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Breaking the Sound Barrier

High-resolution audio takes your sound system supersonic. We test the best disc players and fight the format war.
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

The first time I listened to high-resollution surround-sound music was literally a religious experience. It was at an electronics-industry trade show, in a listening room set up by Philips to show off its Super Audio CD technology. The room was decorated in early soundproofing, with all the ambience of a heavily insulated attic (albeit an attic outfitted with some very expensive audio gear). But the moment my host hit the play button the space was transformed. Choral voices swelled from the speakers surrounding me and, if I had shut my eyes, I'd have sworn I was sitting in a European cathedral. It wasn't just the purity of the sound that caught me up—it was the sense of space, the feeling that even though I knew I was in a small listening room, I was enjoying the audio equivalent of an entirely different environment.

If you've listened to surround-sound DVD movies or concert recordings, you have some inkling of what I'm describing, but at the same time, high-resolution surround-sound recordings are very different from DVD movies, producing a heightened realism that you really have to hear to understand. In a nutshell, the audio on a well-recorded and well-engineered Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio disc sounds like a live performance enjoyed from the best seat in the house. Unfortunately, your existing CD or DVD player can't unleash all the audio goodness stored on one of these new disc formats, so you're going to need some new gear. On the plus side, though, while you can go the audiophile route and spend thousands of dollars to enjoy this experience, you can also get in on the fun for under a thousand. If you already have a home theater set up, two hundred bucks is all it will take to kick your audio rig into high gear.

The Inevitable Format Wars

Lately it seems that every major technological advance in audio or video must involve competing camps dishing up incompatible formats that confuse consumers and slow down widespread acceptance. The most infamous example, of course, was the VHS-Betamax battle that plagued early VCR buyers, but consider some other battlefronts: DVD recorders today come in three flavors (DVD+R, DVD-R and DVD-RAM), and at least seven varieties of memory cards are used for digital cameras. So it only stands to unreason that there are two competing formats for high-res audio: Super Audio CD (SACD for short) and DVD-Audio, or DVD-A.

In this corner is the SACD, developed and supported by Philips and Sony (the same team, it should be noted, that created the original audio CD format 20 years ago). On the opposing side is the DVD-Audio disc, supported by the DVD Forum industry group, which represents nearly every manufacturer of DVD players (including Philips and Sony, interestingly enough). I could burden you with

bafflegab explaining the technical differences in the way music is encoded for both formats, but you've never done anything to bore me to tears, so let's cut to the meat of the matter.

Both SACDs and DVD-A discs can hold far more digital data than conventional CDs—more than four times as much for SACD, more than seven times as much for DVD-A. That extra storage

capacity can be used to store a more detailed digital representation of the music than a conventional CD, resulting in noticeably superior sound quality. Some people complain that audio CDs lack the warm sound of good old vinyl records. But by increasing the sampling rate (the amount of information used to re-create an audio waveform) and extending the recorded frequency range, makers of CDs can virtually eliminate the "digital" sound that so annoy those of us blessed with golden ears.

Most SACDs and DVD-A discs support 5.1 surround sound—that is, separate audio channels for left and right speakers in the front and back of the room, a center channel speaker up front (making 5) and a subwoofer to reproduce bass notes more effectively (the .1). Many discs also include a high-resolution stereo mix, which is a profoundly good thing—if the original recording was produced in stereo, the technical fakery required to remix it into six channels often seems more technologically impressive than musically pleasing.

DVD-A discs are not the same as DVD movie discs. A DVD movie devotes gigabytes of storage to video and only a small fraction to the soundtrack. A DVD-Audio disc, on the other hand, uses nearly all the available storage space for higher-quality music, though some room can be devoted to visual goodies, which often include on-screen menus, lyrics, photos and sometimes even a music video.

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