Tuesday, August 21, 2007

HD-Audio - more comments

Constantin Gonzalez posted this excellent article: "So, where's the future of HD Audio?" in his blog a few days ago.

He explains that the music industry has 2 major problems with high definition audio:
  1. most fans, retailers and music publishers don't care about HD audio
  2. those that are interested in HD audio are a small niche scattered across many competing format choices
The first problem is due to the fact that most people have been told CD quality audio is good enough. Heck, most people are perfectly satisfied with less than CD quality - lossy encoded MP3s or AACs they either download from peer-to-peer sites or purchase from iTunes or other online music stores. Constantin explains that the human ear/brain is much more accurate and capable of hearing a higher dynamic range of audio and phase differences than is possible with CD recordings.

He's right. If only people knew what they were missing, maybe there would be more interest in HD audio. Some may argue that DVD quality video is also good enough, but the fact that more people are purchasing HD televisions, obviously they must believe there are added benefits to the higher resolution video images. Otherwise, why bother spending a few thousand dollars on a new screen when the standard definition screens are only a few hundred bucks and they work fine for watching DVDs. Now that they own a nice HD monitor, maybe they'll want to match it with a sound system capable of reproducing the audio tracks in all their higher resolution surround sound glory. If they appreciate the improved quality from the movie's sound tracks, maybe they will demand higher quality audio from the artists that provide rock, jazz, classical, etc., recordings.

Constantin says the second problem is really a mess and it is really about how the companies in the music business are competing to control the next popular format(s). The combination of competing media like SACD, DVD-Audio and now HD DVD and Blu-Ray, along with competing encoding methods like DSD or 24bit PCM with compression schemes from either Dolby, DTS, Meridian, etc., etc., AND the DRM methods employed to restrict copying resulting in a variety of hardware incompatibilities have just made the transition to HD audio very difficult.

All of this has created so much confusion with the average consumer that they are more inclined to just wait it out until a clear winner emerges so they don't mistakenly invest a lot of money in a bunch of discs or equipment that aren't supported in the future. Besides, the latest technology is always pretty expensive. Look at the historical prices of any consumer A/V products. Early VCRs were over $1,000, as were the earliest DVD players. Now look at how much they cost. Nobody wants to repeat the mistake of purchasing a $1,200 Beta VCR, like I did.

So, combining these problems we have the old chicken and the egg dilemma. Most people don't care about HD audio, but why should they? There's really not enough HD content out there to make it worth while on any single format. Maybe the big record labels are unwilling to produce albums on HD media until they are confident a secure HD format is popular enough to make it worth the necessary investment. Since most of the current HD audio content is offered through many small niches on either SACD or DVD-Audio and possibly HD DVD or Blu-Ray in the near future, there obviously is no clear winner. From a business perspective, compared to regular CDs and DVDs all of these higher quality formats are huge losers.

Oh, and to add to the confusion... Interactive MVI discs are the CD's newest rivals.

I guess this is one of the reasons why I think PC audio is the way to go. With a PC, you can play almost every media type and encoding method out there. You might not even have to deal with multiple media types if you choose to download from online music stores that offer HD audio albums.

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