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Positive Feedback ISSUE 64
november/december 2012


Why SACDs Didn't Supersede CDs... and the Move to DSD Downloads
by Teresa Goodwin


These are my theories on the erroneous directions taken by the SACD format and what the future holds. SACD was historically positioned to replace the sonically challenged CD format with one closer to what was actually on master recordings. The fact that SACD didn't replace CD proves that poor ineffectual marketing, inadequate publicity, bone-headed ideas are stronger than a real advance in sonic quality.

The new battleground: SACD vs DVD-Audio vs CD vs LP and music downloads

I. The SACD/DVD-Audio war

The first stereo SACD player, the Sony SCD-1 was premiered in 1999 beating the competing DVD-Audio format by a year. Matsushita (Panasonic and Technics) released the first DVD-Audio multichannel player in July 2000 even though the DVD-Audio specification was only truly finalized in 2001 because they were afraid they were giving up too much of the potential future market to SACD which at the time was Stereo only. The first multichannel SACD player was the Philips SACD-1000. So while stereo SACD was released a year before multichannel DVD-Audio, multichannel SACD was released a year after DVD-Audio. Thus SACD captured a lot of early converts and DVD-Audio captured (at first) those interested in multichannel.

For the first year of SACD's and DVD-Audio's coexistence the SACD/DVD-Audio war was stereo versus multichannel accompanied by many heated debates in internet forums.

The world's first universal (SACD/DVD-Audio/CD) player, the Pioneer DV-AX10, came out in 2002 and others followed; however, it was not soon enough to save the almost dead DVD-Audio format. SACD has become a niche format for classical music, audiophile reissues of older analog recordings, and super expensive SACDs. DVD-Audio releases have dwindled down to just a few each year; however, the nice thing is that even the newest Blu-ray  universal players play both SACD and DVD-Audio. I've often wondered if Universal players had come out first, if the war would have been averted and both formats would have complimented each other, and together, replaced CD.

II. CD backlash

When CD premiered in 1983 the majority of listeners were thrilled with CDs ease of play, lack of noise, distortion, and audible wear. However, audiophiles complained of CD's strident, over-etched and uncomfortable sound quality; especially compared to LPs, reel to reel tapes, and live music. Thus CD equipment manufactures begun to steadily improve their products to satisfy these critical listeners. However, upon hearing what was possible with SACD and DVD-Audio, CD equipment manufacturers engaged in a mad race to try to make their products sound as close as they could to the realistic and comforting sonics of these new digital formats... and all with varying degrees of success. This prevented even more people from adopting SACD and/or DVD-audio as CDs were finally getting good enough (and that the selection of music in the CD format is usually less expensive and more abundant when compared to SACD or DVD-Audio).

Better sounding CD players, and better engineered uncompressed CDs—which were not aimed at the masses—also became available. The CDs aimed at the masses usually have compression to make them sound louder on lower level devices and they soon learned that the louder they made them the more they sold; the compression is so severe that many modern CDs have gross digital overload distortion. The reason I mention this is audiophiles also enjoy modern music made for the masses, thus the demand by them for uncompressed versions.

So that means the converts from CDs are those who, even after all the sound improvements of the CD format, still prefer analog sound but want the convenience of a laser-read format of which the high resolution digital formats often deliver. This also includes the listeners who currently own surround sound systems or prefer surround sound and want to add that capability when they can afford it.

III. The LP revival

Many of the early adopters from SACDs stereo-only era (1999-2001) were diehard stereo-only listeners and chose to go back to LPs when the US, UK, and European major labels quit releasing SACDs. They are a big part of the current audiophile LP renaissance. Or course there are many music lovers who own both SACDs and LPs: SACDs for classical music and LPs for everything else.

See my article "How to get the best from 2 Channel Stereo SACD and 50 recommended recordings" if, like me, you are devoted stereo listener.

IV. Absolutely free MP3s evolved into downloads for sale

Illegal downloading began with Napster which was started by a high school dropout named Shawn Fanning in the summer of 1999; the open-source software was originally intended as a clandestine experiment among 30 or so of his friends, but word of mouth proved stronger than secrecy, and by the end of its first week, Napster had been downloaded by as many as 15,000 users. Starting in 2000, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) spearheaded a series of lawsuits aimed at shutting down Napster. Their legal ground seemed unshakeable, their argument unquestionable: facilitating the free trade of "illicit" music files amounted to a violation of copyright law. In fact, at Napster's peak in February 2001, it amounted to over 2.79 billion violations, the approximate number of files traded during that month.

