HE 2003: Super Audio CD Panel Advocates Moving Forward

HE 2003: On Friday afternoon, Stereophile Editor John Atkinson hosted a panel on the state of the Super Audio CD (SACD) format. Included on the panel were David Kawakami, SACD Project Director for North America, Ying Tan, Owner of Groove Note Records, John Wood, Vice President of Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, Nick Phillips, Producer at Concord Records and David Chesky of Chesky Records.

John Atkinson, Stereophile Magazine
Kicking off the discussion, Atkinson said it was «great to be back in San Francisco after a 6 year absence» with the Home Entertainment show. As to the SACD format, Atkinson cited the 800 SACD titles available in the U.S. market, 50% of which are multichannel and noted that «the medium is established, the way forward is bright». Then he asked each of the panelists to talk about their involvement in SACD and how things looked to them.

David Kawakami, SACD Project Director for North America
David Kawakami provided a «one minute» update on the state of the SACD format. In large part, this was a summary of the SACD Industry Update given on Thursday. But there were a couple of interesting tidbits added that are worth mentioning here.

Talking about the success of major artist Hybrid SACDs that are released without a Stereo CD counterpart, he noted that the Police Hybrid Multichannel SACD «Every Breath You Take: The Hits» has sold 50,000 copies in 9 weeks. Kawakami observed that numbers like these and the sales figures on the Rolling Stones Remastered SACDs (over 2.6 Million copies worldwide) and Dark Side of the Moon (approaching 100,000 copies after 10 weeks) are «the sort of numbers you need to begin to establish a new format».

He also provided an update on Hybrid SACD pressing capacity noting that there are now 3 replication lines up and running at Sony in Japan, 2 at Sonopress in Germany, 2 at Crest National in Hollywood, 1 at Sony DADC in Terre Haute, 1 at Sony DADC in Austria and 1 at Viva in Hong Kong. The total daily Hybrid SACD pressing capacity of these lines is 150,000 discs per day. Kawakami noted that more Hybrid SACD capacity is needed and that it is under development.

In an amusing moment on the panel, Kawakami noted that all of the majors «except Warner Music» are now making SACD discs. Ying Tan of Groove Note then corrected him by pointing out that several Warner Music SACDs are indeed on the market in Hong Kong and available in Singapore where his Groove Note label is based.

Ying Tan, Owner of Groove Note Records
Ying Tan told the audience that he was first introduced to SACD by Joe Harley who was producing some blues albums for Audioquest Records on SACD at the time. Tan said he went to Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood to listen to some master tapes recorded in Direct Stream Digital (DSD) and was surprised how close they sounded to a «Direct to Disc» lacquer of the same material. Since that time, began working with both SACD and DSD recording.

In recent years, Groove Note has «abandoned» the 24k Gold CD Format and has focused on releasing product in the CD and SACD formats with some titles also appearing on Vinyl LP. Tan also noted that he is «glad I’m doing SACD» noting that labels that are «CD only» are experiencing a «tough time» sales wise while Groove Note is experiencing increased sales.

In terms of new releases, Tan announced that three new Groove Note SACDs are available at HE 2003 for purchase at the Elusive Disc booth. They include a new Hybrid Multichannel SACD entitled «Jacintha Is Her Name: A Tribute To Julie London» by Jacintha (Groove Note GRV 1014-3) as well as two Hybrid Stereo SACDs licensed from Concord Records — «With Love» by Rosemary Clooney (Groove Note GRV 1018-3) and «Plus One» by the Gene Harris Trio with Stanley Turrentine (Groove Note GRV 1019-3).

John Wood, Vice President of Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
John Wood talked about Mobile Fidelity’s search for a higher quality format for optical disc. Initially they considered using 24 bit/96 kHz and 24 bit/192 kHz Stereo discs but they then took a look at SACD.

