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
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
"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. …