CLASSICAL CORNER ‌ Surround Yourself 

Two new audio formats have confused consumers in fits

I'm a techno-dummy, but it's my business to evaluate the latest classical CDs for the fussy classical geeks and audiophiles of the world. That means I'm obliged to monitor emerging recording technologies. The latest of these are DVD Audio (DVD-A) and Super Audio (SACD): two competing digital surround-sound formats that are creating vast public confusion about which is best.

DVD-Audio is a by-product of the DVD movie boom that first put quality home theatre systems within middle-class reach. Somebody realized that if you removed the video element of a DVD, the liberated digital space could then be filled with music, enhancing the sharpness and detail of its sonic "image" the way that more mega-pixels equals sharper video. DVD-A discs can be played to great effect on most quality DVD systems of recent vintage.

Super-Audio emerged at about the same time, billed as the ideal marriage of digital and surround-sound technologies. But it got off to a shaky start, thanks to exorbitant prices for early SACD gear and a shameful shortage of the proper CDs. Prices have lately taken their inevitable tumble, though, and there's also a fresh profusion of "hybrid" SACDs that can be played on standard stereo systems.

There's actually little difference between the two. Both formats provide distinctly clearer and more detailed-sounding music reproduction. They offer up to six times a standard CD's digital storage capacity, processed through as many as five distinct channels. Given the ambience of true surround sound, the full sonic dimensions of most music are revealed as never before. The improvement is most apparent in complex or "busy" music, especially classical.

The primary difference I've noticed is a higher recording level and more spacious ambience on the DVD-A version. But the sheer range and sonic detail of the SACD bowled me over, too. I wish I could tell you which one I liked best.

Warner Classics is pushing DVD-A for now, counting on the broad appeal of a product that can be heard on any DVD player. But most other labels, led by Universal and Sony/BMG, are hitching their carts to SACD-hybrid discs that work (though not to full effect) on any CD player. Naxos (the world's best-selling classical label) offers both. For now, fresh SACD releases outnumber DVD-A's by a considerable margin.

What should you do? If standard stereo is all you've got, then you simply can't imagine the vast improvement these new formats provide. These days, you can get complete, home-theater-in-a-box systems that will play both formats splendidly (movies, too) for well under $500.

If you're serious about serious music, you owe it to yourself to explore these new media. The sound is incredible, the technology is mainstreaming quickly, and most of us can finally afford it.


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