It’s almost 2011 for fuck’s sake, so why is “CD Quality Sound” still used like it’s a good thing?

Anyone who knows me even a little knows that I have a thing for quality when it comes to audio above all else (see previous posts about my thoughts on the disposability of cheap consumer goods).

And what really gets my cloven-hoofed, bearded, herbivore is the fact that in 2011 (almost), it is getting harder to achieve this.

WTF?!

The human race put a man on the moon in the 60’s, so why am I still listening to technology developed in the late 70’s/early 80’s when it comes to audio?  Why do vinyl lovers still proclaim the superiority of something that came out DECADES before that even?

In my opinion it comes down to one simple thing: convenience.  I can’t think of a single word more responsible for the evils in the world than that.  Sounds melodramatic you say?  Bullshit.  People will compromise on almost anything if it is more convenient than a better alternative that takes more work, however slight that might be.  I’ll set aside arguably more serious issues for now and just focus on audio.

I came across a great article the other day: Are DVD-Audio and SACD DOA? It sums up some of the issues beautifully, and I will use these choice quotes in particular:

Hey, if CD audio already sounds inferior, and let me assure you, a format based on early-1980s digital technology is not exactly a hot item at audiophile wienie roasts, why not compress it a little further and pass it around for free? Now the industry is well and truly skewered.

It seems incredible that, rather than take advantage of a golden chance to phase out the CD in favor of something that’s more secure and sounds better, the music industry is instead adding onerous copy-protection technology to the CD, effectively making an obsolete product worse.

The issues around the music industry and their inane desire to restrict how people purchase and use their music is another issue, but it kind of all seems to be related and we end up with a complete bunch of FAIL: crappy sounding music that we can’t listen to in a manner of our choosing.

The scary thing is that this article was written in 2004.  I can’t even remember back that far.  Since then SACD I believe has been ‘officially’ discontinued by Sony.

SACD is something I have known about for a while but until recently never experienced.  The reason I have never experienced it is because while I have always been happy to put my hand in my pocket and pull out cash a credit card to pursue better quality audio, no-one has really been willing to accept it.  The amount of content on SACD is abysmal, and the players are simply too expensive.  Unless you like nothing but obscure jazz, classical, world music and ‘misc’, there is nothing of any value on SACD except the occasional classic rock album. Even then I almost didn’t buy the SACD version of Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon when I found out that Alan Parsons wasn’t involved in the new 5.1 mix.

However, I recently purchased a new Blu-ray play to replace my Sony BDP-S500 (which was also a bunch of fail as it didn’t support DTS Master Audio.  How can you not support something that just involves reading data off a disc and passing it through a cable to an amplifier that was capable of decoding it anyway?).  This new baby was a Cambridge Audio “Azure” 650BD.  I might as well quickly give my thoughts now that I have been using it heavily for a number of months; so in summary:

  • Audio quality: brilliant.  I had an Arcam CD-72 as my transport up until that point, and even though I am getting my Yamaha amp to do the digital conversion for both, the Azure sounds clearer and more detailed.  I was surprised at the difference, as the Arcam is clearly a fantastic bit of kit, but I’m guessing it is due to the fact that the actual CD transport in my particular Arcam was a bit damaged and skewed and must have generated more errors
  • Startup speed: excellent.  Until now the idea of using a DVD player as my primary Audio CD player was anathema.  My Sony Blu-ray was horribly slow to startup (although being a few years old it was apparently one of the quicker ones, which is scary).  The Azure in comparison will eject the tray in a couple of seconds and you can be playing a CD in a few more.  Skipping tracks is still slower than a dedicated CD player, but only an issue if you tend to buy CDs with only one or two good tracks I suppose, so didn’t bother me.  Fast forward and rewind still sucks, just like any device that is effectively using a CD-ROM transport.  Why do these manufacturers still make the mistake of previewing the sound as you skip through, at THE SAME VOLUME as when playing normally?  It just sounds horrible and the preview is so choppy with these devices that it is pretty much useless anyway
  • Video quality: The Sony did have excellent video quality, although I don’t understand enough about how it is encoded to know how much difference the player really makes when you are sending it to the TV via HDMI anyway and letting it do much of the work.  The Azure is excellent; possibly slightly better than the Sony but I wouldn’t have bought it purely on those grounds.  It supports 1080/24p output just like the Sony and my TV, so movies are super smooth
  • User Interface and features: Excellent.  Menus are comprehensive and easy to use and read.  The screen is dimmable and it supports a ‘pure audio’ mode that switches off non-audio related circuits, including the display, which is mega sweet.  It also does something that nobody seems to bother with: it remembers where you were up to when listening to audio and resumes automatically when you next switch it on.  How awesome is that?  It takes just a few bytes of non-volatile storage to implement this, yet nobody does it (which is even more odd when you consider that EVERY car CD player supports the feature).  It also plays files off a USB device thanks to a built-in USB port, and has an ethernet socket for BD-LIVE, which I have never used

