Before hi-res audio could be streamed from a USB storage device or the cloud, it lived on an optical disc the size of a CD. Throughout the 2000s, two competing formats – SACD and DVD-A – duked it out for marketplace supremacy with neither emerging victorious. Consumer indifference, the need for specialist hardware and a format battle that echoed the Beta vs. VHS videotape format wars of the 1980s meant that both the SACD and DVD-A were effectively dead by the end of the decade.
Today, we hone in on the SACD.
The Super Audio CD (or SACD) was co-developed by Sony and Phillips and introduced in 1999 as a higher-quality alternative to the then-dominant compact disc. The SACD’s higher audio resolution is delivered with a sample rate of 2.8MHz – much higher than a CD’s 44.1kHz sample rate – where the audio data is encoded as a Pulse Density Modulation (PDM) bitstream instead of the CD’s Pulse Code Modulation (PCM).
What’s the difference? The SACD’s PDM encoding is a form of analog-to-digital conversion where the amplitude of an analog signal is represented by the density of a continuous stream series of pulses. A CD’s PCM encoding, on the other hand, is a digital representation of an analog signal where the amplitude of the signal is sampled and quantized to a specific bit depth at regular intervals: 44,100 per second.
The SACD also offers a longer playing time than the CD and can accommodate multi-channel audio.
To play an SACD, we need an SACD-compatible player whose higher-frequency laser can read the higher data pit density found on the disc’s surface. An SACD player will then decode (to analogue) the resulting bitstream with a low-pass filter that, by definition, strips out any unwanted high-frequency noise. By contrast, decoding a CD’s PCM datastream requires an off-the-shelf DAC chip, resistor ladder or FPGA + code. Thankfully, most SACD players feature both to be backwards compatible with CDs. You can find a list of modern-day candidates here.
I recently reviewed Marantz’s SACD 30n: an SACD player that also plays CDs. But not having a single SACD to my name, I could only analyse its prowess as a CD spinner. The resulting consternation from some commenters – frustrated that my coverage contained zero SACD testing – was palpable. Did I not see that ‘SACD’ was in the product name?
I’ll respond to that question with a question: did the SACD die-hards not know that I only started reviewing hi-fi in 2010, just as the major labels had brought SACD production to a halt; and the heavy promotion of its software successor, DSD, was beginning to ramp up? Just as ripping a CD creates audio content encoded as PCM, ripping the contents of an SACD (not an easy process) puts DSD-encoded digital audio on our hard drive.
Furthermore, did the SACD faithful not know that 99% of albums released in 2023 are still issued as a CD but (next to) none see the light of day as an SACD? A click on Acoustic Sounds’ online store tells us that two reissue labels, Analogue Productions and MoFi, dominate the Top 10 best-selling SACDs where not a single album is less than thirty years old.
Many of the more mainstream SACD releases – Depeche Mode, Peter Gabriel, The Police, Bob Dylan – attract a pretty penny on the used market. As Super Deluxe Edition’s Paul Sinclair points out, acquiring some of these albums on SACD would require a house remortgage — and that was ten years ago.
Rather than lean on anecdotal talk, how about we poll the Darko.Audio YouTube audience about its SACD ownership pattern?
The takeaways? A whopping 83% don’t own a single SACD and only 17% own more than ten. The 🌶️ finding? Only 4% of the 10,000 poll respondents own more than 50 SACDs. Set against the backdrop of considerably larger vinyl and CD collections, fifty SACDs are a long way from what we might call a ‘meaningful’ collection; and hardly enough for the rational among us to spend big on an SACD-capable disc spinner. If nothing else, this reminds us that the SACD’s status as a physical format in 2023 remains über-niche.