Straining to hear: the benefits of SACD audio

A discussion on a music forum led me to this SACD, on which pianist George-Emmanual Lazaridis plays the Grandes ├ętudes de Paganini. It was recommended as a superb performance and a superb recording.

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I bought it and have to agree. The music is beautiful and the recording astonishingly realistic. Close your eyes and you can almost see the piano hammers striking the strings.

Since this sounds so good, I took the opportunity to explore one of my interests: the audible benefits of SACD or other high-resolution audio formats versus the 16/44 resolution of CD.

I have set up a simple comparison test. While it is imperfect and would not pass scientific scrutiny, I report it as of anecdotal interest.

First I set my Denon SACD to its best quality, without any bass management or other interference with the sound.

Then I wired the analog output from Front Left and Front Right to one input on my amplifier, and the analog Stereo output to an external analog to digital converter (ADC). The ADC is set to 16/44. When played in SACD stereo mode, these two sets of analog outputs should be the same.

The output from the ADC is then connected to a digital input on the amplifier.

Now I can use the amplifier remote to switch between pure SACD, and SACD via an additional conversion to and from 16/44 sound, which in theory could be encoded on a CD.

At first I could just about tell which was which. The SACD sounded a little more open, with more depth to the sound. It was more involving. I could not describe it as a huge difference, but perhaps one that would be hard to do without once you had heard it. A win for SACD?

Then I realised that the output on the ADC was slightly too low; the SACD was slightly louder. I increased the volume slightly.

Having matched the volume more exactly, I could no longer tell the difference. Both sounded equally good.

I enlisted some volunteers with younger and sharper hearing than mine, but without positive results.

I am not going to claim that nobody could tell the difference. I also recognise that a better SACD player, or a better audio system, might reveal differences that my system disguises.

Still, the test is evidence that on a working system of reasonable quality, the difference is subtle at most. Which is also what science would predict.

The SACD still sounds wonderful of course; and has a surround sound option which a CD cannot deliver. I also believe that SACDs tend to be engineered with more attention to the demands of high-end audio systems than CDs, tailored for the mass market.

Against that, CDs are more convenient because you can rip them to a music server. Personally I rarely play an actual CD these days.

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One thought on “Straining to hear: the benefits of SACD audio

  1. David Norfolk

    Well, yes, when I worked in a hifi shop, if one wanted to sell a particular bit of high-margin kit, one simply made it a tad louder in the A-B comparison. This was some 40 years ago and published experiments available then showed that a difference in volume too small to be heard as a volume difference (a dB or so) was sufficient to make the louder source sound “better”… BTW, if anyone ever did this, it was probably (usually) unconscious – the salespeople were all hifi nuts and knew what the customer “ought” to buy…

    But it is worse than that, because if 2 sources have slightly different frequency responses, how do you match the volumes between 1dB or better? You can match the volume exactly at, say, 1 KHz, but if one source has a rising frequency response from, say -2dB at 50Hz to +2dB at 15kHz and the other has a fallling response from +2dB to -2dB (and remembering that the ear’s frequency response isn’t flat) are they equally matched in volume and, if they are otherwise identical, will one be perceived as “louder” and therefore as better quality?

    “I also believe that SACDs tend to be engineered with more attention to the demands of high-end audio systems than CDs, tailored for the mass market.” I believe that too, which means that if you listen to to a dual format CD/SACD the SACD will sound better – thus encouraging one to replace one’s CDs with expensive new SACDs. A happy coincidence or a cynical marketing ploy? Suppose that the CD had been properly engineered in the first place and shipped with a compressed “lo-fi” version for in-car use, would we need SACD??

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