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Positive Feedback ISSUE 16
november/december 2004


In Search of SACDs
by Jeff Parks


I was shopping in a national music retailer the other day, looking for SACDs to use with an SACD player I will be reviewing for Positive Feedback. After searching in vain for SACDs within the sea of Redbook CDs, I finally dropped my male pride and asked one of the salespeople for help. The first one I asked didn't even know what a SACD was. He sent me to another salesperson, who was supposed to be the music expert. Even this person didn't know where the SACDs were. After wandering around for five minutes, we finally found them. The display case was picked-over and disorganized. After looking through the fifty or so choices, I picked two that I could live with, both of which I already own on CD, which would allow me to compare the original CDs to the SACDs.

The following week, I went to Hollywood and shopped at another major retailer, an independent store that specializes in hard-to-get CDs and vinyl. Trying to find SACDs was difficult here, too, as they were relegated to a small section of this 50,000-square-foot facility. The good news was that there were more SACDs to select from—approximately 250 to 500—and I found two more that I could use, at the same time buying more than ten CDs and ten LPs. The point is that I went there looking for SACDs, but left with ten times as many recordings on other formats. Does choice matter to you? It does for me. I gathered from these two experiences that SACD is not a priority for either of these retailers.

There are about 3000 SACD titles in existence. About 75 per cent of them do not interest me, and I own most of the remaining titles on mint vinyl. Why would I want to buy an SACD if I already have it on vinyl? I admit that I have many CDs that duplicate LPs in my collection, due to the ease of playing CDs as compared to vinyl. Sometimes I just want to pop a CD into the machine and relax without having to go through the ceremony of placing an LP on the platter, clamping it down, doing a dustoff and anti-static removal, and cueing the arm, all for 22 minutes of audio bliss. I agree the sound can be compelling, but with recent improvements in CD mastering, Redbook CD is looking real good.

Is SACD dead? When the topic of discussion in the audio chat rooms is DVD-Audio vs. DVD Blue vs. upsampling/oversampling Redbook CD, some say yes, others say no. No one knows for sure. If you look at the availability of SACDs, you might conclude that the format is dead. Other than a few mail order catalogs, online retailers, and eBay, there aren't a whole lot of places where SACDs can be purchased. Proponents of the format say "Look at the five or so new titles a month that are coming out." Five titles? Come on! Who are we kidding? Though I have no hard evidence, I'll bet that at least five new Redbook CD titles come out every day, compared to SACD's five titles per month. In addition, with only 3000 SACD titles available, compared to the millions of CD titles, how can SACD stay competitive enough for the format to take hold? If the record companies truly wanted to support the format, wouldn't there be at tens of thousands of titles available by now? With all of the music catalogs that Sony alone owns, where are all of the SACD titles? One thing is certain—they are not available from the stores, catalogs, and online retailers with which I do business on a regular basis.

The other day, I was rereading Wayne Donnelly's review of the long-discontinued Sony SCD-777 ES in the now-defunct magazine, Ultimate Audio. (I know several people who have had this classic player modified to improve its sound, and thought it might be worth investigating this course of action.) In his article, Donnelly expressed concern about the future of digital:

If SACD is indeed the "future of digital," as has been suggested, why is Sony so far keeping a tight rein on innovation by other companies—for instance, not licensing SACD-carrying digital outputs? Does anybody remember Betamax? Such restrictions on competition will surely impede the adoption of SACD as a standard. And, what about competing advanced technologies?

In our last issue I reviewed some 24/96 digital audio discs, the best of which were very good—quite competitive with SACD as heard on the 777. And, multi-channel DVD audio with sampling frequencies up to 192 kHz will be introduced by the time you read this. Which technology will ultimately win the format wars? (Ultimate Audio, Fall 2000, Vol.4, No.3, pp. 59-60).

That was written almost five years ago! Has anything changed since then? Not much. Unless someone can clearly prove me wrong, I believe that SACDs are slowly becoming extinct. The sad thing about this is that SACD is an excellent format, and really is a breakthrough in digital technology. With the recent price reduction of SACD software and hardware, the benefits of the format can be enjoyed at a reasonable price. I agree with the audio press that SACD is highly analog-like, and in most cases superior to Redbook. Case in point: A few months ago, I attended a local Southern California audio club meeting, where I had a chance to listen to one of Sony's ES multi-disc SACD players. I was expecting poor sound—it was a changer, after all. Guess what? I was wrong. SACDs sounded open, with excellent soundstaging, layering, depth, and dynamic range. They sounded very much like analog, without any digital artifacts. All this from an $800 player! That was the day I decided to take a serious look at the SACD format.

Unfortunately, six months later I am still frustrated at the lack of available titles. I don't know about you, but before I invest thousands of my hard-earned dollars, I want to be sure that this format is here to stay. Reel-to-reel and cassette tape, 8-track, Betamax, DAT, and VHS videotape are either dead or soon will be. Is SACD next?

Here is the kicker. Many thought CDs would kill vinyl, although audiophiles refused to give up on it, and there is abundant evidence that the format is alive and doing just fine. Not only is there lots of quality vinyl out there, with over twenty used-LP retailers in the Los Angeles area alone, many mainstream retailers now stock new vinyl as well. If there is any consolation to the uncertainties of the digital format wars, at least we still have vinyl! Jeff Parks