SACD Reviews

The Promise of a New Format
Art Tedeschi

  • Stravinsky, The Firebird, Telarc SACD-60039
  • The Film Music of Jerry Goldsmith, London Symphony Orchestra, Jerry Goldsmith, Cond., Telarc SACD-60433
  • Moussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition, Telarc SACD-60042
  • Dukas, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Telarc CD-80515-SA
  • Tchaikovsky, 1812, Telarc SACD-60541
  • Spyro Gyra, in modern times, Heads Up HUSA 9061

Just as I was thinking of beginning a music review page for the CAS website, I received an e-mail from Telarc offering to provide review sample SACD’s of their latest releases. I don’t own an SACD player, but was kindly offered the loan of a Sony SCD-1 for a few weeks from Mike Pappas, CAS member and Chief Engineer at KUVO-FM (“The Oasis in the City”). I’ll have some words later about the Sony SCD-1, an amazing accomplishment from a company staunchly positioned in the mainstream.

A quick view of the SACD jewell boxes reveals a bewildering bevy of stickers and notices announcing its content’s format compatibilities. All are hybrid discs and provide tracks for both the new Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) format as well as standard CD. These units will play their CD tracks on a standard CD player, but, I might add, will not play on all DVD players possessing CD-playback capability (like mine). SACD utilizes Direct Stream Digital (DSD) technology for converting the music signal from analog to digital. Traditional CD technology uses PCM (pulse code modulation) algorithms in the D to A conversion, which assign a 16-bit WORD to the musical signal at each clock cycle (44 kHz/sec). DSD algorithms extract 1 bit, but at a clock cycle of 2.8 mHz, resulting in a theoretical audio bandwidth of 100 kHz, compared to about 22 kHz for CD. They also claim a signal to noise ratio of 120 dB vs 96 db for CD reproduction.

So what about DVD-A? Just to make things confusing for the music-loving audio enthusiast, DVD-Audio is gaining some steam as a competing format. DVD-A is similar in total bits retrieved as SACD (24 bit, 96 kHz), but is somewhat different in its implementation. I did receive a DVD-A from Telarc, but had no compatible playback equipment other than my DVD player, which was only able to play the standard DVD audio tracks (and fared well when compared to any well-recorded CD).

So are we confused yet? Unfortunately, I’m not finished confusing you. Several of the discs also offer multi-channel SA-quality capability (Multichannel SACD). Unfortunately, the SCD-1 offers stereo-only playback, so I was not able to test the 6-channel capability; I can refer you, though, to Issue 131 of the Absolute Sound, which features a short preview article discussing an audition of a new Multichannel SACD player from Sony (they were blown away). Multi-channel certainly deserves a serious audition by anyone interested in replicating the recording site in their listening room - and I opine, with hope, that this new foray into surround sound using 6 discrete music channels will be much closer to the the truth than anything we’ve heard in the past (remember SQ and CD-4?).

On to the music. For anyone who was around in 1980 and can remember the introduction of the original compact disc, I can unequivocally proclaim the introduction of SACD a relative success! The first CD’s and CD players were absolutely horrible - it took me nearly 5 years after CD’s introduction before I would purchase a unit - and even then, I hated it so badly that I gave it away to a friend. With the understanding that the Sony SCD-1 is one of the two best units on the market and that I haven’t heard any of the lower-priced units, I can report that SACD sound is, in the present time and on this $5000 SACD player, quite good. No damning with faint praise here; if you know me, you also know that digital audio had to come a long way before I could live comfortably with the little aluminum discs.

So how good is it? A natural comparison would be with my existing CD setup, which is relatively modest, but surprisingly satisfying. I use an inexpensive Panasonic DVD player, the A110, as a transport, feeding an EAD 7000 III D/A converter through its coaxial digital output. Connection is made with a Kimber silver digital interconnect. That feeds a Jeff Rowland Synergy II, which sends its output to a pair of heavily-modified Rowland 7’s. The 7’s power, through 2’ all-silver speaker cables from AudioMagic, a pair of SoundLab A-1 behemoth full-range electrostatic loudspeakers. The music produced by this system is highly detailed with rich harmonics and palpable soundstaging - surprising for such a modest front end.

