Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part XLI: SACD Revisited

"Meanwhile, the digital formats are in a state of chaos. SACD hasn't been the success Sony had hoped for, and the whole format is hamstrung by the lack of titles available."

I made this comment at the end of last year, mostly based upon personal experience instead of hard data. The buzz was certainly there, that SACD was the BetaMax of the new millenium, and that players were sitting on the shelves of retailers, collecting dust. Every audiophile who spent five grand on one of the early Sony players was probably sitting in a dark living room at that point with a gun pressed against their temple, listening to Earl Klugh and Eric Bibb and the Moody Blues in unprecedented sonic clarity. I also relied on the rather unscientific conclusion that while a few of my audiophile friends had gone out and purchased DVD-Audio players, I had yet to meet anyone who actually owned an SACD player.

A few hours after that edition of PSF hit the cyber-newsstands, however, I received an admonishing e-mail from John Sunier, who used to host the excellent NPR radio show, "Audiophile Audition," one of the few mainstream media programs to focus on the subject of excellent sound quality in music recordings. The show left the airwaves a few years ago, but has resurfaced as a website that seems to be cut from the same cloth. Mr. Sunier informed me that while he usually enjoys this column, he had to take exception to the above comment. He felt that SACD was alive and healthy, albeit on a relatively small scale, much like vinyl. He also stated that there were, at that time, over 1000 titles available on SACD, a fact that surprised me.

So I promised Mr. Sunier that I would take another look at Sony's Super Audio Compact Disc, and that I would be fair and impartial and at least modestly enthusiastic. After all, I have heard SACD, and as I've mentioned before, I do like the sound quality. A few brief listening sessions revealed a sound that was closer to LP's than CD's, but without that damned surface noise. It appeared that SACD was what CD always should have been.

My original plan was to borrow an SACD player from someone, and do some listening tests, some A/B comparisons to LP's and CD's, and present you readers with some sort of conclusion. In retrospect, that sounds kind of boring, especially since what really happened turned out to be much more informative about the future of this promising digital format. But before we move on, I would like to say, once more for the record, that SACD is a good thing, and if absolute sound quality is important to you, and LPs somehow aren't right for you, then this is the way you should be listening to music.

So what exactly is SACD? Well, you know I don't like to get too technical here, but I'm sure the majority of citizens out there don't know what SACD is, or DVD-A, or any other acronyms used to describe the ever-changing digital landscape. SACD stands, as I just said, for Super Audio Compact Disc. Like the regular CD (or, as it's now called, "redbook" CD), it was developed by Sony, and for the most part an SACD looks just like a regular CD. An SACD, however, will not play on a regular CD player, although a regular CD will play on an SACD player (kind of like DVD's). In a shrewd marketing move, however, most SACD's are now "multi-layered," which means both a CD section and an SACD section are imprinted onto the same disc. That way, you can compare the sonic differences between the two on your SACD player, making you feel marginally better about spending countless thousands on an SACD player, or you can play them on your CD player, dreaming of the day when owning an SACD seems viable (or, basically, when the price of players comes way down).

SACD uses a new technology called DSD, or Direct Stream Digital (which sounds an awful lot like the streaming porn videos all those AOL spammers keep pushing on me). DSD bypasses a lot of the filtering that redbook CDs use, therefore providing, according to Sony, a more direct path between the original recording and the final consumer product. That's pretty consistent with the goals of high-end audio, which is to keep things simple, stupid. One of the problems with redbook CD has always been attempts to make it sound better by adding things instead of subtracting. Dividing CD players into two separate boxes for the CD transport and the D/A converter is a good example of this, because while it solved some problems, it created new ones (I discussed this way back in Ditherin' and Jitterin, my second column!).

So SACD, in a lot of ways, seems to be the answer that digiphobes like me have been waiting for...or so I thought. Cue scary music.

My first exposure to SACD was back at the 2000 Consumer Electronic Show in Vegas. I heard the first Sony machine, the $5000 SCD-1, playing in an all-Sony system. Now, I hate Sony products with a passion, but I was reluctantly digging this set-up, and I wound up spending a couple of hours listening to the Sony PR bullshit and reading extrememly glossy and colorful brochures and listening to wonderful music. My first impression was that it sounded like really, really good analog, with all of the air and presence and realism I'd grown accustomed to by being a vinyl freak. My second experience with SACD was at the CES two years later, when I heard the first multi-channel system that didn't make me want to throw up. This was an incredibly expensive set-up by the German company mbl (pretentious lower-case intended), and for the first time I heard multi-channel as it was probably intended, to be free of gimmicks and goosebumps and to accurately recreate musical events. And yes, another Sony SACD player fronted that amazing system.

In other words, I was sold.

So now, the objective was to hear an SACD player in my own home, in my own system. When I heard those systems back in Vegas, I though that they at least matched the sound quality of my turntable-based system in my living room. That however was back when I had the relatively modest Rega Planar 25 running things. Now, after spending the last five months with my Michell Orbe SE, I think things may have changed. I don't know if anything can sound THAT much better than what I'm hearing now. After my promise to John Sunier, it was time to find out.

My first instinct was to contact my dealer, Gene Rubin. I recalled all the brands he carried, however, and realized that not one of them made an SACD player. Recently, however, the Chinese company Shanling, which has created some buzz with their tubed CD player, released an SACD player. Shanling is currently being distributed by Music Hall, one of Gene's brands. I contacted Gene, and asked him if he had heard SACD yet, and if he had sold any of the Shanling players. "I have still not heard it," he replied. "No idea what it sounds like. I don't like to sell anything that I am not sure will be around awhile." Well, that didn't sound encouraging for SACD, especially since Gene is always right when it comes to these things.

