Charles Arthur On Technology

The new audio revolution
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If you bought Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on vinyl, and then CD, you're just the person the record business is looking for. They'd like you to buy it again, please - but this time as a Super Audio CD (SACD), remixed with cinema-style surround sound and requiring a whole new player.

If you bought Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on vinyl, and then CD, you're just the person the record business is looking for. They'd like you to buy it again, please - but this time as a Super Audio CD (SACD), remixed with cinema-style surround sound and requiring a whole new player.

You might think this is just a cynical marketing ploy. But the industry has proved to itself that it can work: when Pink Floyd's classic 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon was reissued recently as a SACD, "sales leapt from 150,000 annually to 700,000", says Dirk de Clippeleir, the managing director of Universal Music in Belgium.

Most of the buyers so far are owners of home theatre systems that can recreate the higher-quality sound that SACD produces. And they tend also to be the baby-boomers who are happy to re-buy albums from their youth such as T Rex's Electric Warrior, available remixed on SACD.

SACD offers improved sound: the surround effect is interesting. On Elton John's album, the backing vocals and guitars on "Candle in the Wind" are routed to the speakers behind you, giving the feeling of being inside the studio where the song is being played.

But it's not just old albums that are appearing on SACD. Urged on - and with a multimillion-pound investment - by the record labels, who have a very definite agenda for the new format, modern artists including Snow Patrol, Groove Armada and Beyoncé are also producing SACD albums. The reason the music business is putting in all this money is that the introduction of the format is part of a wider plan that would - if they get their way - see the 21-year-old CD format eventually abandoned in favour of SACD. The reason: pirates cannot crack or duplicate SACD discs.

"The ultimate aim is that you switch to the protected SACD format," says De Clippeleir. "What we need is a new format that protects us against piracy. If this format takes off like DVD films did, then there's five to seven years and we could say that you could release everything like that. The industry is in a phase of testing, experimenting, looking for a solution to the [piracy] problem."

But privately, record executives admit that they have only two years to get buyers to adopt the new format. The big labels will abandon it if, after that period, the new technology fails to push up their sales.

The alternative is that SACD will join the graveyard of music formats, following such things as 78rpm vinyl, 8-track cassette, and the short-lived Dataplay format, which arrived, hyped by a Britney Spears release, and then disappeared two years ago. Some wonder whether it will ever be possible to stop selling CDs.

"I don't think the consumer will ever wear it," says Philip Hobbs of Linn Records, which is making both SACDs and SACD players. "There are one billion CD players out there already in the world. They can't play SACDs. To lose access to all those at once is unthinkable."

Such frankness is rare. But stopping piracy is still the record industry's biggest obsession. Current estimates by the International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI), which represents global labels, suggest that one-third of all CDs sold are actually made by pirates.

"We have to try to protect something out there," says Hobbs. "This sound is better quality, it's surround, and is protected. We're giving people something that's clearly superior. SACD is just getting to the stage where its artistically interesting." Producers are becoming interested, and now acquainted, with the potential that surround sound offers.

However, the industry's ambitious scheme to solve its problems in one fell swoop faces two serious obstacles. The SACD format was developed more than seven years ago. While it has been creeping to the market, the widespread arrival of the internet and cheap computers means people are "ripping" music from CDs to put it on to portable music players such as Apple's iPod player.

But "ripping" is impossible with the pure SACD format. Is that good? In an ideal, music-executive-led world, yes. But in the real world, where most people simply don't care about better sound but do like being able to move their music around as they wish, you can't foist a new format on people, and certainly not one that immediately makes obsolete both their existing players and kills off the new-found convenience of carrying thousands of songs around in a pocket.

That has forced executives to accept that the only way to sell SACDs is to produce so-called "dual-layer" discs that contain both the SACD and CD formats. Ordinary CD players will not "see" the SACD part of the disc, and so can play the music ordinarily. But the new generation of SACD player detects the extra format, and plays back the surround-sound music.

The other problem is a rival "better" format, being pushed by Warner Music, called "DVD-Audio". It too produces surround-sound music with higher quality, and is also being pushed as the solution to piracy. And its existence is confusing buyers - who sometimes think that the discs contain films.

Even though there are fewer DVD-A releases than SACDs - 700-odd against 2,000 - both are dwarfed by the number of CD releases every year. "SACD is going like CDs did initially," says Steve Gallant, the product director for HMV Europe. "But dual-layer discs mean it can play in CD players too. That's a huge advantage."

Yet is all this focus on physical things also missing the point? At the launch of Napster's UK music download site last week, its chief executive Chris Gorog forecast it would lead to the end of high street stores in a decade. (Then again, a little hyperbole always makes for a quotable event.) If he's right - even slightly right, so that some big-name artists appear only on single-layer SACD, and online, but never in CD format - we could be heading towards a world where to listen to music at good quality you have to buy the same track twice.

Worrying? Not for the record executives. But perhaps for the buyers, even as they enjoy the sound quality and surround sound of the guitars on their latest purchase.