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January 05, 2009

Discovering SACD with the Denon 1940 DVD

Discovering SACD with the Denon 1940 DVD

SACD Logo




The key point however is that aside from the attractions of otherwise of multichannel audio reproduction, a really fine SACD, of which I have many in my personal collection, has a quality that can be profoundly, moving, that can truly cause the hairs on the back of the neck to rise. For anyone who loves the sound of music, rather than being interested only in the rate at which cash registers ring, this is an absolutely peerless attribute, and the day they lay SACD to rest - if it happens - will be a black one for music lovers, and for the recorded music industry, whose priorities in recent years have become increasingly muddled. (Alvin Gold AV Review)


Introduction

My old Denon DVD player finally broke down just before Xmas. As I only use it for playing back films on a Sony CRT set I was after something which had some basic build quality but I wasn't after anything special. CD replay is through a TEAC VDRS 10 driving a TAG McLaren DAC both of which I had got ex-demo for under £1,000 for both. The combination gives fine quality replay.

For a DVD I quickly decided upon another Denon the 1940 which had received some good reviews. I hadn't realised it was half-price. This is clearly because of the onset of BluRay. Not only does it have component video output - which matched my Ixos cable - but it plays SACDs. I did have a couple of hybrids to test out and quickly ordered some more.  I was amazed at how good the reproduction was. The sound was fresh and lively as well as revealing plenty of detail. I haven't carried out a comparison between the SACD and CD layers but I have heard enough to recognise just how good SACD can be.At £126-00 this has turned out to be a revelatory bargain. This Wikipedia entry on SACD is very informative on the more technical issues.


Why SACD didn't take off

The key problem for SACD seems to have been the format war with DVD-Audio. With CD there came into existence a universal replay system which worked anywhere in the world. Consumers were assured that their investments in both hardware and software would be protcted for a considerable length of time. Few people wanted a replay of the VHS / Betamax fiasco where the inferior system gained the market. Certainly I was one of those people. With a relativly large investment in CD replay equipment a low risk strategy seemed sensible especially as very few discs were coming out on SACD. A sceptical comment in a 2006 review of a high end Marantz player said a lot:


Speaking of which, are there any actual SACD users out there? Given the price of this player, one would expect the SACD market to skew only toward people with large amounts of petrodollars at their disposal. Any opinions in the house?

Marantz SACD Player

A $6,000 2006 Marantz SACD Player



Has Surround Sound Capability Confused the Marketplace?

I held off from the new format for years, until recently I realised that I should just go for a stereo only SACD player (a Sony XB940 off eBay fitted the bill) and not worry about surround. I don 't doubt that having the extra channels may be a nice-to-have, but since classical recordings are always "in front of the players" all you 're going to get from the back is mainly ambience, something you will also have from the front. (From the Gramophone Forum)


I think this is a good point. For those struggling to gradually upgrade expensive stereo systems were often horrified by the potential extra costs which would be to go multi-channel whilst keping the required quality, plus the issue that one's CDS wouldn't benefit from all this potential spending. Certainly I have no intrst in going multi-channel at present.


Who is Producing SACDs?

As far as I can tell the companies which decided to make a long-term investment in the necssary recording equipment have been small dedicated recording companies like the Swedish based BIS. The Wikipedia article comments that the vast majority of SACD releases have been classical, followed by Jazz and acoustic music.Companies like Linn are producing replay equipment as well as its own record label. Tghhere is problem that many music lovers are very sceptical about th high cost of entry into the realm of SACD as this article from the online Musical Pointers shows.


One big advantage of SACDs which are not Hybrids is the normous amount of musical data which can be stored. BIS, for example, has the Complete Organ Works of Bach on a 5 SACD set.


Now is a Good Time to Enter the Market

With the onset of Bluray which can playback SACD there are some good bargains coming up as manufacturers are licensing the Blueray system. The format war has been won and the market will be driven by films. My Denon DVD-1940 at £126-00 is a bargain with the SACD being a fortuitous accident:

Denon DVD 1940 1

The Denon DVD 1940 with SACD Playback


Denon DVD 1940 Rear

Rearview of the Denon 1940. The component video outputs can clearly be seen

Currently the machine is available from Hi-Fix mail order part of Frank Harvey Hi-Fi

I won't be buying a straight CD player again once the TEAC VDRS 10 gives up the ghost - mind you its built like a tank!

