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On the flipside

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear that the record companies are doing more than just targeting file-swappers for lawsuits? Well, here’s good news: They’re also trying to make music sound better.

A ways down the list of record company solutions to illegal file-sharing (No. 1 again this week: Threaten to sue downloaders) is the curious idea of offering a better product. Actually creating and marketing better music is another matter, but for now, developers are looking at ways to make existing music sound better.

Some baby steps are being made in that direction, with Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) among the most prominent current examples. SACDs use 16-bit PCM recording technology at a 44.1KHz sampling rate. The frequency response of regular CDs is limited to 22.05KHz. The SACD uses a sampling frequency 64 times higher than that of CDs. So they sound great, but predictably, the problem with SACDs is that they’re beholden to the weakest link in your stereo system: Even with a dedicated player, if your speakers aren’t up to the job of bringing out the subtleties in the disc, you won’t hear any difference between an SACD and a regular CD.

SACD sales have been modest so far: Only a total of about a million SACDs were sold worldwide in 2002, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

That’s not a bad number of early adopters, since SACDs weren’t even around three years ago. But it does represent discs that are compatible on both SACD and regular CD players, many of which are bought by consumers who don’t have a clue that their new purchase uses the new technology.

Unless regular companies start releasing SACD/CD hybrids as a matter of course until the superior technology becomes standard, it’s unlikely that SACDs will be sought out by anyone but audiophiles.

A medium that might have a more realistic hope of capturing the hearts of everyday music fans is the DVD-Audio disc. DVD-A’s also sold about a million copies worldwide last year, and it’s hard to ignore the medium’s potential as a shot in the arm for the record business. Single-layer DVD-A offers at least 74 minutes of CD sound, plus additional features (such as video and interactivity) that are not available on conventional CDs.

But as they exist now, DVD-A’s can’t accommodate both top-quality sound and picture, so developers are scrambling to perfect a double-sided hybrid disc in which one side plays like a CD and the other like a DVD video disc. But a very basic physical shortcoming is holding the hybrid disc back: The current prototype of the disc is too thick to play in many car audio players, and the segment of people who play CDs in their cards is too huge to alienate.

Consumers and manufacturers should see a lot to like in the hybrid discs. They promise superior copy protection, backward compatibility to both CD and DVD-Video playback equipment, and the obvious additional content (video, photos, and other extras). Plus, unlike SACD, DVD-Audio is not proprietary.

But again, the format is for audio snobs only, at least for the moment. A dedicated player is required for DVD-Audio discs, and to get the most out of them, you need a receiver with six digital stereo inputs.

One of many reasons why CD sales have slumped over the past couple of years is that comparably priced digital entertainment options have become so plentiful. The $20 you spend on a new CD could easily go toward a DVD or a game that has a lot more content, and therefore more staying power. One way for the humble CD to fight back could be by providing fans with much more than just the music.

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