versions.

Next, I went to a local electronics store with a fancy home theater listening room, clutching my Steely Dan CD. I got a friendly sales guy to play both versions on the store's Panasonic A7D, properly connected with analog cables to a high-end pre-amplifier, amplifier and surround speakers that would together cost about $2,200.

I now noticed some difference. When a brief burst of trumpets punctuated a lyric, the horn section clearly performed from behind my head in DVD-Audio. But the CD version also sounded great to me.

The sales guy, who might have sharper ears than mine or might just feel compelled to defend new technology, said the DVD-Audio sounded "brighter" and "cleaner" to him, with noticeably less hiss than the CD.

My conclusion: You'll need to spend at least $1,500 on receivers and speakers and position them and yourself perfectly in a room to get a significant benefit from DVD-Audio.

Panasonic appears to agree. On its Web site, a DVD-Audio Q&A says: "Individual electronic components must be carefully designed and selected not only for superb technical performance, but also for their contribution to accuracy of timbre, imaging, sound-staging and sheer musicality."

In other words, DVD-Audio isn't a format for the average listener.

Contact Mike Langberg at mike@ langberg.com or (408) 920-5084.