This is certainly an exciting time for consumer audio � especially for the high-end sector of audiophilia. After almost two decades of what was originally touted as �perfect sound forever,� we may finally have just that, and not just via two channels, but high-resolution multichannel to boot! While both of the competing formats (DVD-A and SACD) offer a quantum leap over 44.1 kHz Red Book CDs, much of the attention in the high-end audio community has been centered on Sony/Philips�s SACD. With only a few holdouts, the high-end audio community has overwhelmingly come out in favor of DSD/SACD. Detractors feel that the best-engineered standard CDs of the last few years have learned how to minimize the most annoying aspects of the 44.1 format. When played on extremely high-end CD transports � especially via upsampling processors such as those from dCs � it is felt they can equal the 2-channel offerings of DVD-A and SACD.
While DVD-A started out with standard-priced players, the initial SACD offering was at $5000. The new format was immediately embraced by several smaller audiophile labels such as Telarc and DMP. But a new format can�t make it on the strength of only the small audiophile community � major record labels have to get involved. Now that has happened, with the news in late August that Universal Music Group will release many titles on SACD as a preferred format � in both stereo and multichannel. The world�s largest music company will release a combination of top-selling new releases and regular catalog. Universal even stressed that, in doing this, they intend to help drive the growth of SACD with its many benefits to consumers and recording artists. Their announced objective is to make it a standard for the music industry. They also appreciated the built-in security possibilities with the format, which can be included with no risk of signal degradation. [DVD-A is not without major label support � Warner Bros. is already deeply involved, and EMI and Naxos recently released their first DVD-Audio discs. BMG announced that they will also support DVD-Audio, though no schedule for their first releases has been set.]
Other developments that will fit in with Universal�s support include the falling prices of SACD players. Sony�s latest is multichannel and a SACD/CD changer to boot, and retails for only $400. (I�ll be reviewing that one in these pages soon.) A recent Sony player offers progressive scan DVD video along with stereo SACD (but no DVD-A playback as offered by the $6000 Pioneer �universal� player). Realizing that, while 2-channel SACD is superb music to the ears of audiophiles (nearly all of which are staunch 2-channel aficionados), the general consumer out there may not be as finely tuned aurally and therefore fail to appreciate the improvement over Red Book CDs. But multichannel surround sound for music [SSfM] is an entirely different matter, and that�s what will sell it to most consumers. So the growing number of multichannel SACD players and software from DMP, Telarc, Virgin, Sony, and, soon, Universal will be more than welcome.
Several of the audiophile and classical labels have been mastering to six or eight channels for some years now, and thus are ready for the new multichannel formats. Both DMP and Telarc are even experimenting with an overhead pickup to be played back on an optional basis via an overhead center or rear speaker or two smaller speakers high up at the sides. Chesky and D&G have departed from the accepted 5.1-channel layout; the former porting the center and LFE channels into a pair of additional side channels and the latter using the same channels to feed two additional speakers high above the normal front speaker pair. Some of the masters from the quadraphonic era can now be heard with a clarity and impact that was impossible with the primitive matrixing systems of that previous aborted attempt at SSfM. Mike Oldfield�s Tubular Bells is a real kick, even without the center and LFE channels (since it was a quad master). The most sonically successful of the quad era recordings were the 4-channel, open reel prerecorded tapes from RCA Victor, Vanguard, and others. Vanguard quadraphonic originals made in the immersing acoustics of the Mormon Tabernacle will soon be re-released on multichannel SACD � including the �Berlioz Requiem,� which the composer wrote especially for surround sound performance! One label (Opus 3) has even released 4.0 multichannel SACDs made from their original Blumlein stereo mic pickup on 2-channel masters by directing the L-R difference information to the surround channels.
Some bugs remain to be worked out in the transition to high-res SSfM. The professional editing gear is just being finalized and production is far from simple at this point. But consumers care little about that. They want a variety of reasonably priced players to choose from and a growing catalog of high-res recordings to play on them. One thing that would surely aid the acceptance of SACD by the general public would be for Sony Music to issue their discs as hybrid SACD/CD versions as do all the other labels. Then collectors could buy them now and enjoy them on standard CD players until they obtain their first SACD player.
Another area that needs work is to quell the piracy fears of the major labels enough to be able to offer digital outs on all six channels so that audiophiles can use separate processors and hopefully enhance the already superb signals even further. Better bass management seems to be happening in players. If 6-channel digital-out players become a reality, it will also happen in receivers and processors again. In any case, my vote goes toward allowing the end users to decide if they wish to use the accepted 5.1 home theater approach for SSfM as well, or choose to direct the lowest frequencies to five full-range speakers or various combinations of full-range fronts and limited-range surrounds. And even to possibly use that sixth channel for an overhead feed, which I feel is more important for music than a center rear channel.
John Sunier has been involved in broadcasting and audio for over four decades. He was music producer of the educational radio series The Standard School Broadcast for six years, and later Director of Sound for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Films. He has been a longtime classical and jazz record reviewer � including contributing editor to AUDIO magazine for a decade. He originated and broadcast the weekly national program �Audiophile Audition� from 1985 to 1998. He also operates an international mail order service for specialized headphone recordings, The Binaural Source. John is married to Donna and lives with a harpsichord, piano, separate audio and home theater systems, and over 16,000 CDs, LDs, DVDs, LPs, cassettes, and audio and video tapes.