According to Wood, he and Mobile Fidelity Chief Engineer Shawn Britton «spent a lot of time experimenting» with SACD and DSD. After their extensive listening tests and experiments, they «fell in love with DSD and the SACD format». He also told the audience about setting up listening tests for industry experts where they would compare a master tape played straight to the mixing board with a master tape to DSD A/D & DSD D/A step to a DSD transfer. Wood said most people found them to be indistinguishable.

In terms of issuing albums on Hybrid SACDs, Wood sees it as a value added process that gives collectors and consumers high quality versions of favorite albums along with a «bonus» — the SACD track. According to Wood, consumers can enjoy the CD layer today and then later on they can buy an SACD player to unlock the full potential of the disc.

Reviewing the label’s recent activity, Wood mentioned that Mobile Fidelity released 2 Hybrid Stereo SACDs in May («Soultrane» by John Coltrane (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2020) and «Low Budget» by the Kinks (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2008)).
The two Mobile Fidelity June SACD releases «Steamin’» by Miles Davis (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2019) and «Everybody’s In Showbiz» by the Kinks (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2010) are available from Music Direct during the HE 2003 show and from their web site. These two new SACDs should be in retail record stores on June 24th.

In terms of upcoming SACD releases, Mobile Fidelity is excited about Aimee Mann’s «Lost In Space» Hybrid Stereo SACD (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2021) which is due out on the market on July 8th. They say it will be a big hit sonically with her fans.

Wood also announced at HE 2003 that Mobile Fidelity’s first Surround Sound SACD «Ravel’s Bolero and Assorted Orchestral Works» by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducting the Minnesota Orchestra (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4002) will be released on August 26, 2003. (See the web link below for a story on this upcoming Mobile Fidelity Surround Sound SACD).

Nick Phillips, Producer for Concord Records
Next up on the panel was Nick Phillips who is a producer at Concord Records working on their new SACD series. Concord initially entered the SACD market through a licensing deal with Groove Note. After those titles proved successful, Concord decided to issue their own SACD titles. Their plan is to reissue 30 catalog titles on Hybrid Multichannel SACD during 2003 to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of their company. In addition, they also plan to issue some new titles on Hybrid Multichannel SACD as well.

According to Phillips, each of the catalog remasters is taken from the original studio analog master tapes. It is then transfered directly to Direct Stream Digital (DSD) to make the best possible SACD. Phillips says that what he likes about the SACD format is it enables him to deliver to the consumer a finished disc that sounds just like the music did in the studio when listening to the original master tape. He also feels that the Multichannel track is what «will help the format take off» which explains why all of the Concord SACD releases are Hybrid Multichannel SACDs.

David Chesky, Co-Owner, Chesky Records
David Kawakami introduced David Chesky as «a well-known fixture in the audiophile world» and expressed his enthusiasm for having Chesky involved in the SACD format.

David Chesky said that their SACD discs are being well received and this is leading the label to increase the number of SACD titles in their catalog. Chesky says that his label plans to release 7 new SACD discs this quarter and they hope to have a total catalog of 30 SACD discs by year’s end. This will be followed by «12 to 15 or even more SACD releases next year».

Chesky also told the audience that Chesky Records has decided to discontinue the release of separate Stereo CD editions of their classical music discs. The last few classical music releases have been Hybrid Multichannel SACDs only and these have sold well. So that practice will now be the standard in the future for classical discs.

In terms of the SACD format, David Chesky said that he is «very happy with the sonic results» of Chesky’s SACD releases. According to Chesky, it is a format that enables him to bring the sound that he can «create in the studio» to the consumer. He also said that he is getting very positive feedback from consumers as well.

In the future, Chesky hopes to move all of his titles to Hybrid SACD discs. This will enable Chesky Records to have one disc and one catalog number for all of their album releases.

