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TNT-Audio Editor's corner - February 2002

It's a Digital World

Author: Steve Davey

It was with some trepidation that I sent an article to our editor reviewing a new Sony DVP NS900V DVD player that also plays CDs and the new high resolution medium SACD (Super Audio CDs); bordering as it does on the interface between Hi-Fi and audio-visual. However, I am of the opinion that the digital format has now come of age. I am not saying that the digital format can offer an aural holy grail but with the advent of DVD movies rapidly displacing video cassettes in rental outlets in the UK and players being sold for less than 100 (160 euros), it will not be long before the DVD player will be as ubiquitous as the TV. Such huge volumes will drive down prices and improve performance.

Lets go back two decades to get some context: I remember as a student lusting after the first CD players from Philips; being seduced by the "perfect sound for ever" marketing strap line.
These early devices retailed in excess of 1000 (1600 euros) and were priced way above what I could afford so I would return from the shop audition to my Dual vinyl front end and listen for all those pops and crackles wishing I had a CD player. Of course the irony was that had I a better amp I would have realised that the turntable was certainly capable of making better music than those early players. But we are talking of a time when AM radio broadcasting was still more common than FM and so the apparent clarity of CD had impact, especially when coupled with a silent background.
Many still argue that a vinyl front end packs the best sound per Euro, even though today's players push the original 16 bit CD format to the limit to produce some very fine sounds indeed. Having gone through a number of CD players since my student days I have stuck with a clocked Arcam transport and Kinshaw DAC for quite a few years. In my opinion it delivers a good quality sound though no match for my LP12. As the LP12 is my primary front end I have not felt the need to up-grade the CD player and it is mainly used for background music rather than dedicated listening.

Superiority of analogue replay for audio in the home may be a valid claim. The same, however, can not be claimed for video. No longer is it necessary to go to a cinema to experience the spectacle of the big film. Cathode ray tubes of hitherto unseen performance, plasma screens and projection TVs coupled with digital sound bring movies to the home. It is this application that I think digital technology was destined to arrive at and in fact the music CD was just a necessary step on that path.
While the LP gives superb sound and permits access to any place in a performance by simply placing a stylus on the appropriate groove (the density of the grooves giving a visual clue where to land it) all the CD gives in reality is a smaller disc less prone (but not immune) to damage. Sure some might argue the ergonomic benefits like random play and programmability as important differentiators but it is quite amazing that a whole new industry developed on the back of these added benefits.
By contrast comparing DVD with the incumbent video replay technology -the VCR- brings improved picture quality, high speed access, all manner of DSP functions and "dynamic" sound. This last attribute is not to be confused with the dynamism produced by a top quality Hi-Fi set up having life-like timbre, highs and lows, depth of image and the like. In the case of DVD I refer to the illusion of action going on around the viewer as depicted in the movie: bullets flying across the room; dinosaurs threatening to trample the audience under foot; spacecraft emerging from behind the view position; etc.

At the same time as digital technology has been advancing for video applications there have also been the launch of the much heralded high resolution digital formats - SACD and DVD-A. SACD is based on DSD (Direct Stream Digital) and is supported by Sony and Philips, while the other format is PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) at 24bit/96kHz. Sony developed DSD (a 1 bit 64 oversampled technology to archive its aging software titles and the war rages as to which high resolution format will win out. Another VHS/Betamax perhaps. DVD has its roots in the development of the digital video but the V no longer stands for "video" but "versatile".
Both formats are promising multi-channel audio, essential for films but the case has yet to be made for its benefits with regard to music. Players are now emerging that will not only play DVDs and CDs but these new high resolution formats as well.

So it would appear that we have or are fast approaching a seminal convergence of advanced digital technology, especially when one also takes into account the advance of digital broadcasting and computer generated movies.
It is indeed a digital world. PCM is a deeply embedded enabler in society both in our workplaces and our homes. It is here to stay for the foreseeable future and so the Hi-Fi enthusiast wanting to try out high resolution digital formats faces a proliferation of boxes and potential backing the wrong format when buying the software. So many will stick with CDs and vinyl and wait to see who wins.
My bet is we will see both formats co-exist for some while perhaps until the next paradigm and where there exists complexity someone (the consumer) has to pay the cost. However, consider this: feeding a high speed bit stream signal train through a capacitive load will produce an anolgue type signal. Is this the digital future? Well if it works at all; it might, one day, be made to work well!

© Copyright 2002 Steve Davey - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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