What could be better than an audio disc format in which the player hardware costs as much as $5,000, discs cost about $25 each, and the new format won't play on the CD and DVD player you already have? Two of these high-end formats--both of which are incompatible with each other, in addition to every CD and DVD player yet made.
The high concept here is that these two new formats produce sound that is even richer than CDs. Now, a lot of people think CDs sound just fine and don't feel they need an even more authentic reproduction of their music. But music enthusiasts are already raving about these formats.
The first format to arrive, Sony and Philips's new Super Audio CD (SACD), aims to restore much of the "warmth" lost in the transition from analog vinyl records to digital, more clinical-sounding CDs. Never heard the loss of that warmth when you traded your Aretha LPs for Madonna CDs? High-end audiophiles did. And over a hundred of them showed up at Myer-Emco two weeks ago for the D.C. area unveiling of the new format. They came away impressed, and several were ready to plunk down $5,000 on the spot to walk away with Sony's 58-pound SCD-1 player.
My own opinion of the format? Sounds awesome. Very lustrous and natural. Of course, a Furby's voice chip would sound great pumped through the $25,000 worth of audio equipment Sony used to demo the unit, but when the Sony representatives switched between the same cut on CD and SACD, my own non-sophisticated, Tom Waits-listening ears heard CD audio as noticeably fuzzier than the crystal-clear SACD.
The format works something like this: CDs turn a sound wave into a stream of bits, via an analog-to-digital conversion process that squashes, distorts and loses some of the music being captured. But SACD captures a digital signal that looks more like the original sound wave, offer four times a CD's recording space and store a dynamic range that extends across the entire audible spectrum instead of the limited slice a CD can store.
To simplify upgrading, SACD players can play CDs, and most SACDs will be hybrids with the CD format on one side. SACDs also contain a copy-protection system that will prevent unauthorized copies from playing. Future features include text, graphics and multi-channel sound (for now Sony is betting that its audiophile audience prefers stereo). The first discs available are all audiophile favorites, mostly from classical and jazz masters.
SACD hardware still costs multiple arms and legs--the "low-end" player from Sony costs $3,500--although the digital components of an SACD player can be manufactured for less than the equivalent guts of a CD player. But don't expect SACD prices to reflect that until the development costs have been recouped--or a competing high-end format comes along.
Enter DVD-Audio, also known as DVD-A. This new technology, supported by just about all the other manufacturers besides Sony and Philips, is an extension of the DVD standard. But if you've got a DVD-Video player, don't expect to play DVD-A on it--that format wasn't even finalized when you bought the player.
DVD-A is actually many formats in one, including Dolby Digital sound, MPEG-2 audio, and PCM (the non-compressed CD format). This allows record labels and moviemakers to trade audio fidelity for more recording time, add the same music in more formats, or make room for images and video. DVD-A disc could even be made in a hybrid format, useable on current DVD players, that duplicates the music in the "old-fashioned" DVD audio track, but it is not clear if all the recording labels will do this.
The new format increases the digital sampling rate and sample size to reproduce sound more accurately (up to 24 bits compared with CD's 16 bits, and up to 192 kHz instead of CD's 44.1), but doesn't change the fundamental recording system the way SACD does. It does, however, have multi-channel sound designed in from the start, just like garden-variety DVD, so you'll really need five speakers to get the most out of DVD-A.
Just don't expect that DVD-A player in your stocking this year either. Because of slow-to-appear "authoring" software and protracted copy-protection wrangles, Panasonic's first DVD-Audio/DVD-Video player (a "mere" $1,500), scheduled to arrive in October, has been delayed until the end of the year or possibly next year.
I have not been able to hear this format or compare it with SACD. Will I be able to hear a difference? Will I be able to hear a couple thousand dollars' worth of difference? Stay tuned. One leading audio engineer, Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering, voiced his appreciation of the sound of both SACD and DVD-A, saying the two formats "are going to be a big step forward in audiophile sound quality."
Do we actually need yet another audio disc format? No. CD audio is perfectly fine for most ears, and there's no need to buy into either format any time soon. At some point, one or both of them will be integrated into affordable audio gear; by then, you might even be able to detect a difference. Ludwig pointed out that almost a century ago, Thomas Edison's audiences often could not tell the difference between a crackly phonograph record and a live human voice. Human hearing seems to grow more intolerant of imperfection as technology improves--which is what the consumer electronics industry must be banking on here.
SACD info: http://www.sel.sony.com/SEL/consumer/sacd/