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DVD-Audio standard near

A trade group reportedly agrees on a standard for the next-generation audio technology, with seven times the storage capacity of a compact disc.

    An industry standard for DVD-Audio, the next-generation audio technology with seven times the storage capacity of a compact disc (CD), looms near and may already have been settled.

    The DVD Forum will unveil a draft specification for DVD-Audio at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas early next month, according to a source familiar with the Forum's working group on DVD-Audio. The draft will be available to Forum members (ten companies including JVC, Philips, Pioneer, and Sony) and interested parties for purposes of later-stage feedback.

    Going further, the Forum has in fact already come to an agreement on DVD-Audio, according to a report in Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's most prestigious business daily. A specification precedes a standard, which insures that the industry manufactures interoperable products, considered a must for widespread consumer adoption. Many of the DVD Forum's members are based in Japan.

    The audio standard would be the last of the DVD specifications to be resolved, following agreements on read-only, video, and recordable DVD discs. The draft's availability to members of the Forum and third-parties likely to license the technology will be an important step toward agreement, according to the source.

    "Chances are there won't be extensive problems, but there's always ideas to be taken into account. It's hard to know," said the source.

    Reaching agreement on a DVD-Audio standard is not expected to be so fractious as the Forum's internecine struggle over the DVD-RAM standard. (See related story) Key issues include the strength of protection against illicit copying, whose intellectual property is incorporated into the standard, how that property is licensed, and backward compatibility with CD-Audio and recordable CD-Audio.

    "[Agreeing on] everything but copyright hopefully the first half of the year isn't crazy, but people aren't going make players until there's copyright," said the source.

    On the consumer side, backward compatibility could prove vital in winning acceptance, because currently it's not clear that DVD-Audio dramatically improves upon the CD-Audio format besides expanding storage capacity.

    "Nobody really knows what DVD-Audio is going to offer above and beyond CD-Audio," said Tom O'Reilly, editor of the DVD Report.

    Winning consumers may be harder than agreeing on a format, he suggested. "Everybody knew that DVD-Video did offer a truly better experience than the laser disc, [but] nobody has been able to get across any point of how it [DVD-Audio] would it do that," he added.

    DVD-Audio's most obvious advantage, its high storage capacity, may actually work against its commercial acceptance, pointed out Wolfgang Schlichting, senior research analyst at International Data Corporation.

    The $9-to-$13 CD typically purchased in music stores, which holds 650MB of data (about 74 minutes of audio content), is often not used to capacity, Schlichting noted. But since most of the cost of a CD is its content, a DVD-Audio disc with seven times the content would presumably cost many times the price, if it even makes sense to put so much content on a single disc.

    A Warner Music spokesman touted DVD-Audio's ability to record in "six-channel" surround sound, which extends the CD's "left and right" capability. Currently, CDs can deliver sound as if it were coming from the listener's left or right, while DVD will deliver left, right, center, "left rear," "right rear," and low bass. Movie sound tracks already utilize this feature, the spokesman said, but very few musical artists and producers have incorporated it into their work.

    DVD-Audio may also incorporate other media into the audio content, the spokesman said.

    DVD-Audio titles and players are expected to begin appearing in late 1998.