What About DVD-Audio or Music DVDs?

When DVDs were released in 1996, no DVD-Audio format was available, although the audio capabilities of DVD-Video far surpassed CDs. The DVD Forum sought additional input from the music industry before defining the DVD-Audio format.

A draft standard was released by the DVD Forum’s Working Group 4 (WG4) in January of 1998, and version 0.9 was released in July. The final DVD-Audio 1.0 specification (minus copy protection) was approved in February of 1999 and released in March, but products were delayed in part by the slow process of selecting copy protection features (encryption and watermarking), with complications introduced by the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI).

The scheduled October 1999 release was further delayed until mid-2000, ostensibly because of concerns caused by the CSS crack (see “What Is DeCSS?” in Chapter 4), but also because the hardware wasn’t quite ready, production tools weren’t up to snuff, and the support from music labels was lackluster.

Pioneer released the first DVD-Audio players (without copy protection support) in Japan in late 1999. Matsushita released Panasonic and Technics universal DVD-Audio/DVDVideo players in July of 2000 for $700 to $1,200. Pioneer, JVC, Yamaha, and others released DVD-Audio players in the fall of 2000 and early 2001.

By the end of 2000, about 50 DVD-Audio titles were available, and by the end of 2001 just under 200 DVD-Audio titles were available. DVD-Audio is a separate format from DVD-Video. DVD-Audio discs can be designed to work in DVD-Video players, but it’s possible to make a DVDAudio disc that won’t play at all in a DVD-Video player.

This is because the DVD-Audio specification includes new formats and features, with content stored in a separate DVD-Audio zone on the disc (the AUDIO_TS directory) that DVD-Video players never look at. New DVD-Audio players are needed to solve this problem, or new “universal players” should be produced that can play both DVD-Video and DVD-Audio discs. Universal players are also called video-capable audio players (VCAPs).

A plea to producers: Universal players are rare, but you can make universal discs easily. With a small amount of effort, all DVD-Audio discs can be made to work on all DVD players by including a Dolby Digital version of the audio in the DVD-Video zone.

A plea to DVD-Audio authoring system developers: Make your software do this by default or strongly recommend this option during authoring.

DVD-Audio players (and universal players) work with existing receivers. They output PCM and Dolby Digital, and some will support the optional DTS and direct stream digital (DSD) formats. However, most current receivers can’t decode high-definition, multichannel PCM audio, and even if they could, it can’t be carried on standard digital audio connections.

DVD-Audio players with high-end digital-to-analog converters (DACs) can only be hooked up to receivers with two-channel or six-channel analog inputs, but quality is lost if the receiver converts back to digital for processing.

New receivers with improved digital connections such as IEEE 1394 (FireWire) are needed to use the full digital resolution of DVD-Audio. DVD audio is copyright protected by an embedded signaling or digital watermark feature. This uses signal-processing technology to apply a digital signature and optional encryption keys to the audio in the form of supposedly inaudible noise so that new equipment will recognize copied audio and refuse to play it.

Proposals from Aris, Blue Spike, Cognicity, IBM, and Solana were evaluated by major music companies in conjunction with the 4C Entity. Aris and Solana merged to form a new company called Verance, whose Galaxy technology was chosen for DVD-Audio in August of 1999. (In November of 1999, Verance watermarking was also selected for SDMI.)

Verance and 4C claimed that tests on the Verance watermarking method showed it was inaudible, but golden-eared listeners in later tests were able to detect the watermarking noise. Sony and Philips have developed a competing SACD format that uses DVD discs.

Sony released version 0.9 of the SACD spec in April 1998, and the final version appeared a year later. SACD technology is available to existing Sony/Philips CD licensees at no additional cost. Most initial SACD releases have been mixed in stereo, not multichannel.

SACD was originally supposed to provide “legacy” discs with two layers, one that plays in existing CD players, plus a high-density layer for DVD-Audio players, but technical difficulties kept dual-format discs from being produced until the end of 2000, and only then in small quantities.

Pioneer, which released the first DVD-Audio players in Japan at the end of 1999, included SACD support in their DVD-Audio players. If other manufacturers follow suit, the entire SACD versus DVDAudio standards debate could be moot, because DVD-Audio players would play both types of discs.

Sony released an SACD player in Japan in May of 1999 at the tear-inducing price of $5,000. The player was released in limited quantities in the United States at the end of 1999. Philips released a $7,500 player in May of 2000, and Sony shipped a $750 SACD player in Japan in mid-2000.

About 40 SACD titles were available at the end of 1999, from studios such as DMP, Mobile Fidelity Labs, Pioneer, Sony, and Telarc. Over 500 SACD titles were available by the end of 2001. A drawback related to DVD-Audio and SACD players is that most audio receivers with six channels of analog input aren’t able to provide bass management.

Receivers with Dolby Digital and DTS decoders handle bass management internally, but six-channel analog inputs are usually passed straight through to the amplifier. Without full bass management on sixchannel analog inputs, any audio setup that doesn’t have full-range speakers for all five surround channels will not properly reproduce all the bass frequencies.

If you are interested in making the most of a DVD-Audio or SACD player, you need a receiver with six-channel, analog audio inputs. You also need five full-frequency speakers (that is, each speaker should be able to handle subwoofer frequencies) and a subwoofer, unless you have a receiver that can perform bass management on the analog inputs, or you have an outboard bass management box such as one from Outlaw Audio (www. outlawaudio.com).

For more on DVD-Audio, including lists of titles and player models, visit the Digital Audio Guide (www.digitalaudioguide.com).