Electrocompaniet EMP2 Super Audio CD player.
DATING from the late 1990s, the Super Audio Compact Disc, or SACD, is a curious beast. It probably yields the best audio quality you'll hear outside a concert hall and yet it was developed more to stop audio piracy than to improve quality; CDs can be copied by anyone, SACDs can't.
The music industry figured that like good little sheep we would embrace SACDs and piracy would stop dead.
We didn't, probably because of the other curious point about them. If you listen to an SACD through a great player feeding great speakers, driven by a generous amplifier, the result is stunning. But if you use a basic player, you'll hear little, if any, improvement.
Krell Cipher Super Audio CD player.
Many cheap SACD players are universal disc players; they'll play just about any disc you put in. But while they are jacks of all trades, they are masters of none.
Geoff Haynes at Tivoli Hi-Fi only demonstrates SACD players using Focal Scala Utopia speakers. First Haynes plays a CD, then he puts in an SACD and: ''The whole thing comes to life,'' he says. Mind you, the Focals cost $30,000 a pair, which is probably why his customers wind up spending between $5000 and $10,000 on their SACD players.
Even though SACDs have been kicking around for more than a decade, plenty of people still don't know they exist.
Marantz SA15S2 Super Audio CD player.
Haynes blames this on poor marketing.
In 2001, I attended a demonstration of a new five-channel SACD format in which the folk from Sony said they were carrying out an extensive SACD campaign in music shops. So I went to one of Sydney's biggest music retailers and asked the salesperson what Super Audio CDs she had. She told me they had nothing by that band.
SACDs: What you need to know
SUPER Audio CDs (SACDs) are rare in Australian music shops, although many specialist hi-fi retailers carry stock. You'll find a lot more listed with overseas suppliers (especially in Japan), and they're usually priced at a 20 per cent to 25 per cent premium over regular CDs.
Your CD player - or DVD or Blu-ray player, for that matter - more than likely won't play an SACD; the player has to have an SACD decoding chip, and most don't. But SACD players will play regular CDs.
There's a wrinkle in this, however. A good number of SACDs are hybrid discs. That is, as well as carrying SACD content, they also carry a regular CD stereo program of the same music, which is what you'll hear if you put them in a CD player.
The sound quality will therefore be exactly the same as a regular CD.
But put the same disc in an SACD player and you'll get the far superior SACD recording in all its glory.
SACD recordings can be in two-channel stereo or surround sound, and the discs are marked appropriately.
SACD is not the same as another premium audio disc format, known as DVD-Audio or DVD-A, and the two are incompatible.
THERE are a number of DVD and Blu-ray players that handle SACDs, and there are cheaper dedicated SACD players than this, but this entry-level Marantz player (there are four in the range, going up to $4690) is probably one of the cheapest that does full justice to the format. It's fast, smooth and beautifully designed. What we really like about it is that proper attention has been paid to the headphone outlet to yield the best-possible sound quality there for the money. And there are lots of technical tweaks here to provide accurate and very fast signal handling. It can also operate as a digital-to-analog converter, and it handles MP3 and WMA as well as CD and CD-R/RW.
EDVARD Grieg wasn't the only great music maker to come out of Norway, audio-equipment maker Electrocompaniet hails from up there, too. You can spend much more on one of their disc players than this but the EMP2 will appeal to those who want a single disc player that does everything, including DVDs and Blu-rays at up to 7.1 channels, including DVD-Audio. It's a flexible player that, as well as handling surround, does a beautiful job with two-channel, with a separate balanced stereo output going up to 192-kilohertz/24-bit resolution. SACDs can be played in either stereo or surround, all with the shortest possible signal paths to reduce the possibility of interference.
ACTUALLY, this isn't the most expensive disc player out there - you can fairly easily spend twice as much. But for our ears, it's where the law of diminishing returns hits the wall - we can't see (or hear) the point of spending any more when the sound from this one is so pure. A main reason for this is the digital-to-analog conversion. The vast bulk of players have a single DA converter but this has one for each of the two channels, and these balanced DACs feed straight into current mode circuitry. There is also isolation from vibration and shock. The only thing we don't like about this player is its looks, but Krell has never been into aesthetics. Maybe it's because it's American.
Getting into SACD properly isn't cheap, quite apart from the cost of the discs themselves, but the improvement from CD is tangible. You must, however, be prepared to spend what it takes.