SACD, the Way Forward? Michael Fremer
If there was an overriding theme at this year's CES in both high-end audio and mainstream consumer electronics, it was "We want higher resolution!" Despite the naysayers at Business Week and the cluelessness of the New York Times, which basically ignores the subject unless there's bad news, HDTV will succeed—especially now that the cable industry has come aboard. High-resolution audio, be it analog vinyl or SACD or DVD-Audio, also seems to be grabbing the imaginations of a healthy chunk of the mainstream audience.
Sony and Philips held an SRO press event at the Hard Rock Hotel's Baby's Night Club—a dank, smelly, creepy dungeon a few flights down from the casino that is easily the most unpleasant basement watering hole in Las Vegas. (The imbecile who allowed a salt-water fish tank to be installed in that smoky hole should be arrested for cruelty to animals.)
When David Kawakami, Sony's SACD project director and one of the format's inventors, announced that Sony Music would soon release 15 Bob Dylan albums on SACD, all mastered by my old friend Greg Calbi, as well as SACDs of the Police catalog (including a multichannel "greatest hits" compilation), the attendees—most of them from the mainstream, not the audiophile, press—whooped and hollered the way they did when CD was rolled out in 1983. The difference was that, this time, I joined them. I fantasized about ripping the microphone from Kawakami's hands and yelling "I thought CDs were 'perfect,' you shills!"
The crowd almost rioted when it was announced that Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon would be issued as Capitol USA's first SACD release on March 3, 2003—to coincide with the 30th anniversary of its original vinyl release—as a hybrid disc in both 2- and 5.1-channel versions. The remix is by longtime Floyd engineer James Guthrie, with the approval (separately, I'm sure) of David Gilmour and Roger Waters. All of this SACD action will be aided by new American hybrid SACD production facilities, which will have come on line by early spring. A new European facility was announced after the Show.
SACD has got the attention of the record industry, which sees the cultivation of the audience's appreciation for higher-quality sound as one way of countering tinny-sounding MP3 file sharing. With Allen Klein's ABKCO Records leading the way—its Rolling Stones hybrid SACD/CD reissues have sold more than 2 million units worldwide—other labels will follow, though DVD-A proponents promise to continue fighting for their format. True to its so far inept history, the DVD-Audio camp had nothing to announce at CES, where they met to formulate plans, leaving Sony and Philips to steal all of the attention with their announcements.
How good is all of this for the quality audio business? Very—for obvious reasons. How good is it for audiophile reissue labels? That's a mixed bag. While purveyors of vinyl are finding open doors at the major labels' tape vaults, SACD and DVD-Audio reissuers are meeting with resistance as the majors gear up to do it themselves. While Classic Records continues its fabulous-sounding Peter Gabriel reissue project of 200gm Quiex SV-P LPs, Virgin has announced that it will issue the entire Gabriel catalog on hybrid SACD/CDs, including the new one, Up, in 5.1-channel.
Despite SACD's strong support among such audiophile reissue labels as Analogue Productions, Mobile Fidelity, Opus3, and others—not to mention majors and indies like Uni and Rounder—Classic is sticking with DVD-A. At two press events—one analog, one digital—Classic made some major news. On the digital side, after five years of releases using the interim technology of DVD-Video-based 24-bit/96kHz DAD discs (on which the audio program is on the video "title set"), in 2003 the label will issue 12 genuine 24/192 DVD-A titles that will be "universal": in addition to the 24/192 material on the "audio set," 24/96 data will also be encoded on the "video set." Offerings from Procol Harum, Pete Townshend, the Vanguard catalog, and others will kick off the series, beginning with Vanguard's legendary recording of Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne. Transfers from analog will make use of a high-resolution A/D converter designed by Muse Electronics' Kevin Halverson.
There was plenty of interest in hi-rez digital at CES 2003. MusicDirect/Mobile Fidelity's Josh Bizar told me that, by the second day, they'd run out of SACD and DVD-A titles and had to send someone back to Chicago to pick up more. Everyone told me that sales of SACDs, DVD-As, and LPs were very strong at the Show. MoFi introduced three new SACD titles: Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul, Sonny Rollins' Plus 4, and Dave Alvin's Blackjack David.—Michael Fremer