Sony Announces New Affordable SACD Player

A year after introducing the Super Audio Compact Disc player to upscale audiophiles, Sony Corporation has decided it is time to make the technology available to a wider audience. On May 17, Sony announced that its third-generation SACD player will be launched in Japan in June at approximately $730 US (¥80,000). The company's current SACD players, which debuted last fall, list at $3200 and $5000.

The new machine follows the acclaimed SCD-1 and SCD-777ES, which introduced SACD to the audio world. No model name or number was mentioned in the announcement of the new player, which, following its June launch in Japan, will appear later this year in other parts of Asia and in Europe. No date for a US release has been set, according to a Sony spokesperson. The players will be manufactured at the rate of about 2000 per month.

Sony's goal is to reach mainstream music lovers rather than the niche market of audiophiles, who have almost universally praised SACD, despite the high prices of first- and second-generation players and the paucity of recordings in the new high-resolution format. SACD combines the advantages of digital audio—wide dynamics, ultra-low noise floor, high-density storage, precision editing—with the harmonic richness and musical integrity characteristic of the best analog recordings. The format also offers the potential of multiple channels at high levels of resolution, something not possible within the limitations of the old "Red Book" CD format.

SACD players are compatible with all existing CDs, thanks to a twin-laser system and detection circuitry that enable the machines to automatically adapt to whichever type of disc is inserted. They will not, however, play DVDs—either movies or DVD-Audio discs. That format will finally see commercial daylight in June with new players from Matsushita Electric, for $900 and $1100. DVD-A players were originally scheduled to debut last year, but concerns about copyright protection sent Matsushita engineers back to work to beef up the format's encryption system. Pioneer ignored protests from the music industry and launched its own DVD-A player in Japan.

DVD-Audio players will also play ordinary CDs, but many observers have noted a similarity between the engineered incompatibility of SACD and DVD-A and the VCR format wars of the early 1980s, in which Sony's Beta format ultimately lost to Matsushita's VHS system. In that case, Matsushita and its allies flooded the market with affordable machines while Sony kept its prices high. Consumers voted with their dollars, making VHS the de facto videotape standard. Beta's superior technical quality made it the favorite of professionals, however, who still record and edit on high-speed Beta.

A compromise between the two videotape formats was not possible due to differing tape cassettes and head drums. No such problem faces manufacturers of SACD or DVD-Audio players, since both technologies are built around the same type of optical disc. The market success of both formats may ultimately depend not only on the availability of a wide number of top-quality recordings, but also on the widespread presence of affordable but as-yet-undesigned universal disc players. Such devices will automatically route the disc's reflected datastream to the appropriate decoder circuitry, be it CD, SACD, DVD-Audio, or DVD movie. Hint to manufacturers: Build it and buyers will come—by the millions.