I do have two complaints though:

  1. Once again, the work-experience student was allowed to design something, and this time they allowed him to work on the remote (Patrick’s Rule of Bounded Perfection: I firmly believe that every new product development team has at least one work-experience student, and that there is an obscure government regulation that mandates this to prevent any company creating a perfect product that would eliminate all competing alternatives overnight).  In this case, the remote has a rounded back with little flanges for stability at one end only.  The result is that if you press buttons towards the sides, it tends to rock or even flip over onto its front- you basically have to pick it up every time you want to press a button.  Obviously product testing no longer involves actually using the product these days…
  2. The player is super sensitive to scratches, finger-prints, specks of dust and stray molecules.  I still have the Arcam CD player hooked up because I have virtually mint CDs that it simply won’t play right through without borking.  A friend bought the same player at the same time from the same place and has the exact same problem, so unless it was simply a bad batch, this is a definite issue.  DVDs and Blu-ray playback is a lot more robust and even rentals haven’t really caused an issue, only CDs, which is strange considering how big the laser target is.  It feels appropriate to quote Vroomfondel from HHGTTG: “… our brains must be too highly trained …”.  Having said all that, it is still pretty rare and some dodgy CDs that I felt would never work play through fine

Besides finally gaining DTS Master Audio (which was my only real reason for upgrading from the Sony, which was otherwise perfectly good), I was delighted to discover that this player also supported SACD playback.  I was even more delighted when my friend pointed out that my copy of “Depeche Mode – Violator” (the remastered one with the DVD mix in 5.1) was actually a SACD/CD hybrid, which until now was an entirely academic distinction.

I had already gone through the menus and setup the Azure to output SACD data in its native ‘DSD’ encoding, which I had also discovered my amplifier would decode.  With sweaty palms I inserted the disc and let it rip.

“Violator” was always a tightly engineered album but the newly remastered 5.1 SACD mix was on a totally new level.

A new perspective on what is possible …

It sounds trite to describe it like it was ‘as if hearing it for the first time’, but I truly felt like I was finally hearing it how the artist intended it.  Dave Gahan’s vocals (now coming predominantly from the centre channel) had a much richer, resonant quality.  The percussion bounced around the sound stage but never became gimmicky, and the bass (now through a dedicated LFE channel to the sub) was as tight as you could wish for.
Stereo separation had reached a new level, and the sound was now truly three-dimensional.  The level of detail thanks to the increased resolution was such that the sound really did sound like it was coming at me at different heights – my floor-standing Krix Symphonix speakers were delighting in the pure audio being fed to them and giving each individual driver a personal massage.  Every sound truly hung in the air at a precise location and there was plenty of space between them (to me the mark of a good system is being able to hear the spaces between the notes).

