Sony's SCD-C555ES audio player [$1700] may look like your average piece of high-end audio gear, but it's something else entirely. The SCD-C555ES plays SACD discs. What the heck is SACD, you ask? It's the future of digital audio. Or is it?
It's hard to believe that it's been two decades since the CD was introduced -- for some, it's the only audio medium they've ever known. But the CD audio format may soon become extinct. Two new competing audio formats are hoping to put this 20th century technology to rest. The SCD-C555ES employs something called Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD). The competition is called DVD Audio.
The good news is that both of these formats are exactly the same size and essentially the same technology as your old CDs, so your collection won't be completely worthless. You'll still be able to play your CDs in SACD or DVD Audio machines. The bad news is the new formats are not compatible with each other, so it's the old Betamax vs. VHS problem all over again. As in that ugly hardware war, the casualties are the consumers who buy early and pay a premium, only to find that they've joined up with the wrong side. Choosing which format will come out on top is hard since both technologies are still unproven. SACD has the advantage of big backers like Sony and Philips -- DVD Audio technology has the advantage of being backwards compatible with DVD movies (though DVD Audio discs will not play in standard DVD movie machines).
The SCD-C555ES plays the new SACDs on a five-disc carousel, so you can spin concert-quality jazz for hours. It has dual laser pick-ups for hyper-accurate reading of both old CDs and new SACDs. With optical and coaxial outputs, and six-channel gold plated analog outputs, you'll be able to wire the SCD-C555ES into your state-of-the-art home theater. The unit also has as florescent display system that can show album and track title information on supported discs.
Super audio (and DVD audio) relies on advances in CD technology to cram up to seven times more information on a standard 5" disc. The added capacity allows for higher sampling rates, which means superior sound quality. SACD samples 24-bit chunks of up to 96 kHz, compared with the old 1-bit, 44.1 kHz. DVD Audio samples even higher at 2.8 MHz. Higher sampling rates mean less difference between analog and digital sound. Imagine the difference between a continuous wave and a bar graph -- the new formats leave less space between the "bars" and don't limit the upper and lower ranges.
The extra space on the disc also allows for more channels of sound. Where the traditional CD has only two-channel stereo sound, the new formats allow for multi-channel surround sound. Since many people have invested in surround sound systems for their home theaters, the new formats will take advantage of the added speakers instead of just faking it by turning two channels into more, as most systems do today.
One drawback to Super Audio right now is that there are few discs available. A quick check on Amazon turned up only a handful of titles. This will obviously change quickly as more players come to market and the demand grows. We'll all grumble and cry foul, but eventually, we'll bite the bullet and commit to one format or the other. As soon as we do, our old music collections will start to sound flatter than West Texas, and we'll reluctantly head back to the music store to start replacing our collections (just like many of us did with vinyl and cassette). It's far from pretty, but regardless of what they tell you on The X-Files, you can't fight the future.