The iTunes Store opened in 2003 offering legal music downloads for sale. However it wasn't until 2005 that music downloads started to be identified as a suitable method of buying and collecting music. The iTunes store has been the most popular music vendor in the United States since April 2008 selling the Apply lossy format AAC which is lossy compressed much the same is MP3. In other words this is lower sound quality than even regular CDs.

V. Lossless downloads for sale

HD Tracks I believe, was the first website to offer lossless downloads. They use the FLAC format which is losslessly compressed much like the lossless compression used on SACD and DVD-Audio. Lossless compression is bit for bit accurate, it is uncompressed on playback and at any time can be converted back to a larger sized uncompressed format and be identical to the original. Lossless compression is used for faster downloads and to conserve computer space.

Several years ago HDTracks started offering high resolution 24-bit PCM music downloads, with sampling frequencies up to 192kHz. Soon many more websites followed, this was even more competition for the already struggling SACD and DVD-Audio formats.

VI. DSD downloads at both 2.8224 MHz and 5.6448 MHz

It will be DSD downloads that I think in about five years will kill the SACD format. Why? It is expensive to press hybrid SACDs, downloads have no physical inventory thus less risk to financial risk to release a DSD version and more and more people are moving to computer playback for most of their music listening.

Secondly, I believe that double-speed DSD (5.6448 MHz) will be used for many new recordings and for mastering older analogue recordings because it moves the ultrasonic noise further away from the audible range. DSD's one bit system is inherently noisy so DSD pushes the noise away from the audible band into the ultrasonic range, there are people who are concerned that the ultrasonic noise affects the audible band and double-speed DSD would make the format more appealing to them. I have never heard noise from a pure DSD recording released on a 2.8224 MHz SACD, such as those from Telarc even with headphones, however that doesn't mean that double-speed DSD won't be an improvement over standard DSD, we will have to wait and see.

DSD downloads are becoming more plentiful and more and more DACs are coming out that will play DSD without conversion to high resolution PCM. See "From an Editor's Notebook: An Update on PFO's DSD DAC and DSD Download List by Dr. David W. Robinson".

VII. Free legal and Illegal high resolution downloads

Many sites offer free legal downloads, these are usually single songs or single movements in the case of classical works for you to sample the album and if you like it to purchase the full album download. Many of the sites in David Robinson's article listed above offer these types of free downloads.

Sad thing is, Illegal, free downloads are a problem in high resolution too. Illegal downloads have not went away, even after all these court cases. My advice: When searching for a high resolution download, if what is being offered is an entire album for free, then it likely is illegal, as artists usually won't give away an entire album for free. Also avoid BitTorrents and other two-way peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing communications protocols as they can make one's computer venerable to attack. Traditional one-way downloads can still have Trojan's; including dangerous spyware and malware, so before downloading (either pay or free) from any website, check it out first by doing a Google search with the website's name and the word "review". Look for traditional reviews of all aspects of the site, and look for ratings from all the famous anti-virus and internet security software makers before downloading anything. Also if your web browser gives you a warning message that a site may harm your computer, choose the option highlighted "Close Page" which will return you to the previous page. Never choose "Ignore Warning". No download is worth risking the health of your computer. To be extra safe, I close the browser and restart my computer.

Illegal free downloads are hurting all physical formats as well as "for pay" downloads and if steps are not taken to shut these sites down there may come at time when they are no new recordings... as the artists had to find another way to make a living.

SACD history of the format

This is a brief history of the SACD format from its beginnings in 1999 to today. SACD began life as a high resolution two-channel stereo format in order to firmly establish itself as a high resolution format before introducing multi-channel two years later. In the beginning, SACD was for those of us who loved two-channel analog stereo, disliked the sound of CDs but wanted the convenience of CD with the warmth of analog.

From Sony's first brochure: Super Audio Compact Disc, Eliciting the full Performance of Music.

"Super Audio Compact Disc is the realization of an audiophile's dream come true: all the precision of digital reproduction combined with all the warmth and ambiance of analog sound. The secret is Direct Stream Digital™ encoding. It's one bit, 2.8224 MHz (64 fs) sampling produces nothing less than a quantum leap in music resolution."

I believe the whole idea of the invention of the SACD format was due to Sony's awareness of listeners wanting the warm sound of analog they gave up when they adopted CD for convenience. And to acquire the last holdouts who were clinging onto their LPs for sonic bliss. I think Sony underestimated the number of people who actually liked the sound of CDs and of course as noted above, Sony didn't anticipate the upcoming download revolution.

