The Story of Super Audio Compact Discs
By Gary Barton
This article is from the September 2003 Rhapsody. Getting Rhapsody at home is easy: Just become a member of WGUC!
In June I celebrated my 30th Anniversary with WGUC. For the past year I have been writing reviews and articles for both WGUC's website and this publication. As I write this piece, I find myself faced with a challenge akin to trying to report accurately about a true revolution.
I first played classical music on the radio 38 years ago. The station broadcast in mono. I have watched and listened, as have you, to many changes in audio technology since then. Sooner or later that technology has trickled down to affordability for the home consumer. Quarter track reel to reel tape recorders, stereo home audio components such as tuners, amplifiers, and stereo tone arms and pick up cartridges on turntables made it possible for us to recreate, in an increasingly faithful manner, music played by the greatest musicians and ensembles in the world, i.e., stereo. The possibilities of multi channel playback, and then recording digitally increased by a quantum leap the faithfulness of what we as broadcasters and music lovers had at our disposal.
WGUC played the first compact disc to be heard in the Cincinnati area and had the first playback machine installed in a control room. We began digital recording ourselves using videotape (Remember Beta, the VCR with superior engineering but slow-on-the-draw marketing?) utilizing encoder and decoder boxes that changed analog information to digital information on the way in, and later changed it back to analog on the way out. When Digital Audio Tape machines became available, we jumped to them. They were more dependable than Beta, took up far less space in storage and were more easily edited for broadcast.
Now, there are two "new kids on the block," both available at an affordable price to the consumer. They are DVD-Audio (different than DVD-Video discs) and SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc). Both exceed in quality the wildest dreams of the audiophile. While each format has its own unique abilities, they both provide one new feature: high definition discrete channel surround sound playback. The most basic equipment for home playback of either/both formats is relatively inexpensive. You can get players that play both kinds of discs. SACD seemingly has more classical titles in release at the moment, so I will write primarily about the SACD format here.
DVD-Audio players and/or SACD players are both retro, which is to say you can still play all of your present compact discs on them. (There are nearly 500 million CD players and over 10 billion compact discs in homes and autos worldwide, testimony to consumer acceptance on a massive scale). SACDs (Super Audio Compact Disc) should, ideally, be playable on our "old" equipment, and the 21st Century innovation of the SACD system must be able to play back all of our own CD libraries.
Now, as Lieutenant Colombo might say, "there's just one more thing." The SACDs played on an SACD player can give us up to 6 channels of information. While sounding infinitely better than any ordinary CD, the SACD has exactly the same dimensions as the CDs you already own. The difference is that it has two layers instead of one. The playback SACD system has the ability to read each layer, altering its laser(s) to operate at different wavelengths. Think of it as an open-face peanut butter sandwich. The laser of a standard CD player can only read "the bread" from underneath, whereas the laser of a SACD player sees through the holes in the bread and can tell you all about the "peanut butter." The bottom line is that the SACD can carry, in the same amount of space, more than four times the information than a standard CD. Direct Stream Digital, the process used in making SACDs, increases the resolution of music by more closely following the original waveform of the music, which results in music reproduction that is remarkably pure and faithful to the original. There's an excellent and understandable paper on SACD technology, which you can access with your computer should you need more of the theory of this. Use the Google search engine and enter the words "Super Audio Compact Disc A Technical Proposal." (Omit the quotation marks.)
Imagine, 6 channels; right, center, left, right rear, left rear, and sub woofer for low frequencies! One caveat: SACD's must be "hybrid" CDs to be compatible with both our present systems and SACD players. All SACDs are not created equal. Although co-developed by Sony and Philips, Sony has, for the time being, decided to make all the SACDs they have in their catalogue as SACD only discs. They won't play on your home CD player at all. On the other hand, Telarc, the company that records the Cincinnati Pops and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, has always issued their SACDs as hybrids. Remember that word, because you'll have to examine virtually every SACD that you buy for that "hybrid" designation on the packaging to be sure of retro-compatibility. All SACDs made have the potential for backwards compatibility, but it is this author's opinion that Sony is making their SACD's non compatible in order to sell more hardware. I predict this, along with some other drawbacks, is going to make more than a few people angry at Sony and other SACD-only manufacturers. I myself own five Sony SACDs that I would return if I could, and I'll tell you why in a bit.
