Super Audio CD Goes Surround Page 3

The other obvious difference between SACD and DVD-Audio has to do with commerce, not technology. Kenwood, Panasonic, Pioneer, JVC, Onkyo/Integra, Konka, Toshiba, and Yamaha offer DVD-Audio players, which are available at prices ranging from a couple hundred dollars to $6,000, and models from Denon, Meridian, Harman Kardon, Rotel, and Samsung are on the way. Sony, Marantz, Sharp, Accuphase, and Classé make two-channel SACD players, but only Sony and Philips are currently offering multichannel players. (There are more than 50 additional SACD licensees, but none have announced plans to sell players.) At $400, Sony's SCD-CE775 is the only currently available SACD player for under $1,000 - most of the other players are prohibitively expensive and two-channel only. But Sony's $600 and $800 Dream Systems (complete with speakers), an $800 five-disc changer, and a $300 single-disc player - all multichannel - are in the pipeline. There's been talk since both formats were first announced of "universal" players capable of DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, SACD, and CD playback. Pioneer's $5,999 DV-AX10 is the only one of these players that's actually been produced, but it's not really universal since it can play only two-channel SACDs. Budget manufacturer Apex plans to have a $299 player available by year's end, but don't be surprised if licensing and other issues keep it from appearing by then. Beyond that, no other manufacturer has announced plans to produce such a player.

The first round of DVD-Audio players have been criticized for not including bass management, which allows you to properly route the lower frequencies in a satellite/ subwoofer speaker system. All of Sony's multichannel SACD players include bass management, which can be accessed via the front-panel readout. Both camps have one major headache in common: aside from Sony Music for SACD and Warner Music for DVD-Audio, no other major label has yet released a significant number of discs for either format. Besieged by new technologies like MP3 and peer-to-peer services like Napster, and haunted by visions of a world crawling with music pirates, the other labels might be feeling they have better things to worry about than improved versions of what were pretty convenient formats to begin with. Universal and BMG, for instance, which are part of the DVD-Audio coalition and are known to have already mixed some albums for DVD-Audio release, have since pulled back, shifting their attention to the ultra-compact but untried DataPlay format. True, Sony Music has the hallowed Columbia catalog to draw on, along with the Sony Classical and Epic labels, and Warner Music includes the Warner Bros., Reprise, Atlantic, Elektra, Rhino, Erato, and Teldec labels under its umbrella. But it's hard to see how DVD-Audio and SACD stand a fighting chance in the mass market without the variety and visibility the other heavy-hitting labels can bring.

Caught in the crossfire, smaller labels like DCC Compact Classics and Telarc are hedging their bets by releasing some titles in both formats. Given the current economic climate, they literally can't afford to commit to one side or the other.

Most SACD and DVD-Audio discs have been priced between $22 and $25. Sony Music has the most extensive catalog of two-channel titles, including classic recordings by Glenn Gould, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Leonard Bernstein, Thelonious Monk, and Bob Dylan as well as more recent albums by Jennifer Lopez, Yo-Yo Ma, Charlotte Church, and Ricky Martin. Sony's first round of multichannel titles should hit right around the time you read this. With its six-month head start, DVD-Audio has put together a more extensive and eclectic multichannel catalog, including albums by Metallica, Steely Dan, Stone Temple Pilots, Zubin Mehta, Natalie Merchant, Deep Purple, Ry Cooder, Take 6, the Corrs, and Blue Man Group.

Another important difference between SACD and DVD-Audio has to do with the playback options you can expect when you buy a disc. Hybrid SACDs can play in both SACD and CD players, while the nonhybrid discs play only in SACD players. But you need a multichannel SACD player to listen to the surround mix, even with a hybrid disc. You don't need a dedicated DVD-Audio player, however, to hear the multichannel mix on a DVD-Audio disc. All of the titles released so far include a Dolby Digital version of the surround mix, and sometimes even a DTS version, so you can listen to it on a DVD-Video player as well. DVD-Audio discs won't play on CD players, however.