That left me depending upon the kindness of strangers, and venturing into audio stores I'd never visited before. And what made it tougher was that I had to decide what kind of machine I wanted to audition. You see, as is typical for the new digital formats, things have gotten very complicated for the consumer. Back when I first heard SACD, there was one Sony player. Then Sony sold a more stripped-down player for $3500. Then Marantz came out with a snazzy new player, but they went in the other direction and charged $7200. And the consensus in the audio press was that all three machines differed in features, but sounded EXACTLY THE SAME. Then the floodgates opened, and cheaper machines appeared from the likes of Philips and Toshiba and others, and the prices started dipping below $2000. Then the so-called "universal" players appeared, which played CD's, SACD's, DVD's, DVD-A's, and even old laserdiscs. Then the multi-channel SACD players appeared for home-theater systems. Then I started seeing players for $499, but they supposedly didn't sound anywhere as good as the expensive machines. All I wanted was a nice, two-channel SACD player that sounded as good as the players I heard in Vegas, but for less money. No one seemed to know what I was talking about.

"Well, we have this," one audio salesman told me, pointing to an incredibly complicated home-theater set-up, which included an SACD player somewhere (I didn't even see it). "Is it multi-channel?" I asked. "Of course it is," he replied. "Why would you want anything else?" I left in a hurry.

Another salesman said he carried two-channel players, but he didn't have any in stock, since he wasn't really selling enough of them. I could order one from him if I wanted, but that would require a deposit. "But I haven't heard it yet," I complained. "Why would I do that?" "Well," he replied, "you can listen to this one." Again I was shown a complex home-theater system. This time, however, I could see a Philips player in the equipment rack. "Is it multi-channel?" I asked. "Yeah," he repled," but don't worry... it sounds the same, but in more channels." Again, I high-tailed it outta there.

Needless to say, I was becoming discouraged about SACD, and was worried about my promise to John Sunier. It was starting to look like the only way I'd be able to hear SACD in my system was to buy a player via mail order, something I hate to do. Besides, I'd blown my audio budget for the next five years when I bought my new audio rig. And I didn't want to judge the merits of SACD by listening to some flimsy piece of Japanese mass-market dreck. So I decided to do some more research and talk to some people, and again see what the masses thought of SACD and its future.

"SACD... I have a problem with it in that it is part of the cycle that I predicted would happen in 1992; another format to sell our music back to us again."

This is from Akin O. Fernandez, a journalist who has written quite a few articles on SACD and digital formats in general. He first e-mailed me after I wrote the column entitled The CD Theory which pretty much reiterated what he's already said about the music industry's attempt to keep sales going by making us buy The White Album over and over. I told him about John Sunier's comments about the relative success of SACD, and he seemed skeptical. "I am all for innovation and progress, and always have been, but what has happened to music production and sound carriers is not progress is /innovation for convenience/ which has been to the detriment of music."

Great, I thought, so I'm not crazy! Then I decided to go onto some Internet audio forums to find out what others were saying about SACD. Many agreed with Mr. Fernandez's observation that SACD was just another attempt to resell our music back to us. Others concluded that CD was good enough for them, and that the SACD players were still too expensive, and while 1000 titles sounds like a lot, it really isn't. And some, like me, felt that the new digital formats were still too complicated and wiggly to make an informed buying decision.

Then I started reading posts from people who owned SACD players. One gentleman was obviously in love with the format, and felt compelled to give the forum long, detailed reviews of every SACD disc he bought. Finally, something positive, I thought. Then I read more and more things from people who were happy with SACD, but wished more titles were available. Once in a while, I would see a complaint about the overly-long cuing time for SACD players. I remembered that the original Sony player, the SCD-1, took 28 seconds to start playing music after the play button was pressed. TWENTY-EIGHT SECONDS. That's an eternity when you're sitting in a chair, waiting for the song to begin. Didn't the engineers at Sony think this might be a noticeable flaw? Didn't they say to themselves, "Hey, as soon as we get that 28 seconds pared down to something more manageable, we'll put this baby on the market"? Subsequent players have significantly reduced this time, but they're still ponderous when compared to redbook CD players. It's a weird little glitch, one that seems to reinforce Sony's reputation as technically-gifted, money-grubbing bastards.

Finally, I saw one post in Steve Hoffman's audio forum that said it all for me. There was a guy whose SACD player went tits up, and he was wondering where to get it fixed. Of course, everyone told him to take it back where he bought it, but the poor guy bought it on the grey market in order to save a few bucks, and now even the manufacturer wouldn't help him. The worst part of it was that the guy bought the player just last Christmas. Yep, the guy got about nine months out of the thing, and now it's an expensive paperweight. Funny how I get e-mail's from people telling me about all the joy they get from their dad's forty-year-old Garrard, yet we're just supposed to dump analog in the river because THIS is supposed to be BETTER. Well, guess what, folks? It isn't.

So sorry, Mr. Sunier. I just couldn't get it done. Another Christmas is coming, and for the first time in five years I'm not going to upgrade anything in my system. Sure, I want to eventually trade in my pair of Spendor SP100 loudspeakers for a pair of Quad electrostatics, and I want an Audiomat Arpege Reference integrated amplifier to replace my LFD Mistral. But everything sounds great right now, thanks to my incredible turntable, tonearm, and cartridge, which are all based on designs that are at least twenty-years old. And my Naim CD3 CD player keeps chugging along flawlessly, even though it is over six years old, which is about 120 in CD-player years. I listen to the Naim less and less now, for obvious reasons, and I still think about what will replace it. Will it be a cheap-o DVD player? Maybe. Will it be a DVD-A player? Who knows. Will it be something that hasn't even been invented yet? Possibly.

Will it be an SACD player? I don't think so.

Contact the Vinyl Anachronist

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER