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Tuesday, January 28, 2003
Big guns join SACD/DVD-Audio fight

The Police, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and the Beach Boys are joining in the battle between two fledgling high-resolution music formats. A coming wave of releases of classic material for the competing Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio formats means the war will continue for the foreseeable future -- whether consumers like it or not. ''I think both DVD-Audio and SACD are here to stay,'' says Ken Pohlmann of Sound & Vision magazine.

SACD (championed by Sony and Philips) and DVD-Audio (supported by Panasonic and Pioneer) both deliver music that surpasses the sonic quality of CD, going beyond the limits of human hearing. Each also can be used for surround sound, with higher quality than the digital soundtracks on movies and music-video DVDs.

The recording industry would like to see a timely transition to the new music formats because, unlike current CDs, they can't be ''ripped'' and shared over the Net.

However, marketplace confusion is hindering public acceptance of both. So far only 1 million or so players have been sold that support each.

Last summer, SACD got a boost when Abkco released 22 remastered Rolling Stones albums -- among them Between the Buttons and Let It Bleed -- on ''hybrid'' SACD discs. These discs (priced at $13 to $19) look like current CDs but have two layers -- one for standard CD players and a higher-quality SACD layer. So far, the releases have sold more than 2 million copies in the USA and Europe.

And DVD-Audio gained some star power last month with the quiet release of Elvis 30 #1 Hits ($19-$22) by RCA. Though DVD-Audio discs cannot be played on standard CD players, they have secondary Dolby Digital soundtracks that are compatible with ordinary DVD players.

These have prodded other artists and labels into action:

* Timed to the 30th anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon -- on Billboard's album chart for a record 724 consecutive weeks -- EMI will release a surround-sound SACD March 3 with a remastered CD layer for standard players. ''It is such a unique album (that) it really lends itself to that,'' says Sony's David Kawakami. He says that then-lyricist Roger Waters told him the multichannel mix by the band's longtime producer James Guthrie ''adds a whole new sonic dimension. . . . There's more space for all the theater.''

* Also in March, coinciding with the band's induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the entire catalog of The Police, including Outlandos D'Amour and Ghost in the Machine, will hit stores on SACD. Recent Universal SACD releases include Beck's Sea Change and Ryan Adams' Gold ($14-$16)

* Then this fall, Sony Music will re-release 15 Bob Dylan albums, including Another Side of Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blood on the Tracks on hybrid SACD discs.

* Coming Tuesday on DVD-Audio: R.E.M's Document, Aaron Neville's Believe and The Band's Music From Big Pink (prices $15-$20). And in May, the anticipated re-release of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds is due; it's being remixed in multichannel mode with the help of Brian Wilson.

SACD currently has some 600 titles available; DVD-Audio has about 300. Both formats usually sell for a premium compared with CDs; however, both camps plan to cut prices on new releases to spur sales. For instance, the Dylan discs will carry standard CD prices -- suggested retail of $18, discounted as low as $12. Prices for players are dropping, too, below the $200 mark.

Eventually, one format will have to win, or they'll have to merge to become successful, says Kurt Orzeck, managing editor of ICE Magazine. ''People want simplicity with music. It's only natural.''

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