Multichannel Audio Report Card (2001) Page 3

Sound Quality: DVD-Audio: A SACD: A With both formats so far, the recording quality of the software dominates any listening evaluations of the hardware. Since most discs have been made from old master tapes, and nearly all of those were originally analog recordings, there are few titles that even come close to stressing the capabilities of either format. No recording I've heard has produced audible problems directly attributable to the playback hardware, and the best recordings in either format sound superb.

Laboratory Performance: DVD-Audio: C SACD: C Both systems are more than capable of reproducing recorded music signals that are audibly indistinguishable from the original. But our lab tests for players attempt to judge performance on an absolute basis by measuring their behavior when reproducing "perfect" signals like test tones. And here, even the best players show large deviations from theoretical performance limits. This is most clear in our measurements of player background noise (see "Tech Talk," page 43). While the best players can achieve a 20-dB improvement in background noise - an audibly significant widening of dynamic range over the CD -some players perform no better than a 17-bit CD player. On the other hand, an important side benefit of the higher resolution circuitry is that playback of standard CDs is often very close to the theoretical limit of the 16-bit CD system.

Interfacing with Other Gear: DVD-A: F SACD: D Both systems receive their worst grades here because of the unnecessary complexity involved in hooking one of the players up to an existing A/V system. The biggest problem, which we were the first to reveal ("Tech Talk," February/March), is that almost none of them incorporate the bass-management processing you need for proper bass reproduction with a typical satellite/subwoofer speaker system. The only exceptions are Sony's recent multichannel SACD players, and even there, the bass management unaccountably disappears when you play a CD.

Since none of the major manufacturers of decoder chips have made any announcements regarding this dilemma, don't expect to see DVD-Audio players sporting the kind of digital bass management routinely provided for Dolby Digital soundtracks for at least a few months. But Outlaw Audio has come out with an analog accessory to address this problem that's so good we gave it a Reviewer's Choice Award (see page 122). So, both systems still have, as a grade-school report card might put it, problems "interacting with others," and it is these significant difficulties that pull down the overall grade for each system's hardware. - David Ranada

Sprawling three enormous floors down from street level, the Virgin Megastore in Times Square purports to be "the largest entertainment store in the world." I began my quest to find high-resolution multichannel audio discs there, reasoning that if any store would be the leader in promoting the new formats, surely it would be the capital of Trend.

Approaching a floor employee, I asked, "Do you have any Super Audio CDs or DVD-Audio discs?" "I'm not sure what you mean," he said, oblivious to a 7-foot shelf labeled DVD-Audio about 20 feet away. "The DVDs are two floors down." "No, I'm not interested in DVD movies. I'm talking about DVD-Audio; it's a new high-resolution audio format." The young man stared at me blankly. "S-A-C-D?" "Umm, let me just ask this other guy . . . ."

Walk into any record store, and the story is almost always the same: even if it has DVD-Audio or SACD discs, good luck finding a clerk who's even heard of them. And believe me, we looked. Sound & Vision sent reporters in Southern California, San Francisco, Detroit, the suburbs of Chicago, Miami, Toronto, New Jersey, and New York City to their local stores in search of discs and players - and, just as important, people who knew what they were.

In electronics stores, finding an SACD or DVD-Audio player was easy; finding a well-put-together display, knowledgeable salespeople, and the latest models was not. Discount retailers like Circuit City and The Wiz had no one who could explain the new formats, though a Best Buy store in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (a college town about 150 miles south of Chicago), did have a display for SACD, complete with a "Multi-Channel Sound" poster. Unfortunately, a Sony SCD-CE775 player was hooked up only for two-channel playback!