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Sony Sets October Launch For $5,000 SACD Player

Sony Sets October Launch For $5,000 SACD Player

By Joseph Palenchar

Sony announced an October U.S. debut and a $5,000 price tag for the industry's first Super Audio CD player, which will be accompanied at launch by 56 titles from three Sony Music and six independent labels. Philips-owned Marantz said a player of its own design and construction would probably follow Sony's into the market later in the year.

The SACD player and discs will be two-channel versions, said Sony senior VP Mike Fidler, "because the market for high-quality audio is two-channel" but also because recording-industry infrastructure based on SACD's underlying Direct Stream Digital (DSD) technology "probably won't be available until next year, probably late next year."

Sony didn't seem to be worried that the lack of multichannel capability would be a handicap even though the first players featuring the rival DVD-Audio technology will be multichannel models. The price tag and audiophile construction of the player signifies a "class versus mass" market positioning that one Sony executive said would convince the opinion-leading community of SACD's sonic superiority over the rival DVD-Audio format, which will arrive in the U.S. late this year or early next depending on the resolution of a finalized encryption scheme and choice of audio-signal watermarking technology.

By late next year, said Telarc president Robert Woods, multichannel SACD discs and hardware will probably be available. Telarc is one of the six independent labels supporting the launch, joining Audioquest, Delos, DMP, Mobile Fidelity and Waterlilly Acoustics.

Sony said most of the 16 titles supplied by the independent labels will be backward-compatible hybrid discs featuring a separate CD-audio layer readable by existing CD players, but the first Sony Music discs will not be hybrids. Sony's software arm, which plans to deliver 10 to 12 discs per month after the initial launch, said it is evaluating the use of hybrid discs, whose production costs were said by Philips to be significantly higher than the cost of making SACD-only discs.

Philips new-business development director Paul Reynolds said Philips has begun pressing hybrid discs for music labels to support the format's launch and is "confident" other disc-manufacturing companies will jump in within a year as Philips learns how to bring production costs down. Philips will share the expertise it learns with other disc makers, he said.

Although Sony Music didn't announce disc prices, Telarc's Woods said his discs, all of them hybrids, will probably retail for about $24.95 but will drop sometime later to $19.95. That compares to the $16.95 and $17.95 retail prices of Telarc's existing CDs.

Other major music labels have held off support of the SACD format until Sony and Philips develop a copy-control regimen to complement its anti-counterfeiting visible-watermark technology and its invisible-watermark encryption technology. The format's copy-control provisions "are close to finalization," said Reynolds. Until then, SACD machines will lack digital outputs capable of passing through a pure digital SACD signal or even an SACD signal downconverted to CD-audio quality. A standard digital output, however, will pass through CD signals from a hybrid disc's CD layer and from standard CDs playing in the machine.

It wasn't clear whether the player would play back CD-R or CD-RW discs.

Sony will market its player through dealers of its premium ES audio series. They number about 500 storefronts, said Sony's Fidler. Advertising and promotion plans will be announced later this year but won't be as broad-based as the company's MiniDisc promotions of last year, he said, because of the product's more narrowly focused customer base and more limited distribution. Fidler also said he expects SACD hardware dealers will stock SACD software at launch, joining select music retailers.