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No. 88 September 2011
SUPER AUDIO CD – WHAT A BEAUTIFUL DISASTER…

“So it has started, I am being haunted by an impression from countries, which are better in constructing highways; that I am moving through a country and will learn nothing about it, that I have no time to touch it, to smell it, where there is an invisible window from Plexiglas behind the hills. The true life is somewhere else, further away, and we, the passengers of better and better cars, do not have the time to contemplate it, maybe sometime, maybe another time, when time will not be pressing on us with a whip. Not today and not tomorrow. Today we jump between Krakow and Wroclaw like over a bridge suspended over a chasm. There is no time for the lesser roads.
But it is enough to make a small step to the side, get off the highway and the wonders start happening.”

This is Michał Olszewski from Zapiski na biletach (Warsaw, 2010), a compilation of reportages from the journeys of the journalist from “Gazeta Wyborcza” and “Tygodnik Powszechny”, where he enclosed his admiration for the “by-paths”, the slow pace of side-spaces, lost in time and space of villages and places. Admiration for things outside of the mainstream. Following Stasiuk and his Dojczland novel (Wołowiec 2007), or Jadąc do Babadag (Wołowiec 2004) he is also moving along his own paths. Yes, this is a clear praise for the lack of a clear way, secondariness and peripheralness. The past – not far, dying away, but still the past.
I like this kind of literature, I immerge in it immediately, because I know those things by heart. For eight years I lived close to Czarne, where – after I left – Stasiuk placed his lair. And a dozen years ago I traveled like this myself, losing days and whole weeks with my friends in the Bieszczady mountains. Discovering remainders of orthodox churches, orchards, reading maps, where with dense brown lines, redisplaying the pre-war population, on the background of the few black smears of new settlements, a non-existing world appeared.
Yes, I still like such books. But now, rather, to read them. Now I prefer to travel using a highway. I chose sitting at home, which I admire. I think, that I already discovered what I wanted to discover. Hence – a highway, and not the bumpy side-road, which had an asphalt layer so long ago, that you would need to go to the county archives to discover the fact it has ever been deployed.

I call Olszewski with the following agenda in my head: his fascination about things outside the mainstream is a fantastic sign for other fascinations, also in the audio world. Let me remind you about the vintage, tube speakers, vacuum tubes or formats like Long Play or – to a larger extent – the Super Audio CD.
And I think, that I am not making an abuse this way – finally this is a format, which for many is the last true “analog” project, an unfinished one, to be added. Yes, you are not wrong – an “analog” project. And for the digital world “analog” is the synonym of the “past”.
As it seems the SACD was (or is – please make your own choice here) a format, which was to replace the Compact Disc to return to the analog roots. SACD should have sounded like the analog. I remember well, that even the way of decoding it was compared to the analog – it was told, that the lack of the decimation filters and a simple analog filter on the output should lead to analog sound.
Am I exaggerating? I will recall a fragment of the original Sony brochure Super Audio Compact Disc, Eliciting the full Performance of Music, promoting the, at that time new, format:
„Super Audio Compact Disc is the realization of an audiophile’s dream come true: all the precision of digital reproduction combined with all the warmth and ambiance of analog sound. The secret is Direct Stream Digital™ encoding. Its one bit, 2.8224 MHz (64 fs) sampling produces nothing less than a quantum leap in music resolution.”
This fragment was also quoted by Teresa Goodwin, the never resting promoter of SACD, a journalist from “Positive-Feedback OnLine” in one of her articles (New Poll, HERE), where she went even further, saying that in general she prefers SACD over the analog formats, although she tells us: “one of the goals of SACD was to convert the "analog" holdouts (of which I was one) who rejected the cold, analytical, uncomfortable sound of CD with a digital format (SACD) that had the warmth and comfort level of the best analog. Sonically I believe Sony has succeeded, it could be most other analog-lovers have either not given SACD a chance or have never heard of the format.”

Yes, Super Audio CD (SACD, Super Audio Compact Disc) was to become something great, to combine the new with the old, exploit the assets of the digital recording, coding and playback, keeping that what is most important in analog – unbeatable timbre and high dynamics, keeping the life of it – that life Olszewski talked about, that you can find only on forgotten side roads. Because the SACD is a project destined to be in a deep niche, most probably slowly decaying.

