Simply put, high-end audio is the budget-less quest for the recreation of concert-like sound at home. And there is a whole faction of music lovers whose quest for lifelike sound in their living rooms is tantamount to the Holy Grail. These A/V enthusiasts think nothing of spending six figures on a stereo system.
Two of the past icons of high-end audio are the reel-to-reel tape deck and the turntable. Both components were able to deliver extremely high-quality analog sound. Analog, of course, is the method by which we used to record and play back music. It uses magnetic particles (i.e., tape), and vinyl grooves (i.e., LPs) to emulate the sound waves. Magnetic tape held a magnetic “picture” of the sound waves. And the microscopic grooves cut into a vinyl record also represented the sound waves of music.
Now the reel-to-reel is obsolete while the turntable has become an even more high end product for those listeners who still prefer the warmth found in analog and don’t mind the extra care and feeding. Reel-to-reel tape had to be loaded and threaded from one reel to the next. And record albums were and remain high maintenance. That’s because they have to be relentlessly cleaned or all of the wonderful music will be obscured by surface noise.
Digital, the ubiquitous new recording and playback technology, creates a stream of 0’s and 1’s to represent the sound waves. And we all agree that CDs are a heck of a lot easier to deal with. You don’t really need to clean them much. And you can program them to play any song any time.
When the compact disc was first introduced in 1982, it was a combined effort between Sony Corp. of Japan and Philips Corp. of the Netherlands. The resulting CD standard is called the Red Book standard. This is the digital format that every CD since has complied with. The Red Book standard uses a 44.1 kHz sampling rate and 16-bit linear quantization. Simply put, the CD system “samples” or records a sound wave at sixteen places along the wave at 44,100 times per second.
At 2 to the 16th, this system yields over 65,000 pieces of information for each bit of sound. That may sound like a lot, but it’s not. Many audiophile critics have argued for the past decade that CDs sound harsh and unmusical as compared to their analog predecessors. That’s because there simply isn’t enough information-especially at low dynamic levels-to have excellent sonic resolution.
Super Audio CD (SACD) vs. Digital Video Disc (DVD)
Recently, two karetsus (partnerships of large companies) have announced forays into producing true audiophile digital media.
The first announcement is from a joint venture between Sony and Philips and it’s called the Super Audio Compact Disc or SACD. Sony and Philips were the folks who brought us the original, less-than-super-audio CD back in ’82. This new format holds many times the information of the original CD. It uses a Direct Stream Digital format as opposed to a standard CD’s 16-bit/44.1 kHz format. It is backward compatible with current CDs, so you can play your old CD collection in your new player. SACD will be introduced initially as a two-channel format, although multi-channel surround sound may be played for the future. There will be two first-generation SACD players-one from Sony and one from Philips’ subsidiary Marantz. Both players will cost about $5,000 and should be available around October.
Sony Music says that it will release 40 SACDs in tandem with the hardware launch. And other audiophile-type labels such as Telarc, DMP, Mobile Fidelity, and AudioQuest Music will also release titles.