A format cannot succeed without accessible software, but the marketing machines of Sony and Philips have promised that one day SACD will replace the humble Compact Disc. In the run-up to Christmas, I decided to find out if their statements were falling on deaf ears, or whether SACD really was becoming available to the masses.
Like, I suspect, the majority of High Fidelity Review readers, my own SACD software is obtained either as review samples or via the Internet (what would we do without it?), but today I switched to the role of man-in-the-street and ventured out into the real world in an attempt to buy an SACD disc, any SACD disc, here in my home city of Chester (north west England). It’s an affluent place of moderate size and full of tourists the year ‘round. People also travel from far and wide to shop here, especially during the holiday season. As cities in the UK go, it’s not typical as most citizens have an above average income and local unemployment is well below what one would expect, but this plays into the hands of high-end audio as the populous have a lot of disposable income to squander on the latest technologies. If SACD really is to make any impression on the market, then Chester would be the place to do it, especially at this time of year.
My first port of call was WH Smith, the store in Chester, which spans numerous floors, being one of the country’s largest. I didn’t actually expect to find stocks of SACD discs here because their music/video section is rather limited, but in the interests of thoroughness in I went… Not surprisingly, neither SACD nor DVD-Audio discs were anywhere to be seen, so I asked a friendly member of staff. “SACD?” She looked baffled, but after a moment’s thought directed me to a stack of blank CD-R discs. Great. This would turn out to be a familiar theme. No, I explained, SACD is supposed to be the successor to CD. She went to ask her manager. I was right; no SACD here, nor DVD-Audio for that matter.
My next destination was Chester’s Virgin Megastore, a huge music/video outlet on two floors. Barely through the door, I was immediately struck by a large ‘DVD-Audio’ sign and a selection of at least one hundred different titles, classical and pop. Virgin had positioned the DVD-Audio discs amongst the racks of music CDs, right before the ‘A’ section and nowhere near the DVD-Video department, which is on another floor entirely. There were leaflets explaining what a DVD-Audio disc was and people, young and old, browsing the section. Looking good for SACD I thought. Wrong. SACD was nowhere to be found. Again I asked a sales assistant and she too directed me to a huge rack of blank CD-R discs. The information kiosk was no help either, “Sorry sir, we don’t have any of those…” and just to be sure I checked in case any interloping SACD discs had found their way on to the regular shelves.
No more than fifty yards from Virgin is HMV, another large music/video store on two floors. Downstairs you’ll find all the music, upstairs the video. HMV is an excellent source of ‘fringe’ formats; they still stock a fair amount of vinyl, for example, but there was no obvious sign of SACD, nor DVD-Audio. While awaiting a free sales assistant, I once again looked for popular SACD discs amongst the CDs. There were none… but there were DVD-Audio discs! In the Foreigner section there was the CD of ‘4’ and the DVD-Audio disc, same for the Eagles and Alanis Morissette’s ‘Under Rug Swept’. Surely this is where the SACD discs should be if they’re ever going to replace Red-book? When the sales assistant was free, he turned out to be a store manager, so this time was at least familiar with the concept of an SACD disc. “No,” he said, “HMV only stock SACD at our Premier stores, so you’ll have to go to either Manchester or Liverpool, but we’ve got lots of DVD-Audio titles.”
Only one store remained in my quest for SACD, a place called MVC. Compared to Virgin and HMV, they’re retail upstarts and in Chester their store is smaller (although far from small) and on just one floor. I didn’t have to look far for DVD-Audio, in fact it was impossible to miss two large racks of titles a few yards inside the door and right by the checkout. As was the case in Virgin there were people browsing, illustrated by the photograph below (apologies for the quality, this was shot using a mobile telephone). The selection was about on a par with that of Virgin and featured a wide range of genres. Where was the SACD? They must have some? Unfortunately not… “Sorry,” said the bright young woman I asked, “we don’t sell those.”
So where is SACD today, here in the Roman city of Chester? The answer is: nowhere. There’s not a disc to be found in any of our music retailers, so the impact of this new format, the much-lauded replacement for the humble CD, is non-existent. Whose fault is this, the retailer? Sony? Philips? Or is it a case of supply and demand? Neither Virgin nor HMV will stock a product they don’t think will sell or for which there is no market, which does little for one’s confidence in the format’s future.
And yet, although I didn’t set out to look for them, DVD-Audio discs were everywhere, hitting me in the face as I walked into stores. Pristine chrome racks, bristling with the latest releases and literature explaining to the ignorant consumer how much poorer their lives would be without a multi-channel version of ‘Reanimation’. People were buying them too. The balance of power may be different in other parts of the world, but here in Chester there is only one game in town, and it’s not SACD…