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Digital giants prepare for audio format war

DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD are pitting consumer-electronics titans against each other

The rumblings of the next bloody format war were in full evidence at Monday's Electrical Retailing Show in Birmingham, as manufacturers staked out their positions on either side of the DVD-Audio/SACD (Super Audio CD) divide.

Toshiba, Sony and Sharp were among the consumer electronics giants showing off machines that supported one or other of the next generation audio formats, all due to touch down in UK high streets later this year.

Manufacturers are starting to line up the format they believe has the most hope of replacing CDs as the standard audio format of choice. Analysts and industry observers believe that the CD as we know it will cease to be in as little as ten years' time.

Although some companies, most notably Sony, believe that the two formats will exist side by side, the general consensus in the industry is that one or the other will die a painful death.

Simon Clare, senior product manager hi-fi systems at Sharp, which launches its SACD player later this year, is convinced that "there is ultimately going to be a format war". Using an analogy common among observers in this industry, he says: "This goes back to Betamax versus VHS -- with pre-recorded audio there is no room for two formats."

Although Sharp is presently putting its full support behind the Sony and Philips developed SACD format, Clare says that the company recognises the pros and cons of both formats. "We won't say that we will not support DVD-Audio in future," he says.

Toshiba, which was previewing two DVD-Audio players at the show, has no truck with such agnostic beliefs and sees the future as belonging firmly to DVD. Cyrus Richardson, DVD group product manager, says the advantage of DVD-Audio over SACD is clear cut, allowing users to conveniently access high quality audio and DVD-Video: "Consumers get one box that does both."

Ricardson points to the phenomenal growth rate of DVD-Video, one of the fastest adopted consumer electronics product of all time. "The advantage of DVD-Audio is that you can buy into it and get DVD-Video for free," he says. "We, along with people like Panasonic, are offering devices that are dual purpose and cost effective."

One of the biggest problems with the introduction of any new format is the availability of software titles. The recent upcoming acquisition of EMI by Time Warner/AOL -- which has a big stake in the DVD format -- will help enormously in the development of the DVD-Audio software market, believes Richardson.

However Patrick Butler, business unit manager for SACD at Sony, is scathing of such claims. He believes that although there is a lot of talk about the imminent availability of DVD-Audio titles, there is little to back it up.

"We're not hearing any actual figures from the DVD camp," he says, "No one will say when there will be all these software titles."

JVC has also announced it will begin releasing DVD-Audio decks later this year.

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