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New Audio Formats- A Reply

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Jim Schwab’s comments on SACD and DVD-A here on Blogcritics made me cranky enough to write a reply. Jim is reporting on a blog post by Scott commenting on this CNN story. As both posts and the “mainstream media” story are full of whoppers (and I don’t mean they went to Burger King…) I just had to toss in my two cents.

Let me start with CNN since they are the starting point. CNN says:

“SACDs and DVD-Audios, when coupled with the right speakers, sound superior to regular CDs.”

Before dealing with this, I should note that I am an audiophile. I have a very expensive two channel stereo system (Audio Research electronics with Martin Logan speakers for those who care) using a Sony SACD player as my digital source. I even have a 24bit capable digital convert and some DADs- early DVD based 24 bit recordings. And there is no doubt that having high quality speakers makes it easier to hear differences in source material. But I have been at a get together at a friend’s house where he played SACD discs over his ancient Apple computer speakers and everyone present could clearly hear the difference between the CD and SACD versions. I see no evidence the CNN journalist actually listened to either format- they just quoted people who did. As someone with direct experience with SACD let me tell you- there is a difference and you will hear it on most equipment. The question is whether that difference is enough to justify the expense of the player and software.

Another CNN gem:

“Most SACDs can only be played in SACD players.”

This was true when SACD launched almost two years ago. But today almost all SACDs issued are hybrids. That means that your CD player will see only the CD information and play the hybrid SACD just like any other CD. When you place it in a SACD player, you can also access the SACD high resolution data stream. Only Sony and a few small labels issue SACD only discs.

Hybrids have even been issued as regular CDs. All of the recent ABKCO Rolling Stones re-mastered discs are hybrid SACDs and are stocked in the regular CD bin of your record store. CNN seems totaly ignorant of hybrids when they write:

“Another drawback: Unlike CDs and MP3s, which you can play just about anywhere, DVD-Audio and SACDs don’t have that portability. Cars, portable CD players or boomboxes don’t have the technology to play them yet.”

They are half right at least- DVD-A won’t play in your CD player, but all the current and future SACD hybrids will. CNN does mention the Stones re-issues further on but fail to understand that this undermines their argument.

Scott has his own spin on the CNN story. For the record I’m 100% on with his comment that “…a whole raft of assertions are a really pure example of what happens when a marketroid and a particularly clueless press monkey get together to hatch a story.” But some of his other statements are questionable. Consider:

“The folks who really cared about recording actual performances, mostly classical guys (is Telarc even still in business any more?) had been making digital recordings for several years when CDs came out. ”

Yes, Telarc is still in business. In fact they are one of the major proponents of SACD. Telarc, among other small labels who emphasized recording quality, have for many years been recording at higher bit and sample rates that the 16 bit, 44.1 Mhtz required for CD. Why buy the equipment to do more than the CD standard required? Because they felt strongly that the CD standard was not enough. Now they are able to release those higher resolution recordings.

Scott then says “Lots, and I mean lots, of people have home theater rigs nowadays, and more are adding them every day. Now that you can get an AC3 receiver for less than $300, you have very little reason not to. CDs don’t have the ability to take advantage of these new developments because of the way their standards were written back in the late 70s. DVD-Audio lets you leverage your existing home theater investment. Because of this, Sony’s attempt to set yet another standard will fail just like Beta and those minidisc recorders.”

I agree that the market is going home theater. But this is not a reason to reject SACD. SACD is a multi-channel format just like DVD-A is. The reason I prefer SACD is the hybrid advantage I discussed above. No matter how impressive they are you will never be able to play your DVD-A discs in your car CD player. Many DVD-A discs can not be played without access to a TV monitor though this is more a limitation in the user interface design of the players than a limitation of the disc. But anyone who has played DVDs knows that interface menu design is far from a science at this point.

“Record companies are still completely out of touch with their own customer base. DVD audio costs more than CD audio?!? When you can already buy DVD movies for less than their CD soundtracks?!? I’ll stick to DVDs thank you. They’re more fun and don’t cost as much.”

I’m with Scott on pricing. But he should note that you can buy a Rolling Stones hybrid SACD for $13.98 at Amazon.

Scott does not come out and say it, but the implication is that he has not heard either DVD-A or SACD. CNN touts them without hearing, Scott rejects them. I say both approaches are wrong.

That brings me to Jim Schwab’s comments. Jim sounds to me like the average consumer coming into this format war and trying to figure out what the heck is going on. His concerns are:

–Ability to rip material from the discs.
–Portability.

As far as access to the data stream, I’m not presently aware of any way to access the high resolution data stream from either DVD-A or SACD discs. I’m sure DVD-A will be cracked by someone with a DVD drive. SACD may prove a bit tougher to crack as the content may not be as easily to read on a PC. What you can access is the CD track on a hybrid SACD. They are as readable as any other CD.

On the portability front, DVD-A will never be as portable as hybrid SACD. Again, this was the deciding factor in my decision to put my money behind SACD. I like to play music in my car and on portable players. At this point only SACD allows me to do that. And only on the hybrid discs- Sony discs are still all SACD only.

Final thought- Jim hasn’t heard them either, but he has an open mind about giving them a try. I promise- you don’t need a high end rig to hear a difference. What is a matter of taste is whether that difference is worth paying for. As a music lover who happens to be an audiophile, it is worth it to me. I hope that when Jim does give them a listen he reports back on his findings.

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About Chris Daley

  • http://JimSpot.blogspot.com/ Jim S

    Well… um… seems I opened a can of worms.

    I readily admitted in my post that I hadn’t heard them, but I am going to give them a whirl.

    I appreciate your clarifying from the point of view as someone with some experience.

    BTW: I’m not exactly an audiophile like you are, but I am a music nutcase…. It’s the only form of entertainment I’m obsessed with… take away my TV, no problem. Take away movies, no problem. Even my books, I’d miss, but I’d continue on. But don’t ever, ever touch my music… ever!

    thanks.