I wanted to try out the system on some "good ears." I called documentary filmmaker and film historian Steve Gebhardt and invited him over for a demonstration. For my demo I used the same recording of Alexander Nevsky that had first hooked me. Steve, who has a particular love of the human voice, listened with greatest attention to the choral sections and the contralto soloist. Afterwards I asked for a reaction and Steve replied simply, "Incredible!" When I told him the recording was made in 1961 he was floored, flabbergasted! He left my house shaking his head and looking a bit in shock.
Multi-track recording has been around for a long time. It trickled into the consumer market in the early 1970's. Quad amplifiers for reel-to-reel 4-channel tape (as well as quad 8 track cartridges and various SQ and QS turntable playback systems) were available at select audio dealers. My soon-to-be 90-year-old father-in-law owns such an amp with appropriate speaker array, although he uses it to play two speaker pairs in different parts of the house. In the early 1970s, radio stations WDET-FM (Wayne State University) and WABX-FM (then the progressive underground station in Detroit) did a several hour long discrete Quadraphonic simulcast, originating from the old studios at WDET, where decades before The Lone Ranger radio series was produced live. We asked our listeners to get together with somebody who had a similar system to their own, put the components in one room, one tuner on one side of the listening room set on WABX, the other, at the opposite side, on WDET, and hear the wonders of surround sound. Material was scarce -- Stockhausen's Kontakte turned out to be the one work that most creatively used four channels, creating mysterious and exhilarating vortices of sound. Everyone who listened came away enthusiastic and impressed.
But the recording industry could not settle on an industry wide standard, particularly for LPs. Competitive and mutually exclusive systems were simultaneously (and prematurely) thrown on the market. The result was chaos, and quad, as a consumer audio option, fizzled and disappeared. Meanwhile, recording companies began using reel-to-reel 1" tape, then 2" tape for as many as 32 channels for the original master tapes. These were mixed down to 2 channels and subsequently pressed as stereo LPs.
Now, multi-channel is back, even more spatially impressive than quad, acoustically superior to anything since developed. The cost of equipment, compared to the change in dollar buying power since the 1970's, is accessible, and the software (i.e., CDs) remains compatible. Take my word for it...the sound is astonishing.
Super Audio Reviews
Now for some test-drive suggestions, and forgive me for seeming chauvinistic. I started out with recordings I knew from my own "conventional" CD collection and an orchestra and auditorium with which I had personal experience. I have attended over 1,256 Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra or May Festival concerts since coming to Cincinnati. I've listened from the control room, standing behind the last row of seats on each level, and sampling the sound from seats all over "the house." The latest Surround Sound Telarc SACDs feature all the best qualities that listening in Music Hall can offer and quite literally puts you in "the best seat in the house."
Remember: A Hybrid can also be played back on your current compact disc equipment. "SACD Playback Only" discs require special equipment, co-developed by Philips and Sony. In addition, all the CDs recommended below are Multichannel recordings. For more information on SACD formats, see the Channel Caution sidebar.
Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky; Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Sony SS #87711
SACD Playback Only
Thomas Schippers conducting the New York Philharmonic with The Westminster Choir and contralto Lili Chookasian. Two glorious performances!
Turina: Danzas Fantasticas, Sinfonia Sevillana and La Procesion del Rocio; Debussy: Iberia from "Images"
Telarc SACD 60574
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducting. Grammy award-nominated, this is a superb addition to any library.
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2; Tubin: Symphony No. 5
Telarc SACD 60585
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi conducting. I own the standard CD as well, and an A-B comparison reveals a tremendous clarity of the "inner voices" within these two Symphonies. You can close your eyes and actually locate individual instruments within the sound field. A must-have recording.
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Love Scene from Romeo and Juliet
Telarc SACD 60578
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi conducting. A true sonic spectacular! I can't tell you how many times I've heard this pair of works over the past 40 years, but this disc held my attention from beginning to end. The "March to the Scaffold" is truly chilling.
Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture, Capriccio Italien, Marche Slav, etc.
Telarc SACD 60541
Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Kiev Symphony Chorus, Children's Choir of Greater Cincinnati, Erich Kunzel conducting. Be conservative with your playback levels the first time through the 1812. The cannons are LOUD and could be detrimental to your system (and ears). If you thought Telarc's earlier recordings of 1812 were spectacular, this will knock your socks off.
