SACD, Multichannel Audio Get Big Boost at AES

An unusual tropical rain welcomed the Audio Engineering Society to its 109th gathering, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center September 22–25. Audiophiles may breathe a collective sigh of relief to learn that the Super Audio Compact Disc is getting a big push, not only from corporate parents Sony/Philips but from studio-equipment makers, consumer-electronics companies, and—perhaps most important—music labels.

"More than 160 SACD titles are available now," said Sony Electronics' Nathan Bentall, who gave me the Cook's tour of hardware and software tools for the new format. Arrayed on a curving wall near the electronic products of companies such as AKM Semiconductor, Burr-Brown, Ed Meitner Designs, dCS, Genex Research, Sonic Solutions, and Tascam were SACD discs by such esteemed artists as Miles Davis, Vladimir Horowitz, Leonard Bernstein, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., Duke Ellington, Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Luthor Vandross, and Tower of Power—titles representing not only Sony Music labels like Columbia and Epic, but well-established labels such as DMP, Denon, Delos, Groovenote, Hyperion, and Indigo.

The logos of 22 pro audio companies were displayed at the Sony/Philips SACD booth in the Convention Center's South Hall, as were those of 12 makers of consumer electronics: Accuphase, Kenwood, Krell, Marantz, Nakamichi, Onkyo, Philips, Pioneer, Sharp, Sony, Teac, and Yamaha. All these manufacturers are now part of the campaign to bring high-resolution audio to music lovers everywhere, a campaign that will eventually include disc players at all price points—especially the lower end of the scale, a market segment absolutely essential for SACD to gain a solid foothold. Bentall mentioned single-disc SACD players breaking the $1000 price point; Sony is also announcing a five-disc SACD carousel, the SCD-C333ES, which the company claims will be available in November for about $1200.

Philips will debut its $1999 multichannel SACD-1000 later this year. Stereophile Guide to Home Theater editor Tom Norton and I were treated to an after-hours demonstration of multichannel SACD by Sony's David Kawakami and associates. The playback was over five Sony SS-M9ES loudspeakers—designer Dan Anagnos' latest—driven by Pass Labs X-1000 monoblocks. An orchestral medley of composer Jerry Goldsmith's movie scores played back from hard disk had everyone in the room in rapt silence. While I have no doubt that, in our lifetime, both SACD and DVD-Audio will be surpassed by some as-yet-unimagined technology, for now and for the near future, this is as good as it gets.

In the professional arena, Genex, Mytek Digital, and Tascam all are showing new Direct Stream Digital–capable recorders, while Augan Instruments and Merging Technologies showed DSD workstations. Sony adds that professional DSD A/D and D/A converters are now available from dCS and EMM Labs. Sony and Philips also are displaying SACD authoring and text editing systems: Making its US debut at AES is Sony's eight-channel DSD Audio Workstation for recording, editing, mixing, mastering, and authoring. It includes a built-in, high-capacity hard drive and supports the use of high-performance Advanced Intelligent Tape (AIT) technology. Sony also says it is establishing a dedicated engineering group, called Sony Studio Technology (SST), at its facility in Walnut Creek, California to complete development work on the project and facilitate manufacturing. The workstation is expected to be released by fall 2001.

Kevin Halverson of Muse Electronics and David Chesky of Chesky Records were conducting an alternate multichannel experience a few doors away: six full-bandwidth channels arrayed with two speakers up front, two on the sides, and two in the rear. Abbreviated "2F-2S-2R," the arrangement seems to have won some converts among engineers, even though it is at odds with home theater's well-established 5.1 array. Chesky and friends dismiss the notion of a dedicated low-frequency channel for music, believing instead that the processing-and-amplification resource it occupies is better used for locational cues. "At least four of the channels are compatible between the two systems," said Jim Johnston of AT&T Research, "so we're two-thirds of the way there."

Strolling about the convention floor, I bumped into EveAnna Manley. Manley Labs is one of the few companies with feet firmly planted in both the pro audio and high-end playback markets. Demand for Manley pro gear keeps Manley and her 40-some production workers constantly scrambling. Multichannel tube amps aren't practical, Manley said, because of the heat. "You want six channels, you just use three stereo amps," she recommends. What's her preference? "The mastering engineers are still demanding two-channel, but I've got six channels in my bedroom," she smiled.

Canada's Bryston is another company that successfully works both sides of the street. I was stopped dead in my tracks by what I heard from their booth: Stevie Ray Vaughan sounding inimitably sweet, raunchy, and realistic—from a pair of two-way minimonitors! No ordinary boxes these, but a collaboration between Bryston and UK-based Professional Monitor Corporation. "PMC builds the speakers and we supply the electronics," said Bryston's James Tanner. The ALM1, as the giant-killer is known, is a relatively compact self-powered two-way sporting a balanced input and a total of 180W of power each. Stunningly good-looking, extremely dynamic, well-balanced, and a joy to listen to, the $4995/pair ALM1 also goes deep—to such an extent that I asked Tanner if a nearby subwoofer was on. "No," he replied, "these babies go flat to 32Hz." Tom Norton says he has already requested a pair for review in the Guide. (J-10: Move fast and you can scoop him on this.) Bryston is PMC's North American distributor.

When asked what he thinks is the hot ticket in multichannel, longtime Stereophile reader and recording engineer Greg Begland of Phat Planet Studios in Orlando, Florida replied, "ProTools 5.1"—software, for those of you out of the technoloop. A brief discussion of audio trends prompted Begland's colleague, Edward Krout, to observe that he'd put his investment dollar on "boom music for 5.1"—meaning big bass, big effects, and plenty of bad rap for automotive listening. The National Highway Safety Commission may intervene . . .

Krout and Begland are justifiably proud of the fact that their studio was used by legendary engineer Bob Katz for his most recent effort, an "end-to-end" production of a recording by Apple Jazz Records artist Charlie Bertini. Katz is also involved with Z-Systems, a pro company making sample-rate converters and "digital detanglers," as well as Stereophile's 1999 "Editor's Choice" and "Joint Digital Source Component," the rdp-1 digital equalizer/controller.

Next week: Hi-rez audio and the watermarking controversy, as dissected by some of the brightest minds in the business.