Mixed Blessings for Audiophiles

Improved disks, alas, will use two formats

If you've ever experienced a DVD movie played over a home-theater system, you know how lush surround sound can be. Now imagine a dramatically crisper, higher-fidelity sound that lets you more easily differentiate between instruments in an orchestra or discern nuances in a singer's phrasing.

That's the promise of DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD), two digital audio formats vying to succeed compact disks as the audio gold standard. The two systems, which have won raves from audiophiles, use high-density disks that hold seven times as much data as CDs. Under both, sound is digitally sampled in bigger chunks and at a higher frequency. And thanks to a new "lossless" compression standard called MLP, no digital data from the master recording is discarded. Result: More of the original sound reaches you. "You're going to have the opportunity to do something you've never been able to do in the entire history of recorded music: hear what we hear in the studio," says record producer Frank Filepetti, who remixed James Taylor's Hourglass album for an SACD release.

Both DVD-Audio and SACD are six-channel formats, though, so to get the full richness of their sound, you need a home-theater surround sound system--with three front speakers, two rear speakers, and a subwoofer for low frequencies. Even for a low-end system, that could mean some $500.

Be aware, too, that a format war is brewing, with DVD-Audio backed by a coalition of record labels, movie studios, and hardware makers such as Warner Music, Disney's Buena Vista Home Entertainment, and Toshiba, and SACD by Sony and Philips, inventors of the CD. So for now, you may want to stay on the sidelines. There's little to listen to, anyway--about 250 SACD titles and 57 DVD-Audio releases, at $20 to $25 a pop. But if you're the adventurous sort, you can catch this format wave and not get soaked.

First, some SACD disks--but not DVD-Audio disks--can be played on your old CD player. Check the packaging: Only so-called hybrid-layer disks include a CD-compatible version. I listened to an SACD of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra on my aging CD player, and the sound was distinctly clearer and cleaner than a regular CD.

FEELING ITCHY? With a first-generation DVD-Video player, you can't play SACD disks or hear the full impact of DVD-Audio. But you can sample DVD-Audio releases because the disks contain either Dolby Digital or DTS surround-sound versions that most older players can read.

If you're itching to gamble on new hardware, consider some of the DVD-Video players that have just hit the market or will be introduced soon (table). They have either DVD-Audio or SACD capability, and at least one--Pioneer's $6,000 DV-AX10--plays both. Even if you don't have six speakers, either format should sound superior to CDs.

You won't have to pay much more for the DVD-Audio or SACD option. Panasonic will offer DVD-Audio on eight DVD-Video players, such as its $299 DVD-RP61, which will be out this summer. That's roughly $50 more than its conventional DVD players. Sony's fall lineup includes seven players that combine SACD with DVD-Video, ranging from the $300 entry-level DVP-NS500V to the $1,500 DVP-S900ES. You also can choose from seven stand-alone audio models priced from $300 to $5,000.

Meanwhile, if you've just shelled out $70 for the four-CD Jimi Hendrix boxed set, rest easy. All the new players can play plain-vanilla CDs. For this old-timer, obsolescence is a ways off.

By David Landis

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