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Artists Fight for New Hi-Fi Formats

May 20, 2008 8:50 AM ET

High-fidelity audio may be endangered in the age of MP3, but a growing number of artists are refusing to see it die without a fight: Neil Young, Trent Reznor, John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett have all joined the battle recently, embracing sound formats that are superior to both MP3s and CDs.

"We've been fighting the limitations of digital audio since it first came out," says Burnett, the veteran musician and producer. "The artists lost control of the process, and it just got to the point where the Dude could not abide."

(Also see: "The Death of High Fidelity: In the Age of MP3s, Sound Quality Is Worse Than Ever")

Burnett has started a new venture called Code, which aims to do for music what THX did for movie-theater sound: set standards that ensure the best possible quality. The first Code album, John Mellencamp's Life, Death, Love and Freedom (which Burnett produced), will be released July 15th in a two-disc package: a standard CD and an audio-only DVD with superior sound quality that will play on any standard DVD player. The package will also include iPod-playable AAC files ripped straight from the masters, which Burnett says results in better sound. He expects Elvis Costello to release his next album with Code and is talking to numerous other artists.

At the same time, Young, a longtime critic of digital sound, is embracing Blu-ray discs, which can store vastly more audio information than even DVDs. "CD quality is very low-resolution, just a step above MP3s," says Young. "That was a crime, to make that a standard for so many years." Young recently announced that he's releasing the first volume of his full archive on 10 Blu-rays. The same week, when Reznor released a new NIN album for free online, he offered the unusual option of downloading it in better-than-CD quality.

Burnett says that, despite the popularity of iPods and the seeming failure of previous better-than-CD formats such as SACD, consumers want better sound — he cites the growing niche popularity of vinyl. "Nobody knew they wanted high-definition television until they saw it," Burnett says. "We need musicians to stand up for pure sound. It's unthinkable that we're still hung up on this 25-year-old technology of CDs."

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