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Save Our Sound!

A recent spirited exchange with's  esteemed Executive Editor has prompted this month's introductory exploration of the new "high-resolution" audio formats now entering the marketplace: DVD Audio (DVD-A) and Super Audio CD (SACD). While both of these new formats promise substantial improvements over the standard two-channel CD that presently provides most of us with our music, they face a substantial uphill battle to attract a sufficient critical mass of supporters to insure their long-term viability. Unfortunately for those of us who would love to embrace a state-of-the-art playback medium that offers the advantages of CD at a higher level of ultimate fidelity, both DVD-A and SACD are being introduced at a time of diminished expectations on the part of the music-buying public, due in part to the widespread acceptance of highly compressed, less-than-CD-quality audio formats such as Dolby Digital ­ the standard for both DVD Video and HDTV broadcasts ­ and MP3, notorious for its use in widespread internet-based music piracy.

For most of the history of recorded music, the notion of "progress" has always meant one thing: trying to capture music for later replay with as little degradation as possible. Technologies have changed over the decades, but the essential goal of High Fidelity to the sound of real instruments has always been the beacon lighting the way for the creative thinkers, designers, and engineers working to advance the state of the art. Alas, an insidiously corrosive new attitude now appears to threaten further progress: the passive acceptance of "good enough." Many of the recent "buzz" technologies begin from the premise that CD-standard 16 bit 44.1 kHz sampled audio is just that ­ good enough for most people most of the time. This is in fact now quite true, though it's taken two decades of development and refinement to realize the potential inherent in the CD format. Alarmingly, the focus of many recent audio developments has been on THROWING AWAY much of the subtle recorded information in order to reduce both storage space requirements and data transmission bandwidth.

Home theater formats such as Dolby Digital and dts, and internet-centric formats such as RealAudio, MP3, MP4, and LiquidAudio ALL discard substantial musically relevant information, regardless of their ultimate merit (only dts offers an "essentially lossless" compression option, though this mode does not appear to be used often). In the vein of the proverbial dancing elephant, it is indeed amazing that at their best, these formats can manage to sound tolerably decent to the non-critical listener, especially when one considers the amount of real information that they discard. For instance, the Dolby Digital soundtrack on a typical DVD Video release discards so much information that it manages to squeeze up to 6 channels of audio into approximately one quarter of the 2 channel CD-standard data rate! The technology pundits behind these dubious "advancements" maintain that the information being discarded is sonically irrelevant, based on their extensive psycho-acoustic studies. And I will readily admit that when I'm watching an entertaining movie on a DVD, I'm not being anywhere near as critical of ultimate sound quality as I am when listening attentively to a cherished musical performance. However, I most emphatically DO NOT want any of those "it's good enough for movie soundtracks" compressed-audio formats anywhere near MY music, thank you very much; "lossy" compression algorithms are fundamentally hostile to the very principle of High Fidelity.

Now, three decades into the digital audio era, technology has advanced to the point where consumer-affordable equipment can be manufactured that offers a HIGHER level of performance than CD, as both DVD Audio and SACD demonstrate. Rather than attempting to see how much of the CD-quality digital datastream we can discard before utterly destroying the signal's capacity to convey musical meaning, we should and can be working instead to capture and convey MORE music than can be encoded on a CD.

We as consumers will play a critical role in determining what happens next. If music plays a significant and meaningful role in your life, please don't sit by passively allowing the noble goal of High Fidelity to be usurped by least-common denominator internet-audio or home theater compressed audio standards. Actively seek out DVD Audio and SACD players and music. Support those dealers who support these new formats. Do so critically, because as with everything else in this wonderful world of audio, there will be mediocre, good, and exceptional examples of each. We will endeavor to keep you abreast of our ongoing assessment of these new developments as DVD-A and SACD music titles are released, both new recordings and re-issues. If we all just sit back and take a cautious "wait and see" attitude, our once-in-a-generation opportunity to actively participate in the advancement of the music reproduction art may simply fade into the background noise of compressed-audio mediocrity.

-- Karl Schuster

Stanford University graduate Karl Schuster began his involvement in the High End audio industry in retail sales at High C Stereo in Virginia, and Sound Components in Florida. He served as Customer Service Director for International Audio Technologies, and was a founding partner of Metaphor Acoustic Designs, Ltd. In addition to the cable and loudspeaker design work he currently undertakes as President of the company he founded in 1993, Empirical Design, he provides consulting and OEM design services to retailers and manufacturers. He hopes to someday fulfill a lifelong dream of coordinating a joint recording project between John Tavener and Charlotte Church.

Reprinted from the February issue of CLASSICS TODAY, with permission.

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