There are components that stick in a reviewer's memory long after they have been crated up and entrusted to the tender mercies of UPS. When I reviewed the Verona Master Clock from English company dCS in March 2005, the sound it allowed the combination of a dCS Verdi transport, Purcell upsampler, and Elgar Plus D/A processor to achieve from SACD was the best I had heard from my system—better, even, than I remember getting from the EMM Labs SACD transport and processor I had borrowed for a weekend a few months earlier. But at what price? The stack of four dCS components adds up to a cool $45k—"Yes, the complete dCS system is hip," I wrote in the conclusion to my review. "But $45k's worth of hip? That's a question I can't answer, I'm afraid, what with school fees and mortgages and taxes." The megabux dCS stack thus had to go back to the distributor at the end of the review period.
I recently had a house guest who is a music lover and amateur pianist but who had never heard of the SACD or DVD-Audio formats. I explained what they were and demonstrated examples of both, to his amazement. He then blew them off, saying that my system always sounds great and that the average person couldn't or wouldn't afford the kind of equipment I have. But when I told him that there were universal players available for less than $200 at retail and that, in fact, the player I was using was based on a transport drawn from a similar mass-market product, his interest was piqued. Of course, I didn't emphasize that one's expectations may not be the same, or that the boys designing the high-end stuff do make it sound different and, usually, much better. Heck, I'll do whatever I can to hook a music lover on these new formats, even if their future is uncertain. Once he's hooked, audiophilia will have him forever.
You'd think I'd be used to Charlie Hansen by now. After all, I've been speaking to Ayre Acoustics' renaissance man for a decade, having first encountered him when I was trying to arrange the review of Ayre's 100Wpc V-3 power amplifier that was published in the August 1996 Stereophile (Vol.19 No.8). I thought the V-3 was impressive.
Home Entertainment 2004 West in San Francisco might have been called off last November, but I wasn't about to let that stop me from taking a trip to visit the wine country—except that the wine country in question turned out to be the wine country of Southern New England.
Giuseppe Verdi gave the world more than two dozen operas, some good sacred music, and one string quartet. He also provided the young Arturo Toscanini with one of his first big breaks—conducting the singing of "Va pensiero" at his burial procession—and gave the flagship consumer product from England's dCS Ltd. its name. That the latter two gestures were posthumous and unwitting does nothing to diminish their poetry.
The modification of disc players is a hot topic on the various audio newsgroups, where the discussion includes do-it-yourself options and the recommendations of commercial modifiers. These range from tweak guys to such serious engineering firms as EMM Labs and everything in between. Not surprisingly, the objects of these endeavors are usually players made by one of the electronic behemoths: Sony, Philips, Technics, Toshiba, etc. In fact, it was just such a discussion that precipitated John Atkinson's purchase of and recent comments on a stock Toshiba 3950 player, a popular target of modifiers.
Perhaps I first should have consulted my horoscope in the local newspaper. But I can't imagine what it could have said that might have warned me off. So, in blissful ignorance, I went to the local big-box consumer-electronics chain retailer and laid down my lettuce. I thought I was buying the SACD version of Norah Jones' Come Away With Me (Blue Note 5 41472 8), but, by the end of the affair, I felt I'd gotten The Royal Scam (footnote 1).
With the exception of dCS and Accuphase, you don't see anyone jumping on the bandwagon of $15,000-plus SACD players—and for good reason. Despite enthusiasm for the format within the relatively small audiophile community, high-resolution audio isn't exactly making waves on the front pages—or even the back pages—of the mainstream news media. And while ABKCO Records has sold millions of Rolling Stones hybrid SACD/CDs, and Sony is looking to repeat that phenomenon with the recent Dylan hybrids, what's being sold in both cases are CDs, not SACDs. The higher-resolution layer is simply going along for the ride.
The manufacture and marketing of so-called "universal" digital disc players should have been a no-brainer right from the start. I recall the first demo of SACD I attended, when both SACD and DVD-Audio were little more than promises and contentions. That prototype Philips player consisted of several cubic feet of hardware controlled by a computer, even though mockups of more marketable SACD players were arrayed around the room. After the demo, I asked one of the Philips engineers if it were possible to make a player that could handle CD, SACD, and DVD-A. His reply: "Sure, if they let me do it."
Sony's first flagship Super Audio CD player was the two-channel SCD-1, reviewed by Jonathan Scull in November 1999. (The $5000 SCD-1 had balanced outputs; the cosmetically different but otherwise identical $3500 SCD-777ES had unbalanced outputs and was reviewed by Chip Stern in April 2001.) Sony's second-generation flagship player, the $3000 SCD-XA777ES, was reviewed by Kalman Rubinson in January 2002, and added multichannel capability with channel-level adjustment and bass management. Sony's third-generation flagship is the SCD-XA9000ES, also priced at $3000, which adds time-delay adjustment for its multichannel analog outputs and is presented in a smart new styling that Sony calls "Silver Cascade." The disc drawer and the most frequently used controls are on the angled top half of the brushed-aluminum front panel; in the lower half are the display, the headphone jack and its volume control, and the multifunction control knob.
Ever since the introduction of high-resolution digital formats, audiophiles have been waiting for the smoke from the format wars to settle. What would the winning software be? DVD-Audio? DVD-Video? SACD? 24 bits at 96kHz or 192kHz? As new formats struggled to establish themselves, upconverting technology became commonplace for the playback of the familiar 16-bit/44.1kHz "Red Book" CD format. What to do? Invest large amounts of cash in a system that played "Red Book" (maybe with upconverting, but if so, by how much?) and one other format, and hope that you've bet right? And what about movies on them new-fangled DVDs, Tex?
Overachievers tend to rankle people after a while. Musical Fidelity, a relatively small British company run by Antony Michaelson, has issued a stream of high-performance, high-value electronic products over the past few years, along with a limited-edition line of pricier designs based on the military-spec nuvistor vacuum tube. With few exceptions, Musical Fidelity products have garnered outstanding reviews worldwide, with consumer acceptance to match. Michaelson is also an accomplished clarinetist, recording and issuing classical-music CDs in his "spare" time.
Well into dCS managing director Mike Story's attempted explanation of upsampling, there came an epic moment when the ever-expanding universe of his thoughts—which we had been following to new heights of digital enlightenment—broke free of our collective grip, snapped back on itself, and caused a conceptual implosion of nearly cataclysmic proportions. The blank, spent expressions on the faces of the journalists gathered in the small attic-like meeting room at dCS's Great Chesterford (UK) facility all seemed to say, "What the hell was that? Was it just me, or did you feel that too?"
Perhaps SACD has yet to reach critical mass in terms of consumer and industry acceptance, but halfway through 2002, it appears to be getting closer to that goal. Along with Sony and Philips (Universal Music), EMI is on board, as are many smaller, sound-conscious independent labels such as Chesky, Analogue Productions, Telarc, DMP, Rounder, Opus 3, Songlines, and the resurrected Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. For now, DVD-Audio, with its screen-driven menus, doesn't appear to be an attractive option for audiophiles not interested in merging audio with video. Perhaps the future will bring universal two- and multichannel playback devices equipped with LCD screens that actually live up to both formats' sonic potential, but I don't believe that day won't dawn any time soon.