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From Our NOS Files: "The Higher End – SACD: Mic Feeds and Master Tapes for the Masses!"

01-03-2024 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 131

From Positive Feedback, Volume 8, No. 1, late winter 1998/early spring of 1999...

For the record, I have not changed my appraisal of DSD and SACD since I wrote this back in the wee hours of 1999. To my knowledge, Positive Feedback was the first audiophile publication to go on the record supporting DSD/SACD, and we have continued to do so ever since then.

Dr. David W. Robinson, Editor-in-Chief

"David, I have heard the future!!!"

– Mike Pappas, CES 1999

PF's Mike Pappas talks with Ed Meitner during the very first VSAC in 2001

Mike Pappas listening to master DSD recordings from MO discs in Ye Olde Editor's listening room during a visit in 2001

Now there's a title to stir the waters with...


If audio has had a "holy grail" over the decades, it has been to pass along as much as what comes through the mic cables and into the booth to you and me. At first glance, this sounds like a relatively simple thing - just make a recording, in one form or another, make duplicates of it, and distribute the copies to the consumer.

Then again, if you've ever made a copy of a record/ tape/CD/movie (of course you have!), whether on open reel, cassette, DAT, or CD-R, you may have noticed that the copy usually doesn't sound like the original. As a matter of fact, it usually sounds worse...sometimes much worse. Analog(ue) builds up layers of noise floor in either audio or video formats; digital experiences jitter and phase distortion.

You're not alone. I've spoken with a number of audio engineers over the years who could "amen" the feeling.

There's nothing like crafting a masterful recording, sending it out for mastering and production—only to yell "yuck, what the hell happened here??!!" when the final discs return.

Whether it was going from analog(ue) master tapes to LP, or from digital master tapes to 44.1kHz/16-bit, the result was the same: dismay at what got lost along the way.

A brief summary:

Open reel tapes were popular in the 50s and early 60s, and produced sound that was superior to all other sources at that time, but they were difficult and expensive to mass produce, as well as daunting for the average consumer to use. So they didn't...apart from the studio, this never made it beyond being a niche product.

Turntables had been the classic delivery system for decades...from the 1920s on. With the advent of the LP shortly after WWII, and then stereo in the mid-50s, the public had a standard that had reasonable fidelity (though not as high as open reel) and was easier to handle. On the downside was the fact that LPs were relatively fragile, were difficult to master to the full dynamic range of tape, and had a number of non-linearities and problems peculiar to the format.

Audio cassette tapes were much easier to handle and produce, but did not have the superior capabilities of open reel tape, and had a noticeably high noise floor. The very small tape area and low speed meant that an awful lot of music wouldn't be able to make it onto tape. It was popular though, simply because it didn't "tic and pop."

Then came CD. With its digital format, analog(ue) noise floors, tics 'n pops would be a thing of the past, to the (eventual) delight of most people. It was convenient, it was robust, it was durable...just what the doctor ordered.

On the other hand, audiophiles noticed that CDs sounded rolled off compared to analog sources, brittle, sometimes quite harsh. As years passed, we have discovered jitter, argued about phase correctness, and debated quantization error, anti-aliasing filters, analog(ue) sections, power supplies, tweaks, cables, one vs. two box setups...a long list.

In our last issue I mentioned the arrival of 96/24 PCM DVD, and also discussed PF's trip to Mobile Fidelity to hear the DSD based GAIN 2™ system (HERE). Readers will recall how incredibly impressed I was with that experience.

Since that time, several key members of PF's senior editorial group have gotten a chance to spend much more time exploring Sony's ultra-high sampling rate bitstream system, DSD, and its consumer release format, SACD ("Super Audio CD"). Both in listening sessions at CES 99 (reports in our next issue) and in recording sessions in which PF editors got to make recordings with DSD, we have gotten to assess Sony's DSD/SACD technology as a candidate standard for the next generation of ultra high-resolution digital audio.

Our conclusion?

SACD is without a doubt the finest mass production audio format that we have ever heard. We say this without qualification. Its advent will be absolutely revolutionary.

SACD's capabilities far outstrip that of 44.1kHz/16-bit CD...so far, in fact, that it renders the "standard CD" completely obsolete as an audiophile reference benchmark. It even raises questions about 96/24 PCM, or indeed, any PCM.

I do not make these comments lightly. I know that many in high-end audio have been laboring to make 96/24 (or higher) PCM on DVD the new standard.

Nevertheless, our experience with DSD/SACD has convinced us that this new format is superior, and ought to be the next standard for audio engineering, audio archiving of our precious master tapes, and audio mass production.

Having heard it, I can say that DSD/SACD can finally deliver the "holy grail."

Mike Pappas heard SACD and exclaimed, "David, I have heard the future!!!"

I think that Mike is right. I think that DSD/SACD will finally bring mic feeds and master tapes to the masses.

Sony is planning to release SACD in the USA this fall.

And a revolution will begin...stay tuned for much more on DSD/SACD, beginning in our next issue.

Stop the presses!! Just as we were going to press, Kavi Alexander of Water Lily Acoustics called to say that he had just completed a remarkable recording project with the Philadelphia Orchestra. For the first time in many years, a major American orchestra was recorded using only a Blumlein pair in MS configuration! Kavi said that the new recording had turned out wonderfully, and would be released to SACD, 96/24 DVD, and LP.

Review samples will be sent to PF as they become available; look for an interview with Kavi by Mike Pappas later this year.