Dvorak: Symphonies 8 & 9
Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer conducting. Quite simply the best Dvorak "New World" I've heard (including Toscanini's benchmark mono recording.) Listening to this SACD made me wonder if we ever really appreciated Maestro Fischer when he was associate conductor here with the CSO. This SACD also reminded me just how wonderful the 8th is. Two Superb performances.
A Celtic Spectacular
Telarc SACD 60571
If you loved the mood of Riverdance, you'll love this SACD. With the Cincinnati Pops and Maestro Kunzel are: The Chieftains; James Galway; tenor John McDermott; Liz Knowles, fiddle; and Kieran O'Hare, uileann pipes and whistles; and Cincinnati's Celtic Band, Silver Arm. They say everyone is Irish at heart on St. Patrick's Day, and I think this CD will have the same effect.
Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra & The Miraculous Mandarin
Sony SS 87710
SACD Playback Only
New York Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez conducting. This is really a Concerto for Orchestra, and the dialogue between instrumental sections and soloists makes it a perfect candidate for Surround Sound. This is another disc I've found myself listening to repeatedly.
Franz Schmidt: Symphony #4; music from "Notre Dame"
The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Yakov Kreizberg conducting. The only prior recording I know of the 4th is conducted by Zubin Mehta and paired with the Mahler 2nd on a 2-CD conventional stereo recording. The work is in many ways beyond Mahler, and in other ways, it is part of the logical progression to Mahler's Symphonies, both very approachable and a real heartbreaker. This is a great recording to listen to when you think you've got it bad. Schmidt's wife Karoline was not equipped to deal with life and was placed in a mental institution in 1919. The death of their only daughter Emma followed ten years later. The subtitle he gave the Symphony was "Requiem fur meine tochter" (Requiem for my daughter). Schmidt himself would perish 10 years after the death of his daughter.
Christopher Theofanidis: Rainbow Body; Barber: Symphony #1, Copland: Suite from Appalachian Spring; Jennifer Higdon: Blue Cathedral
Robert Spano conducts The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in this very serene disc, sensitively utilizing the "colors" of the orchestra, as the title piece suggests.
Holst: The Planets; Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
Sony SS 87981
SACD Playback Only
New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting. This is my first time hearing these performances in any format. Bernstein does a great job with the Britten in this disc that was first digitally recorded in Multi Channel in 1973 & 1977. Bernstein also brings electricity to The Planets that doesn't disappoint for a moment. Finally, we can hear what was on the master tapes!
Baroque Music for Brass & Organ, with The Empire Brass Quintet and Organist William Kuhlman
Telarc SACD 60614
Showpieces by Purcell, Bach, Telemann, Handel, Campra, Pachelbel (not the ubiquitous Canon), Albinoni, Clarke and Charpentier recorded live at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Rolf Smedvig and company really work out in this disc for organ and brass aficionados.
Bach: The Four Great Toccatas and Fugues
Sony SS 87983
SACD Playback Only
This is the classic all-Bach disc featuring E. Power Biggs playing The Four Antiphonal Organs of the Cathedral of Freiburg, Germany. The organs are arrayed throughout the cathedral and can be coupled to all play from a single console. The reverberation is fantastic, as Bach's intricate counterpoint becomes transparent in this beautifully recorded CD.
Copland: Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, etc.
Sony SS 87327
SACD Playback Only
This is a combination of two LPs that appeared in the early 60s to celebrate Copland's 60th birthday, both featuring Leonard Bernstein conducting the music of Aaron Copland. Here are great performances of Appalachian Spring, El Salon Mexico, Billy the Kid and Rodeo. Some wonderful multi-track tape expertly transferred to surround sound by the Sony team of engineers.
Mahler: 6th Symphony "Tragic"
A 3-CD set for the price of a single disc. Conductor Benjamin Zander (who conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra on this disc) discusses the work at length on the third disc. Disc #1 contains movements 1-3, which, if your machine permits, can be programmed to play BOTH ways Mahler conceived the work. Disc #2 consists of the 4th movement in either the original version (with three hammer blows) or the revised version (with two.)
Orff: Carmina Burana
Telarc SACD 60575
Carl Orff's celebration of life and love, Carmina Burana, in a glorious performance with Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus. Soloists are Hei Kyung Hong, soprano; Stanford Olson, tenor; and Earle Patriarco, baritone. Also featured are the Gwinnett Young Singers. It is wonderful to hear Orff's masterpiece at the center of these forces.
