The Soul of a New Medium

Successful new prerecorded audio media emerge, on average, every two decades—one human generation. The LP made its debut in 1948, 21 years after the introduction of electrical recording ended the adolescence of the record industry and the acoustic 78rpm disc. This was almost coincidental with Jack Mullin's retrieval of analog tape technology from the wreckage of post-WWII Germany and its subsequent commercialization by Bing Crosby's Ampex company (footnote 1). The compact cassette made its appearance in 1963, followed almost 20 years later by the CD, in 1982. And now, as I mentioned in the October issue's "As We See It," we have Sony and Philips' Super Audio CD and the DVD Forum's DVD-Audio to contend with (not forgetting MP3 and the Internet).

Sony's two-channel SCD-1 is reviewed in this issue by Jonathan Scull, with additional commentary from Michael Fremer in "Analog Corner." (You'll notice that we've given expanded coverage to the Sony player. Starting with this issue, we will choose one product each month to be given feature treatment.) After I had performed the measurements to accompany the Sony review, I took the machine home, both to form an opinion on how it did as a CD player, and finally to put in some hours listening to Super Audio CD in a familiar environment.

To say that I am bowled over by the sound quality offered by SACD would be an understatement. As I write, I'm listening to the SCD-1 play back an absolutely stunning-sounding Sony recording of cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing Mark O'Connor's Appalachia Waltz. The CD layer of this hybrid disc offers Class A hi-fi sound—yet from the SACD layer, what you hear transcends the limitations of prerecorded sound. The space between and behind the speakers dissolves into pure music. This is what audiophiles have been wishing CD delivered all along!

It should be noted that Sony has got both SACD hardware and software to market, as promised. I find it ironic that, as you can read in this issue's "Industry Update," scant weeks before Panasonic had promised to have DVD-Audio players in US stores, just one DVD-A disc had been released. And while some writers have criticized Sony for launching the medium with a two-channel player, balance engineers are (to judge from articles in Surround magazine) still coming to grips with the philosophical difficulties of mixing down surround-sound music recordings. Surround sound for music may be the most probable of all possible audio futures, but you can't escape the fact that 99.9999% of currently available recordings are two-channel and that the SCD-1 will get the most from those recordings, whether on CD or SACD.

But even as I congratulate Sony on their achievement, I can't help wondering if sounding better is, on its own, sufficient reason for SACD to become established. To become dominant, a new medium needs to be different in kind, not just offer more of the same—even if that more is much better. Until the LP came along, for example, recordings had to be experienced in unmusical four-minute chunks. The cassette offered portability and the ability for people to make their own compilations. The CD may have offered digital encoding, but I suspect that, compared with the often-abused LP, it was CD's random access, portability, indestructibility, and lack of surface noise that helped it establish a beachhead. The history of audio is littered with media that were better in one area but, overall, set no new paradigms: prerecorded open-reel tapes, Elcaset, DAT, DCC, MD, dbx-encoded LP. The free market seems distinctly parsimonious in what it chooses to favor.

Other than much better fidelity, and at least until the multiple-channel version becomes a reality, SACD offers nothing different from what's already available on CD. DVD-A, by comparison, offers much more than CD, though I believe it is that very versatility that has delayed its commercial launch.

In October, I conjectured that the ultimate success of SACD or DVD-A will depend on the release of recordings that take full advantage of what either format has to offer. But perhaps it will come down to something more trivial. Once I got my hands on some discs, one thing I tried right away was to load hybrid SACDs into a few DVD players to see if they would play the 16-bit/44.1kHz data layer. While a Meridian 800 did recognize the CD layer just one time out of several attempts, the other two machines to which I had access, a California Audio Labs CL20 and a Denon DVD5000, were confused by the presence of a high-density layer. Both kept trying to access a nonexistent video Table of Contents, and eventually gave up, flashing a cryptic "HO2" error message on their displays (footnote 2).

With audiophiles buying DVD-Video players both to play movies and to use as CD players and transports, perhaps the back-compatibility of hybrid SACDs might not prove as much of a benefit as I had anticipated. As reader Rob Hughes points out in this issue's "Letters," the fact that DVD-A can piggyback on the runaway market success of DVD-Video might prove to be the determining factor.

Footnote 1: Sad to report, Jack Mullin passed away on June 24.

Footnote 2: After the print magazine had gone to press, a Sony spokesman assured me that the next generation of DVD transports would recognize the high-density DSD layer of a SACD, so that players based on them would be able to switch to the CD layer.