Personal Technology: Compact Discs Are So 2002

  • Ken Kessler

Just as compact discs began replacing audiocassette tapes some 20 years ago, Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) or Digital Video Disc-Audio (DVD-A) or both of the relatively new formats should commence pushing their predecessor to the nice-price sale bin. The discs resemble 5-inch silver CDs, but they offer a fuller, more lifelike sound as well as true multichannel surround sound. CDs, on the other hand, are two-channel and can’t reproduce the full range of sound embedded in master recordings. DVD-As also offer “extras” for watching on a television or a projection screen. For example, on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours DVD-A, you can listen to Stevie Nicks commenting on “Gold Dust Woman” while you watch footage of the original recording session.

Sony and Philips, the creators of SACD, and a consortium of companies that produced the technology behind DVD-A developed the formats simultaneously in the late 1990s as the successors to the CD. Despite the improvements that they represent, the new formats have had difficulty finding an audience because, “for 97 percent of the public, CD is more than good enough,” says Bob Stuart, president and chief designer of Meridian and a key figure behind the technology that made DVD-A possible. However, with the meteoric increase in the popularity of home theater, a growing number of people have become accustomed to watching DVDs in surround sound, which gives you the sense that you’re in the middle of the action.

Beyond DVD enthusiasts, audiophiles, and professional musicians—including pianist James Boyk of Performance Recordings, who declares, “CD was never good enough”—the music industry supports both formats because advanced copy protections make the discs less susceptible to piracy. (The security measures are a formidable, if not insurmountable, obstacle for people who have distributed audio systems that essentially copy the discs to a hard drive.)

For people who simply enjoy music, the formats offer selling points, such as SACD’s backward compatibility with CD players. SACDs called hybrid discs deliver CD-quality sound when played on a CD player (single-layer discs, or nonhybrids, require an SACD player), and DVD-A can be played on DVD-video players. However, enjoying the full capabilities of both formats requires the special players and surround-sound processors. As a result, you have the dilemma of deciding which type of player to purchase: SACD or DVD-A. The alternative is to wait until additional universal players—those that can play both formats, such as the Pioneer DV-47A and Marantz’s DV8300—become available. At this time, there are more than twice as many models of DVD-A players (about 50) as SACD players available, but SACD offers more than 750 album titles compared to about half that number on DVD-A.

Whether SACD or DVD-A will emerge as the dominant format remains to be seen. Warner Bros. releases about 60 DVD-A titles, BMG has committed to DVD-A, and Universal supports both. Niche labels, including Telarc, Analogue Productions, dts, 5.1 Entertainment, and Chesky, release titles in one or both formats. ABKCO released 22 early Rolling Stones albums on SACD. If sales are successful, other artists may be encouraged to release catalog and new material. Ultimately, the music companies will produce what listeners purchase. “The consumer is going to decide for us,” says Chesky Records’ David Chesky. “Both formats are terrific—better than what we have—but [consumers] should embrace one or the other.” 

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