"Buried in the rubble of an audio disc format war, with no winner, lie the remains of two high-resolution audio formats, SACD and DVD-Audio," says the home electronics industry Web site, Audio Video Revolution.
That's maybe an exaggeration. SACDs and DVD-As continue to be issued by a few labels, mostly oriented to classical music, in these high-resolution, surround-sound (in some cases) formats. Technically, everyone agrees, they beat the sound of conventional CDs all hollow. Commercially, though, they are hanging on by a rope that is down to its last threads. At best, even if the formats survive (and we really only need one, not two — that's part of the problem), they will be a tiny niche market.
The competing formats, invariably compared to the Beta versus VHS debacle of two decades ago, are widely blamed for the lack of public acceptance. Check. Others say that few home music listeners are willing to go to the bother and expense of buying five speakers, or five speakers and a subwoofer, plus a multi-channel receiver, plus an SACD or DVD-A player, and hooking them up. That makes no sense to me. People by the millions have installed home theaters, which generally involve the same number of speakers and multi-channel electronics for DVDs. DVD players will even play DVD audio discs, not just videos. (SACD requires a player designed for the format, but most SACD players also play DVDs.)
Much more than those factors, the main reason for the collective yawn over high-res audio is the worst invention of the new century, the Satan-inspired MP3/iPod system. It has nearly destroyed the appetite for quality. Ten out of 10 audiophiles agree that owning an iPod should be a crime. The iPod is a step backward in music reproduction, and its devotees are Cro-Magnons who should devolve as fast as possible into amoebas. MP3, in order to be transmitted and downloaded over the internet, and to enable its pitiable users to store 14 billion songs (all of which are dance traxx that sound alike) onto their primitive devices, entails severely compressing the digital encoding. The result, when played, is to music what a PowerPoint presentation is to an essay.
But although full of exit wounds, the audience for high quality music reproduction is not going to disappear, which is why I think at least one of the high-res formats will stick around. There will be enough of an audience that cares to keep a few companies in business producing the software and hardware. Even the Lost Generation of iPod listeners will get older and, in select cases, wiser. A teenager who's downloading some poison-dripping MP3 file to his iPod at this moment will, 20 or 30 years hence, be listening to Miles Davis or the late (God bless him) Pavarotti uncompressed, either on a high-res CD or downloaded via a lossless compression format. (I understand that lossless compression already exists, though as yet no commercial application has been launched.)
But there is further good news.
Even if you lack the means, space, or motivation (but why should you lack the motivation?) for adding SACD or DVD-A capability to your existing sound system, there are several relatively simple and inexpensive ways to juice up the quality of the sound reproduction of your conventional CD collection, and I'm here to testify.
"Tweak" is audiophile jargon for any gadget or treatment that will upgrade the realism of what comes out of your speakers. There are literally hundreds of different tweaks, some commercial products, others homemade. Professional audio engineers tend to fall into nearly unstoppable fits of laughter over them, and it's quite possible that some of their inventors need to get out in the sunshine more often. But I'm going to let you in on several tweaks that have worked for me, and which I've appreciated right down to the ground, because although I have an SACD player and a couple of dozen SACDs, the vast majority of my music collection is on standard ("Red Book" in audiophilespeak) compact discs.
All of the following improve the sound of ordinary CDs played on my system. I can't guarantee what they will do on your system, but if your hardware is reasonably good you will probably notice the difference.
Mikr0-Smooth, developed by a small recording company called Mapleshade, is a kind of polish that you rub on the playing surface of a CD, then wash off. The polishing makes the plastic surface smoother, so the laser beam and microchips in your player have less work compensating for irregularities. I've used Mikro-Smooth on hundreds of discs and almost never failed to notice more dimensionality and presence in the sound of voices or instruments. (I do not endorse other Mapleshade products and am quite uneasy about the over-the-top way they hype their recordings, cables and collateral equipment, but fair is fair: their Mikr0-Smooth product is an incredible bargain.)
The Auric Illuminator is, similarly, gunk that you apply to the business side of a disc, then wipe it so the surface is clear but it remains as an invisible residue. (There is also a marker pen that you use to black out the edges and transparent center of a CD; I usually don't bother because it's extra work, but it may add to the effect.) The Auric Illuminator, too, reveals details and atmosphere that you never heard before.
The Marigo CD mat comes in two versions, which ring the register at 100 bucks and 200 bucks, respectively. I bought the cheaper one and was impressed enough to pop for the high-end model. I wouldn't say the more expensive mat gives you sound twice as good (whatever that might mean) as the less expensive one, but it adds yet more subtle joy. The CD mat is the easiest of all to use: just place it atop the CD in your player. That's all there is to it. I don't fully understand how it works — at a guess, mostly it stabilizes the disc as it spins, so the player reads it more accurately and has less error correction to perform — but work it does. It takes you more "inside" the notes; with a good recording, the results can be spectacular.
Not exactly a tweak, but another way of putting new life into your old CDs, is upsampling. When the CD was developed in the late '70s, the "word length" was standardized at 16 bits, and the sampling rate at 44.1 KHz. Once CDs appeared on the market, they were a popular success but many audiophiles scorned them, and there was widespread criticism among the cognoscenti that the sampling rate had been set too low. ("Forty-four thousand times a second is not enough," as the music critic Alan Rich said.)
Upsampling circuitry, in an outboard unit or built into a CD player, raises the score to 24 bits and as much as 192 KHz. I frankly do not know how a recording made at the original specs can be improved by sampling it at the higher rates used for DVD soundtracks and high-res audio, but once again, a touch of magic is there. Upsampling looked to be the Next Big Thing a decade ago, then virtually disappeared, owing to the expense of the units and mass-market indifference. It seems to be making a comeback, though. A couple of years ago Philips came out with a DVD/SACD player that incorporated upsampling, at a very reasonable price point, and I snapped one up. The Audio Advisor catalog lists several new players with upsampling technology, and I hope enough people discover its virtues to keep it alive for at least a minority market.
You can get far better music reproduction without embezzling from your company to pay for it. And if you're still at the MP3 stage, I'll pray for your soul.