If you thought recorded music couldn't get any better than CD, prepare to think again. Two competing formats, Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD Audio, are about to battle it out for space in your living room.
The SACD is already on the market, with six machines available from five companies. DVD Audio, meanwhile, is expected to appear late this year or early in 2001. DVD Audio was delayed by demands for a stronger copyright protection system, after the recent hacking of the DVD Video format.
Until now, the bad news about SACD has been that pricing is fairly restrictive. The top-of-the-line model will set you back a whopping £4000, and even the cheapest of the players will cost £1400.
But that's all about to change.
Sony's new SCD-XB9 Super Audio CD player is the first on the market to be priced at less than £700. The machine, which hit the streets of Japan in June, retails for £400, which puts the system within the reach of many more people.
The player accepts both conventional compact discs or SACDs, of which there are about 180 titles worldwide. Titles are largely classical and jazz, although some pop discs, including Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, have also been released.
The format was developed by Sony and Philips Electronics to satisfy demand for a higher-quality audio than CD can offer, and for a medium that can produce more faithfully the "warm" sound offered by analog recordings, where music is not compressed or filtered.
The disc can hold 74 minutes of six-channel audio and uses a system called Direct Stream Digital. In it, an analog wave form is converted to a one-bit digital signal and directly recorded on the disc, bypassing the filtering and Pulse Code Modulation used on CDs.
Untrained ears, belonging to a journalist admittedly somewhat sceptical of the improvements possible over a CD and by no means an audiophile, were impressed by the new machine and format. SACD delivers a noticeably better sound than conventional CD under good conditions.