Now that most Americans have finally stashed their turntables in the attic, the recording industry has decided to introduce a new format to replace the compact disc, only 15 years after the introduction of the CD.
The leading record companies and consumer-electronics manufacturers have agreed on the broad technical guidelines for the new format, called DVD audio. The accord signals a fundamental shift in the recorded-music business - away from two-channel stereo sound, the predominant recording mode of the last 35 years, to multichannel audio using six speakers.
Industry executives vow that the move will not render today’s discs obsolete. But audio experts say the new discs and players, most likely to reach the market in about two years at prices initially higher than current compact discs and CD players, may tempt many consumers to update their sound systems and music libraries.
In addition to multichannel “surround sound,” the new technology will offer higher-fidelity recordings than the compact disc. Despite the clarity of CD recordings, purists have always complained that they render music that is cold and lacking in the subtleties and nuances of live music.
The new discs will be able to store seven times more digital data than today’s CDs, and industry executives say some of that space may also be used for additional channels of interactive text, images or video sequences that could be played on a TV monitor.
With the shift to DVD audio, consumer-electronics manufacturers also hope to draw the music business closer to the growing home-theater market. Industry figures show that at least 13 million households already have multichannel audio-video systems primarily intended to play the “surround sound” soundtracks on prerecorded videos and an increasing number of broadcast TV shows.
Equipment makers, of course, hope to generate a new cycle of profits by selling a new generation of audio gear.
But the transition may not be quick. The technical guidelines stipulate that a DVD-audio disc will play in a CD player, and compact discs will play in the new DVD-audio players. Still, only buyers of the new machines will be able to use the new features.
“This is a natural evolution for audio,” said Hillary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America. “The multichannel experience can be extraordinary. You can feel like you’re are sitting in the front row at a concert - or right in the middle of a band.”
Consumer-electronics manufacturers heartily agree.
“It gives a new sensation to music,” said Jan Oosterveld, senior director of strategic planning for Philips Electronics, which invented the compact disc.
But not everyone is entirely enthusiastic. Wes Phillips, an editor for Stereophile magazine, which is sold to high-end audio enthusiasts, said he welcomed the plan to improve the recording quality. But Phillips said he worried that some recording companies might abuse the surround-sound capabilities to create gimmicky, less realistic renditions of musical performances.
There is no guarantee, of course, that consumers will not reject this latest audio format the way they have some others in the past - most notably four-channel quadraphonic sound in the mid-1970s or digital audio tape in the late ‘80s.
But industry officials say that because the new audio format is compatible with the current CD standard, and because it will complement today’s multichannel home entertainment systems, DVD audio has a better chance of catching on than some of the earlier formats.
The change, if it does take hold, is certain to set off arguments in many families. Not every member of the household is very likely to be enthusiastic about finding room for four more speakers in the living room. And it is unclear how many consumers, who have already moved from vinyl records to CDs, might now be willing to buy a third version of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” for example, so it can be heard in surround sound.
Old recordings would have to be remastered for DVD’s six channels, but industry executives say that the format is primarily intended for new releases.
“It would be wrong to perceive that we are doing this to convince people to replace their existing collections,” said Lawrence Kenswil, executive vice president of the Universal Music Group, home to the MCA, Geffen and Universal recording labels.
DVD, which stands for “digital versatile disc,” was originally intended principally for video recordings and as a replacement for the CD-ROM discs used in personal computers. In fact, DVD-video discs and players went on the market earlier this year, and DVD-ROM drives are being introduced in some computers now.
All of the discs are the same size and shape as the current CD. But the idea of moving music recordings onto the DVD format had been a low priority for the recording industry because, unlike the video industry, audio already had a popular digital format, the compact disc.
In recent discussions, however, the recording industry has embraced the idea of multichannel audio and decided to move forward with the new format.
It also happens that sales of compact discs and audio equipment have been flat in recent years.
“We need something to recharge this industry,” said a senior consumer-electronics executive who declined to be identified.