Webliography

MDT Mail Order music company guide to SACD

DVD-A versus SACD Ambisonic

Here is a recent discussion thread from Gramophone Magazine on whether there is a Fading Future for SACD

An enthusiastic Gramophone forum on SACD reissues from RCA

A technical explanation on the SACD recording process from Sound on Sound


January 09, 2008

BT and X–Box Team Up

Convergence moves on:Xbox will host BT's TV service

Introduction

This BBC story about XBox from Microsoft linking up with BT's online services is a significant development and an important link up in a week which has seen a blow to Microsoft's X-Box and its support of the HD-DVD standard with Bluray seemingly taking a lead in this area however if you look at my comment about if they don't hurry up online services will make both DVD based systems a bit  redundant seems to have been a well-placed one. Here we look at the process of technological convergence which often means that large companies are doing specific deals with other ones in order to try and get ahead in the market place. No single company has technological dominance across the board. 

What Consumers are probably being offered:

On-demand films and sports content from the BT Vision service will be available via the Xbox games console from the middle of this year.

Desparately  Seeking Audiences!

As usual media organisations are desparately seeking new audiences and reinvestment or repurposing of existing technologies is always a likely way forward:  

Sales of BT Vision have been somewhat sluggish according to critics, with BT signing up around 100,000 subscribers since launching in November 2006.

X Box entertainment hub

How far is the X-Box developing into a domestic entertainment hub?

Whilst it is likely to make the broadband service gain a higher profile for BT customers must sign up for a 12 month BT Broadband contract. Unlike BT's own V-Box the X-Box is unable to deliver recording facilities because of hard-drive limitations.  However as BT are patently aware of this is seems reasonable to presume that some sort of add-on external video recording hard drive will be made available at a reasonable price. For those household s sporting an X-Box or three then it will presumably be marketed as an attractive service for them. As a core marketing strategy of the X-Box Mind you watch this space if a recession starts to take hold, there are straws in the wind about the Chinese economy !)


Did Sony Pay Warner? If so How Much?

Whilst this week's Economist thought that it was 'game over' for HD-DVD I'm not so convinced. Certainly announcement's were pulled at the hugely important Consumer Electronics Show (CES) by Toshiba / Microsoft but that is hardly surprising given the brilliance of Sony's timing of the announcement. Yes I said Sony's becuase I don't believe for a moment that Warner weren't heavily bribed to make not only this default to Blueray but also to make the timing of the announcement to try and deliver a knockout blow against Toshiba / Microsoft. Toshiba had already pulled off the same trick but their timing wasn't perhaps so good: 

Paramount, which had supported both formats, abandoned Blu-ray last year after Toshiba offered it tens of millions of dollars in marketing incentives. (See Economist link above)

At the root of this game is Microsoft. It's X-Box has a much larger base in the domestic environment than Playstation 3. Whilst the Economist points to twice as many Bluray discs being sold in 2007 this is not very many. They are still very expensive. flooding the market with cheap players and ensuring that HD-DVDs are readily available in rental outlets at a low price could still put Sony in the shade. Sany Vaios with Bluray are still very expensive and the technology was hugely expensive. Toshiba / Microfst still have some cards to play! 


January 05, 2008

Blu–Ray versus HD–DVD: Will Warner make the difference

Blu-ray versus HD-DVD: An eye to the future!

For more recent comment please see X-Box & BT Link

Bluray disc


Introduction 

This format war between two sets of industrial giants one gathered around Sony and the other around Toshiba has been chundering on for over two years. As a result any consumer who remembers as far back as the Betamx - VHS battle which Sony eventually lost,- was a case of better technology being sidestepped by better audience and market development strategies from the VHS people. This was financially very irritating for Betamax buyers myself included. Like lots of other people I've no intention of buying into either Blu-ray or HD-DVD as a single player burner until things are sorted out. The same situation has been rumbling on between SACD and DVD-Audio. As a result people have stuck with CDs.

