From Mar 95 issue

Remember the time when you reluctantly went out and bought your first CD to replace that scratchy LP? You were convinced that you'd never have to replace CDs, weren't you? Now that the latest music format is a silicon chip, is your collection under threat again? Jon Andrews has the answer...

Aren't you just sick of people telling you that your CD collection is a waste of space? First there were all the vinyl junkies who maintained that you'd never get the warmth from a CD that you could from a good old scratchy LP. Then there were the digital competitors. DAT was going to be the next big thing - sound quality as good as CD, you could tape on it but... you couldn't buy any pre-recorded music on it. But DAT has survived so far, however, albeit in the professional or home-studio domain. Then came DCC (Digital Compact Cassette) and MD (Mini Disc), both at pretty much the same time (which didn't do either of them much good) and both, once again, hailed as the replacements of CD.

Well, we're a couple of years down the line and neither have done much to break CD's hold on the software-buying market, and with recordable CD, CD-ROM, CD-i and an endless list of other CD products just around the corner, it looks like CD is here to stay.

Or is it? Now here's NEC's Silicon Audio - a product that holds music on a silicon chip. It may be a logical alternative to CD, but do we really want to replace our album collections yet again? Of course not, but such a format does have its advantages...

I remember, back in 1990, falling for an April fool on TV about the `Chippie' - a whole album on silicon chip. They even had those Climie Fisher boys claiming to have used it for their latest album, which made it yet more believable. The point is that the idea of music on a chip is not new.

Silicon teens

In fact, we've seen it in some form or another in the synth world for years, with the sampled waveforms held in a synth's ROM contributing to or making up complete presets. And, if you think about it, having complete musical works on a silicon chip really is the logical `next step' from the CD: no moving parts means no skipping music and, because it's on chip, you get instant random access to tracks on the album.

Silicon Audio is one of the first, if not the first, chip-music idea to reach a working level, albeit in prototype form at the moment. The first two things that you notice about Silicon Audio are its design and lack of controls. It's coloured like some west-coast American beachwear product, and you can just imagine it swinging on some roller-skating beach babe's hips while David Hasselhof looks on. There is just one button, which acts as a play and stop, but bear in mind that this is all a prototype needs to do.

In use, Silicon Audio feels just like a normal Walkman in terms of build, although the additional weight of the extra batteries is noticeable. Since the unit we were supplied with was the only one in the world outside Japan, we couldn't carry out any major in-depth tests but, from what we hear, the product is working well at this stage of its development.

The music (and there was only one piece supplied) was crystal clear and easily comparable to CD, and no amount of shaking the unit caused any skipping. In fact, the reaction of everyone who tried Silicon Audio was the same: initial scepticism followed by surprise. There is no doubt that, even at this prototype stage, Silicon Audio performs well.

The end of CD?

So what exactly is NEC planning to do with it? Is the announcement of Silicon Audio likely to make all of your CDs redundant? After switching over to CD from vinyl, are you now going to have to chuck all those shiny discs away and fill your shelves up with computer chips instead?

The answer to both questions, for the time being at least, is no. NEC spends a lot of time on basic research and development of products. Silicon Audio is no exception, and the company is not claiming that it is the mother of all formats. Not yet, anyway.

Don't expect to see any commercial releases until the end of the century, as NEC Europe's spokesperson Kirsty Chubb explains: "We are waiting until at least 1998, from a technical point of view. We'd like to launch the product with the backing of a 256Mb card which will give 192 minutes of playing time - a significant advantage over other formats.

"We'd also expect the launch product to be fully recordable - we have three or four years of development and, by then, memory technology will be enabling that kind of playing/recording time."

With commercial products such a long way off, pricing details are sketchy to say the least, but NEC promises that both Silicon Audio hardware and software will be `competitively priced'.

Does the company see it as an eventual replacement for CD?

"It has advantages over CDs and could be conceived as the future technology to replace them," says Kirsty. So, the answer is yes, but not for some time.

The company is developing Silicon Audio as a portable player and will probably leave the hi-fi side of it up to others. NEC is not, however, leaving all its irons in the musical fire. There are potential applications for Silicon Audio other than digital music.

Big in Japan

In Japan, NEC has `over 50%' of the computer-market share and is very much looking at the related multimedia market. Should compression techniques improve at the same rate as they have done over recent years, there is no reason why speech, text, still pictures and even moving video images will not be available on a product like Silicon Audio. In fact, NEC is already talking about related products such as Silicon Teacher, Silicon Guide, Silicon News and Silicon Book - products ranging from teaching aids to speaking newspapers.

Don't be surprised if you don't hear from Silicon Audio for some time, because NEC is going to be spending more money on research and development rather than marketing over the next few years. But, like many of the company's products, Silicon Audio is innovative enough to eventually make an impact. In true Tomorrow's World tradition, we could make predictions about everyone in the year 2001 listening to chip albums and watching chip videos. Remember where you read about it first, kids.

The Technical Bit