DVD Audio and SACD

The regular audio CD has been around since the early 1980s. It was clearly superior to all of its predecessors in every aspect, and it completely took over the market in about 10 years. I was one of the last people I knew to get a CD player, and I got mine in 1995.

It's not difficult to see why CDs caught on. They are smaller than records, sexier and more reliable than cassettes, and more convenient to use than both with more options: individual tracks, instantaneous and perfect seeking, program/repeat/shuffle modes, longer capacity, no rewinding or turning over, no dust, no needles, no eaten-tape jams, no warping. Not to mention the spectacular sound quality, which previously could only be approached with very expensive, high-end analogue equipment. CDs were further entrenched in the market in the mid-1990s with the widespread use of computer CD-ROM drives that could merge the consumer audio and computer worlds for the first time, a combination that drastically changed the way many people use computers.

CDs really are fantastic. Why, then, would the consumer electronics and recording industries want to make a newer standard? The consumer electronics companies wanted to ride the success of the DVD, the fastest-growing consumer technology in history for many reasons (similarly to the CD feature comparison above, compare DVDs to VHS tapes). They created DVD Audio, a standard for audio data represented on DVDs that took advantage of the awesome DVD capacity (4.7 or 8.5 GB per side) with higher specifications for audio, such as 5.1-channel surround sound (instead of 2-channel stereo) and a maximum sample rate of 24 bits at 192 kHz (instead of 16 bits at 44 kHz).

Sony, as usual, decided not to support the standard format and create their own instead, the Super Audio CD (SACD). It also uses DVDs to store audio data, but they can optionally contain a regular CD layer as well that CD players can read. They also support 5.1-channel surround sound, but can't compare their sampling rates because the SACD uses a different sampling method called Direct Stream Digital (DSD). I've read some documents on this but I can't figure out how it works, so I won't try to explain it.

Both new formats offer some great new specifications, enough to make any audiophile drool. I've never heard one, but most of their listeners say that the sound quality is noticeably superior to CDs.

They will both fail miserably.

That's a bold statement to make without even hearing either of them, so I'll back it up. The reason why CDs and DVDs took over their respective markets so well is because they offered significant gains in multiple areas while losing very few (if any) of their predecessors' features. SACD and DVD Audio haven't done this.

They're still the same size discs that look the same with the same convenience and usability features. They have the same drawbacks: discs can be scratched easily and there's no recordable format available at launch. They're also more expensive than CDs, if you can believe that, with the average SACD or DVD Audio disc going for $20-25. And while they hold 7 times as much data as CDs, they also need more space for their high-specification sound  at least 6 times as much with average compression. Of course, most albums are remasterings of standard CDs anyway, so they won't be longer than 45-70 minutes.

The RIAA isn't stupid. They learned from CD-R drives. Consequently, the new audio layers of SACDs are readable in absolutely nothing except SACD players. There are also no SACD-recordable drives or media in existence, and I'll bet a lot of money that there never will be. Furthermore, while DVD burners are currently saturating the market, no software exists that can decrypt DVD Audio and copy it - they used a more complicated encryption scheme than the regular CSS on DVD movies. These new formats are locked down against piracy extremely well.

Of course, that means that we lose some features that we've grown accustomed to with CDs. Want to make a custom mix CD? Sorry. Want to lend the disc to a friend? You have to trust them not to scratch your $25 original. How about making a copy for your car? Nope. Not that it matters - you can't play either of these in your car anyway. In fact, you can't play these discs in much of anything. Very few DVD players support DVD Audio, and only Sony's highest-end players support SACD (Sony wants you to buy expensive SACD-only players and regular DVD players instead). Forget about portable players too.

Are you willing to tolerate all of these restrictions just for better sound quality and surround sound?

Well, let's take a look at the competition: the good old CD that I can play in almost every stereo, computer, car, portable, and DVD player that I can find, while having the ability to easily and cheaply make custom mix CDs or copies as often as I want. Sure, it's only 2-channel stereo sound, but that's fine with me. Most music is recorded in stereo, and most audio systems only support stereo. Surround mixes are usually faked or artificially inflated to enhance the surround effect. And it doesn't enhance my listening experience to feel as though the band is surrounding me, because in real life, bands are always in front of me. I've never been listening to music in stereo and thought to myself, This would sound drastically better if it were surrounding me. Sure, 5.1-channel surround sound is nice for movies, but I really don't see the need in music.

How about sound quality? Yes, the new formats offer much higher sampling rates with greater precision. You might be able to tell the difference, but only if you're trying, and probably not in a blind test. The problem is that the limitation of sound quality on most systems is not the medium, it's the other equipment such as the receiver or the speakers (not the cables, but I'll save that for another article). The best sound quality I've ever heard was a regular CD played on a high-end stereo. Most equipment isn't even good enough to fully use the sound quality of CDs. Why bother upgrading to a new format if you can make your old one sound just as good by simply buying a nicer pair of speakers?

There is no reason. That's why DVD and SACD will never take over the CD market. I know I certainly won't be buying into either of them, and I can't recommend them to anyone else for any reason at all.