Are SACD and DVD-Audio dead yet?

Ten years ago SACD and DVD-Audio were hailed as the next big things. Everyone thought multichannel music would soon replace stereo, but stereo's still here and 5.1 music is nearly extinct.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
Five speakers and sub for music? I don't think so! Steve Guttenberg

It's interesting. Tens of millions of homes are equipped with multichannel home theater systems, but multichannel music is a dead issue. Stereo rules the roost, for going on 50 years.

Ten years ago it looked like stereo's days were numbered--the two new multichannel formats, SACD and DVD-Audio, were on track to be the next big things. Funny, it didn't work out that way. I cover the subject in detail in my "Whatever happened to 5.1-channel music?" article that appeared in the July issue of Stereophile magazine.

Obviously, 5.1-channel sound makes sense for movies and home theater, mostly because 5.1 was an outgrowth of theatrical film-sound technologies stretching all the way back to the 1950s.

Every attempt to bring surround music into the home without video has flopped, big time. Are you old enough to remember the rise and fall of quadraphonic in the 1970s? What was needed was a surround format that didn't require music lovers to invest in new playback gear. Surely such a format would prove the viability of music surround...wouldn't it?

DTS Entertainment introduced such a system in the late 1990s: the DTS Digital Surround CD. Those 20-bit discs were playable on any DVD or CD player--as long as it was connected to a digital receiver or surround processor. Tens of millions of homes were so equipped, but the Digital Surround CD barely made a ripple.

SACD and DVD-A were much better formats, but the record labels' half-hearted release schedules doomed the formats from the get-go. They never got their rosters of big-name artists to release 5.1 versions of their new titles. Surround releases were for the most part restricted to reissues of back-catalog titles. Most 5.1 mixes were pretty lame and failed to exploit surround's ability to create a more believable three-dimensional soundstage.

After I wrote the piece for Stereophile I received letters from classical musical lovers, chastising me for neglecting to mention that many small labels are still releasing 5.1 channel SACDs of classical music. That's true, but it doesn't change the fact that 5.1 rock or jazz releases are rare.

That said, if you have a hankering to hear surround-sound versions of music by Calexico, Elvis Costello, Eminem, Korn, Dave Matthews, My Morning Jacket, Radiohead, White Stripes, or ZZ Top, you can--all have released terrific-sounding concert videos on DVD-V and Blu-ray. Some of the Blu-rays feature surround mixes in lossless high-resolution Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio. As I said, I don't question the appeal of surround, so long as it's accompanied by video.

7/17/09 update: A lot of SACD fans point to sa-cd.net's listing of 5402 SACD titles as proof of the format's ongoing viability. Looking closer at the site's Latest News section proves the opposite. I note the press release for "SONY BMG Masterworks and Zenph Studios release Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations (1955)" is dated March 20, 2007, and the "Genesis announce plans to re-issue 14 titles on SA-CD" release is dated November 7, 2006. That's the latest news? Yes, there are new classical music titles, but only the barest trickle of new, not reissue rock or jazz music. Where's the new music on SACD?