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 9 & 25
Alfred Brendel is the soloist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras conducting. Very pleasing performances which are not intrusive. You can enjoy this SACD and get something else done at the same time.
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; Shostakovich: Concerto for Violin & Orchestra #1
Sony SS 89921
SACD Playback Only
The phenomenal young violinist Hilary Hahn performs with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, with Hugh Wolf conducting the Mendelssohn and Marek Janowski the Shostakovich. It is astonishing that such a young talent can play the Shostakovich so incredibly well and yet not, in all likelihood, having experienced the anguish to be found in the work in her relatively short life. Her notes in the accompanying booklet are articulate and insightful.
Handel: Royal Fireworks Music & Water Music Suites
Telarc SACD 60594
Adeptly played by Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman conducting. Another performance that's fun to be in the middle of!
Yolanda Kandonassis: The Romantic Harp
Telarc SACD 60581
"Surround sound for one instrument?", you may ask. Well, it works, and it sounds like she's in the room with you. A delicious repast that I listened to three times in succession I was so impressed.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
Deutsche Grammophon 471640
SACD Playback Only
Herbert von Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic, the Wiener Singverein and soloists Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa, Peter Schreier and Jose van Dam. A multi-track analog recording made in 1977. Michael Steinberg's notes are concise and fascinating; the performance is what we have come to expect from von Karajan discs.
Ravel: La Valse, The Mother Goose Suite and Minuet Antique
Sony SS 87979
SACD Playback Only
Conductor Pierre Boulez has a special affinity for the French Impressionists.
Buy this instead of Sony SS #89121, also Boulez conducting Ravel. The reason:
see the Channel Caution sidebar.
For a change of pace, I also purchased "Cheap Thrills" by Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company and enjoyed it, as I did Miles Davis' "In A Silent Way," both Sony SACD Playback Only.
Finally, Robert Lockwood, Jr.'s blues album "Delta Crossroads" and Oscar Peterson's Quartet & The Michel Legrand Strings in "Trail of Dreams-A Canadian Suite" are excellent Telarc Hybrid CDs.
This just in: New on Heads Up (a division of Telarc, HUSA 9078), a hybrid SACD titled Jaco Pastorius Big Band: Word of Mouth Revisited. Born in 1951 and considered by many to have been the Charlie Parker of the bass, Jaco Pastorius worked with Mel Torme, the Temptations, Nancy Wilson and Patti Page. After striking out on his own, he recorded with Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock & Blood Sweat & Tears, to name just a few of his collaborations. In the early 80's he formed Word of Mouth, returning to his big band roots. Pastorius died in 1987 after being plagued by bi-polar affective disorder, which led him down a treacherous path of drugs and alcohol.
This is a fitting tribute from his friends, bassists who he influenced, with a big band led by Peter Graves. Featured bassists in many Pastorius arrangements include his brother David, Victor Bailey, Richard Bona and Jeff Carswell. This CD really cooks, and if you're a jazz fan you'll want to add this to your collection.
Not all Super Audio CDs are created equal!
There are four types of SACDs: Single Layer Stereo, Single Layer Multichannel, Hybrid Stereo and Hybrid Multichannel. Which you should purchase depends first on whether you have equipment compatible with SACDs (if not, buy Hybrid) and your speaker setup.
In my experiments with SACD discs, I came across several that contained right, center, left and sub woofer information, but no rear channel information. These, it turned out, were Stereo SACDs, as opposed to Multichannel. That said, if I'm going to pay $20 for a SACD to play on a machine that cost me half a grand, I expect front left, center and right AND rear left and right to get the whole Multichannel experience. While Stereo SACDs still sound better than prior format releases, I can't recommend them for this reason.
The way to tell for sure what you're buying is to look for the SACD symbol on the CD package:
Single Layer Multichannel is simulated surround sound and requires SACD equipment.
Single Layer Stereo is front channel only and requires SACD equipment.
Hybrid Multichannel is simulated surround sound for SACD players, but also stereo for all CD players.
Hybrid Stereo is front channel sound for SACD players and stereo for all CD players.
If you order online, it is sometimes very difficult to tell what format you're buying. Therefore, when you receive your order, carefully inspect the case with the above in mind before removing the shrink-wrap. If you decide you don't want it, follow the source's instructions on getting full credit for returning your SACD. I wish I could get back the money I spent on several Sony SACDs I purchased, but I made my discovery too late and removed the shrink-wrap.