New sound systems will replace `outdated' CDs

MUSIC Technologies will soon be battling for your ears and money, offering recordings that are said to make CDs sound like scratched old 78s
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The Independent Online
JOHN BAMFORD has heard the future of music, and he likes it. "24- bit encoding, 96 kilohertz sampling and 5.1 channels", he said, standing beside a glowing rack of hi-fi equipment worth pounds 25,000. "Three speakers in front, two behind."

Mr Bamford was talking about DVD-Audio, the next generation of hi-fi. Those with ears sensitive enough to tell the difference, such as Mr Bamford, the editor of Hi-Fi magazine, say DVD-Audio gives recordings with far more accuracy and depth than CDs (which offer 16-bit encoding, 44 kHz sampling and two channels).

In a few years, this is expected to start replacing the CD, just as DVD movie discs are beginning to replace videotapes as a film medium. Those with pounds 3,000 to spare will be able to exchange their old hi-fi with a pioneer DVD-Audio player from next spring, although they may have problems finding discs, apart from standard CDs, which will play on it.

Those with a couple of hundred pounds can join the rush of Britons who this Christmas are expected to buy MP3s, the latest form of music on the move, which uses technology that was originally developed for the Internet.

MP3 files are compressed versions of the digital files found on CDs. To produce them, you need a software "encoder", which runs on a PC and can squeeze up to 10 minutes of music into the space needed for one minute of CD recording.

That data is sent from the PC to the player, to be stored on data cards, which do not need batteries. With no moving parts, the players are light, small and utterly skip-free, unlike conventional cassette players, or CD and MiniDisc players.

Two companies, Diamond Multimedia and LG Electronics, are already retailing the MP3 players in the UK at between pounds 150 and pounds 250, and more versions, including an in-car player, are expected to follow.

According to Katherine Lowe, a PR executive who has used MP3 players, they have clear advantages: "They're much lighter, and you can use them during exercise. They're great when you're running and jumping, and you can change the songs whenever you want, simply by downloading different ones from your computer."

Record companies are terrified by the potential loss of revenue, as people swap music on the Internet. The trend was highlighted this week when David Bowie released a new album on the Web in an uncopyable equivalent of the MP3 format, weeks before will appear in the shops. Bowie said: "I couldn't be more pleased to have the opportunity of moving the music industry closer to the process of making digital downloading available as the norm and not the exception."

Mr Bamford thinks those expectations may be exaggerated: "People will always want to have something they can hold. MP3s are like paperback books; easy, disposable, low-quality. But people like to be able to read lyrics, to see artwork, read the artist's comments. That's why they buy CDs and will buy DVD-Audio."

Music on DVD-Audio will become widely available by about 2003, he predicts, and gradually fewer releases will be made on the older CD format.

Yet there are still some sticklers for the older formats. A few yards from the stand at the hi-fi show where Pioneer was displaying its next- generation DVD player this week were racks of vinyl 12-inch records. Do people still buy them? "Yes. Lots of them say that the sound quality is better than CDs. We do a lot of business," the saleswoman said.