Perhaps one of the exceptions to this rule of the audience staying away until a universal system is established is the iPod. On the whole the iPod is the 'killer' technology and machine which has gained a firm market dominance. But it can play MP3s which are slightly lower quality than AAC so that's an important issue. The iPod buyer has universal access the Blu-Ray / HD-DVD disc player buyer has not. Apart from the cost nobody wants yet more boxes cluttering up the place. If they leave it any longer faster download speeds will make them both redundant! So let's look at the latest story on this competition. The Financial Times  of the 5th of January thinks that a company the size of Warner Bros which is coming down on the side of Blu-ray might make the difference. 

The FT Story

Warner, one of Hollywood's largest studios and its leading player in home video, had been publishing its new high-definition DVDs in the Blu-ray format and in the rival HD DVD one pioneered by Toshiba.

Blu-Ray.Com (Obviously an entirely unbisaed company) is crowing:  

Warner has announced that they will be switching to support Blu-ray exclusively. Warner has been supporting both formats since they were launched, but recent talk from top executives suggested that Warner couldn't continue down that road much longer, and that the all important holiday sales would help them make a decision. With Blu-ray winning every week in high definition sales this year, Warner has decided that The Future is Blu.

"The window of opportunity for high-definition DVD could be missed if format confusion continues to linger. We believe that exclusively distributing in Blu-ray will further the potential for mass market success and ultimately benefit retailers, producers, and most importantly, consumers," Warner Bros Chairman and Chief Executive Barry Meyer said in a statement.

Bluray player

A Blue-ray player. They do hold a lot more date than HD-DVD so there is a distinct technological advantage here.

The New York Times has also made a more objective account of the situation:

Behind the studio’s decision are industrywide fears about the sagging home entertainment market, which has bruised the movie industry in recent years as piracy, competition from video games and the Internet, and soaring costs have cut into profitability. Analysts predict that domestic DVD sales fell by nearly 3 percent in 2007, partly because of confusion in the market-place over various formats.

They go to point to the Betamax / VHS analogy I drew attention to (well I was a Betamax owner!). This is a core point for any media student studying audiences and institutions within the media at whatever level. Audiences are not stupid. Thay want equipment that is going to be universal. Previously both Sony and Toshiba had big names behind them and both have a good lap-top market. As the NYT points out Toshiba still have support but the pendulum is definitely swinging Sony's way! People want to be able to lend and borrow each others records CDs DVD etc. or buy a new machine without having mountains of the software becoming outdated. With Warner on board, Blu-ray now has about 70 percent of the market locked up; Walt Disney, 20th Century Fox, MGM, Lionsgate and, of course, Sony have all been backing Blu-ray. The Warner announcement comes after a marketing war in the USA in the run up to Xmas:

Consumers were inundated with marketing from both sides during the recent holiday season. Wal-Mart, as part of a temporary promotion, offered Toshiba players for under $100. Sony and its retailing partners, including Best Buy, responded by dropping prices on Blu-ray players, although not to the same level. Blu-ray players can now be purchased for under $300.

Well Toshiba could chuck them into its cheaper laptops to be used as HD-DVD burners that would tempt a lot of buyers and keep them in the game perhaps? Their official response was that they were 'quite surprised' by Warner's decision. Well very disapointed anyway! 

Toshiba HD-DVD

With rumours flying about of large sums being offered to Hollywood studios this sounds as though it has been a pretty dirty game. I'm wondering who has got the Chinese and Indian markets tied up though. Increasingly the game is being played ona global basis, both have large cinema audiences and film fans. somehow I don't think the fat lady is going to sing yet.

Mind you I'm biased we've got 2 Toshiba laptops in the house then the Telly is Sony that's consumerism for you.  I don't suppose any of the films I like will come out in either of these formats at an afordable price anyway. Perhaps the real story of the moment regarding technology which is really going to move the world on or not in this case is the fact that Intel seems to be messing up the One Laptop Per Child Campaign! Occasionally its good to keep things in perspective. With most people in the world not having a telephone let alone a computer what is Intel up to? Will there be a FairTrade computer chips campaign from AMD? 

Let's defeat the digital divide: after all "we have the technology" !! 

Webliography

Globe and Mail Article 05/01/08

New York Times 05/01/08  



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