Question and Answer Session
After the initial presentations by each of the panelists, Stereophile Editor John Atkinson then kicked off the question and answer session. Noting that «SACDs are all audiophiles have dreamed of for decades, how do we introduce the new benefits of this format to the next generation?» David Kawakami noted that music disc sales are actually up in the 40 and older age range and agreed that bringing the younger audience to music and discs is key going forward. He views MP3 files on the Internet as serving the same role of introducing music that radio did in the past. He believes that as young music fans grow up they will want to «own their favorite music» in a high quality format. Ying Tan of Groove Note said that getting a portable SACD player on the market will be key to interesting the younger audience in SACD.

Atkinson also asked the panel about the importance of Hybrid discs that contain both CD and SACD versions of the music in moving the SACD format forward. David Kawakami noted that as more Hybrid SACD plants come on line and the volume of Hybrid SACD discs increase, the price of the discs will come down. He sees that as a key going forward. John Wood of Mobile Fidelity noted that Tower Records and Best Buy stock his label’s Hybrid SACDs with the regular CD titles vs. in the SACD area in most cases. Wood says the result is the customer gets a quality CD version of the music and later on they can get even better sound when they are ready by purchasing an SACD player.

Moving to the audience questions, one audience member asked about the possibility of putting mono versions of the songs on an album on SACDs along with the Stereo and Multichannel tracks. David Chesky viewed this as a decision for the artists and music producers to make. Noting that he prefers using the surround channels for ambience while others use them to put the listener «in the middle of the band», Chesky said there’s nothing to prevent the use of mono tracks on a specific SACD — but that will be «an artistic decision». Ying Tan of Groove Note and Nick Phillips of Concord indicated that all of their catalog was recorded in Stereo, so neither had any material where a mono track would be available.

Another question from the audience concerned the pricing of SACD discs and when they might match the prices now being charged for regular CDs. According to Concord’s Phillips, all of the Concord Music’s single disc SACDs sell for a list price of $17.98 — the same price as their CDs. Since the Concord SACDs also feature a Stereo SACD and Multichannel SACD mix, he views the Multichannel SACD versions of these albums as a real value. John Wood of Mobile Fidelity noted that the added production and manufacturing costs of the Hybrid SACD discs are keeping these disc prices higher. Ying Tan at Groove Note put it more directly. Tan said that «CD still exists because of the higher costs of Hybrid SACDs. When the costs are closer, you will see more labels move to Hybrid SACD only releases.»

Atkinson smiled in response to an audience question about when Stereophile might start issuing their disc titles on SACD. He indicated he would love to do just that, but the higher costs of SACD discs and the relatively low volumes of his releases would make it tough to cover Stereophile’s costs and keep the disc prices at $16.99.

In response to an audience question about the difference between the SACD and DVD-A formats, Ying Tan of Groove Note said that he has done tests in the studio of recording material at 24 bit/96kHz and Direct Stream Digital (DSD). To his ears, the DSD approach yields closer results to the original music. He also noted that Groove Notes distributors were uninterested when he proposed a release in DVD-A as well as SACD, so he has stayed with releases in SACD, CD and Vinyl LP formats.

In a dramatic ending point to the panel sesson, David Chesky said the real issue was MP3 and CD vs. SACD, not DVD-A. He clearly feels it is time for a new format.

Chesky said «We can get so much better sound in the studio today. We can give you such a better roller coaster ride. It’s time for this industry to move forward. We don’t make cassettes and 8 track tapes anymore. We need to get with the times. You the consumers are the losers if this new format doesn’t succeed. It’s a way to move forward. With CD and MP3, you the consumer are getting cheated because we have a better platform to deliver music to you. This new platform offers you the music at home the way we hear it in the studio, the way it should be heard at home».

It’s refreshing to hear such interest and passion about making music and music discs. Let’s hope that Chesky is right and it is time to «move forward».

Left to Right: David Chesky of Chesky Records, Nick Phillips of Concord Records, John Wood of Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs and Ying Tan of Groove Note Records listen to a question during the SACD Panel at Home Entertainment 2003