113th AES: The Sony-Philips SACD Music Demonstration [1] [HFR]

The Sony-Philips demonstration at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in Los Angeles… Ah, Fall. Leaves turning fiery hues, a brisk chill in the air, and the soothing strains of hype revving into overdrive for the upcoming spending season… On the heels of a conspicuous absence at last week’s CEDIA Expo in Minneapolis, the Sony-Philips road show was back on track, evangelizing its SACD format at the 113th AES Convention with another impeccably executed presentation. Quality music demos punctuated inspiring commentary about SACD’s market penetration.

A certain amount of creative spin was to be expected. Nevertheless, a little healthy skepticism is in order regarding some of the “evidence” cited to suggest that SACD has begun to move past its status as an obscure niche format. While the “1 million SACD players sold” statistic, for example, sounds substantial, it masks the reality that the vast majority of those units were DVD players that also happen to have SACD playback capability. The distinction is important – there’s a big difference between a million consumers rushing out to buy SACD players, as opposed to buying DVD players and unintentionally picking up a capability they may neither know nor care about. It makes all the difference in determining the likelihood that those customers will make those all-important future SACD software purchases upon which the real success of the format depends.

Factoring in the impact of stand-alone SACD players in the discriminating and better-informed audiophile market, it’s hard to overlook the fact that neither Sony nor Philips has introduced a new stand-alone model in over a year; in fact, several models have been dropped, including the budget Sony CE-775 targeting the mass market. Neither company has announced plans to introduce new standalone SACD players in the foreseeable future. In light of this, the 1-million player statistic is more likely yet another a measure of the well-established popularity of DVD than of any surging interest in SACD. Ironically, this tends to validate the DVD-Audio business model, which seeks to bring added value to the consumer’s DVD experience, more than the audio-only SACD model.

Of course, SACD promoters can counter, justifiably, that what matters is that the players are out there in consumers’ homes – how they got there is irrelevant, since owners will find their way to the benefits of SACD sooner or later. But that raises the question – how will they make that journey?

The Los Angeles Convention CenterThe 113th AES Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Consider the recent release of the Rolling Stones re-masters on SACD/CD hybrid discs, touted in the Sony-Philips presentation as a watershed milestone for SACD. Obviously, SACD releases with the Rolling Stones’ popularity was a coup, but its value in terms of raising public awareness is all but neutralized by the fact that its SACD nature is nowhere identified, either on the disc or its packaging.

After one of the ongoing Sony-Philips demos conducted by SACD developer emeritus Dr. Andrew Demery, I asked the good doctor about the reason for this curious strategy of SACD self-effacement on the Stones re-masters. He replied that this was a deliberate decision on the part of the label, ABKCO, to minimize potential confusion by making the SACD angle as transparent as possible (i.e., invisible). But if consumers are unaware that they are experiencing the benefits of SACD (especially if their players select the SACD layer automatically), how does that motivate them to go out and buy more SACD discs? And what about the more informed purchasers who may actually be looking for SACD titles but are unable to tell if the disc they’re holding in their hands is in their preferred format? Always the diplomat, Dr. Demery offered the charitable explanation that ABKCO expected the informed SACD hunter would “already know” the discs were hybrid. That didn’t help me when I went to pick up a couple of those discs – guess I’ll have to brush up on my telepathy.

In some unambiguously promising developments, however, SACD production facilities are increasing at a substantial rate [see links below], so there should be a lot more software titles available down the road. Despite some conclusions that seemed to border on wishful thinking, Sony and Philips deserve kudos for making concerted overtures to the Pro Audio community who are the primary AES Convention attendees – especially in light of the scarcity of available DSD recording and mastering tools, and the additional hurdles in the tightly-controlled production process.