The new high-definition audio discs (DVD-Audio, Super Audio CD) coming soon are being engineered to be as useless as possible. Specifically designed never to be integrated into a PC, sporting proprietary digital connectors that will not talk to any general-purpose, open device, though these haven’t been developed yet so early adopters will have to make do with analog-only outputs.
Yet both kinds of discs, despite being developed in the ‘Net-head late ’90s, are odd throwbacks to the pre-PC era. Most obviously, they’re the same size as the original CD. Can you name any other digital device that hasn’t shrunk in 20 years? The players for them are bulky, closer in size to Sony’s first CD decks than to Apple’s iPod, which holds 400 albums rather than just one.
Flip one of the players over, and you’ll find another retro sight: analog output jacks. To prevent buyers from running off bit-for-bit copies of the new discs, gear-makers have agreed not to put digital ports on either DVD-A or SACD players. Yet old-fashioned analog connections erode pristine digital sound and are prone to interference from televisions, lights, and computers—the objects they’ll be placed next to in modern homes.
The real deal-breaker is that a stand-alone player is the only kind available. By manufacturers’ consensus, there won’t be any network ports on the players, nor will there be any DVD-A or SACD drives available for computers. Some makers are promising a digital link from the player to a home-theater console, but it’ll be deliberately incompatible with any of the jacks on a computer. In bringing the CD up to date with the PC, the music industry is also trying to split the two technologies asunder again.
It’s no wonder that gearheads who buy the latest, greatest everything have ignored DVD-A and SACD in favor of MP3 players and CD burners. Computer-friendly music formats let you archive hundreds of albums on a laptop, create custom playlists that draw from your entire collection, and download them to portable players smaller than a single CD jewel box. Today’s fans want their music in a form that fits the pocket-sized, personalized, interconnected world of their computers, cameras, phones, and PDAs. Asking digital consumers to give that power back in exchange for a better-sounding disc is like offering them a phonograph needle.