The Great Format War – DVD-A Vs SACD

The consumer is being faced with the most difficult decision with regard to consumer electronics since the days of VHS vs Betamax. A person would spend hard-earned money on one fearing that their choice was to be the one that fades away with time – creating the necessity to buy a new machine and new tapes.

Yes, that same difficult decision between two competing technologies is here with the DVD-A and SACD. Will it be DVD-Audio or the SACD that has a bright future as the primary audio format? What, you never heard of either the DVD-A or SACD? Perhaps you once heard of one, but not the other? Most people aren’t familiar with either format and probably will never be. Yet both have been around for more than a decade now. Yes, I was being sarcastic above – but take a trip over to eBay and do a search for “DVD-Audio” and “SACD” and you will find a number of familiar artists on the unfamiliar formats.

In all likelihood, neither DVD-A nor SACD will ever have much of a following. They have both failed in the consumer market and most people with DVD-A and/or SACD players and discs are audiophiles. Prerecorded SACD music releases rose a bit last year (2010) but are still down quite a bit since their peak years ago. Most SACD releases however are not new music releases but older titles being reissued for the audiophile audience.

It seems that multichannel audio formats are doomed to fail every time. The general public loves stereo, plain and simple – at least when we’re not talking about audio for visual media. Back in the 1970s quadraphonic flopped. Remember the quad 8-tracks? There were also quadraphonic reel-to-reel tapes and even quadraphonic records called Quadradiscs. The newest multichannel failures are DVD-A, SACD, and probably BD-Audio, which means Blu-ray Audio Disc. There is now such a thing.

DVD-Audio

DVD-Audio which is also commonly called DVD-A is a high fidelity digital audio format. Though an extension of the DVD family it does not cover video delivery. DVD Audio first came on the scene at the turn of the millennium and is still in use by a few people today.

The much higher capacity of a DVD allows them to support considerably more music with no loss of quality or vastly increased quality with large amounts of information being able to fit on a single disc. On top of the increased quality and quantity, the DVD-Audio format also offers additional channels for multi-channel effects. Unlike the CD, DVD-A supports everything from mono to 5.1 channel surround sound. The compact disc, on the other hand, only held stereo recordings. If mono music was to be recorded to CD it would have to be converted to “stereo” by having 2 channels with identical material. Multichannel recordings were not possible.

SACD

Super Audio CD more commonly called SACD was developed by Sony and Philips as a High Fidelity audio format for optical media and can support dual-channel stereo recordings and multichannel surround sound recordings. It has been designated as the scarlet book standard as opposed to the red book standard for the traditional Compact Disc. Sony and Philips introduced it in 1999 and were also the companies that collaborated on the original compact disc standard. The original CD has been superseded and surpassed in capacity, fidelity, dynamic range, and stereo imaging by SACD.

As mentioned above the SACD can record audio in both Stereo and Surround Sound and uses a method called PDM to store the information but can also use PCM (the more common way of storing audio digitally – used for the CD, DAT, digital telephone systems, etc). The discs are dimensionally identical to a standard Compact Disc and have the same density as a DVD. It can also stream data at an uncompressed rate of 5.6 Mbps, with a sampling rate of 2.8224 MHz and at a resolution of 1 bit. That is 4 times faster than the Red Book CD.

What the Format War Means to Consumers

Nothing! At least for most of us.

What does it mean for the consumer when a format war takes place between mutually incompatible technologies or proprietary formats? The competition for the same market space can create a bit of pain and grief for the consumer that picks the losing side. Basically, the only thing a consumer can do is to try doing a little research on their own. See how many companies are backing each player and how much the format seems to be spreading. With regard to DVD-A and SACD though, there are numerous “universal” players that can handle both DVD-A and SACD, as well as other formats such as CD and even BD-Audio.

With the advancement of traditional hard drives and now solid-state drives we probably won’t have to worry too much about lots of new and incompatible audio formats warring with each other in the future. But then again, have you noticed how many digital audio file formats are out there already? At least they’re often somewhat easy to convert to other file formats – even if without an improvement in quality that’s promised by a new file format – a kind of backward compatibility.

Both DVD-Audio and SACD offer a higher level of quality and supersede the familiar Compact Disc. Both formats are able to handle multichannel surround sound recordings and both types of players are backward compatible with CDs. With the emergence of hybrid players that can handle both formats the war turned into more of a glaring contest as both formats stalled, unable to grab any real market share beyond the small community of audiophiles. Consumers have basically been turning to the MP3 and other compressed digital file formats rather than buying all new equipment and physical media like CDs and cassettes.