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Wednesday, November 06, 2002
New audio formats come with price


Two new digital audio disc formats touted by the music industry for their stellar sound are nowhere near as consumer-friendly as regular old CDs: They’re engineered to be copy-proof. The proposition thrills digital piracy-fearing record executives. But many audiophiles are cool to the virtual padlocks, which could prove the undoing of one or both formats.

ABOUT 1,000 RECORDINGS are now available in Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio. Both require special new audio components and produce five-channel sound with superb clarity and definition.

Yet each format contains digital watermarks — extra encoding designed to lock the recordings on the disc. The intent is to foil digital duplication and ripping to MP3 files.

Moreover, there are no digital outputs on any SACD or DVD-Audio players now available, making them a tough sell despite the discs’ higher tonal quality and fuller audio range.

The Audible Difference in Palo Alto, Calif., is refusing to sell SACD or DVD-Audio players until manufacturers can ship a hybrid unit that plays both formats as well as legacy CDs in the highest quality sound available.

“Until we see a product like that, we’re sitting on the sidelines and we’re counseling our clients to sit on the sidelines,” said Tim Fay, who sells high-end stereo equipment at the store.

The Audible Difference has tested several units, Fay said. It found that the SACD disc playback quality is superb, but the legacy CD playback was not.

None of the 55 members of the Arizona Audiophile Society want players with these hardware limitations, said Don Hoglund, the group’s president.

“Some of the members had them and sold them. They got frustrated with the lack of availability of titles and the analog outputs only,” he said.

CONSUMER WANT COPY ABILITY

Sony, which developed the SACD format with Philips, says it will continue to make SACD players without digital outputs until there’s an industry standard for securing the digital audio stream. “With high-resolution audio, the need for secure interfaces becomes even greater, since the quality of audio on such formats as SACD is virtually indistinguishable from the master (tape),” said Sony spokesman David Migdal.

Panasonic hasn’t incorporated digital outputs into its DVD-Audio players for the same reasons. Despite the intentions of the manufacturers to limit digital copies, consumers favor such uses for music.

In a recent Gartner G2 survey, 88 percent of respondents said they believed it legal to make copies of CDs for personal backup use while 77 percent felt they should be able to copy a CD for personal use in another device.

Here’s how watermarks and copy protection schemes for both DVD-Audio and SACD currently work:

- Sony and Philips have developed Super Audio CD discs that contain two watermarks. One is for visual verification. The second is invisible, authenticates the disc for playback and is introduced during the mastering process. Without the watermark, the disc won’t play in a proprietary SACD player. Dual layer SACDs exist that contain a second session of legacy CD content that can be played on some existing CD players, but the higher quality SACD tracks can only be played on SACD players.

- DVD-Audio discs use similar encryption technology from a company called Verance. The company’s chief technology officer, Joseph Winograd, said the acoustic watermarks cannot be heard by the human ear. The watermarks must be present for the player to recognize the disc and play the content. A bootleg DVD-Audio without the watermark would fail to play, Winograd said. Verance was contracted to provide the watermark solution by 4C Entity, a consortium of technology companies — IBM, Intel, Matsushita and Toshiba — charged with creating an industry encryption standard for protecting audio content for DVD-Audio discs.

BUYER BEWARE

The protections come just as prices for computer DVD burners have dropped to as little as $299. ‘Copyright owners are entitled to use whatever formats they want to use. If they really want to protect their content they can go back to vinyl.’ FRED VON LOHMANN intellectual property attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation Techie tinkerers will likely also be looking to attack the copy-protection schemes of DVD-Audio and SACD just as the scheme for DVD movies was cracked several years ago.

GartnerG2 analyst P.J. McNealy says the public should be fully informed about the copy protection aspects of these new discs. “I don’t think anybody per se is against copy protected CDs. I think they’re against no-labeled copy protected CDs,” McNealy said. The labels are optional at this point. None of the dozens of DVD-Audio and SACD discs examined at Virgin Megastore in San Francisco mentioned the underlying copy-protection scheme in their outer packaging.

Fred von Lohmann, an intellectual property attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the onus will be on consumers to make sure they’re aware of what they’re buying. “Copyright owners are entitled to use whatever formats they want to use,” von Lohmann said. “If they really want to protect their content they can go back to vinyl.”


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