Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio (DVD-A)

Week of May 23, 2004

Q:     What are the differences between SACD and DVD-Audio, and what is availability of players and software?   Is a universal DVD player that supports SACD and DVD-Audio a worthwhile investment, or is this another VHS-BETA duel?

Brian Deviley, Minneapolis, MN

A: SACD, or Super Audio CD, is a high-resolution audio format originated by Sony and Philips.   It was intended to be the next generation of sound quality, an upgrade from regular CDs.   It uses a special recording technique that records higher quality digital data for every second of sound than a regular CD does.   This higher quality data yields better sound than a regular CD.

When SACD was introduced, it was intended primarily for stereo recordings to be played over two speakers.   Now special surround sound SACDs are available as well.  

Some SACD discs have two layers, one SACD layer and one standard CD layer.   This will allow the disc to be played in ordinary CD players as well as SACD players, though you will not get the sonic benefits of SACD if you do not play it on a player that supports SACD.

DVD-Audio, or DVD-A, is a high-resolution format specified by the same consortium that developed DVD-Video.   DVD-A discs usually have several tracks to choose from:   a Dolby Digital track that will play on any DVD player, a high-resolution stereo track that will play only on DVD-A players, and a high-resolution surround sound track that also will only play on DVD-A players.   So, if you have a DVD player and a surround sound system that supports Dolby Digital, you can buy a DVD-A disc and enjoy surround sound music without buying a DVD-A capable player.

Both SACD and DVD-A have their proponents, and both are an improvement over regular CD sound.   I have tried both in my system and preferred the results from the SACD player and software.   The difference in stereo mode compared to regular CDs is easy to notice, but at the same time the difference in sound quality is not dramatic.   The surround tracks are a different experience and vary between recordings.

If buying a new player I would get one that supported SACD and DVD-A, but would not run out and grab one as a must-have either unless you are a serious audiophile.   You would need to have a very good system to hear the difference, and in a typical home theater in-a-box system I don’t think you would hear the difference at all.

SACD and DVD-A players have come down in price dramatically.   An excellent value is the Pioneer DVD-563A, selling for only $149.   It is a progressive scan DVD player that also plays SACD, DVD-A, MP3 CDs, and has a jpeg viewer for displaying digital pictures on your TV.

If you are a music fan and have a Dolby Digital surround sound system with a DVD player, I encourage you to buy a DVD-A disc and give it a try just for the experience.   DVD-A discs are available at Best Buy, Circuit City, and other major retailers that sell players as well as music.   Surprisingly, I have no music stores with a good SACD or DVD-A selection.

As to whether or not this will be a Beta-VHS format war, my guess is that both will coexist but not replace regular CDs.   High-resolution sound is great and all, but most music is played on modest one-piece stereo systems, car audio systems, and boom boxes.   People with high-quality sound systems world is a relatively small group in the grand scheme of all those who buy music.

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