Will New Audio Formats Drown out the CD? ; US Recording Industry Gives Super Audio CD, DVD Audio a Big Push

Article excerpt

Buying music these days is like staking your entertainment dollar to one in a circle of fast-spinning tops: Several similar-looking formats appear poised to replace the standard compact disc. So how to tell which is the "best" - and, more important, which will be the last to fall?

Millions of CD recordings are sold in the US each year - about 882 million in 2001 alone. But consumers' interest in the reigning audio format is flagging. Last year, sales fell for the first time since 1983.

The drop-off did not go unnoticed by music stores, which reduced their CD orders by 7 percent during the first half of this year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

The group attributes the decline to technology-savvy consumers who now "rip" (download) songs from the Internet or "burn" copies using a computer or CD recorder.

One result: Music companies are scrambling to find a more secure alternative to the CD.

The pitch to consumers, many of them feeling quite comfortable with the standard discs they now have: New, protected formats also offer richer sound.

"The [standard] compact disc is a format that has come to the end of its run," says Jerry Del Colliano, publisher of Audio Revolution, an audio-video industry magazine.

Two new music formats are considered likely successors. Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD Audio (DVD-A), say most experts, offer big improvements in sound quality over standard CDs (depending in part on the quality of the rest of a listener's audio system, and even the types of music he or she favors).

Both technologies also offer copy-protection as a standard feature. Only some CDs are now locked against duplication.

Regardless of which format wins broader appeal, most experts believe that for the foreseeable future consumers will continue to store music on discs, rather than just computer hard drives and MP3 players.

"Just as people make prints of digital photos that are meaningful to them, a disc is much more enduring than a digital file," says Carl Holec, a consumer-electronics analyst with ARS, a technology- research firm in La Jolla, Calif.

"History shows that it takes about 25 years to get rid of core technologies," says Ryan Jones, a media and entertainment analyst with the Yankee Group, a Boston-based market-research firm. "This is not yet a perfect digital world."

The simple reason consumers will ultimately buy into the new formats: They sound better, experts say. "It's like hearing the difference between a 120 horsepower Jetta and a 400 horsepower Ferrari," says Mr. …