And initially it seemed, that this would be the format of the future, and the support of the audio giants Sony and Philips (so also Marantz, which was owned by the Dutch company at that time) was a good sign. Also the introduction of the SACD format to the specifications of the PlayStation 3 and then Blu-ray seemed to guarantee its success.
But it did not happen – slow withdrawal of Sony from high quality audio, the transformation of Philips into a home appliance manufacturer and the ill fated policy regarding computers and DSD resulted in what we have now.

And what do we have? This is a niche format, not even listed in reports of companies monitoring music sales. But it blooms in Japan. This can be confirmed by the new devices coming from Accuphase, Luxman, Esoteric, Marantz, Denon and others, there is also a new initiative – the SHM-SACD. Based on the same idea as the SHM-CD, meaning the use of special plastic instead of the polycarbonate and a special, silver based reflective layer, offering the quality of the SACD discs, that was commonly lost … due to the hybrid discs.
I will just remind, that the SACD can be manufactured in three different forms – as a single layer disc, with a high resolution SACD data (stereo/mono and/or multichannel) as a dual layer SACD (never made) or as a hybrid disc, with an extra CD layer. The latter discs were thought as a bridge between the old CDs and the new machines, allowing for a downward compatibility between the technologies. The problem is, that it all ended on this stage. And the first SACDs issued by Sony were single layer. Why? Because such disc is played back better. In a hybrid disc you have to glue two discs together – CD and SACD, and the SACD must be “transparent” for the laser – it has a second reflective layer on the back. This is the reason for the SHM-SACDs are single layer, with green paint on the print side.

Well, this is it, in short. My experiences with this format are somewhat twisted. The problem is, that I heard many master tapes, analog and digital ones, in a studio. Neither vinyl, nor any other home digital medium did not repeat those. Fortunately after some time, technology related to PCM, in form of the CD, or high resolution files, matured in such a way, that it makes listening to music a joyful experience, also for me. On the other hand SACD players, based on a DVD drive, sacrificed some of the quality of the CD in favor of the SACD. Even more – not many of them fulfill the goals set before them, I mean that the SACDs do not sound – at least for me – so much better than their CD counterparts played on CD players for comparable money, that they would convince to switch to the dense format immediately. Especially as the musical catalog on that medium is severely limited.
On the other hand, I cannot turn a blind eye to what is the “clou” of the opinions of the protagonists of this format – a kind of “analog” sound. This is visible always and everywhere, under the condition, that the DSD signal (the way the signal is recorded on SACD discs) and is not converted to PCM (the way signal is recorded on the CDs and in high resolution files). This is a soft, smooth and fluent sound, really reproducing some assets of the analog.
So I think, that I simply did not devote enough time to this format and I did not hear yet the top devices from companies like Playback Design, Esoteric, the new Accuphase system DP900/DC901, new players from dCS or the top Soulution 740. Fortunately the last one will be here shortly, so I will be able to tell you how it performs.

  

Paradoxically a computer could play the main role in saving “project SACD”. For the first time it became possible to send DSD files outside the computer with an USB link. The first attempt was made by the company Playback Designs with the DAC MPD-3, accepting the DSD stream up to 6.1MHz. The signal is played from a computer using the program Pure Music from the company Channel D. And there are surprisingly many DSD files recorded in studios.
One of the potential sources is the company Fidelio Musique, about which I wrote in the previous editorial. According to René Laflamme, responsible for the sound in that company, they will offer DSD and DXD (a related format) on Master Flash, but they will need to wait for some time. What is important, that they have master tapes in those two formats. But we will need to wait until 2012 for them to appear. Also the analog masters will be transferred to DXD, but they will need to be properly played back first – this will be done using an old Ampex tape deck and an dCS 905 A/D converter. Many other small companies have similar plans. However we should not think that Sony will make a similar step, at least not now. In the end for many companies the main asset of the SACD format was its resistance to copying, the lack of cooperation with a computer. DSD files available in the Internet is their worst nightmare. But, who knows… The Super Audio CD is such a beautiful project – it would be a pity if it’d disappear.

Wojciech Pacuła
editor



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