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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
April 2003

The Case for SACD

The excruciatingly slow rollout of SACD and DVD-A has given critics of the new formats plenty of time to punch holes in them. Arguments range from peoples' use of MP3 and therefore apathy for the high-rez formats to the fact that CDs still far outdistance either SACDs or DVD-As in terms of support from music labels and consumer sales. Then there are those who think DSD is technically flawed in one way or another, so SACD is not suitable to be the next big digital thing.

I can't say there's no merit to all of these arguments, but I do wonder how many of the critics of SACD have listened to a cross-section of the software available. They can't be hearing what I'm hearing. There are so many great-sounding SACDs available that in this respect alone SACD has been a success. The Fidelio demo at Son & Image in Montreal underscored this for me, as the Canadian audiophile recording label A/Bed its two new SACDs with the master tapes from which they were made. The differences were so slight that they could easily be attributable to the differences in the playback equipment -- a Nagra T analog recorder versus a full complement of dCS digital electronics.

Other audiophile labels are pushing state-of-the-art sound into new and better directions as well. First Impressions Music has a good-sized catalog of CD releases, but two of FIM's SACDs, Autumn in Seattle [FIMSACD 052] and Vivaldi's The Four Seasons [FIMSACD 040], are perhaps the two best-sounding recordings I've ever heard. The jazz trio on Autumn in Seattle is arrayed with a wonderful sense of space and a live feel. It's a direct-to-two-track-DSD recording, so extreme care was taken in its production. The strings on The Four Seasons are gorgeous -- an ideal blend of silkiness and the rosiny sound of the bow drawn over them -- and I especially enjoy the tempo of the reading. I can't say I'm an expert on Baroque music, but this Four Seasons seems more quickly paced than others I've heard, and the highly detailed sound makes following the playing all the easier.

But don't think that only new audiophile recordings sound great on SACD. There are many remastered discs that improve on their CD counterparts, and there are others like the PentaTone recordings that Telarc distributes that do not show their age. These recordings were made in the early '70s in four-channel sound, so they were meant to be played on vinyl-based quadraphonic systems that couldn't do justice to them sonically. Even now these recordings are meant to be played back on multichannel systems, but they sound terrific in stereo, offering smoothness, tons of inner detail, and a realistic portrayal of the concert space -- all from recordings that are 30 years old.

I could go on and on naming SACDs that have impressed me, and as this year progresses, we'll see more and more great-sounding titles appear. I'm still buying many more CDs than SACDs, but I anticipate that this gap will narrow with time, especially as more SACDs start showing up at Wal-Mart and the like, making them easier to find. I have no idea which high-resolution format will win out, if either will completely, but right now it's impossible to be serious about achieving highest-fidelity sound and overlook SACD.

...Marc Mickelson

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