If you scour the Internet, you will find opinions about the fate of SACD (Sony's Direct Stream Digital format) and DVD-A, both of which are high resolution audio formats. The outlook by many pundits is grim: These formats are due for extinction because no one is listening. Everyone is, rather, just using their iPods to play MP3s, which are highly compressed.
Then, on the other side,
top tier music publishers, such as Telarc, continue to pump out high rez
discs. I get them all the time for review. Channel Classics and
Pentatone continue to produce DSD-native SACDs in Europe, and to educate
Dolby's new high resolution audio format - Dolby TrueHD 5.1 - and DTS' - DTS HD MA 5.1 - both of which are essentially lossless 24/96 codecs, are beginning to show up on high definition DVDs within the movie soundtracks. Both of these codecs could certainly be, and probably will be, used for music DVDs. But will consumers listen?
Maybe. Maybe not. But, I think they will because we are all so entrenched with watching movies on DVD and we all have surround sound systems. The music DVDs (we have them now, but they are standard definition video and standard DD or DTS soundtracks) with high rez sound would undoubtedly have high def video of the musicians, whether it be orchestra or rock groups.
But, it may just all occur by natural course rather than consumers searching out and buying the music. In three years or so, you will only be able to purchase a high definition TV, and all DVD players will be Universal, i.e., they will play every type of disc: Blu-ray, HD-DVD, SACD, DVD-A, DVD-V, all the recordable disc formats, and MP3. Within five years, all the movie discs will be high definition. That's not to say they won't have an SD version on the other side of the disc, for the laggards out there, but it will be sold primarily as a high definition movie.
Because the players will all handle every type of disc, my suggestion to music producers is to just publish their products in high rez formats and be done with it. The ubiquitous portable music players will, by then, have so much storage capacity, there will be no need to compress the music before downloading it to the players. I recently purchased an iPod with 80 GB of storage. Using Apple's lossless codec, I can store 120 full albums on the player. That is, at full CD sound quality - 16 bit, 44.1 kHz sampling.
Case in point: One iPod user I know has the 30 GB version. After several years of use, all the stored music (MP3 compressed) only takes up 1.5 GB of the disc capacity. So, why not use Apple Lossless and take up 10 GB instead?
Well, part of the problem is that the earphones which come with the players are terrible quality. So, if you compared the MP3s to the lossless, using those earphones, you might not hear any difference.
My suggestion to MP3 player users is to format a few of their favorite musical pieces as MP3 and also as Apple Lossless, then play them back one after the other, using a connection from the player to their home audio system. I think the differences will be quite audible.
For the audiophile, there is no question that high rez audio is very, very important to our music listening. Really important. We know there is a difference. We hear it.
Now, that difference is not several orders of magnitude. Maybe not even one order. It is a small - yet perceptible - difference. We welcome that small improvement. We welcome any improvement.
The two camps are SACD and DVD-A. They produce similar results: better sound quality, due to more digital samples.
Although the literature seems to emphasize the higher frequency response, the noticeable improvement is in the audible band. There is more detail and less midrange congestion. In fact, the higher frequency response, in my opinion, is not really perceptible. For one thing, we can barely hear 20 kHz, even when we are young. Secondly, most microphones and speakers don't have much response above 20 kHz.
The universal players I spoke of will likely all be mass market consumer products. The audiophile quality players will mostly be either DVD-A or SACD. The manufacturers claim that putting both circuits in one player means that one circuit's electrical activity contaminates the other's. But, there are some audiophile universal players that have appeared, even so.
McIntosh's foray into high rez music is the MCD201, an SACD player. It is two-channel only, not 5.1 surround. The reason for this is that most audiophiles still use a two-channel stereo system. My experiences with high rez surround sound are that it feels a bit strange to have part of the jazz or rock group behind me, and orchestral pieces tend to just have ambient sounds of the symphony hall in the rear channels, so I too, prefer my high rez music in stereo rather than surround. Fortunately, all SACD players can output the high rez in two-channel form, either by converting 5.1 to two-channel, or just playing the two-channel SACD track that is on most of the SACD software.
The MCD201 uses fully balanced 24/192 DACs, and plays the disc four times the normal speed. You don't hear it at the increased speed of course. The player just acquires the music ahead of playing it, so that the bitstream can be properly synchronized with the internal clock, and decoded without any jitter.
All players read the data ahead of playing it, with the data fed into a FIFO buffer. The player speed is adjusted to keep the buffer at least 50% full. However, the 4X speed of the MCD201 allows for multiple passes in the event the first pass has errors. It sounds like this might be a ROM drive, which is the best kind of drive from a data recovery standpoint.
The front panel has all the usual player controls in the form of buttons, save two rotary dials that access other functions (tracks and adjustable volume). The rotary dial is part of McIntosh's tradition. I would prefer to have all buttons, but that is not my decision.
Click on the Photo Above to See a Larger Version.
The rear panel has two sets of XLR balanced outputs, one set at fixed level and the other adjustable. So, using the adjustable output, you could, if you want, connect the player directly to a pair of power amplifiers. One of the rotary dials I mentioned controls the adjustable volume outputs.
There are also coaxial and Toslink digital outputs if you want to use an outboard DAC.
Lastly, there are connections to control other McIntosh products, such as if you wanted to have the MCD201 turn on the power amplifiers.
The remote control is a universal OEM version that I see with many audiophile products these days. It is designed to work with all of the McIntosh components, rather than just the SACD player.
The MCD201 is a hefty player because that is the McIntosh way. The front panel is thick glass, and the logo lights up when you turn it on. That is what McIntosh consumers want, including me.