Sony SCD-C555ES SACD changer

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.

I'm glad I persisted, because what I heard that day was totally new. It wasn't the huge room, or the $3000 SCD-XA777ES six-channel SACD player, or the pro-audio-level EMM Labs Switchman 2 six-channel analog preamplifier, or the five Pass Labs X-600 monoblocks, each driving a Sony SS-M9ED full-range loudspeaker. It was the music. My show-report notes said it all: "seamless, liquid, utterly transparent, expansive, totally effortless music, both highly dynamic and beguilingly real." I had been transported away by a new, new audio experience.

The new, new thing (footnote 1)
SACD, the new multichannel audio format—the source of my joy that Friday in New York—had been anticipated ever since DVD-Video had become a runaway commercial success. As music-only applications of this format began to appear, the audio press—both high-end magazines like Stereophile and more mainstream ones like Sound & Vision—filled with excitement. "To say that I am bowled over by the sound quality offered by SACD would be an understatement," wrote our editor, John Atkinson, two years ago (Vol.22 No.11, p.3). "What you hear transcends the limitations of prerecorded sound. This is what audiophiles have been wishing CD delivered all along." In another column (Vol.23 No.9, p.3), he said, "Both SACD and DVD-A are exciting formats. With these new media, consumers will at last have access to a sound source that has not been compromised, that holds the promise of being transparent to all listeners, with all kinds of music, under all conditions." However, he warned, "To become dominant, a new medium (like SACD) needs to be different in kind, not just offer more of the same—even if more is much better."

Stereophile set out to determine whether this difference would emerge. Within eight months, the magazine published reviews of six SACD and three DVD-Audio players, complete with such tension-building cover headlines as "Soul of a New Medium" and "DVD-Audio At Last!" This journalistic glee included an unprecedented inflation of the magazine's "Recommended Components" grading system. "With the recent launches of Super Audio CD and 24/96 DAD," wrote JA, "and the imminent introduction of DVD-Audio, we have created a new Class, A+, for the best performance in those digital categories."

While Stereophile's editor later chided DVD-A manufacturers for their plans to watermark the new format, and worried about the tiny number of DVD-A recordings commercially available, he was buoyed during his first annual review of the new medium (in "Super Audio CD One Year Later," Vol.23 No.11) by the 160 SACD titles and the availability of several SACD players. The drumbeat quickened perceptibly when Sony announced SACD multichannel music releases and players this past January, at CES 2001.

"Now is the winter of our discontent..."
In other quarters, however, concern was mounting about the future of the new formats and of the music industry in general. JA stated that, "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" (November 1999). The concern increased when SACD players arrived with no capability for managing more than two channels. "Most multichannel receivers and DVD-Audio players lack the facilities for proper playback of a DVD-Audio disc's bass," announced David Ranada in his "Tech Talk" column in the February/March 2001 Sound & Vision. And "What's a new technology without a hiccup?" said editor-in-chief Bob Ankosko in the same issue.

Our own Kalman Rubinson did not take this lack of bass management so lightly. In his "As We See It" in the June 2001 issue, he worried that "multichannel sound will, for all its gee-whiz effects, be sonically and aesthetically inferior to quality two-channel."

Michael Gaughn cautioned in Sound & Vision that "the obsession with resolution, coupled with the limited catalogs, could mean that both SACD and DVD-Audio will end up as nothing more than audiophile and enthusiast formats" ("Super Audio CD Goes Surround," July/August 2001, p.74). "A broad offering of affordable universal players would up the ante a bit, but it still wouldn't eliminate the problem of quadruple inventories at the record store, where you'd have to wade through the CD, DVD-Audio, DTS CD, and SACD offerings..."

Footnote 1: The New, New Thing, by Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2000), presents the story of Jim Clark, instigator of two 20th-century technological revolutions: Netscape and the Internet boom.