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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 4

DVD-Audio, Part 4

by Geoff Martin / December 1, 2001

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DVD-Audio versus SACD

Four months ago, I was asked to write an article on DVD-Audio versus Super Audio Compact Disc: the pros and cons, which would win the coming format war, and ultimately which to buy. Now that the time is up, I admit that Iím as lost as I was then. So, I did what many people do when theyíre confused Ö I went shopping.

What players are available in Montreal?

With no intention of buying anything, I wanted to find out what the state of the consumer market is for both players and recordings. Letís start with the players:

  • At a large warehouse-style electronics store just outside Montreal, amid an entire wall of DVD and CD players, I found just one DVD-Audio player (at about $500). Not one SACD player was in sight. Note, however, that the website for this same store advertises a number of DVD-Audio, SACD, and dual-format players for sale online.
  • At a high-end consumer audio store downtown on Ste-Catherine, I was told they did not have any plans to obtain any SACD players but that they would receive one DVD-Audio player at some unknown date. Retail price was expected to be in the $1800 range.
  • A brand-name store at a downtown mall carried two SACD players (both under $600) and no DVD-Audio players. However, the sales staff were moderately confused, particularly regarding the operation of the players. There was one demonstration disc in the store--a re-mastering of a Miles Davis recording that featured primarily the noise from the analog master tape. It certainly did not highlight the capabilities of the playback system. In addition, when I asked if the store carried any DVD-Audio players, I was told that this was a format more popular in Europe and that it would be difficult to find in Canada!

The results were obviously somewhat disappointing. Players were not in the stores and sales staff appeared to be sadly under-informed or simply apathetic regarding the new technologies.

What recordings exist in the new formats?

  • Step two was to assess the state of the market in software. A trip to a large downtown music retailer where I normally buy my compact discs proved to be both encouraging and disheartening.
  • The shelves held approximately 100 SACDs and 50 DVD-Audio discs, all found in the classical music section despite the fact that most discs were pop and rock. This is misleading, however; read on.
  • Of the 100 SACDs, only one was a recording originally made in the DSD format--the remaining discs were re-releases and re-mixes of material recorded in previous formats.
  • With the exception of the one DSD-recorded SACD, all of the discs sported a sticker proclaiming that they were single-layer discs--meaning that they are playable only in an SACD player. Oddly, the sticker appeared to indicate that this was a feature, not a problem. The lone DSD recording was a hybrid dual-layer disc, playable in both SACD and regular CD players.
  • By contrast, of the 50 DVD-Audio discs, 12 were originally made as 24-bit/96 kHz multichannel recordings, the remainder being re-mixes and re-mastered material.
  • Prices for all discs were in the $35 range.

How do they sound?

Unfortunately, it is still too early to make an informed comparison of DVD-Audio and SACD. Although I have heard demonstrations of both systems--and both sounded extremely good--they were of different recordings of different orchestras in different halls, playing different repertoire and recorded by different recording engineers, with different microphones and so on. To the best of my knowledge there has not yet been a fair comparison test of the two systems.

The professional recording community has different attitudes toward the two formats. DVD-Audio and its high-resolution PCM signal are viewed by all in the industry as a necessary incremental step to keep the compact disc alive. In fact, many recordings in recent years have been made using the ď24/96Ē format, in spite of an earlier intention to release material only in the 16/44.1 format of current CDs.

On the other hand, SACD and DSD are seen by many as a true evolutionary jump that provides the basis for a much higher quality medium for the consumer market. I donít disagree: the first time I heard an SACD demonstration, I was uncharacteristically impressed. The sound I heard more closely approached the output of the mixing console during a recording session than any other format I have ever used, be it professional or consumer, analog or digital.

What should I buy?

At the moment it appears that there are too few available discs to warrant purchase of either kind of machine. However, if you are already shopping for a DVD player and you do occasionally listen to audio-only discs, it would make little sense not to purchase a player that is compatible with either the DVD-Audio or SACD format--or both.

Keep in mind that it costs the manufacturers comparatively little to build a player that is capable of playing both formats. Thus I would strongly recommend standing very firmly on both sides of the fence and buying just such a machine. The prices for these players are not higher than those limited to just one high-resolution format, and you wonít wind up with a machine that can play only discs no longer available in stores

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