Channel Classics Continues With SACD

Despite the recent affirmation by Stereophile's Kalman Rubinson that the Super Audio Compact Disc remains "the best available all-around physical medium for music" (May 2009, p.47), audiophiles in the US continue to declare it a dead format. Regardless, independent record producers such as Jared Sacks, founder and managing director of Holland's Channel Classics Records, continue to champion and promote SACD.

"I'm very much dedicated to SACD," the American-born Sacks told me by phone during a recent visit to the US. "There's nothing better in terms of downward compatibility [than a format] that will play stereo, multichannel, and hi-rez."

Although the major labels have dropped their support of SACD, Sacks pointed out that the number of independent labels supporting the format is increasing. In March, he counted 18 separate German labels that issue SACDs. Most of these labels record in native DSD, which offers the best possible sound from the format.

Beyond the borders of the US, much of the rest of the world continues to buy and play SACDs. The format has a very strong market in Japan, where most people listen to it in two-channel mode because the average room there is too small for five speakers even without a subwoofer. Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg are also very strong markets, and the strongest of all is Germany. Sacks has also been making significant headway in China, where he demonstrates SACDs to enthusiastic audiences, and bypasses the paucity of legitimate distribution channels by selling directly to consumers.

"I can't deny that it's a niche market," Sacks said, "but there are 6000 SACD [titles] out there, according to www.sacd.net, and they increase at the rate of 40 to 50 per month." Channel Classics boasts 120 SACD titles in its catalog, and adds 20 more each year. Among them are Iván Fischer's musically and sonically superb recordings of Mahler symphonies—if his Fourth is as good as his Second, it could be one of my next "Records To Die For"—and some extremely fine period-instrument performances of Mozart violin sonatas.

All Channel Classics SACDs are recorded and edited in DSD. Sacks scoffs at big companies that record in PCM, upsample for SACD, and claim that people can't hear the difference between those and native DSD recordings. "It's easy to upsample high-resolution PCM to DSD," he said, "and easier for some to do postproduction, but it's not the same quality." Asked about specific labels, he noted that the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra records its SACDs in PCM, and that Hyperion has not only abandoned SACD, but has ignored his protests and stopped recording in DSD.

Sacks faulted Sony, Philips, and the major labels for abandoning SACD too soon in America, before they had adequately communicated its benefits to the public. "To them," he said, "quality is not important. They saw the shift toward downloading and went with it." Regardless, several companies continue to manufacture DSD recorders, and Emerging Technologies of Switzerland, which makes the Pyramix digital audio workstation, continues to develop and refine the technology.

"If people have the opportunity to hear Super Audio—even on a normal system—the difference is so strong, whether in stereo or multichannel, that they understand," Sacks affirmed. "And the emotional impact of a really good multichannel recording is incredible. I wish everyone could experience what I experience. I don't use multichannel as a gimmick, placing the listener in the center of the orchestra or anything like that; I try to have you feel the emotions and dynamics of the performance without being conscious of the rear speakers."

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