This will truly show up any weak spots in your setup.  My rears and centre are by Richter while the mains are Krix, but luckily they have a very similar tone and the transition from front to back is smooth and unobtrusive.  I might need to beef up the cabling to the rears however, as I’m sure the long lengths of cheap wire aren’t doing me any favours – it’s just hard to justify the expense considering the lengths involved.  The Eichmann eXpress 4 cables for the fronts were holding up very nicely, and I’m sure the bi-wiring was now truly coming into it’s own.

I was pretty excited by this point – as far as I was concerned this was the breakthrough I’d been waiting to hear, and every upgrade over the past 15 years was just a stop-gap solution waiting for this final piece of the puzzle.

It was hard not to ask questions along the lines of why am I only hearing this now (SACD was released in 1999), and more to the point, why isn’t everyone listening to this?  Surely the costs involved in fitting SACD playback capabilities to all CD players has come down enough over 10 years to make it viable to a large enough audience?

The answers to this I’m sure are many and varied.  Let’s start with the name: SACD.  You’d have though that the people behind HD-DVD would have learnt this lesson from watching SACD’s failure to capture any significant market share and come up with something catchier.  I’m convinced that Blu-ray won out to a large part due to having a name that was memorable, easy to say, and didn’t suck.  SACD is even worse.  At least people could figure out that HD meant High Definition, and even the most dim-witted consumer would think that was a good thing, and could probably even articulate why.

What the hell does SACD mean?  The level of market recognition is abysmal.  Whenever I have mentioned my snazzy new SACD player, NO-ONE has known what I am talking about.  Not one person.

Maybe my theory holds true again: the Sony product team came up with a fantastic product that delivered the goods sonically, was convenient (it fitted in all your existing CD racks for example), had a degree of backwards compatibility (with ‘hybrid’ discs having a normal CD layer that played on traditional CD players, and an SACD layer that new players could read), yet they gave the job of marketing it to the work experience student.

As I’m only recently on the SACD scene, I’ll point to a couple of pages that discuss some of the historical screw-ups that led to the current situation:

Was SACD a great idea doomed to failure by sheer bloody stupidity?

and Steve says… SACD is a failure!

One common theme is that the marketing failures don’t just belong to Sony, but to the record labels themselves who actually do release discs in the SACD format.  Maybe the work experience guy moved onto these companies and got jobs there based on his ‘experience’ with Sony.  It wouldn’t surprise me as I had a similar experience with someone like this recently.  But I digress …

I ask you: why would you go to the trouble of remastering and re-pressing your music into SACD and then NOT TELL ANYONE.  Why the fuck did my Depeche Mode disc not have a great big sticker proclaiming the fact it was SACD?  Even if I didn’t know what that meant, would it have killed them to have a paragraph in the liner notes explaining it to pique my interest?  I guarantee I would have hopped on the Net immediately and at least looked up more details and checked prices on a compatible player.

What marketer wouldn’t salivate at being handed a product that ticked so many boxes in consumer desire (and at a higher level of disposable income, but not too high to restrict the market size)?  Whoever had the job of handling this I hope was sacked with extreme prejudice.  Fricken moron.

Did the makers of the Depeche Mode disc think that someone who was prepared to buy a new copy of something they probably already owned NOT BE INTERESTED in a SACD version?

Over time I would re-purchase an SACD version of virtually every disc I owned if they were available and done properly (the multi-channel capabilities are a bonus, but I’m just happy with having a much better quality 2 channel version).

It galls me now having to shell out money for a normal CD, knowing that the only reason I can’t buy a better quality disc is just down to stupidity, not technology.  Going back to the quote from Mark Fleischmann at the beginning, why should I pay $15 to $30 for something that sounds crap when I could pay zero for something that sounds only slightly crappier?  It is only out of respect for the artists and my desire to own the physical medium that keeps me buying CDs, but even then I rarely pay full price and wait for specials, or buy them second hand (when in Melbourne, I only shop at Dixons.  Can I get my freebie now?).