Between 1999 and 2001 some of the finest sounding stereo audiophile recordings of all time came out on Telarc, AudioQuest, Chesky, Channel Classics, Delos DMP, FIM, Groove Note, Opus 3, Red Rose Music and other audiophile labels. Most of which are no longer in print, although the fantastic sounding AudioQuest blues and jazz SACDs are back in print under the Sledgehammer Blues label.

At that time the only major label releasing SACDs was Sony and people kept saying SACD was dead because all the other major labels ignored it and then Universal came on board in 2002 with all the Rolling Stones ABKCO SACDs, followed by many more in the rock, jazz and classical genres.

Universal Music Group's retail price for their single-layer's SACDs was $15.99 and for hybrid SACD/CDs $18.99 and I was getting them online and in-store during Tower Records' many sales for up to 25% less: $12-$14 and I was in heaven. Now this was a really exciting movement and I thought SACD had finally arrived! All the Rolling Stones, Kinks and other SACDs were not just in record stores, but actually in all the departments stores such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, etc. At that time I felt secure that SACD was indeed going to replace CD, especially after a spokesperson from Universal Music said that SACD was their favorite format.

A few years later the totally unexpected happened: Universal ended both its SACD and DVD-Audio initiatives and let all of their SACDs and DVD-Audios go out of print. This was followed by the other major labels and many boutique labels in the US, UK and Europe divisions, including believe it or not, Sony who invented the dang format with Philips! Then in 2009 the worst news of all... Concord Music Group ended the SACD program for all their labels: Concord Jazz, Contemporary, Fantasy, Heads Up, Telarc and others.

Also in 2009 the two American SACD pressing plants quit pressing SACDs... likely due to not enough demand to keep the presses running. More and more American record labels dropped SACD even though they still recorded in DSD or high resolution PCM and in multichannel too, just to release them on two-channel CD and MP3. At first this might sound silly of them, however some finally are starting to show up as high resolution downloads.

Now that takes us up to present day, in Europe BIS, Channel Classics, PentaTone and a few others are still releasing SACDs, and here in the US Analogue Productions and MFSL are still releasing their audiophile remastered SACDs, since they must now be pressed in Europe they had to raise the retail price from $25 to $30 and again recently to $35 as we continue to lose purchasing power against the Euro. Also many USA owned labels such BSO and SFSO are still releasing SACDs.

In Japan all the major labels, including Sony, are releasing plenty of SACDs, but priced for the Japanese market. The Japanese still love SACDs and sell enough to continue pressing them, however, they are just not affordable for most music lovers in other countries priced at $45 - $65 per SACD in the US.

Why SACDs didn't supersede CDs

1) Some high-end CD manufacturers who didn't want to pay the licensing fee to manufacture high-end SACD players underplayed or actually spoke ill of the SACD format.

2) Audio boutiques who sold lines of equipment that don't offer SACD players pushed their CD players as superior and disparaged the SACD format.

3) Audio magazines, until very recently, have almost ignored music titles available only on SACD. When a recording was available as both a CD and SACD, they reviewed the CD version, although sometimes they mentioned it as also being available on SACD.

4) Ineffectual marketing as most listeners still have never heard of SACD. They know what HDTV and Blu-ray  are but haven't a clue what an SACD is.

5) Many listeners are happy with the sound of CDs and MP3's and don't feel the need to pay for anything better.

6) Hesitation because of the high resolution war between SACD and DVD-Audio. Many still don't know the war has been over since 2002 when Universal players that play both SACD and DVD-Audio came out.

7) Beyonce demanded triple royalties for her SACD as she felt she should be paid for the DSD multi-channel program, DSD stereo program, and the CD layer. After the news of her demands, not too many popular SACDs came out except for those licensed to audiophile labels.

8) Including SACD playback in the first generation Playstation 3 and not following up with SACDs that most gamers would play such as Rock, Pop, Rap and Hip-Hop.

9) The Meyer and Moran study that claimed SACD and CD sounded the same, followed by all the accusations that SACD was a fraud.

10) Internet high resolution downloads, especially illegal free SACDs downloads posted after SACDs copy protection was broken.

SACD was a great idea perhaps, DSD downloads is a better one

As I noted above DSD downloads are becoming more plentiful and more and more DACs are coming out that will play DSD without conversion to high resolution PCM. See "From an Editor's Notebook: An Update on PFO's DSD DAC and DSD Download List by Dr. David W. Robinson".

I think that DSD downloads will offer what most of the world's music listeners never got to experience because they were afraid to try SACDs. Some feel that pure DSD recordings from a computer sound even better than pure DSD recordings from an SACD because the music is freed from the problems of optical playback. Even though I believe SACD will eventually die, I think DSD downloads will be here to stay. The future looks very bright indeed.