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Apr 24, 2003

The BAS sponsored a meeting at the Berklee College of Music regarding the SACD being developed by Philips and Sony. We were treated to a 30 minute demonstration of various 2-track and 5.1-track Direct Stream Digital(DSD) recordings, including a track from the infamous Dark Side of the Moon reissue. All in all, I was very impressed by the sound quality (using B&W speakers didn’t hurt). Can you believe that the SACD audio is sampled at 2.8 MHz per track? For up to 8 tracks!

The next segment of the meeting was equally interesting. Paul Reynolds from Philips gave a presentation that described the development of the format, and future goals. After the presentation, there was a question and answer session. Most of the Q&A focused on the various copy-protection schemes built into the SACD. As Paul explained it, there is fairly robust copy-protection built into the specification, primarily at the behest of the Big 5 Record Labels.

As pointed out by several audience members (which consisted of various recording professionals from the Boston area, as well as Berklee students studying to become recording engineers) these various schemes make life very difficult for recording engineers and producers. For example, one layer of the copy protection is based on a physical characteristic of the “pits ” on the disc. This characteristic can only be produced by a multi-million dollar pressing machine, and SACD burners will basically be impossible to produce in the near future. That means producers who want to make one or two “evaluation” copies of a work-in-progress will have to spend a significant amount of money to have a commercial SACD plant press a few discs.

Considering the makeup of the audience, I fully expected most people at the presentation would have been somewhat receptive to the copy-protection measures, but it seems that the opposite was true. Certainly it was clear that the record companies (and their lawyers) are playing a significant part in the development of the SACD, and I believe this has the potential of killing the format. Think about it: Philips and Sony want to phase out the CD within 10 years and replace it with the SACD. However, because CD’s (and the SACD-incompatible DVD-Audio format) are the only way to record audio in a non-lossy format, CD-burners (and therefore CD-players) will still be commonplace for a long time. Given the suggested price of $18.99 for a commercial SACD, what reason does the average consumer have to buy into SACD? You can make an argument about sound quality, but remember that most people think Home-Theater-in-a-Box makes for a high-end sound system.

The record companies are trying to cling to their high-margin business plan in a commodity market. It ain’t gonna work.

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