Both Sides Now

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At the time of writing this, my second column for Surround Professional, the campaigns mounted by the two sides in the high-res format war continue with each side claiming victory. The Dec.-Jan. issue of Absolute Sound carried two “think pieces”: one titled “SACD vs. DVD-Audio: Is It Over? “and another titled “…It’s Not All Over!,” the latter written by Robert Stuart of Meridian, developer of the MLP lossless data reduction process for DVD-Audio. Stuart goes on to state that “even acknowledging a format war is a dangerous oversimplification.” The SACD supporters’ stance is that, now that the largest music label, Universal, has announced it will support SACD – adding to the already over 400 SACD titles available – the fat lady has sung.

Sound & Vision magazine online gave a report card to SACD and DVD-A, rating the various scores of the two formats as though schoolchildren. Both ended up with a C grade. Hi-Fi News, on the other hand, reviewed a new entry-level Sony multichannel SACD player and reported that it sonically surpassed the several DVD-Audio players they had reviewed thus far. According to the DVD-Audio camp, a paper delivered and published by Stanley P. Lipshitz and John Vanderkooys at AES has brought many early DSD/SACD supporters over to the Oversampled-PCM/DVD-A camp. In general, it showed mathematical inequities in the low-bit DSD process that the authors feel dooms the format vs. PCM. Those in the DSD camp who had A/B’d both formats and preferred the sound of DSD made reference to the story of the learned men who once determined that bees can’t fly.

Now that both formats have a good number of multichannel discs available, it seems propitious to compare the two high-res surround formats firsthand. My consumer-level gear for auditioning DVD-As was the Pioneer Elite DV-AX10 progressive-scan video, “universal” DVD-Audio and stereo SACD Player, which weighs in at over 50 lbs. and has a SRP of $6000. (My quotes are employed because, since it will not handle multichannel SACDs, it is not truly universal.) Its excuse might be that, when it was originally introduced (in Japan), there weren’t any multichannel SACDs as yet. Also, Pioneer has now introduced a much more reasonably priced player that really is universal – playing both multichannel SACDs and DVD-As. The catch is that the chip that allows for this – and that will probably be used on all other upcoming universal-format players – converts the SACD low-bit data to PCM before outputting it as analog.

When I first set up the AX10 it sounded quite poor with stereo SACD playback – not even up to the level of the Sony SACD player that I will describe in a minute. However, after a 200-hour-plus break-in playing SACDs, it began to improve. (I had already done a 400-hour break-in playing DVD-As.) The AX10 has reams of features and puts out a glorious progressive scan image. However, when using the component video output, everything is stretched anamorphically – including 4:3 standard screen material. (Thus automatically updating early Orson Welles and Brando moviesS.) To escape this widescreen fattening, one is forced to use the lower resolution S-Video connection. Another feature allows disabling the video functions to minimize any possible degradation of the sonics. Of course, that makes it impossible to view the graphics, stills, and film clips that often accompany DVD-A discs – features not carried by SACDs.

Some DVD-As have fascinating extras – much as the extras now provided on certain video DVDs. They include bios of composers and performers, illustrated conversations by performers (such as on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours disc), paintings and other images that illustrate the movements of classical works, even full-motion trailers for some of the movies on a jazz movie soundtracks album. The extras on the SurroundedBy Entertainment DVD-As were especially well-designed, and added greatly to the listening experience. On the other hand, their discs can still be played without requiring any connection to a video display (as required by many other DVD-As). None of the classical choral/vocal albums had subtitles for the lyrics – that would have been a nice touch on, say, Barenboim’s fine “Beethoven Ninth.”

However, I found the combination of video display and computer-type navigation around the screen often frustrating and poorly designed. Many DVD-As with different images to accompany each track failed to change the images with the music and had to be advanced manually with the remote. (This may have been another quirk of the Pioneer player, and I plan to check it with other players.) When properly done, the possibilities of video display with music in surround holds much promise.

My multichannel SACD playback unit was the new Sony SACD/CD changer, SCD-CE775, with an SRP of $400. It has built-in bass management options, but, unfortunately, it only works for SACD playback – not for standard CDs. Here’s one for those who appreciate irony: One of the sales points of SACD is the hybrid disc, which allows playback on standard CD players of a 44.1 stereo layer with an SACD player being required to access the high-res SACD layer. The problem is that none of Sony Music’s own SACDs are hybrid – they lack the 44.1 layer that allows consumers to listen to them now on their standard CD players and later on to purchase an SACD player for them. All other SACDs out there so far – stereo and multichannel – are hybrid discs.

Since only the cost-no-object Accuphase SACD player offers a digital output of the SACD signal, one has to have a preamp or receiver with five or six channels of analog inputs for playback of both multichannel high-res formats. I used the very precise but very basic R. E. Designs SCPA-1 6-channel preamp and five of the Genelec HT205 active home theater biamplified speakers plus a powered sub. More on these next issue.

Both Telarc and Chesky have now issued discs of identical music in both formats, so it should be easy to have a shoot-out between them, right? Well, it’s not so easy for several reasons I’ll go into next issue. I will say that I could hear little difference with my present setup between the SACD and DVD-A versions of Telarc’s 1812 Overture spectacular. But that playback system is in flux and will soon be a 7.3-channel system with mostly matching speakers all around. Perhaps then I will be able to hear subtle differences. I will also have the opportunity to experiment with the alternatives/variations to 5.1 that Chesky, Telarc, DMP, and D&G have so far offered, which involve porting the LFE and/or center front channels to full-range speakers in various locations to enhance surround sound for music vs. for home theater. Another thing I hope to audition more carefully is the stereo mixdown, which is usually accomplished automatically inside the DVD-A player, whereas multichannel SACDs boast a separate producer-supervised 2-channel mix.

What multichannel recordings have I enjoyed most so far? I will say that at this point there seem to be more good-to-excellent SACDs vs. some really poor DVD-As, but it all comes down to the music more than the particular process – which is certainly a healthy thing. Perhaps with proliferation of universal players this war will cool down. We don’t need another war.

Hot Picks

Here’s my short list at this time of the best DVD-As and SACDs: Buena Vista Social Club on Nonesuch (DVD-A), Tubular Bells on Virgin (SACD and only 4.0), Debussy piano recital on Surroundedby Entertainment (DVD-A), Joe Beck & Ali Ryerson’s Django on DMP (SACD 4.0), Beethoven’s Ninth with Barenboim (DVD-A), Chabrier & Ravel works with Yutaka Sado on Erato (DVD-A), Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique with Paavo Jarvi on Telarc (SACD), Bucky Pizzarelli on Chesky (both DVD-A and SACD). My complete reviews of over 75 discs so far in both new formats appear at – use the site search engine to find those in issues during the past year. �John Sunier

Surround Professional Magazine