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Perfect sound (for now) 

The 20-year run that compact discs have had in the U.S. market is a respectable one. The 45 rpm record was introduced in 1949 and held on strong until the mid-'80s. Stereo LPs came along in 1958 and ruled the marketplace until, well, CDs debuted in the spring of 1983. In that first year, more than 30,000 CD players and 800,000 discs were sold, effectively closing the book on analog sound delivery as a mainstream force. Even though the vinyl era was nearly twice as long as the CD era, it's important to remember that the content on your Beatles album wasn't predicated on chip speed and memory size. In the two decades compact discs have existed, there have been enormous advances in digital technology.

Those advances brought MP3 capabilities and the DVD, two information carriers that have utterly redefined the way people experience their entertainment media. In the case of the former, the portability and capacity of an iPod demolishes the puny 70 minutes of skips you get with a CD. Likewise, the prevalence of DVD -- and inexpensive surround-sound systems -- has heightened consumer demands for high-quality playback at home, and despite improvements in mastering techniques, most CDs aren't up to the task. Accordingly, it's about damn time something came along to supplant CD dominance. The thing is, some things -- plural -- came along.

When Sony rolled out its first batch of Super Audio CDs (SACDs) in 1999, starting with Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," most music fans were decidedly uninterested. After years of building "the last library you'll ever need," music fans didn't want to have to start all over again. Given that SACD was a joint, proprietary venture of Sony and Philips, it meant that, at first, the only titles available were going to be those on Sony-affiliated labels. Consider-ing the high price of the players -- and the memories of dusty shelves of Bob Dylan MiniDiscs -- it wasn't too surprising that the format didn't catch on immediately.

Thanks to Sony's persistence with the format -- the company's hardware division began bundling SACD capability into low-priced systems -- and news that Universal (home of MCA, Geffen, Verve, Deutsche Grammophon, etc.) would begin releasing titles in earnest, people soon began paying attention to audiophile magazines that roundly praised the vastly superior sound quality and multichannel surround-sound capabilities of SACDs. Using the incredibly high sample rates of "Direct Stream Digital" reproduction (rather than Pulse Code Modulation, PCM), the listening experience with an SACD was completely revelatory, even to aficionados accustomed to the high-end reproduction of labels the likes of Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, home of the 24K gold Ultradiscs.

Right around 2001, when people were warming to the idea of SACD as a top-shelf format, Warner Music Group began trickling out titles on, you guessed it, another format. DVD-Audio utilizes the mastering and reproduction techniques (not to mention the multilayer storage capacity) of DVD-Video to turn standard DVD players into fantastic audio players. Call it an instant improvement; the entire concept behind DVD-Audio was more understandable to consumers, and with the additional video capability of the format, provided more flexibility.

This meant that electronics companies were asking a world of people perfectly content with their CD collections to not only upgrade those collections, but to choose between two competing formats: the increased fidelity and video content of DVD-Audio or the video-less, but better-sounding SACD.

"A lot of people understand the math behind DVD-Audio," says Coleman Brice, director of marketing and communications for Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. "They're accustomed to terms like 16-bit and 20-bit and 24-bit. They see the linear improvements, and they understand that it's getting better. When you go into Direct Stream Digital, people are like, Ã?How can one-bit sound better than 24-bit?'" (DSD utilizes a one-bit system, but that one-bit is used more directly than with PCM technology.)

"The reason we don't do DVD-Audio," Brice continues, "is because after the results of our quantitative and qualitative research, we just feel that SACD is sonically better. Some people are going to say it's a marginal difference, depending on how attuned they are to these things. But if anyone's gonna care about pins and needles, it's going to be Mobile Fidelity, so that's why we've taken the stand that we support SACD."

Such stands are the major stumbling block for getting both formats off the ground. While Sony, Universal and a handful of smaller labels including Mobile Fidelity, Telarc and Water Lily Acoustics are embracing SACD, Warner, BMG, EMI and another group of smaller labels are taking to DVD-Audio. Unless you're a weirdo, you're not going to invest your money into two players to listen to music. Fortunately, recent developments are coming together to position both formats as viable future media.

