SACD, the Way Forward?

At the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show in January—see the report in this issue—Sony and Philips held an SACD Event at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. There were trippy lights. There were the Grand Pooh-Bahs of Sony, Philips, and the record labels. There was loud multichannel Big Brother and the Holding Company. And there was Sony's main SACD man in the US, David Kawakami, supplying the pep talk.

Many of us were hoping for a major announcement—the SACD format has been on the market since 1999, and CES is the big trade show of the year. Instead, we were treated to reports of incremental progress on the software front and precious little else. Even my SACD-supporter pals were scratching their heads afterward.

Kawakami trotted out the largely disproved line of free music is killing the music business. As we've reported in these pages, and online, several independent studies have linked the MP3 file-swapping habit with an increase in CD purchasing. But even if these studies are anomalous, we do know one thing: music fans aren't likely to buy what they haven't heard, and these days they don't hear a lot on the radio that they want to buy.

The "free music is the problem" point of view glosses over entirely the major reasons that sales are down: high priced, low-quality music, competition from video games and DVD-Video (both Sony strongholds), and rising resentment toward the music industry and copy restrictions. In this scheme of things, free music is almost beside the point. But to Sony, free music is apparently the problem.

Kawakami then said that, similar to the way CDs rescued the music business from a slump 20 years ago, SACD provides the opportunity to save their bacon again today. Let's take a look at this reasoning, and sort out what Sony is probably really after here.

I hardly think free cassette swapping was the problem in the early 1980s. Twenty years ago, the CD represented a major and easily perceived step forward in convenience, durability, and high-tech coolness. Twenty years later, adding Super Audio to the name, and more bits, more audio channels, and watermarking to the disc is nowhere near as revolutionary a leap as what kick-started the CD in 1983. The first CDs looked very different, and clicked instantly in buyers' minds: the future was here. Although most audiophiles considered it a sonic step back, CD survived because it was obviously so much easier to use and more portable. One format could play in the home, car, airplane, and gym.

Kawakami said he hopes the public will embrace SACD because it represents better sound quality. What I'd like to hear is how they plan to ignite the mass-market interest in sound quality. MP3 has proven that plenty of music-lovers would rather listen to second-rate free audio than pay record labels for quality.

Sony and Philips will probably never confirm this in public, but in my opinion, SACD is primarily about generating new licensing fees for their bottom line and a new way for record labels to restrict how you use their content. Remember, it's copy protection for the labels, but content restriction for consumers. Audio quality may rank first as a PR tool, but in the corporate scheme of things I suggest it runs a distant third.

Perhaps Sony's biggest spin job was announcing that 2 million Rolling Stones SACDs have been sold. However, these discs make no mention of SACD anywhere on their outside covers, and were sold almost entirely to fill the need for a decently remastered Stones CD catalog—the original CD versions were horrid-sounding and incomplete. My guess is that part of the deal with ABKCO (the label that controls the first 22 Stones albums) to include the SACD layer was that the cover could contain no mention of the format, for fear it would scare off customers.

But the big news at the SACD Hard Rock event was that Sony will release 15 Bob Dylan discs on SACD, and EMI will issue Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in surround sound. That was it. Okay, and Universal will release some Police and Peter Gabriel titles, and a few assorted others. I know there are those who think SACD has "won" with this announcement, but the facts are these: In three years, fewer than 1000 SACD titles have been released worldwide, and only a relative trickle from the other major labels is planned. I was decidedly underwhelmed.

What I wanted to hear was news of a full-bandwidth, multichannel, unrestricted digital DSD connection. You'd think that by now, after three years of "major push," and all those brilliant engineers working at it, SACD would have a digital connection sorted. Nope. Sony hardware is obviously still at war with Sony software about how to keep that content locked down.

How about Sony Music announcing, to show their commitment, that they will issue all new releases as CD/SACD hybrids? Or just a guarantee that their SACDs will all be hybrids from now on, so that audiophiles can at least play them in their cars, too? Nope. But Kawakami did mention that the Terre Haute pressing plant will start rolling out 15,000 hybrid discs a day.

Or how about SACD capability for computers, so that the growing numbers of desktop and laptop music systems can play back and make mix discs from SACDs? Nope. In fact, Sony Music's own CD-restriction ploys have made many of their CDs unplayable in Sony's own computers. With SACD, they're fighting progress and the will of the market even harder.

Or how about a real surprise—like a few Sony or Philips players going universal and adding DVD-Audio playback? After all, when faced with the inevitable, Sony did eventually start making VHS machines. But for now, Sony and Philips customers will just have to buy two machines if they want to hear Neil Young's Harvest or Linkin Park's Reanimation in hi-rez audio. Quite a few manufacturers have figured out that consumers don't like being forced to choose sides in format wars. Those customers will buy up universal machines from Pioneer, Yamaha, Integra, Lexicon, Marantz, Onkyo, Denon, MSB, McCormack, Linn, and others.

Or how about addressing an issue brought up by Mitchell Gusat on our website's "Soapbox": Since copyrights do eventually expire, do the various restriction and watermark technologies also expire at the appropriate time? Or will SACD data be locked up in perpetuity?

One final request: Please provide us with a label that clearly identifies the source format and mastering path for each SACD. We know that most discs don't start as DSD masters, but we should be able to determine the format path a disc took before it ended up as an SACD, be it analog, PCM, or DSD. When sourced from PCM, sampling and bit rate should be included as well.

Before the hate mail ensues, understand that no one here is bashing SACD—unlike some folks, who want to drop the shiny discs altogether. But as currently configured and marketed, SACD is not about giving customers what they want; it's about pushing the corporate agenda onto customers. Which is why, in 2003, it ain't gonna fly. After his keynote presentation at CES, even Sony's COO, Kunitake Ando, speculated to journalists that record labels may not have a future as a result of the Internet. "When you have a problem like this, I really wish we were a simple hardware company."

This June, at the Home Entertainment 2003 show in San Francisco, maybe we'll hear some real news.—Jon Iverson