Find out about the best SACD players, and what you need to know before buying...
Basically an SACD player is a CD player that can play SACD disks.
SACD stands for Super Audio Compact Disk. These are different from normal CDs in that they can store much more information than standard CDs, and so the music recorded is at a much higher resolution - it should sound better than a normal CD.
But, you need a special CD player to play SACD disks. You need an SACD player. If you already have a huge collection of standard CDs, don't worry! All SACD players can also play normal CDs.
SACD is not just a "hotted up" version of conventional CD technology. It actually uses an entirely different method of sampling and storing music. For those of you with a technical interest, it's called Direct Stream Digital, or DSD. Normal CD players use what is called Pulse Code Modulation, or PCM
What's the difference, and does it matter?
DSD samples the music at a much higher rate than PCM (actually 64 times higher). Theoretically this should result in a more accurate recording. But in real life there are some other factors that come into play.
Does it sound better?
In theory it should. But there are so many factors involved in music recording that it is impossible to say that SACD will always sound better than the normal CD version.
What to do?As always with recorded music, you'll have to listen for yourself and make up your own mind.
The best way to do this is to get hold of SACD and normal CD disks of the music you're interested in. Then listen to short sections of the music from each disc, using an SACD player.
Just listen to one disk for a minute or two, then listen to the same passage from the other disk. Do this several times. Ideally, you should have somebody else switching the disks for you, so that you don't know which version you are listening to. Only then can you really tell if the recording you want is better in SACD format than normal CD.
Happily, all this makes one decision simple for you: it's definitely worth buying a good quality SACD player, because it will play both CD and SACD disks very well.
Your difficult decision comes when deciding whether to buy your recordings in SACD format or normal CD format.
Speaking very generally, recordings from specialist audio companies such as LINN will almost always sound better in SACD format, because they take so much trouble and care over their recording techniques. But this is not necessarily true of all recording companies.
As you might expect, most of the "big names" in audiophile home audio have an SACD player on offer. Let's take a look at what's available at three different price levels...
Entry level: (Under $2000) To dip your toe into SACD player water, look for the Denon 3910, or the Sony 9100ES. Both are around the $1300 mark. NAD from the United Kingdom ask a little more for their M5 player, around $1700.
Mid-level: ($2000 to $8000) Respected manufacturers in this price range are Luxman with the D-05 and D-06 players, and North Star Design's Sapphire.
Top-of-the-line: (Over $8,000) The heavyweights here are the Krell Cipher, the McIntosh MCD 1100, and the Mark Levinson 512.
Esoteric also have 2 players at this price level, the K-03 and the K-01. It's interesting to see that Linn has stopped making CD and SACD players, but I'll come back to that in a minute!
Back to Linn. Linn Products in the UK no longer manufactures an SACD player, as they believe they can get higher quality sound from streaming sources rather than any kind of disk.
Their Unidisc player had a fantastic reputation from around 2002 to 2010, so it seems strange that any company would kill a product that was so well regarded. Here's what the sound engineers at Linn are now saying:
They believe that any kind of mechanism or movement in music reproduction introduces errors and distortion to the sound. This seems rather bizarre coming from the company that started out producing record decks to play vinyl LP disks!
There are several aspects to their new point of view: any disk drive machinery requires an electric current, whether it's for an LP, a CD or SACD. No matter how well the player mechanism is engineered, this small draw on electric current interferes with the electrical supply to other components in the sound reproduction chain.
Next, Linn have "fallen out of love" with the basic concept of CD players recovering information on the disk surface by laser.
There are always errors in the reading process. All CD players have error correction processes, but these aren't perfect. As the digital information floods off the reader head, the error correction process can't keep up, and so errors creep in, and the software has to guess at what happened where a bit of information is missing. Bad thing.
Here's the really interesting bit... Linn claims that you can rip a CD or an SACD to digital format onto one of their music storage devices (ie. Linn Majik DSM); then, that track can be compared to a studio quality file online (because the storage device must be wired up to a broadband internet connection).
Any errors are corrected, and when you come to play the music, the storage device is simply reading a digital file. No movements, no mechanisms, no laser heads, no vibration, and all the error correction has already happened. Result? Linn claims that the result is the best music reproduction possible.
If you are cynical, you might suspect that Linn has done this simply to promote sales of its own music storage devices. But given the company's reputation and commitment to great music, my own feeling is that this is probably the way forward.
So what's the catch?
As always, you're going to pay more for the best. Linn systems (or any system that works this way) will be relatively expensive. And, for this to work, you will need access to a reliable high-speed internet connection.
Don't worry, you don't have to decide right now. Or even this year. If you have a large collection of CDs and SACDs, you might simply want a good SACD player to get the best out of them for now. You can go the Linn route anytime in the future!
So, if you have a big collection of CDs and you don't want to rip them to digital format, it's a good decision to look at getting an SACD player. But remember that SACD recordings don't necessarily mean better sound - as always, you have to make up your own mind about each individual recording. Listening to the products from an audiophile recording company is definitely a good start!
You might be interested in normal compact disc players, which are a lot cheaper!
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