ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

April 1, 2005

SACD is Dead

We know how many audio columnists it takes to bring in a new format (all of them), and how many it takes to screw in a lightbulb (answer, 45: one to screw in the bulb, and the other 44 to agree that the technology is valid). But how many does it take to pronounce a failed format dead? What I find amazing is that while everyone was willing to put in their two cents’ worth when the format was up and coming, now that it’s going, we’re suffering from collective writers’ block.

I recently attended a funeral in which the family of the deceased made the increasingly out-of-vogue decision to opt for burial rather than cremation. The casket was duly lowered into the frozen ground in a January snowstorm, the ceremony presided over by an Anglican minister in full regalia. The snow whipped his robes around and fluttered through the wreaths as a small group of mourners stood somberly by. Poetic, I thought. Surely a certain amount of ceremony, or at least a formal declaration of death, is also due the most promising high-resolution audio format of recent times. Here goes.

We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of the high-resolution format Super Audio Compact Disc. The format is survived by its mother, the Compact Disc, and by the audio format inherent in DVD movies -- although its brother, DVD-Audio, remains in critical condition in intensive care. The determination of death was made by attendees at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, at which the format and its related players were not featured. Donations to the Sony Corporation and to the families of the executives who have been fired for championing the format are welcomed.

The coroner is not likely to be interested in this case, as the demise of the deceased has been anticipated for some time. Rather, the passing on of this format is related to a birth defect, as well as to what might be called negligent parenting. I’m no marketing expert, but I surmise that for something new to penetrate a market, it must offer something that people want. In this case, the enticement was higher resolution and, consequently, better sound. There is no doubt that many people want better sound, but there’s a limit to the amount of trouble and expense they’re willing to go to.

Take me, for example. I was willing to risk marital disharmony and financial peril to equip my system with the very best outboard digital-to-analog conversion equipment I could get my hands on: the dCS Delius with Purcell upsampler. I added a high-resolution transport and expensive digital cables, as well as MIT’s top-of-the-line interconnect, for a truly killer digital front end. Along came SACD. For a resolution-and-source-fidelity fanatic like me, the decision to go SACD should have been obvious.

Well, it wasn’t. Sure, I could buy a relatively inexpensive one-box SACD player, but the reproduction available from such a rig was inferior to what I was able to achieve with my current CD gear. (I tried it.) To get a similarly high-end SACD rig going, I would have to upgrade my dCS gear and get the dCS Verdi SACD/CD transport to go with it, which would have cost a cool $50,000. I could have sold one of the kids, I guess, but my wife would have noticed. There was no option for a less expensive transport because the SACD licensing requirements forbid SACD players to output the digital data without those data being securely encoded, and no standard encoding format was ever agreed on.

You’d think that Sony might have learned something from the restrictive licensing on the Betamax video format. They didn’t. The net result of Sony’s policies was that the users most motivated to hop on the SACD bandwagon were priced out of the market. The great majority of users, of course, were already willing to put up with less-than-optimal reproduction of CD sound. Why Sony thought these nonfanatical users would invest in SACD when they were already unwilling to invest in optimizing CD remains unclear. The executives involved are probably still wondering even as they practice the old burger flip.

In the end, high-resolution formats will survive in recording studios, and may yet reach the public in the form of the new hi-rez video formats made necessary by HDTV and the ever-better display technologies available in homes. In the end, the short story of SACD should serve as a reminder that no format is immortal. From dust you were made and to the dustbin you shall return.

...Ross Mantle

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