The venerable CD is being pummeled on two fronts, the most prominent beating coming from the online digital download side — iTunes/iPod, et al. But less prominent and far more significant to packaged music and CD/DVD hardware retailers is the emergence of DualDisc as the potential successor to the plain old CD.
Marking its first anniversary, there are now nearly 150 DualDisc titles, including several high-profile discs (see sidebar).
Logically, the twin successes of both iTunes — and its competitors — and DualDisc should spell the end to the stand-alone niche DVD-Audio and SACD formats. That logic is only half right. Since DVD-Audio versions, along with the standard two-channel, are available on most DualDisc titles, stand-alone DVD-Audio titles are likely to disappear.
“In the past year, the major labels have moved away from dedicated DVD-Audio discs and have moved toward the idea of DualDisc,” said Craig Eggers, consumer electronics marketing senior manager for Dolby. “Every major label has introduced DualDisc content.”
But with apologies to Mark Twain, reports of SACD's death are greatly exaggerated, at least according to Sony, its biggest promoter. SACD hardware is available from more than 30 manufacturers, which produce more than 150 different SACD-compatible DVD/CD player models.
On the content side, Sony says there has been an average of 250 new SACD titles released each quarter since September 2003, and there are now nearly 3,500 SACD titles according to the Web site www.sa-cd.net, mostly obscure music issued from smaller specialty independent labels such as Telarc. Sony BMG leads the major labels, including the much-lauded Bob Dylan collection.
“Sony BMG has released nearly 300 Super Audio CDs, including seven [in November 2005] which contain surround sound mixes,” said Leslie Cohen, new formats and business development senior VP. “Sony BMG Masterworks continues to support Super Audio CD with its acclaimed Living Stereo series. Additional surround sound classical Super Audio CD releases are in development.”
So why has SACD managed to hang around? For one thing, comparing DualDisc to SACD is like comparing the Los Angeles Lakers to the New York Yankees — both successful sports teams but still different. “DualDisc is more video-centric by far and driven by home theater,” noted Michael Smith, Sony's home audio components product manager. “SACD and DVD-A are audio-centric formats designed for consumers looking for an elevated audio experience. There's a prevalent need for a format that has the convenience of digital but that hews as closely as possible to analog's sonic experience. SACD really gives listeners something to freak out about — SACD music is sampled 2,822,400 times per second vs. only 44,100 times a second for CD.”
And until recently, DualDisc was a U.S.-only product, while SACD has fans around the world. “SACD is still extremely popular in Europe and Japan,” observed Denon marketing manager Jeff Talmadge, “much more than in the U.S. In Japan, there are no DVD-A titles, just CD and SACD.”
But there is also a practical reason why SACD has and will continue to be a relevant format — it's the format of choice in the studio.
“In the studio, SACD is widely accepted as the digital Rosetta Stone,” said Sony's Smith. “Mastering tools are much more readily available, which has fueled a larger growth rate of titles from smaller labels. SACD production is now 92 to 100 new titles a month within the last year and a half. In the studio, SACD files can be converted to other digital languages and formats. It's never really going to die away because it's easy to do.”
One drawback to SACD, as well as DVD-A and all multichannel audio playback, is the difficulty in connectivity. Just connecting a standard optical or coaxial audio cable from DVD player to receiver doesn't enable playback of Dolby 5.1 SACD audio files on a home theater system. Instead, six separate RCA audio cables have to be connected, which represents a colossal headache to any but the most intrepid audiophiles.
“The idea of having to buy six cables, and to make sure your receiver has external audio inputs, then switching the DVD-A or SACD player to music mode, selecting the external mode on an A/V receiver — that's a lot of work for the average consumer,” agreed Eggers. “We have to find ways and methods of introducing high-quality music to the consumer and give them plug-and-play capability. There are too many ways to get it wrong and that tends to frighten consumers away from new formats.”
Both Sony and Denon are trying to alleviate this connectivity conundrum with direct digital connections. Denon's solution is its proprietary Denon Link 3rd Edition, aka Denon Link 3, a single dedicated cable that transmits all six Dolby audio channels from SACD player to receiver. Sony uses a similar iLink FireWire-based interface for use on its ES line of SACD-capable DVD players and A/V receivers.
One way to keep the connections simple is to not need any. Sony increasingly is including SACD playback capability in its home theater in a box systems. Onkyo recently announced its XM-Ready CS-V720 ($400), a desktop A/V system that combines a high-quality two-channel receiver, universal DVD-A/SACD disc player and complete 5.1-channel processing in one box. But perhaps the biggest boost for SACD is its inclusion in Sony's highly anticipated PlayStation3, which is due to be launched worldwide in March.
The two-ton gorilla in the SACD playback room — other than “King Kong” — is the upcoming high-definition DVD hardware. Thus far there has been no definitive word about Blu-ray or HD-DVD players also being capable of SACD playback.
Regardless of future Blu-ray inclusion, “SACD compatibility is a key factor of inclusion in various home theater products and HTiB products,” insisted Smith.