In my last post, “The Rise and Fall of High Fidelity” I suggested that the Super Audio CD (SACD) was dead. A reader, Steve Cooney let me know this was not true, and I started researching the subject. A major online clubhouse for SACD fans is http://sa-cd.net – where diehards keep the SACD fires burning. Other fans, like Teresa at SACD Lives, worry contrary to her blog’s name, that the SACD is really dying.
My research taught me that SACDs are still being produced, with almost 7,000 titles created to date, and that some audiophiles still back the format. So I immediately went out and ordered two more SACDs for my meager collection because they do go out of print fast. Most of the major SACD record producers have called it quits, but not all, and after Telarc threw in the towel, many of the faithful SACD fans are having a hard time seeing a rosy future. They cling to the idea that if LP buyers can have a niche market, why can’t they. There are specialty producers like Linn Records that cater to the high fidelity crowd, but they specialize in classical and jazz music, so popular music on SACD is extremely uncommon.
As far as the royal rulers of music, their attitude towards the masses is let them eat MP3s. They believe people who listen to Arcade Fire, Kings of Leon or Katy Perry aren’t concerned with quality sound, and they are probably right. Audiophiles HATE CDs. They love LPs or SACDS, and Studio Master FLAC downloads, which are more expensive formats, requiring very expensive, hard to configure equipment to play.
Audiophiles, like those at positive-feedback, have always been a small subculture, mainly people who love classical and jazz. Audiophiles are rich, or middle class fanatics willing to spend a significant chunk of their income on their hobby, so it should have been no surprise to me that these people did embrace the SACD format and have clung to it because it’s about the only show in town featuring the best level of high fidelity. These guys don’t flinch at $4,000 SACD players, but they are also quick to point out that us poorer folks can find $300 players too, and that many Blu-Ray players, especially from Sony still support the SACD format.
It’s a shame that all Blu-Ray players don’t support the format. If you build a high definition television entertainment system with surround sound, and have the appropriate Blu-Ray player, you have everything you need to try out SACD audio. If you don’t, there’s a lot of equipment to buy just to hear what all the fuss is about – and that’s why the SACD format hasn’t caught on. Or least one of the reasons.
Most new SACDs are imports with $29.99 list prices. If you balk at spending $18.99 for a CD, then SACDs are poison. You’d think record companies would be promoting a format that can’t be ripped on a PC (because SACDs can’t be played on PCs users can’t make copies). Why wasn’t SACDs the answer to CD piracy?
We are living in an age of abundant technology, and the reigning rule of thumb for most citizens of this era is the “Good Enough” principle. Don’t spend too much money, don’t waste too much time on consumer research, don’t get involved with anything requiring too much learning, just settle for good enough. SACD technology is expensive, requires lots of consumer research, and a great deal of technical knowledge to use correctly. iPods and iTunes are cheap and easy, so their sound is good enough.
What I want to know is why high fidelity isn’t cheap and easy? Most people can afford high definition TV sets, and cable and satellite companies make it reasonably easy to see HDTV shows. Why has the music industry failed to bring HD music to the masses?
I gave up on SACDs several years ago when I was afraid the format was going to be another Betamax. I should have kept buying SACDs as they came out and helped support the cause. I’m sorry I didn’t. I was sidetracked by streaming music from Rhapsody and other online sources, and figured that was the future of music. Many SACD fans hope the DSD download will be the future of streaming music, but that mostly seems to be a gleam in their eye right now.
Since sales of CDs are in sharp decline, it could be the the music industry feels the CD will be the niche market for audiophiles as plebian music fans flock to the good enough MP3 file format. But audiophiles who have gotten used to the extreme quality of SACD don’t want to go back to CD – a format they’ve always hated anyway. In fact, they may be the ones buying LPs again and improving its market share. Doesn’t it seem strange to be going back to 1948 technology to get high fidelity?
For years now I’ve been listening to streaming music as my main source of music. It’s convenient and I have access to millions of songs and albums. It has been way to easy. But when I do play my SACDs and actually sit and listen to their quality I wonder if I’m sacrificing too much for ease of use. Maybe “Good Enough” really isn’t all that good? I could return to LPs like my friend Lee has. He’s even giving me a turntable to convert me to the cause.
And there’s another issue that my friend Luther pointed out. He says there is so much content that people don’t discriminate anymore. In the old days most people had a shelf of LPs (or a crate of them) but a very small number. They were albums they cherished and knew. I have over a thousand CDs, maybe even as many as 1,500, and most haven’t been played in years and years, and I can’t even remember what I have.
Wouldn’t it be better to have fewer albums, ones of of the highest fidelity, that I knew intimately? I should use the wealth of Rhapsody to only find new albums to buy and cherish on my living room stereo instead of using it as my only source of music. Audiophiles are telling me that true, and they bitterly complain those albums shouldn’t be on CD, but LP or SACD. If I go by availability, the LP is the answer.
When I sit in my La-Z-Boy and crank up my SACD copy of Blonde on Blonde, and close my eyes and listen, the experience is so much fuller than playing music as the background soundtrack to my activities. Music deserves our full attention like watching a movie. Teresa, the writer of the blog SACD Lives listens to music in a total dark room without clothes so she can give her fullest attention to the experience. Now that’s an extreme audiophile. Makes me want to have a sensory deprivation chamber outfitted with SACD sound, so I could float in music.
JWH – 10/2/10