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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

(continued from page 1)

The DVD-Audio content of a DVD-A disc won't play back on a standard DVD movie player. However, most DVD-A discs also include a separate surround-sound version of the music in the Dolby Digital or DTS formats that a DVD movie player understands; it won't sound as good as DVD-A, but it will play back on any DVD player. What you can't do with a DVD-A disc, though, is listen to it on your CD player—at least not yet. Some music companies are working on a new hybrid DVD-A format with a separate CD layer on the flip side of the disc. It may arrive this year.

Which brings us to SACD. Nearly all the Super Audio compact discs sold today are hybrid discs, containing two separate layers, one with high-resolution content that can be enjoyed only with an SACD player, the other with a standard stereo mix that will play back on all those CD players you already own. Unlike DVD-A discs, SACDs don't include any visual content.

One bit of good news in the ongoing format wars: both SACD and DVD-A players sold today will play DVD movies and regular CDs, so the number of boxes hooked to your audio system doesn't need to increase when you add high-res audio.

Listening to a Hot Combo

While promoters of each format will stand at the podium and insist on the superiority of their system, talk to them privately over a beer and they,ll admit that both SACD and DVD-A reproduce music superbly. Given comparable audio quality, the basis for choosing one format or the other should be easy. If you want to play a disc in a standard CD player, buy SACD. If you don't care about standard CD playback but want surround sound from any DVD movie player, go DVD-A, with its menus and extra features as a bonus. But there's a rub: most recordings are released in either one format or the other, not both.You want the superbly remastered Bob Dylan collection or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in surround sound? SACD only. Big fan of the Eagles or Eric Clapton? Only released on DVD-Audio, thank you very much.

Truth be told, the catalog of music in either format isn't huge. On the DVD-Audio side, fewer than 700 discs are available, and while the SACD catalog has nearly 1,500 titles, only about half are surround-sound productions. DVD-Audio isn't going away—the Warner Music Group, one of the industry's 800-pound gorillas, has pledged allegiance to the format. For a complete list of DVD-Audio titles, check out the Web site at

Since Sony is not only codeveloper of the SACD format

but also one of the largest music publishers on the planet, you know that Sony recording artists aren't going to be releasing

DVD-As any time soon. For the full rundown of SACD releases, try You,ll find a wide range of music available in both formats, ranging from classic to jazz to head-banging rock.

So you see, the point isn't which format you prefer, but which

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