- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2002

The best thing to have happened to audio since the CD is the DVD. It may sound funny that a movie format is boosting audio sales, but the irony isn't lost on local audio retailers. Rabid interest in the DVD format, the digital versatile discs that feature film, instructional and music content, has been a huge boon to audio sales.
Homeowners crave the home-theater experience, and the rise in DVD sales makes the video portion of the equation a reality.
Now, with stereo systems offering multichannel surround sound at falling prices, even a modest home can re-create the local cineplex by playing the bright, clear visuals of the average DVD.
In the fourth quarter of 2001, about 138 million DVD movies and music-video titles were shipped, according to a study conducted by Ernst & Young, a business and research firm, at the behest of the DVD Entertainment Group.
"DVD is the format that drives the [audio] industry," says Raymond Mohr, senior sales adviser with Soundworks in Kensington. "People I know, they're getting re-interested in their audio systems, all because of DVD."
Mr. Mohr says the average customer in his specialty audio shop will drop between $3,000 and $10,000 on a sound system. A customer last year walked away with two speakers that sold for a combined $90,000.
Speakers at Mr. Mohr's store's start at $200 and climb as high as $140,000 for a pair of Wilson Audios.
Most of his customers are men, but that, like the technology, is changing. He estimates that about a quarter of his customers are women, which would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.
• • •
The biggest part of any solid audio system is the multiple channels that direct the various sounds from movies and recordings to the appropriate speakers.
Systems generally come in 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 channels, meaning five, six or seven speakers in a system, plus the subwoofer.
About 85 percent of the dialogue from a DVD comes out of the center channel the speakers set up in front of the listener.
Bass sounds get channeled mostly to the subwoofer, though systems can be tweaked to spread out the bass sounds to various speakers, if needed.
Speakers placed behind the listener, such as at the back of the room or behind a couch, carry background sounds such as applause, crickets or lesser instruments in a recording.
Audio systems can be arranged in a variety of ways, given the number of channels used. For example, a 7.1-channel system can feature three speakers in front, two in the middle off to the side of the listener and two in back, plus a subwoofer.
All the quality equipment in the world can be undone, though, if the stereo system is set up improperly.
Sound systems that dutifully replicate CDs in the shop setting might have less pleasing results if the home setup doesn't flatter the equipment.
"I try to get a sense of the room's acoustics," says Mr. Mohr, who helps customers design their audio systems. Carpeting, draperies and hardwood floors all can affect the sound presentation.
For example, Mr. Mohr won't put a bright-sounding speaker, which features treble in high frequencies, in a hard-sounding room featuring glass or uncarpeted floors.
"It's fatiguing over time," he explains of the resulting sounds.
Customers can compensate for such unforgivingly hard surfaces by adding rugs, draperies or sound traps. The latter are structures covered in carpet or other plush material that can be put in a room to absorb sound.
He also asks customers what kind of music they prefer. A reggae fan is better suited for a strong midbass system. A classical music aficionado would be better served with a traditionally attuned system.
"You want something that plays all frequencies with equal prominence," Mr. Mohr says.
"No one speaker in the world can do everything perfectly," he adds.
• • •
Nor, apparently, can just one audio format.
Today's audiophiles have two new formats to consider.
Super audio CDs, or SACDs, pack more than four times the information of a traditional compact disc. SACD players accept existing CDs, but the new discs cannot be played on conventional CD players.
The other new audio wrinkle is DVD-audio, or DVD-A. It, too, packs much more information than standard CDs and offers superior music.
Sounds that would disappear on a CD remain bright and true on both new formats. Mr. Mohr describes the superior sound from both as "as different from a CD in sound as a CD was from vinyl and tape."
A Sony SACD player starts at $300, though the cheapest model a year ago would have cost consumers $1,000. Mr. Mohr says DVD-A players are more expensive, starting at about $600.
Both formats account for just a small portion of sales during their nearly three-year existence, but Mr. Mohr says they appear to be on the verge of gaining wider acceptance. Customers are asking about the formats in greater numbers and are curious to hear the differences for themselves, he says.
A quick listen to a sample SACD reveals a more intimate listening experience. One hears the strings being plucked on James Taylor's guitar with great clarity, and it's a curious pleasure to hear the spit valve of Miles Davis' trumpet come into play during his iconic "Kind of Blue."
"CDs didn't sound as warm and comforting as records did," Mr. Mohr says of early CD criticism. "That problem has been erased. It's a warmer, more comforting sound [on the new formats]."
• • •
Not everyone has the income, or the space, to fill a home with the best audio components on the market. Modest solutions are available that provide surprisingly powerful sound at a fraction of the cost and size.
Modern college students needn't wedge mammoth speakers onto their dorm-room windowsills to flood the campus with Eminem and Kid Rock. Minisystems provide clear, crisp sound with power as great as some massive stereo systems of yore.
Stephen Gates, manager of communications for the Arlington-based Consumer Electronics Association, recalls his own stereo needs during his college years. "I wanted it to be loud and aggressive-looking and be able to shake the walls," he says.
Most of today's minisystems stand about 11 inches tall and spread about 14 inches wide, but they can pack as much as 100 watts of sonic power per speaker channel.
"There are just as many people whose top priority is space," Mr. Gates says.
He says another popular item for the layman who simply wants to play DVDs with Hollywood-worthy sound is the "home theater in a box," which he says represents the "biggest-growth" audio item on the mass market.
The boxes blend seamlessly with the customer's existing home-theater equipment, he says. "It gives consumers, for anywhere from $300 to $30,000, the ability to watch a DVD and hear the sound quality they hear in a movie theater.
"The average consumer doesn't want to spend time shopping for separate components," he says. The box models are simple to assemble, he adds, with color-coded pieces allowing for set-up times of just 15 minutes.
Not every audiophile is interested in the link between sound and DVDs.
Steve Brenner of Bethesda became a music lover while he was a college student in the 1960s. "I have a DVD [player], but I'm really focused on a system to sit down and listen to sounds," he says. "I'm still very much a traditional, two-channel stereo person it's about listening to the music, which I do pretty seriously."
His system features a turntable and a CD player for him to play classical music and the songs from his youth.
Some budding audiophiles prefer their equipment to blend into the surroundings.
Michael Grabill owns Audio Video Solutions in Laurel, a high-end shop that helps install a variety of sound systems in clients' homes. He helps customers blend the system into their furnishings.
Others, though, prefer to design their home systems in bold strokes, letting visitors see the proliferation of speakers, receivers and components that create the music.
The audio-video revolution, Mr. Grabill says, is having an unexpected side effect on the family dynamic: The merger of audio and video has brought parents and children together in the living areas.
"It's really become a family affair, as opposed to the early days, when it was a bunch of guys doing this, much to the chagrin of their wives," Mr. Grabill says.


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