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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 10

Technology --Sampling Super Audio Compact Disc

by Stephen Habington / July 2, 2003

The Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) has been on the market since just before the turn of the century. The format promises a quantum leap in the sound quality of recordings but has gone largely unnoticed except by the audiophile fringe. The selection of SACDs has been limited and the discs premium-priced (typically $30-50 each). Recently, retailers have been selling their SACDs (most of them from Universal Music) at the equivalent of regular CDs. LSM reports on the sound experience of the SACD and in future installments will look at the technical and business aspects of the new format.

The multi-channel challenge

One of the principal attractions of Super Audio CD is the option of multi-channel playback. For the purposes of current technology, "multi-channel" means more than two. SACD was designed to accommodate six: left, centre, and right in front; left and right behind; and a sub-woofer for enhanced bass effect. This conforms to the basic "home-theatre surround" layout that has taken over a multitude of family rooms. Home theatre, of course, now demands the Digital Versatile Disc (DVD), and it is the audio version of DVD that could offer SACD some competition in the multi-channel arena. (More on this in the future.)

Is SACD good for the ears?

SACD surround provides a unique listening experience. It is not an overwhelming wall of sound, as moderate volume produces a natural lifelike presence. In SACD surround, Carlos Kleiber's famous accounts of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 471 630-2) might just earn a second rosette in the Penguin Guide. The different sections of the orchestra display astonishing sound imagery. The recordings, dating from 1974 and 1976, have never sounded so impressive.

Fine as the Kleiber disc is, sound quality escalates for re-issues of two Herbert von Karajan discs from the same era. His Mozart Requiem (DG 471 639-2) and Beethoven Symphony 9 (DG 471 640-2) are inspiring performances. The extra edge in sound quality may owe something to the fact that von Karajan's re-recording of his core repertoire in the mid-1970s was aimed at making use of "Quadraphonic" sound, an early multi-channel innovation which was doomed because of competing and incompatible formats. It is good at last to hear these masterpieces in the grand manner intended by this most technologically astute of maestros. With the Berlin Philharmonic in top form and first-class vocal lineups, these recordings are unquestionably von Karajan's finest account of these works, each of which he took into the studio for DG three times.

The orchestral demonstration discs par excellence for SACD surround sound feature Ivan Fischer leading the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Dvorak's Slavonic Dances (Phil 470 601-2) and his Symphonies 8 and 9 (Phil 470 617-2). These were recorded ab initio in multi-channel tracks by Polyhymnia International. Superb performances in truly spectacular sound. This is what SACD surround was really meant to do.

The stereo comparison test

SACD surround is awesome, but is it the best way to enjoy music all the time? Perhaps, but there is a slight drawback. With surround speakers properly arrayed, the reference listening position (in the middle to be able to hear everything) is fairly restricted. It is a sit-still proposition for one or two people at a time. SACD stereo, on the other hand, is much more tolerant of normal seating arrangements. Re-issues on SACD of 2001 recordings from Vienna, Pierre Boulez conducting Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (DG 471 635-2) and Christian Thielemann's live account of Eine Alpensinfonie and Rosenkavalier-Suite (DG 471 636-2) by Richard Strauss, provide an interesting comparison with the original CDs which already offered outstanding sound quality.

In surround mode the listening experience of works for large orchestra is sensational. Switching to SACD stereo, similarly spacious and realistic characteristics are evident. Comparative listening reveals that the modestly priced Sony SCD-XE670 SACD player could surpass the performance of a conventional CD player costing more than ten times as much. In surround or stereo, SACD is a winner.

More to hear

The assortment of music now available on SACD is varied and tempting. A thrilling orchestral blockbuster comes in the form of The Planets by Gustav Holst, coupled with Percy Grainger's The Warriors, a 1995 recording (DG 471 634-2) from Sir John Elliot Gardiner and the Philharmonia. For the last word in refinement, Alfred Brendel performs Mozart Piano Concertos 9 and 25 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras (Phil 470 616-2). The Baroque is represented by Biber's Missa Salisburgensis (Archiv 471 632-2) featuring the combined forces of Paul McCreesh's Gabrieli Consort and Players and Musica Antiqua Köln under Reinhard Goebel. Cecilia Bartoli's award-winning disc of Italian arias by Gluck (Decca 470 611-2) and Bryn Terfel singing Wagner arias (DG 471 638-2) provide a taste of the glories-to-be of opera in surround sound.

The shape of sound to come

Although it is clear that the good old conventional CD will be with us for some time yet, it can be reported after extended listening sessions that SACD in both surround and stereo play does live up to its self-proclaimed reputation. It is a significant advance in audio that happily accommodates all forms of classical music.

(c) La Scena Musicale