Breaking the Sound Barrier

High-resolution audio takes your sound system supersonic. We test the best disc players and fight the format war.
| By Steve Morgenstern | From 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.

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

format offers the music you enjoy. Inevitably, there will be discs in each flavor that appeal. You could buy separate SACD and DVD-A players, but there's a much more elegant solution: a single player that handles both SACDs and DVD-A discs (along with DVD movies and standard audio CDs). At least 17 manufacturers offer players that handle both formats with equal aplomb and, while many are priced in the audiophile $1,000-plus range, we're also starting to see units at prices even lowly journalists can afford.

If you're serious about your audio gear, I especially recommend the combination players from Denon, Pioneer and Marantz. For simplicity's sake, you can't beat the Pioneer DV59-AVi ($1,600) paired with its VSX-59TXi receiver ($4,500)—a single FireWire cable sends SACD and DVD-Audio data between the two components, allowing easy setup for bass management and speaker output balancing. Pairing Denon's DVD-5900 ($2,000) with its AVR-5803 receiver ($4,400) lets you send DVD-A digitally using the company's proprietary single-cable connection, but you will need to connect six separate cables (one for each audio channel) for SACD output. The Denon does involve more cabling, but the important point is that you,ll still have full audio output control through the receiver. With most high-res audio setups, you have to make bass management and speaker output settings twice: first on the receiver, then again on the SACD/DVD-A player.

Of course, if you're going to use a single player for both audio and DVD movies, the quality of the movie playback is another essential consideration. The Marantz DV8400 ($1,699) offers superb audio performance and also incorporates DVI output, a direct digital connection to your high-definition display that provides the sharpest possible video images.

While it's fun hanging around the high end, I have to say that it's the affordable combo players that really excite me at this point. Pioneer led the way here with its DV563A, a high-performance model that lists at $249 and can found for as little as $149. Toshiba recently announced it was coming out with two inexpensive combo players, the single-disc SD-4960 ($180), due to arrive in June, and the five-disc changer SD-6915 ($200), scheduled for a May introduction. No, we're not talking a $39 Wal-Mart DVD movie player here, but these combo units are certainly affordable and flexible enough to be compelling purchases. And as player prices fall, music publishers have more incentive to release more discs, which in turn makes buying a player more enticing, and so on and so on.

If you're just starting out with surround sound, consider a convenient home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) system. With HTIB all you have to add is the display—the receiver/amplifier plus all the speakers and wiring are included. While audio snobs may still thumb their noses at this approach, there are distinct advantages, not only in convenience but in having a full set of components professionally matched to work well together. And we're not talking second-rate gear here. Klipsch has announced a primo system that will ship this year, the KES-6100-THX, includes a "control center" with a built-in receiver/amp and universal DVD player, plus six satellite speakers and a big honking subwoofer. The company has even thrown in Monster cables for system hookup—but then again, with a $4,000 price tag, throwing in the speaker wire seems fair.

For a more affordable receiver/universal DVD player solution (albeit minus the speakers), Sharp is introducing its SD-HX600 system ($1,499), a strikingly modern-looking anodized aluminium and plexiglass concoction featuring the company's impressive 1-Bit amplification system. If you want the whole enchilada—receiver, universal DVD, speakers—Pioneer will deliver three new HTIB systems between May and July, ranging in price from $600 to $1,400 (the $1,400 HTZ-950 includes flat-panel speakers), all with built-in

DVD-A/SACD playback capability.

Meanwhile, Outside the Living Room…

For most of us, the time we spend listening to music on our stereo systems is a small part of the time we spend listening to music. When it comes to enjoying the full effect of DVD-A and SACD audio without a rack full of audio gear, the choices are limited.

For drive-time listening, only DVD-Audio players are currently available; the easiest way to get one is to buy a 2004 Acura TL, which is the first car to incorporate a factory-installed DVD-Audio surround system as standard equipment. The audio system, designed by the famed producer/audio engineer Elliott Scheiner and built by Panasonic, includes an in-dash radio with a built-in six-disc DVD-Audio/CD changer as well as eight speakers.

Of course, trading in your wheels for the sake of making nice to your ears is a bit extreme. Alternatively, you can upgrade your car audio system to accommodate DVD-Audio. Alpine, a leader in high-end car audio, introduced its "ultra-premium" Alpine F#1Status line in January, which includes the DVI-9990 DVD-Audio player plus the PXI-H990 surround-sound audio processor required to fill your car with multichannel music. Add in a TME-M770 in-dash monitor and you're in for $5,300, before amps, speakers and subwoofers. By comparison, Pioneer's AVH-P7500DVD, which supports DVD-Audio and video playback and includes a seven-inch touch-screen display, is a bargain at $2,700.

Finally, for those of us who enjoy listening to fine music while chained to the computer all day, there's a DVD-Audio solution at hand. Creative Labs offers enhanced audio cards for PC users, the Sound Blaster Audigy 2 and Audigy 2 ZS series (priced from $100 to $250) that reproduce DVD-Audio discs (sorry, no SACD) with perfect clarity. Even notebook computer owners can get into the act (if your notebook has a DVD-ROM drive) with the Audigy 2 NX ($130), an external box that connects to the laptop via the USB port. You can route the Audigy output through a surround-sound stereo-

system receiver and speakers if you like, or just add a set of high-end computer speakers. I have two favorites here, the Logitech Z-680 and the Klipsch ProMedia Ultra 5.1, each of which runs $400.

Steve Morgenstern is a freelance writer living in New York. He often writes on technology topics for Cigar Aficionado.