Tag Archives: music industry

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 études de Paganini. It was recommended as a superb performance and a superb recording.


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.

2010 a bad year for UK music sales as CDs decline and paid-for downloads fail to compensate

The BPI has reported figures for 2010 music sales in the UK. In brief, digital (download) album sales increased from 16.1m to 21m (+4.9m); but CD sales declined from 112.5m to 98.5m (-14m).

To be fair, the “singles” market – that is, individual tracks downloaded – rose from 152.7m to 161.8m (+9.1m). If an album contains on average 12 tracks, that would be roughly equivalent to another 0.75m albums. CD single sales are tiny at 1.9m.

Overall it is still a significant decline. What is most worrying for the industry is that CD sales still dominate – there were 4.5 times as many CD albums sold as digital. Anyone can see that the CD market is in severe decline. Shops that stock back-catalogue in depth have disappeared from many high streets, leaving this market to online retailers like Amazon.

The BPI says piracy is the core problem:

Despite unprecedented demand for music, and strong innovation offering consumers new ways to access music online, legal downloads are unable to offset the decline in CD sales because they are dwarfed by illegal competition.

While this may be true up to a point, another way of looking at it is that technology is making the old purchase model for music obsolete. Digital music is so easy to acquire and share that it is hard to persuade people to pay per-track or per-album. It is also a rather poor deal for the purchaser, in that they get no resale rights or tangible goods.

The BPI does not mention it; but another thing I see frequently is where someone buys a CD, rips it to their hard drive, and then sells the CD on. This also costs the industry a sale.

Old-style piracy is a problem too. The market for Beatles Remasters box sets was badly damaged by far east copies, available in bulk for a fraction of the price. There is no easy way for a customer buying online to know whether or not they are getting the real thing.

Instead, the business model that makes sense is a subscription like that offered by Spotify. There is no pretence that users own the music they listen to: rather, they play what they like where they like, choosing from a vast online catalogue.

Apple seems resistant to the idea though, which is understandable since it does so well with its existing iTunes store. And even if subscriptions do catch on, there is no guarantee that the revenue will equal that of the old days of the CD.

Those days will never return though; and the industry should get behind the streaming model as it is so good for their customers. It also has the advantage that they keep paying, whereas people tend to stop buying music once they feel they have enough.

See also: Mark Mulligan’s post about the death of physical media products.