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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
April 2004

Are They Listening?

SACD was introduced to the world in 1999, and it is now mature enough for two things to have occurred. First, there is currently a large enough number of titles to entice a broad range of listeners. Second, there is a vocal contingent of skeptics. These people confound me because their doubt centers around what is clearly SACD's greatest strength: its higher fidelity and commensurate improved sound quality over that of CD. I don't deny that many CDs sound very good, even better than some SACDs, but in the digital realm, only the very best DVD-As equal the sound of a well-recorded and -mastered SACD. For CD, I'm afraid the discussion is over.

I suspect that the nay-sayers, especially those in the press, are trying to make names for themselves by  saying that SACD has no clothes. But there is no merit in being wrong. Putting aside multichannel considerations, which are Jeff Fritz's domain in his "Surrounded" column, I doubted SACD at the beginning. I heard one of the first SACD demos at Hi-Fi '99 in Chicago and came away hopeful but not converted. Thereafter, new SACDs appeared at such a slow pace that the biggest story was not if SACD sounded better than CD but if there would ever be enough titles to lure buyers.

I then auditioned a couple of SACD players in my system, and I began to sway some, even with the dearth of software I had on hand for demonstration. I heard Sony's DVP-NS500V, which I purchased at Best Buy for the princely sum of $149 (the price included five DVD-Videos). The DVP-NS500V is a small, flimsy player by audiophile standards, and while its sound with anything it spins doesn't compete with the likes of Esoteric, Zanden, and Mark Levinson, it proved to me that SACD can be acceptable to the masses. The difference between its CD and SACD playback was clearly audible (and on SACD's side), its price was as low as that of most CD-only players, and the DVP-NS500V played DVDs too.

Other demos have convinced me as well, such as the one Fidelio Audio put on at last year's Son & Image show in Montreal, during which the Canadian recording label A/Bed its SACDs along with master tapes of the same recordings. As I wrote in a previous editorial, "The differences were so slight that they could easily be attributable to the differences in the playback equipment."

The most convincing demo, however, is one that you can perform yourself, provided that you have an SACD player. Buy a copy of Bob Dylan's Infidels [Sony 90317] on hybrid SACD. The music is wonderful, and hey, it's Bob Dylan. Your music collection can always use more Dylan. If you want to add context, buy (or better yet, borrow) a copy of the original Infidels CD [Columbia CK-38819] released in 1983. That way you can compare the SACD layer to the same disc's CD layer and a completely different recording.

Prepare to be shocked. The differences you will hear are not a matter of opinion -- they're like comparing winter in Phoenix to that in Duluth. I owned the original CD for years and listened to it probably a hundred times. It has always sounded thick, closed in, and dynamically compressed. When I heard the first notes of "Jokerman," the first track on Infidels, from the SACD, I was amazed at how much I had been missing. The SACD's sound was no more or less harsh or sweet than that of either the CD layer or original CD, but the far greater amount of information present was impossible to deny. Where there was murk, there was now space and ambience. Infidels was a different, and better-sounding, album, and it wasn't due to any sonic trickery, just careful remastering and a superior playback medium. I would bet my house that it's a simple matter of hearing more of what's on the master tape. If Sony will arrange it, I'll be happy to confirm.

I'm sure there are other SACDs that are equally convincing, but Infidels is one about which there can be no debate. Its SACD layer simply sounds better -- much better -- and any gross disagreement makes me wonder if those who claim not to hear SACD's higher fidelity are really listening.

...Marc Mickelson
editor@soundstage.com


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