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Hybrid SACDs Can Be Ripped From CD Layer Print E-mail
Friday, 04 April 2003
Backwards compatibility of the new audio formats has been a highly sought-after feature in the ongoing new audio format war. DVD-Audio discs are backwards compatible via the default tracks, which can be Dolby Digital, DTS Surround, or something like DTS 24-96 stereo tracks. Pure DSD SACDs are not very compatible with anything other than dedicated SACD players, but the increasingly popular hybrid SACDs (for example, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Rolling Stones SACDs) have an actual Red Book CD layer that makes the hybrid SACD actually play back on hundreds of millions of compact disc players located in music systems, home theaters, Walkmen, car audio systems and beyond. This has resulted in a good first week for Dark Side on SACD, which consultants for Sony say sold over 20,000 copies in its first week. Some reports have the numerous Rolling Stone SACD hybrid titles selling over 1,000,000 copies total. In comparison, some of the better DVD-Audio titles like Metallica’s self-titled DVD-A and Queen’s A Night at the Opera have sold more in the neighborhood of 20,000 units each. The DVD-Audio sales numbers might be a little on the light side because, up until recently, Soundscan didn’t have a good way to track DVD-Audio sales. Moreover, Soundscan doesn’t yet track sales of SACD and DVD-Audio titles on the Internet, which is unquestionably the best way to buy either SACDs or DVD-Audio discs. Brick and mortar retailers just don’t stock many of the new discs yet. The backwards compatibility of the hybrid SACD proves to be a double-edged sword, as it is the backwards compatibility of the hybrid SACD that allows these mainstream discs to sell well, but being 100 percent compatible with CD players means that someone with a PC or a Mac can quickly take an SACD, rip the tracks to MP3 and begin sharing them with thousands of people on peer to peer networks. The legality of this practice doesn’t seem to scare many end users who still use systems like Kazaa, Morpheus and Limewire every day.

Those who should be scared by this prospect are the record labels, who know that they have a big problem with the CDs they sell being easily rippable. However, with record sales tanking for a second straight year, compromises have been made. In comparison to a hybrid SACD, a non-hybrid SACD is quite hard to rip off for the average consumer, even someone with a fancy computer at home or at work, because mainstream computers don’t read DSD as well (if at all) as they do PCM. At the same time, pure DSD SACD discs have an exponentially smaller appeal with the record-buying public, compared to hybrid SACDs.

DVD-Audio discs aren’t infallible in terms of copy protection, but they are better than a hybrid SACD which, sources inside the music and electronics industry say, are no harder to rip off than a traditional CD. A DVD-Audio disc cannot simply be dropped into the DVD drawer of a computer and copied without special software. For mainstream consumers, who still struggle to program the clock on their VCRs, this is enough of a technological hurdle to prevent them from copying prerecorded music and giving it away on the Internet. Converting MLP or default surround modes to MP3 is yet another hurdle that is hard for the non-hacker or recording engineer to overcome. Nevertheless, hackers can (and will) figure out any digital encryption if they so desire.

What concerns music customers is the idea of the return of copy protection on store-bought CDs or the CD layer of an SACD. More than a year ago, labels tried everything they could to get CDs copy-protected, with cataclysmic results. PCs and Macs choked on the copy-protected discs, as did many CD and DVD players already installed in the marketplace. Consumers rightfully flipped out, returning CDs to stores because they didn’t play. Labels learned quickly, but will that keep them from trying to encrypt the hybrid layer of SACDs? Only time will tell.

The whole issue of copy protection causes one to wonder about Universal Music Group’s motives behind their recent announcement about their participation in the DVD-Audio format with 20 pending titles, after their early and continued support of SACD. Executives at UMG have told AudioRevolution.com that copy protection is one of their highest concerns with any new format. DVD-Audio, while backwards-compatible to all 50,000,000 plus DVD-Video players and 1,000,000 DVD-Audio players in the market, still doesn’t reach every customer in the market, including people who listen to prerecorded music in the car. Increasingly, DVD players are the equipment that people like to use for listening to music. Could it be that UMG’s real goal is to test for market response to music on DVD that is harder, but not impossible, to rip off?

One thing is for sure – if there is one thing the labels will get with any new format for selling prerecorded music, it is copy protection. Whether real or perceived (or both), labels blame illegal downloads of music as the cause of their sales problems and they are hell-bent on finding a solution.

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