My concern now is what happens next?  I hope that history judges the failure of SACD as a marketing one rather than a technical one, as the last thing we need is another barrier to someone trying to release a replacement to CD.

Then again, we are dealing with an industry that can’t even be bothered typing in the names of the tracks for CD-TEXT when mastering a CD.  I have over a thousand CDs and not more than 5 have the track names encoded.  An industry that unconcerned with delivering value probably isn’t going to jump on a new high-quality format, except when they see an opportunity to screw audiophiles on price perhaps.
Actually that is an interesting point – people have raised the point that SACD was aimed at audiophiles with the intent of gouging them because they were an easy target to spend more money chasing better quality.  If that is the case, then clearly the SACD product team was even more screwed than I thought as they must have had a work-experience accountant on board as well.  Let me explain some simple economics:

Let’s say a normal CD is $20.  At that price it isn’t a hard decision to purchase, even if you don’t like all the tracks.  The result is that even despite all the whining by the record labels about piracy, they still sell a ‘shitload’ (that is an official SI unit; look it up).

You can increase the price slightly, but you start needing to justify it, either because it is an import (lame excuse due to bullshit licensing deals that have nothing to do with postage or anything else the consumer may comprehend) or has extra features (like decoder ring,  CD-TEXT, or some special offer not available in your country or that expired two days before you purchased).

Your sales rate drops pretty rapidly with each extra dollar of cost after that, and you can quickly kiss impulse purchases good-bye.  In a little-known study, the rate of sales increased dramatically with each extra benefit delivered to the consumer THAT WAS NOT accompanied with an increase on price, with the results that the minuscule decrease in per-unit profit due to the inclusion of say a “full-colour” booklet (who the hell includes a black and white booklet in anything?  Now that is good marketing), resulted in an exponential increase in units sold.  However this study is widely dismissed amongst senior record and movie publishing executives…

Now let’s say that you release a CD of an existing recording, with tiny writing on the back talking about something called SACD, and a shitty logo that would lost on a blank piece of white paper even if written in red crayon.

If you priced this at $20 and stuck it amongst all the other thousands of releases, how many do you think you would sell?  Probably as many as you would have expected to sell for the non-SACD version, which could potentially be a lot (although arguably everyone who wants a copy of Dark Side of the Moon probably already owns it, so besides people replacing their copy that had bong water spilt on it, you probably won’t go platinum).

So let’s go for the ‘high-end’ of the market: increase the price, put a few ads in specialist publications read by a relative handful of people, and sell on the technical benefits and how you can breathe new life into all of your favourite music, assuming your favourite music is DSOTM, Kind of Blue, and a few other bits and pieces you probably already have various different reissues of, so are clearly itching to buy yet another copy.

End result? You sell ‘buggerall’, which as you now know is considerably less than a ‘shitload’.

The simple economics comes into the fact that selling a new copy of DSOTM to every single ‘audiophile’ (for any definition of that word) on the planet will make less at any unit price than selling a copy of the latest top 40 hit at $20, or even $2.

I hear you say, ‘hang on, they are selling the top 40 CDs anyway. Would they sell more if they were SACD at the same price?’.  Good question, but we can only guess at the answer considering how screwed up the marketing was.  The eternal question is still truly, “if a SACD sat in the shelf but nobody knew it was SACD, would it make a higher quality sound?”

A better question is “Does it matter?”  Is the music industry the only industry on the planet that is immune from the (seemingly natural) urge to improve things?  Shouldn’t the fact that it sounds better than the current status quo be enough reason to advance the state of the art?  Seemingly not.

If only there was a seismic shift in the way the entire industry worked.  Would that prompt change?

Welcome to the digital download ‘revolution’.  Could differentiating your offering against cheap (or free) and convenient downloads by providing a (much, much) higher quality alternative be the answer?  Or is convenience once again killing quality and breeding a generation of listeners who care more about the size and portability of their legal and illegal MP3 collection than the sound?

We’ll have to wait until next time …

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