Melba Recordings

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SACD - A New Standard in Recorded Sound

Saturday, 1 January 2000 - 12:00am

The story of sound recording and reproduction is marked with periodic breakthroughs when new technology renders the old obsolete. The cylinder gave way to the disc; acoustic recording was supplanted by electrical; the 78rpm record yielded to the long playing disc; stereophonic defeated monophonic sound and the Compact Disc, introduced in 1982, brought digital reproduction into the home.

Now, two decades later, the inventors of the Compact Disc, Sony and Philips, have created its successor in the Super Audio Compact Disc.

When Sony and Philips set down the technical parameters for the CD they aimed to produce a 12 cm disc which could fit Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (about 70 minutes) on one side. This was a rare case of artistic ambition guiding technology. However, there had to be compromises. The Compact Disc could contain about 700 megabytes of information in digital form which was not really enough capacity to make a smooth conversion of the analogue source into digital form. The "sampling rate" — the number of times per second that the smooth analogue sound wave is sampled and turned into a number — is quite low, just barely acceptable as an approximation of the "analogue" source. The technology had to involve aural tricks to deceive the ear into thinking that it was hearing a natural sound.

Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) gave the CD partners an opportunity to revisit the digital technology and to improve on their original medium. DVDs have two layers, each of which can contain about 4.5 gigabytes of information. This greater storage capacity means that the sampling rate can be increased 64 times, and together with improvements in digital recording technology, means that the stored digital image of the analogue source can be much closer to the original than is possible with CD. Super Audio CD may be likened to a high definition digital picture, compared with ordinary Compact Disc which is more akin to a medium resolution image. There is simply more detail in SACD which means that the reproduced sound is closer to the experience of being at the performance.

Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) represents a quantum leap in CD technology because not only can it provide the listener with better stereo and multi-channel surround sound, it also uses a new digital recording technology called DSD, Direct Stream Digital, developed by Sony. This is an improvement on PCM (pulse code modulation) technology that has been the standard in the industry since digital recording began. DSD has been designed to give recordings a much more natural or ‘analogue’ sound. It does this by using a much higher sampling frequency for turning the continuous sound wave into numbers and the result is a more accurate, detailed and warm sound than we have experienced on CD.

Comparing the same well engineered recording on CD and SACD it is immediately obvious that there is more of the atmospheric sensation of being in a concert hall with the new discs. CD sounds restricted, harsh and artificial by comparison with SACD.

Super Audio Compact Disc is just that — a superior version of the stereophonic compact disc. Many record companies are re-releasing their classic two channel analogue recordings made in the sixties and seventies on the new format because the SACD can do justice to the quality of the tapes in the archives. However, new SACD recordings are being made in six channel surround sound for those with the equipment to play it. So SACD is both superior stereo and also surround sound on the one disc. And to make the new medium backwards compatible many of the new discs, including those from Melba, are "hybrids", playable both on the new SACD players with the superior sound and also on ordinary Compact Disc players in the form we have been accustomed to for the past 20 years.

Discrete SACD players are quite expensive, but many of the newest and relatively inexpensive DVD players incorporate SACD playback. For people with a home cinema and surround sound system it pays to check that a new DVD player can handle SACD.

Melba Recordings is committed to the highest standards of artistry and technology and the adoption of Super Audio Compact Disc is essential to meeting its objectives.