In any other industry, news that sales doubled the previous year would cause dusty bottles of fine champagne to be summoned and quaffed. Not so in the music industry, whose digital download sales doubled in 2006, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. For one thing, the doubling of downloads in 2006 is not as good as the tripling of them 2006. And the growth does not keep pace with the decline in CD sales, at three percent in 2006. Even so, in major markets such as the U.S., U.K., and Japan, legal downloads are just starting to equal the damage done by P2P, piracy, and competition from new media. Driving much of the growth is mobile downloading, which already dominates download sales in Japan, South Korea, India, Italy, and Spain.
Titles in the Blu-ray and HD DVD formats will not use the image constraint token until at least 2010, according to a rumor reported in the German media and picked up by ArsTechnica.com. Videophiles had feared that studios would use the ICT, a down-resolution flag, to cut high-def signals down to standard-def signals through the analog three-plug component video connection, the only HD input on early-generation HDTVs. Most of the studios had already agreed to avoid using the ICT for an indefinite period, but this latest rumor—if true—extends that decision to 2010, and possibly 2012. That should give a little breathing room to early adopters eyeing Blu-ray and HD DVD. Another possible reason for the move: Some PS3 and Xbox 360 gear lacks HDMI, the Hollywood-approved HD interface.
A company that stamps out half a billion DVDs a month has developed a way for movie studios and other software makers to track discs from factory to store to your home. The strategy is yet to be tested but the underlying technology is nothing fancy. It's RFID, or radio-frequency identification, the same chip-based system increasingly used in driver's licenses, U.S. passports, stores like Wal-Mart, and the EZ-Pass booth on toll roads. RFID can operate in a range from two inches, like the new credit/debit-card readers, to 69 feet. In this case the range for "chipped" discs will be six meters, or just under 20 feet. The RFID reader can be built into players, which would shut down when fed discs with the wrong regional coding. The AACS system built into the Blu-ray and HD DVD formats already allows copyright holders to shut down players in the home, but thanks to RFID, it will soon be possible to do the same in existing DVD as well. Developers of the new technology are iPico, an RFID specialist, and Ritek, whose U-Tech subsidiary manufactures discs for Disney, Fox, Warner, and other studios in factories all over the world. The first RFID-enriched discs will be made in Taiwan and tested in Australia.
The iPod has a way of erasing all boundaries between itself and the rest of your life. Why shouldn't you be able to listen to it through your home theater system? After all, some people do use their iPods more than their whirring disc players--though as an audio snob, I'm obligated to point out that uncompressed CDs sound better than compressed file formats (and SACDs can sound better than CDs). To test the product, I found another use for it. Still, the iPod has become the way many people organize their music consumption, and the people's voice must be heard. That's why some surround receivers have optional iPod docks. And for those that don't, there's a veritable army of docking devices like DLO's Homedock Deluxe.
Listeners who claim to detect audible differences in digital interconnects may be equally fascinated by this report from a British CD-R distributor. Among other things, it includes useful descriptions of how CD-Rs and CD-RWs (and recordable DVDs) actually work. A brief quote hardly does justice to the more subjective details presented but here's a dose: "Whilst colorations in sound may be evident between differing brands, it's fair to say that only very poor 'B grade' un-named CD-R media are likely to cause offence to the ears.... So yes, there may be slight differences in the sound of one brand or specification over another; but it should be remembered that the real issue, the most likely problem area, is going to be playback compatibility rather than sound." Speed kills: "Reported effects of high-speed (say, 6x or higher), recordings in apparent sound are loss of fullness in the bottom-end and a meddling of the stereo image," though the BBC "found no appreciable sound difference when recording between 1x and 4x (but no faster)." Note that the source is STRL, U.K. distributor of TDK, Philips, and Neato products, and exercise your own judgment accordingly.
Starting last week, I've been trying to explain the new Dolby and DTS surround codecs little by little. The reason each camp is hawking two new codecs for HD DVD and Blu-ray is that one is lossless (Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio) and the other is lossy (Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio). Lossless codecs reconstruct the original signal without discarding data; lossy ones use perceptual coding to discard the least important data, achieving greater efficiency in a limited bit bucket. Together these formats represent the first qualitative step forward for surround sound since the ill-fated debuts of DVD-Audio and SACD. High-res surround is baaack! Here are the basics on Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and how they're supported in BD and HD DVD. DTS devotes a whole new website to the two new DTS-HD codecs including heaven-sent wiring diagrams. Has anyone mentioned to you that DTS Encore is simply a rebranding of DTS 5.1 and DTS-ES 6.1? You'll find it only on software packaging. There, I'm glad we've had this little talk.
Memo to early adopters of HD DVD and Blu-ray: HDMI 1.3 will support every surround codec in the Dolby and DTS stables. How I wish I could leave it at that. However, only DTS-HD Master Audio requires the full monty of HDMI 1.3, which is a good thing, since HDMI 1.3 isn't here yet. Because HD DVD and Blu-ray players have surround decoders, panners, and mixers built in, lowly HDMI 1.1 or 1.2 will transfer decoded signals for Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. In fact, even the player's 7.1-channel analog-outs will support all these new surround goodies at full resolution. Using the old-fashioned digital coaxial or optical outs will down-res the signal to Dolby Digital at 640kbps or DTS at 768kbps. There you go. Knock yourself out. I'll continue milking this thing Monday.
Yesterday's item about the dumping of CDs reminded me of a bit of future-proofing I masterminded awhile ago. I'd just set up some new CD shelves but was already dreading the day when my 2400-disc storage capacity would finally run out. So I bought four jumbo CaseLogic CD wallets. Each one holds 264 discs—or half that many if I decide to keep the booklets alongside the discs—so eventually my least significant thousand discs will find new homes there. The mere thought of dumping several shopping bags full of jewelboxes in the plastics-recycling bin brings a smile to my face. Since then CaseLogic has introduced an even bigger model holding 320 discs.
How much of your download dollar goes to the record companies? They have finally been forced to reveal this "trade secret" to a federal court. And it was their own ongoing litigation against consumers that triggered the confession. The Recording Industry Antichrist of America sued Marie Lindor, as it has done with hundreds of other people, based on information seized via another lawsuit from her Internet access provider. The RIAA demanded $750 per song, but Lindor's attorney argued that damages should be capped lower, and linked to the wholesale price per song. RIAA lawyers begged the judge not to make them divulge the magic number--but finally were forced to admit that the rumored 70 cents per track was "in the correct range." The information will no doubt prove useful to other attorneys, like the ones defending other RIAA-lawsuit victims, not to mention those representing recording artists.