A Chink in the Armor or a Glimmer of False Hope?

As first reported April 8 in EETimes, Sony has made known its plans for the first generation of Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) players, to be released in Japan this May. For the last several months, Sony has been suggesting that the SACD format would be going head to head with the competing DVD-Audio format, despite overtures from the DVD-Audio Working Group to join in a single all-encompassing specification.

But at the last Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, several companies hinted at players that would play all formats. Prototypes shown by Yamaha and Denon led some to speculate that Sony would have to follow suit to remain competitive. (See previous report.) A Sony executive at the CES mentioned to Stereophile publisher emeritus Larry Archibald and editor John Atkinson that the audio and video divisions may in fact have two different strategies---with Sony Video releasing a player that could handle all formats.

Not only has Sony decided to include DVD-Audio in its DVD products for release in Japan; another twist in the recent Sony announcement is that the Japanese SACD discs would not be backward-compatible with existing CD players. This appears to contradict what Sony has said up until now---that SACD must be compatible with CD players to succeed.

Sony even went so far as to demonstrate sample SACD discs playing on portable CD players at last year's HI-FI Show, in Los Angeles. But critics at the time felt that to provide the dual layers of data required for backward-compatibility with CD players would price SACD discs out of the market. This appears to be the reason for Sony's change of heart in Japan. Shigeo Maruyama, President of Sony Music Entertainment (Japan), Inc. (not Nobuyuki Idei, president of Sony, as improperly attributed in the EETimes article) states that "We are considering offering hybrid discs with the condition that their cost would not differ [from that of single-layer discs], but in reality, the cost becomes very high."

A Sony spokesman points out, however, that the announcement is for the Japanese market only, which operates differently from the rest of the world. Rick Clancy, from Sony Corporate Communications, says that there are still three options for SACD: 1) one "Red-Book" CD layer and one SACD layer, 2) one SACD layer, or 3) two high-density layers. Clancy emphasizes that it is up to the record labels to decide which types of layers to use, and that Sony does not attempt to control how a label will use the SACD format. He also hinted at a definitive announcement to take place at the Hi-Fi Show next month in Chicago.

The Japanese SACD players will be based on the Direct Stream Digital (DSD) coding format developed by Sony, which will be encrypted to prevent digital copying. The players will also have built-in D/A converters with no digital output for the DSD information, and start at over $4000 US. Initial software releases will come from Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) and will feature 13 discs with two-channel audio, with 10 or so additional discs slated for release each month. Players are expected in the US sometime later this fall. Once SACD costs come down, Sony expects to include the technology in all manner of audio products, from portables to higher-end machines.