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Disc-ography

Date: 5th April 2015

Disc-ography

If you ever needed any proof of how time flies, you only need to remember how dazzlingly ‘high tech’ it all seemed when Digital Versatile Disc was announced back in 1995. The public was amazed, the media was transfixed and it felt as if the whole world had taken one step closer to the future.

DVD came out of the need to store high quality video on a small optical disc. It was an amalgam of Multimedia Compact Disc (MMCD), backed by Philips and Sony, and Super Density (SD) disc, supported by Toshiba, Time Warner, Matsushita, Mitsubishi, Pioneer and JVC and others. But after much wrangling, the industry came together and conjoined the technologies with impressive results – the new disc was able to store high quality video with a 5.1 channel surround sound Dolby or DTS soundtrack.

Audiophiles watched quietly from the sidelines, then as the final specifications were published, champagne corks popped in hi-fi households as it became clear that DVD could carry PCM stereo at up to 24/96 resolution. This represented the biggest step change in recorded music for decades, although it was not reported as such. Those bored with 16/44.1 CD – launched in 1982 – at last had something to look forward to…

As it transpired, depressingly little came of it. Some niche US audiophile labels released a few ‘DVD Music’ discs with stereo PCM at 24/96, and there were even some DTS music DVDs with surround and stereo mixes of popular albums, designed to be played back through DVD players with DTS decoders. But by the late nineties it began to look like a false dawn; it was obvious that DVD was not going to replace CD as the premium music medium. Then, just as the hi-fi world had resigned itself to this fate, news came of DVD-Audio – a bespoke music variant of DVD, designed to carry uncompressed two-channel 24/192, or multichannel 24/96. It was a genuinely exciting time, when those who cared about the sound of their music had their fleeting moment ‘in the sun’.

Sadly though, it was not to last. Had DVD-A been playable on standard DVD players at its enhanced resolution, it may have garnered more press interest. But when the format launched in 2000, the headline news was that ‘you have to buy a new DVD-Audio player’; when many had only just bought their first (and very expensive) DVD machine, this was not what they wanted to hear. Also, the companies promoting DVD-Audio clearly told the press that the discs did not need to be played on a machine that was hooked up to a display, so you didn’t need to fumble through the video-based menu system. In practice though this didn’t happen.

The other cloud on DVD-A’s horizon was Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD). This seemed to be strong just where DVD-A was weak. For example, it was launched nearly a year earlier, played on two-channel players and had backwards compatibility with older CD players. People could start buying SACDs which they would play on their existing Compact Disc machine and then upgrade to an SACD player when they were ready so to do. Also, SACD players didn’t need to be hooked up to a display to play, and their jewelcases were the same size as a normal CD. In other words, it was a more seamless transition from CD to SACD, than it was from CD to DVD-Audio.

Of course, arguments about the relative merits of DVD-A’s PCM coding system and SACD’s Direct Stream Digital (DSD) system still rage to this day – but both are noticeably superior to Red Book CD, and that is surely the point. The problem was that, like London buses, you wait for ages for one to come and then two arrive at once. The buying public was confused, but there was no format war because no one was really interested in either. DVD-Audio discs disappeared by 2007, while SACDs continue on a small scale, buoyed by their relative strength in Japan, but are still highly niche.

In truth, the biggest difference that DVD-A made was to encourage the wholesale move to high resolution digital recording in studios. Before its advent the industry depended heavily on Digital Audio Tape recording systems running at 16/48 resolution, but by the latter half of the nineteen nineties dCS was supplying reference-quality analogue-to-digital converters capable of running at 24/96 (and subsequently 24/192), bringing dramatically superior sound.

A toast then to DVD-Audio – a long-deceased music format that was made possible in 1995, launched in 2000 and finally got the recording industry serious about sound. Many of the hi-res streaming and download services appearing now wouldn’t be possible without it – but only now are we beginning to enjoy this once-futuristic format.