Sony Launched SACD Fifteen Years Ago Aiming "Small"

Originally written for Stereophile and handed in September, 1999 I recently found this story in a "dusty file" on my computer and thought it worth sharing.—Ed

Before an appropriately small and select New York City audience, Sony rolled out Super Audio CD, a higher quality digital format intended not as a replacement for CD, but as a better sounding alternative for the discerning “high end” audiophile.

Sony president and CEO Nobuyuki Idei introduced the new format by acknowledging that when CD was invented, it was good enough for “most” consumers, but not for the truly discerning music lover.

It was a long overdue admission that brought tears of relief to the eyes of some members of the press (guess whom?) and mutters of derision from those who have invested over a decade proclaiming 44.1/16 bit a “transparent” digital platform.

Mr. Idei went on to describe his violinist past, and how the CD, with its 20K cut off simply couldn’t capture the instrument’s overtones, which he acknowledged analog recording and the LP could. Mr. Idei described the market for the new format and the upscale players it was introducing as “high quality,” and similar to the one for fine watches and vintage wine, a fine example of which Sony served at a post press conference lunch. Mr. Idei also said he expected Sony to make a profit from the format.

Sony also announced a new, lower cost SACD player, the SCD-777ES retailing for $3500- a $1500 drop from the SCD-1. A Sony spokesperson claimed later that the new player would sound “as good” as the SCD-1 with both SACDs and CDs- and that is [very good], indeed.

Five time Grammy Award winning jazz and classical producer Steve Epstein spoke, endorsing the DSD recording format before introducing Wynton Marsalis, who, speaking off the cuff, riffed eloquently for ten minutes about music, recorded sound quality, soul, Louis Armstrong, analog versus digital, technology in general and DSD and SACD specifically. Marsalis said he thought analog had more “soul” than clinical sounding digital, but with Epstein doing the testing he admitted he got it wrong “eight out of eight” tries.

It was an astonishing performance, verbally and tonally, which poor Mike Fidler, Senior VP Home Audio/Video Marketing had to follow. “Never follow an animal or child act” goes the old vaudeville adage. “Never follow Wynton Marsalis at a press conference,” is equally true, but Fidler did his job well, describing how Sony would market the new format in the face of DVD Audio and the gigantic CD install base.

Clearly, having been stung by its overly optimistic and some would say inept introduction of Minidisc as a portable alternative to CD at the beginning of the decade, (from which Sony has recovered by smartly repositioning MD as a cassette replacement), Sony has thought long and carefully about how to position SACD so it can succeed on its own terms at the end of the decade.

Fidler described Sony’s marketing and advertising strategy which includes advertising in the “enthusiast” books and point of purchase SACD software displays in the major retailers such as Tower, Virgin, HMV and the like. Forty SACD titles from Sony/Legacy, Epic/Legacy, Sony Classical and audiophile labels Telarc, DMP, Delos, Mobile Fidelity and Water Lily Acoustics will be introduced this Fall.

Also in attendance was Sony Music head Tommy Mattola who spoke enthusiastically about the new format, though of course, Sony music has also announced it will support the new DVD Audio format. This will be interesting!

Paul Boudreau's picture

Which "it" did Wynton get repeatedly wrong?  Analog vs. digital or CD vs. DSD/SACD?

Michael Fremer's picture

I don't remember. Unclear reporting/writing. 

Paul Boudreau's picture

Ah, no worries - he's a musician - what do they know?  D'oh!

Sort-of apropos:  Remember the ads with Herbert von Karajan touting the "perfect sound forever" of CDs?

J. Carter's picture

It is selling well in the audiphile niche still. All of the audiophile labels put out SACD titles on a pretty consistent basis. People like Mobile Fidelity, Audio Fidelity and Analogue Productions do a great job with them.

Sony really did drop the ball on the format though. They could have made it much more successful if they made all of their discs hybrids back in the day so you didn't have to buy 2 discs to listen to it portably (car, discman etc.). 

Paul Boudreau's picture

I second the dismay that CD/SACD hybrids didn't catch on.  Was it possibly because SACD-capable players never got to "affordable" levels?  I think maybe so.

Billf's picture

I dropped two bills on a Sony multichannel SACD player, only to have the company all but abandon the format. Never got the chance to say, thanks.

volvic's picture

Most people I knew that had pricey systems and heavy investments in CD told me they were not willing to go through the whole process of buying SACD's to replace their existing libraries even for a few favourite titles.  Hi-fi retailers I knew felt the same way, at best some adopted a wait and see attitude.  As good as it was and in some cases it was light years ahead of CD's there was little mainstream interest....too little too late. 

otaku2's picture

I dropped $25 on a Yamaha SACD player at Goodwill. Sounds great.

jahnghalt's picture

TAS and Stereophile stayed "on the fence". I picked up a PS while they were still a print rag and based on their excitment over digital-that-works took a flyer on Sony's cheapie 775 SACD carousel and a few of the new-fangled disks. I was soon a believer and wonder whether SACD would not gotten a better launch if the other two formerly-underground rags had been less equivocal?

Some portion of the audio-enthusiast community want to be told, right?

(nobody who reads this site of course!)

Michael Fremer's picture
He's way into DSD others not so much. It's a huge point of contention within the high end audio community.