ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

March 1, 2004

Deliberate Distortion in Hybrid SACDs?

Imagine you’re a high-level record executive. Your day planner might read something like this:

9pm: Alarm goes off. Push lid off coffin and ascend stairs.
10pm: Search for prey -- find an 11-year-old with an unauthorized copy of Shania Twain’s
Up! Suck her blood.
11pm: Join other executives for an important meeting on how to make more money selling vacuous pap to minors.
12am: Grab kitten for a quick bite. Worry about the failure of SACD to generate return on investment.

I might be wrong on the character assessment -- probably too kind -- but the concern over SACD’s failure to take its place as "the next big thing" has got to have the suits worried. As everyone knows, interest in this new format, or in any disc-shaped medium that promises better sound than the CD, has resulted in nothing like the sales bonanza that occurred when CD took over from vinyl. The public simply isn’t buying it.

Now imagine you’re one of the execs who championed SACD. Your pale, gelatinous butt is on the line. What will you do? Go to the gym? Practice saying, "Would you like fries with that?"? Possibly. First, you’d attempt to hatch some diabolical plot that, you hoped, would help sell the new format by any means possible.

If you were a Sony suit, for example, you might stoop so low as to reverse your policy on hybrid discs, and allow a CD layer readable by standard players to be superimposed on a DSD layer, as Telarc has done. Telarc promises that "even the conventional CD layer can sound better on a Hybrid SACD. Using a special process called ‘SBM Direct™’ . . . the resulting quality is unprecedented."

I wish the Telarc people would get in contact with those at Blue Note. I was listening to a friend’s copy of Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me [Blue Note 8WT49] the other night when I made an unsettling discovery. The CD layer of this hybrid SACD/CD sounded much worse than the original CD-only recording I have in my collection. Compared to the plain CD, the CD layer of the SACD is brittle, poorly resolved, and plagued with digital artifacts.

Hmmm, I thought. What if the sound of the CD layer has been deliberately compromised? It’s been done before. If you believe that radio stations have been required to systematically compromise the sound quality of their broadcast signals in order to prevent people from making high-quality recordings on their home tape decks, then this idea is no stretch of the imagination.

Deliberate adulteration of the quality of the CD layer on hybrid discs might benefit record companies in two ways. First, poor sound quality might discourage ripping and copying of the CD layer on home computers, while the SACD layer -- the execs hope -- remains uncopyable. Second, it would make the SACD layer sound that much better in comparison, thus increasing the user’s reliance on, and belief in, the superior sound of SACD.

I’m not denying, as others have, that SACD is superior to CD. I will say, however, that in my experience a good DAC can make ordinary CDs as enjoyable as -- or, in some ways, more enjoyable than -- SACDs. CDs can be, for some reason, punchier and more emotionally engaging. I have also found that high-resolution PCM formats sound better than SACD -- but that’s based on a very limited sample.

The bottom line: Given the record industry’s recent spate of punitive litigation against their customers, if chicanery is afoot, it will surprise no one. Play ’em if you got ’em, and see if I’m wrong. And hang some garlic on your doorpost, just in case.

...Ross Mantle

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