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.
When a well-respected analog disc-mastering veteran like Stan Ricker says that the Alesis MasterLink ML-9600, a hard-disk-based digital recorder/CD burner, is "the best tool in my mastering bag...done right it can sound better than all but the absolute top drawer analog," you take the endorsement seriously. Progress is possible. Mastering tool, CD burner, 24-bit/96kHz recorder, audio reviewer's best friend—the versatile MasterLink is one of the coolest products I've ever had my hands on.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2001, Pioneer announced the US launch of the DV-AX10, the first of their long-awaited "universal" disc players, previously available only in Japan. Right out of the box, it plays SACD (two-channel only), DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, CD, and CD-R discs. For two-channel operation—which is exclusively how I examined it—and via its easy-to-navigate menus (footnote 1), I set the DV-AX10 to two channels as the default for all modes, including SACD. Except for hybrid discs, which I'll come to presently, the DV-AX10 is, blessedly, a set-it-and-forget-it machine.
Classé's Mike Viglas watched the audiophile skies, scratched his chin, and thought about his business. As he gazed, it occurred to him that if everyone in audio was moving downmarket to invade his territory, why not take his company and head upmarket? Thus was born Classé's much-lauded Omega series.
It was a late Friday afternoon in May and I wasn't having much luck getting into Sony's multichannel SACD demo room at the Home Entertainment 2001 Show. Surely, as a member of the audio press and a freelance writer for Stereophile, I should have no trouble. Not this time. After several polite "Nos," a Sony consultant managed to snare for me the last ticket of the day.
From the vantage point of a devout music lover, two-channel audio is more satisfying and more inclusive than ever these days. In terms of resolution, clarity, linearity, transparency, soundstaging, frequency extension, and sheer performance value, aspiring audiophiles have never had it so good.
I suspect that the faces of many of the readers who thumb through the pages of Stereophile must resemble those peering out of some Norman Rockwell representation of Americana: little children, their noses pressed hard against the display window of an urban department store in the weeks preceding Christmas, eyes aglow at the sight of some epic model train or exquisitely detailed dollhouse. So near, yet so far.
Having the Philips SACD1000 in my system promoted me to spill some ink about the Sony SCD-777ES. In the months I've had this SACD player in my system, my experience of music has been enhanced to the point where I feel more and more confident about the aural judgments I'm called on to make—because I'm convinced that I'm listening to a digital source on which I can bet the ranch.
John Atkinson flapped his bushy eyebrows at me and smiled slyly. "Hey, J-10, why don't you do the Sony SCD-C333ES SACD carousel player for April?" Usually, when JA gets that look on his face, I seek shelter. The phone bripped suddenly in my office, but I knew it was too late. "Oooo-kay..." I smiled back, thinking of Stereophile's recent covers and the hubbub, bub, thick as it comes, that they'd produced. (See "Letters" in the February and March issues.)
What's it take to compete on the bleeding edge of digital? Foresight, commitment of resources, and lots of money. Of course, it's all fundamentally about money, so we shouldn't be surprised that the audiophile's emotional needs aren't paid much respect by the large international manufacturing and marketing concerns stalking the earth today. Megaglom vs Cockroachacus. [Sigh] Where are those pesky miniature princess twins when you need 'em?
If you search for "DVD-A" on this website, you can get the whole confusing story of the format, which has been the subject of one of the strangest format launches of recent years: First it's on, then it's off. The watermark is audible. No, it's not. Oops, it is—back to square one. There's software, there's no software. (There's not—only one demo disc officially available in September 2000, when I wrote this review!)
I am biased: On very little evidence, I remain convinced that, in the near future, high-quality music reproduction will be multichannel. While most multichannel demos are still egregiously and aggressively ping-pong, I have attended a few successful demonstrations of discrete multichannel reproduction that have impressed me so deeply that I hunger to have all the music I love transported to me (and me to it) in this way.
Rarely have I anticipated the arrival of a review component as I did the Sony SCD-1 Super Audio CD player. I'd first heard the machine itself with the enthusiastic audiophile hordes at Chicago's HI-FI '99. I'd also been lucky enough to enjoy a few of the Direct Stream Digital-encoded recordings Tom Jung had made for DMP right off the hard drives of a prototype DSD processor via Ed Meitner electronics. (See my interview with Jung elsewhere in this issue.)