The first development was a handful of major catalog rollouts on SACD. Peter Gabriel found all of his albums reissued on SACD. More notably, the entire ABKCO catalog from the Rolling Stones, everything from The Police and 15 of Bob Dylan's best albums were recently issued on multilayer "hybrid" SACDs that also play in "regular" CD players. (The SACD layer is only playable on SACD players, but even the regular CD layer sounds better.) The second was the formation this fall of the DVD-Audio Council. Headed up by 5.1 Entertainment Group CEO John Trickett (Trickett's labels have backed DVD-A since its inception), the council includes more than 70 labels (including Universal labels) committed to the production of DVD-Audio titles.

The third, and perhaps most important, was the introduction this spring of Pioneer's DV-563A, an inexpensive player (MSRP: $249.95; most big-box electronic stores sell it for around $179) that plays DVD-Audio and SACD, as well as MP3 discs. (The Pioneer player, like all other DVD-Audio and SACD players, is "backward compatible," meaning it plays regular CDs as well.) In other words, there's no need to choose anymore.

Claiming victory in the "format wars," Trickett says that "DVD-Audio appears to have won out, mainly because it's compatible with every DVD player ever made. And, to me, it's a more encompassing technology. I think both sound great, and there's no question that both offer excellent sound, however, the sound is all you get with SACD. With DVD-Audio, you also get all the other added material."

That "victory" is debatable. With the emergence of the Pioneer player (there certainly will be others like it) and the prospect of similar car players on the horizon, there's no need for either format to "win." Compressed audio technology, like MP3 and AAC, has certainly won the day as far as portable music goes. But the experience of listening to a full album, reproduced excellently, is one that is unlikely to lose its appeal any time soon, never mind the current listening habits of young kids. If some labels choose to continue with SACD, that will mean a steady stream of phenomenal-sounding titles. If other labels go with DVD-A, that will mean a steady stream of phenomenal-sounding titles with extra cool stuff.

"I think it's unfortunate that we have two formats at the same time," says Andy McKaie, Senior Vice President of A&R for Universal Music Enterprises. "But it's better than having no new formats. It'd be wonderful if they both coexist."

Confused? Don't be

  • All SACD players and DVD-Audio players play standard compact discs. You don't have to rebuy everything, only the titles you think are worthwhile.
  • Almost all players accommodate MP3 discs but won't play AAC files (the ones from iTunes). This is a problem with most MP3-compatible CD/DVD players, not just SACD and DVD-A players.
  • Speaking of MP3s, one of the big drawbacks of SACD and DVD-A technology (at least as far as consumers are concerned) is that you can't Ã?ripÃ? MP3s from them. Yet. There are some rudimentary shareware programs that can create MP3s from DVD-Audio (and regular DVD-Video discs), but they're not dependable. (I've been unable to find anything to rip SACD tracks, because there don't seem to be any computers with SACD-compatible drives.) Undoubtedly, as these two formats catch on with more people, there will be more programs available.
  • Almost every DVD-A disc has at least one mix you can play on a standard DVD player, but to hear the Ã?advanced resolutionÃ? mixes, you need a DVD-A player. To hear the DTS mixes, you need a DTS-compatible player or receiver.
  • While only about half of the SACDs out there are hybrid discs, both Sony and Universal are focusing more on these discs than on straight-up SACD-only discs. Be aware that SACD-only discs will not play in a non-SACD-compatible player.
  • As of right now, neither DVD-A discs nor SACDs play in car stereos. There are some car systems that play DVD-Video discs, and will therefore play some of the mixes on a DVD-A disc, but no systems are geared specifically for DVD-A. This will be changing soon, as several manufacturers and carmakers look to DVD-A Surround as the next wave in car audio. Hopefully, they'll keep SACD in mind.

Click for a list of 20 great titles on SACD and DVD-Audio

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