I inserted the SCD-1 into the system (which wasn’t easy, since the unit weighs about 80 lb .) and listened. The best of the SACD’s (probably the Dukas disc) was close to as good as my best-sounding CDs played on my DVD/EAD front end. First Impressions: In some ways, it had what I would term a euphonic quality - harmonics seemed enhanced and overly-spirited, as if Sony was attempting to achieve a tube-like sound. Soundstaging was accurate, but width was slightly constricted compared to my modest reference. Images were firm and spatially solid, but lacked a fleshed-out character, seemingly from a relative diminution of micro-layering of the air around the instruments. Ambience and soundstage air were also somewhat constricted compared to the best of CDs (and the average LP). On the plus side, inner detail was improved over standard CD and LP, allowing the listener to “hear into” more instruments. Upper treble was well-integrated with the rest of the musical range but seemed to lack the nth degree of extension. This was true of all the discs auditioned and was most noticeable on the Spyro Gyra jazz disc. I wish I could’ve listened to some SACDs featuring acoustic guitars, the instruments most familiar to me - this would’ve solidified my thoughts as to whether the high-end extension was foreshortened or just plain more accurate to the source. Probably the most perplexing aspect of all the SACDs was a perceived lack of dynamics, particularly micro-dynamics. I always felt as if I had to keep increasing the volume to attain a satisfying sense of the orchestral power so prevalent in most of these recordings. Bass extension was superior to my CD setup, but seemed to lack some of the bass tonal quality that is easily revealed with the SoundLab full-range electrostatics. Keep in mind that the above impressions are very subtle and should be kept in the context that I found the SACD listening experience enjoyable.

So what can I take from this experience? Optimism. If Sony’s first product for a brand new medium can sound this good, I can’t wait until the audiophile companies get hold of this technology. Already I’ve read some articles detailing parts upgrades for the SCD-1 (pure parts replacements, etc). That always seems to be the first modification of a new format- do little harm, but when the technology is better understood, take the guts apart.

A few words about the Telarc recordings. I still own the LP version of most of these recordings. Back in the late 70’s when they were released as the first digital recordings in LP format, I was impressed with many of their qualities and played them often. Most interesting was the audiophile obsession of tracking the cannon shots on the 1812 recording and seeing if your cartridge could play them without literally jumping out of the groove (you could easily see the wiggling grooves with the naked eye - at least when our eyes were much younger). The 1812 has been re-recorded for this release and, if memory serves me, loses none of the musical appeal of the original SoundStream recording and gains in its SACD sonic splendor. Welcome additions are the choral groups not present in the original recording. The cannon shots were re-recorded and will not disappoint (be careful with the volume if you purchase this disc - the cannon shots can be disastrous to your speakers). The Mussorgsky Pictures and Stravinsky Firebird are actual transfers from the original SoundStream recordings. You wouldn’t think that primordial digital recordings had much merit, but these are the startling exception. Telarc’s SoundStream digital recording system was something special, and the glory of those 20+ year recordings can finally be realized with this new playback technology.

I don’t have much to say about the performances themselves, as we’ve all heard these warhorses more times than we would care to admit, but I’ve always enjoyed the early Telarcs and I enjoyed listening to them again - especially with their far superior sonics. The brand of Spyro Gyra’s jazz is not appealing to my tastes (which are admittedly limited in the jazz category), but the recording was dynamite and should be a hit among the group’s fans. Particularly enjoyable was Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, one of my favorite pieces which was made popular in Disney’s Fantasia. The Mussorgsky Pictures disc also features one of my favorites, Night on Bald Mountain, which was successfully foreboding. I don’t have much to say about the Jerry Goldsmith SACD; I’m a fan of his TV and film music, and can assert that the performance is pretty much as I expected.

In summary, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone run out and buy a new SACD or DVD-A player (and definitely not the latter, as it seems to be running a far second to SACD), but I’m willing to bet that it won’t take 10 years after the medium is initially released for me to make my first SACD purchase. Sony is already beginning to manufacture medium-priced SACD players, and I’m told that SA chips will become readily available for all-in-one DVD/CD/SACD players in the near future, so it won’t be long until Meridian or some other company gets hold of these units and applies their magic.