Newer Audio Formats: SACD and DVD-A

The CD is the most common audio source in disc format, but SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) and the DVD-Audio disc are also available. The SACD and DVD-Audio (DVD-A) formats are designed to sound better than a CD while maintaining that familiar, 12cm disc format. SACD and DVD-A have managed to improve upon the now old-fashioned CD in these ways:

  • Sampling: SACD uses very small sample sizes but records them 64 times more often than regular CDs. The DVD-Audio system uses a lower sampling rate (still two or more times faster than CD) but a much larger sample (20 bits or more, compared with 16 for CDs). Either way, you get higher audio frequencies with less noise and thus greater dynamic range (the difference between the quietest and loudest musical passages on the disc).

  • Multichannel format: Because the discs can hold more data than the older CD format, record companies can release DVD-Audio and SACD discs in both traditional 2-channel (stereo) and home theater-friendly 5.1-channel formats (with five channels of surround sound and a subwoofer channel). Some folks don’t particularly like the surround sound for music; they say it makes sense only for movies, where things are happening all around you. But lots of others like surround sound for at least some music.

In a high-end home theater system, you’ll probably be happy to have one of these systems. Before you buy, though, keep these things in mind:

  • You can’t find much material in either of these formats. Chances are, you can’t buy all your favorites in these formats. A lot of classic recordings have been reissued in one or the other format, but the number is still small compared to all the music out there. For the most part, these formats have become niche players, and small record labels focused on audio enthusiasts are the primary folks still putting out discs in these formats.

  • Not all players can play both formats. Unless you are committed to only one or the other format (SACD or DVD-A), make sure you choose a “universal” player that can play CD, DVD, SACD, and DVD-A. Pay attention because some manufacturers (notably Sony, who was the primary technical supporter of SACD) don’t make many (or even any) universal players. Most SACD players and DVD-Audio players do play regular CDs and regular DVDs. Look for ones that can play MP3s, CD-Rs, and CD-RWs as well, so that you can play homemade CDs, too.

  • Because of copy-protection concerns, you might not be able to connect your DVD-Audio or SACD player to your receiver digitally. This means that all that high-resolution audio must travel to your receiver in the analog domain, making the audio more susceptible to picking up noises or generally degrading during its trip to your ears.

    To make matters worse, multichannel systems require six of these analog cables. Ugh. Some manufacturers of disc players and receivers have implemented a version of the HDMI cabling system that will let you make a digital connection — you’ll need to carefully check the documentation of both your disc player and your receiver to see if this will work for you.

Many home theater receivers have only a single set of multichannel audio inputs. So if you use them to connect an SACD/DVD-A player, they won’t be available for other multichannel audio inputs (such as an external surround-sound decoder or a DVD or Blu-ray player with a built-in surround-sound decoder). Keep that in mind as you’re shopping around.

Neither SACD nor DVD-Audio have taken off in the marketplace. Both formats sound great, but many folks have begun to move toward online music (such as Apple’s iTunes Music Store) and computer-based audio and away from these higher-quality, disc-based audio formats.

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