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Positive Feedback ISSUE 25


and Steve says… SACD is a failure!
by Steve Lefkowicz


I remember back in the 80s when CD was first taking over as the dominant medium for general commercial music releases. I was then, like most of us in this hobby, an avid record collector and loved listening to my records. I had upgraded tables a few times, first to a Rega 2 with a Grace 707 arm, then to the Linn LP-12/Ittok that I still use. Records were king. Records were all about quality, sound, and a lifetime of musical choices that seemed unending and timeless. Then CDs came out and everyone except for those of us that took listening to music seriously bought into it and CD took over. Records all but went away. Now, the true hard-core audiophile will tell you that records never went away, and that with all the specialty label 200-gram super high quality reissues, records are better than ever. But, I have to say, replacing the ability to buy all my music on vinyl for reasonable prices with buying a select and limited number of audiophile favorites at outrageously high prices doesn't cut it for me. Don't get me wrong, I love Classic's reissues and have bought many, and have many of the Sundazed reissues too. But, vinyl as a limited availability high priced specialty item instead of the mainstream source left me feeling thoroughly disheartened.

The more I realized that CDs had won out and that most music would be bought in that format, I kind of bailed on the hobby and the industry, and went into a self imposed music/audio exile for about nine years.

Well, CD has improved to where it is listenable, though I still feel CD at its best will never compete with vinyl at its best. The net result for me was major change in my music buying habits. In the days of everyday vinyl, I used to buy about 150 to 200 records per year (constrained only by my budget). Double that number if you include all the budget $2 records I used to buy at Aron's Records and Record Surplus. However, in all the years that CD has been available, I still only own about 350 disks.

Now, with the launch of SACD a few years ago, I was struck with a greatly renewed level of enthusiasm. SACD sounds great. Simple as that, SACD sounds great. If everything I wanted to buy was available on SACD I would be back buying new disks every week. I would be back on a first name basis with the managers at all the record shops and would once again spend hours looking through the racks for all the new music I wanted to buy. But we all know that isn't happening, and it now appears, won't happen.

SACD has been available for many years now, but it still no more than a small, little known (outside of our small group of enthusiasts) niche product. If becoming the new mainstream medium for music was the goal for SACD, it was doomed to failure right from the start. Due to a series of bad marketing decisions and misguided attempts to milk a small number of audiophiles instead of going after the mainstream market, SACD has become nothing more than a competitor to vinyl in the small audiophile market, rather than the new mainstream digital format.

Checking, they list only 3773 SACD titles, and many of those are duplicate releases with slight differences between US, European and Japanese issues. Also, a large number (the majority, actually) of those are reissues of older music. Do I need another copy of Time Out or Kind of Blue, even if it is remixed for multi-channel sound?

At CES some years ago I interviewed the Vice President of Sony in charge of SACD David Kawakami. In our discussion, he asked me what I thought was needed to ensure the success of the format. I spelled out a few things that I felt were absolutely essential for SACD to succeed. None of these were done, of course, and that has lead to the marketplace failure of the medium.

SACDs failure can be traced to a few very specific things.

  1. SACD positioned as a niche product instead of the mainstream medium.
    For SACD to be a success, it had to become the default standard for musical release and distribution. All future releases need to be SACD Hybrid discs. From the beginning, people needed to start buying disks right away, and have whatever they wanted to listen to be available. SACD had to become ubiquitous and the transition had to be fairly transparent, other than putting an "SACD Compatible Disk" sticker on the jewel cases. Preferably, this would have all happened without and substantial increase in price over conventional CD releases.

  2. All SACD disks have to be Hybrid Disks.
    Hybrid disks would be essential because people would want to play them in their car, or make a backup copy on CD to play in their car, or to copy to their MP3 player to play in their car. All three of my cars have CD players, but no SACD player. I also have three systems in my house, but only the main system has an SACD player. My office system and my son's system have only CD players. It does me little good to buy a disk that I can't play in all my systems. Also, single layer disks would mean that no one could buy and use the disks until they had a player, and at the start, there were no inexpensive players. That set up a bad Catch-22 situation. Won't buy the disks because I don't have player, and won't buy a player yet because they cost too much for the limited number of disks available.
    Also, the lack of hybrid disks meant that record stores had to deal with dual inventory, and no record store wants to get into that again. One thing that helped the rapid acceptance of CD was that record stores were able to stop carrying dual inventory of cassettes and records, and have just CDs on the shelves instead.

  3. Horrible marketing and lack of public awareness.
    Where was all the hoopla over the launch of SACD? Where were industry spokesmen or "Tech Correspondents" on all the popular media outlets? Why were Katie and Matt talking about MP3 and free downloads instead of SACD? Why was there no concerted organized effort to make the public aware of the next big improvement in the world of music reproduction? Why did even big record shops not know what SACD was? Even at Tower records, when I asked where the SACDs were, they kept pointing me to the DVD video section. Even some of the few well publicized events in SACD went bad, like the release of the Rolling Stones catalog, because nowhere on the package did it ever say SACD! I bought a few Stones SACDs at Wal-Mart for about $14, then found them at a record shop for $24 each! I have never met a non-audiophile Rolling Stones fan who has bought any of these disks, or that even know what they were.

  4. Pissing off otherwise loyal customers.
    I would have bought more SACDs if they had music I wanted to buy. A few years ago I searched the Internet and found that Peter Gabriel's early releases were reissued on SACD Hybrid disks. Though I have them all on vinyl, I thought, "what the heck," and I rushed to Best Buy (that actually had a separate SACD display then) and found them, but they were single layer disks. I rushed over to Tower Records and there too, they had only single layer disks too. Went home and did a little more research. The US would only get single layer releases of Gabriel's work, but Europe would get the Hybrid disks. I could order the import, but for $49. I've stuck with my Gabriel on vinyl, thank you.

I laugh a little (though sadly) when I read audiophile publications and web sites talk about the success of SACD. I don't see how a handful of reissues, and modern versions of the old audiophile record industry (i.e., great sounding releases of performers that are otherwise forgettable) can be viewed as success. How much of the music that you have bought on SACD would you have bought if it was only available on regular CD? Did you really buy it for the music, or is it all just another Jazz at the Pawnshop.

From a technical standpoint, SACD is a smashing success. It is eminently musical and listenable. I just wish it would see the type of market success that it deserves. I just don't see that happening anytime soon.