SACD at 15

by John Crossett | August 30, 2014

ACD celebrates its 15th birthday this year, and controversy regarding its merits still exists as much today as when Sony and Philips introduced it in 1999 as a replacement for the CD. Some could with justification claim that the only reason SACD was invented was because the patents Sony and Philips held on the CD had run out, along with the revenue stream that flowed into both companies as a result of the royalties. Both companies had a vested interest in finding a new source of continued revenue. The fact that SACD held the promise of superior sound that many in high-end audio had been clamoring for since the CD was first introduced was immaterial compared to the dollars that Sony and Philips stood to lose once those CD patents expired. Let’s also not forget that SACD was also designed to be non-sharable, thus eliminating digital piracy, another big concern for the music industry.

But it was the sonic benefits along with the SACD’s backwards compatibility -- a hybrid SACD contains a Red Book CD layer along with the high-resolution DSD layer -- that were the answer to every audiophile’s wet dream. Yet, not all quarters of the audiophile world considered SACD a digital savior. Many audiophiles and members of the press saw it as a simple way to help audiophiles repurchase their favorite music again. Others dismissed its multichannel option as gimmickry, while still others decried having to purchase new equipment in order to listen to the new higher-resolution disc. And then there were those who considered the higher-than-CD prices and lack of general-public acceptance a sign that it would never catch on. No consensus was ever reached, even as more and more SACDs hit the market.

Looking back now, we can see so many reasons why SACD never hit it big, and none of them has anything to do with the sound, which has generally been acknowledged as being superior to that of Red Book CD. SACD is still a going concern, although it has been relegated to niche status. But for many of us the SACD is still a viable and worthwhile medium, as witnessed by the continued release of new SACDs by numerous companies. There is also a growing market for used and out-of-print (OOP) discs for those who missed certain titles initially or are just now discovering the sonic benefits of SACD.

Let's look back on some of the SACDs that have been released during the first fifteen years and are now long out of print but still sought after, proving their worth over time. It's also interesting to see what prices those discs are commanding. Some are valuable simply due to their rarity, but many others are commanding top dollar due to their musical content, their sonic virtues, or both. I found most of the following pricing information on eBay, Amazon Marketplace and Discogs. The list below is simply representative of a cross-section of musical types and not exhaustive. It does give a good idea of just how much SACD is still a force in the audiophile marketplace.

Maybe the best-known out-of-print SACD is the first -- and only -- one ever produced by the original Mobile Fidelity before the label itself went OOP, Duke Ellington’s Blues In Orbit [Mobile Fidelity MOB-757]. This is a disc that has everything going for it: rarity, musical content and sonic quality. Thus it should come as little surprise that it still commands top dollar on the used market, mainly because it’s becoming harder and harder to find. I’ve seen asking prices anywhere from $200 to well over $500 on eBay and Amazon Marketplace, and I couldn’t find even one on Discogs. While I find these asking prices to be out of hand, this is still a disc well worth spending the money on if you can find it priced nearer to the low end, because it shows off the attributes of SACD to the fullest. I paid about $50 for mine about ten years ago, and prices have gone nowhere but up since. The only recent sale I could was for $150, so maybe those asking prices aren’t so out of line after all.

Another jazz SACD that seems to be both in demand, at least by audiophiles, and not easily found is Steve Davis's Quality of Silence on the DMP label [DMP SACD-04]. This one is desired mainly for its sonics -- an abundance of air, a sense of space, and tonal rightness. Musically it’s a sparse arrangement that values the silence between notes fully as much as the notes themselves. Personally, I find it musically enjoyable too and a valuable tool for understanding any piece of gear I review. I could only find one sold listing as I was writing this article and that was for $51.75.

Probably the most consistently high prices I found for single discs were for those from the Esoteric catalogue, including Mozart Piano Concertos #20 & #27 featuring Clifford Curzon [Esoteric ESSD-90014], originally on the Decca label. Both of these performances were captured by the great Kenneth Wilkinson, so you know the sound will be first class. But dear Lord, the cost! While asking prices range from a low of $360 to a high of $954 for a single disc, the only one I could find that sold recently went for a mere $100. While Esoteric never released many SACDs before stopping production, most of them sell for prices similar to that of the Mozart.

Among rock/pop offerings, both the Peter Gabriel solo offerings -- all single discs -- and those from Genesis while he was a member command premium prices. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway [Virgin 5195672] is the most difficult of all the Genesis titles to find. The Gabriel solo discs have sold for anywhere from $33 to $99 each (these sold for about $25 new). The Lamb. . . , which is an SACD/DVD set, is very difficult to find, and the prices reflect that. The only one I found that sold recently went for $110.

Then there is the nine-disc Dead Can Dance box set [4AD DCDBOX2]. Dead Can Dance is a polarizing group. Most either dig their music or hate it. There seems to be no middle ground. I love it. The group's melding of so many diverse influences and atmospheric arrangements really engages my brain musically, and the sonics are top notch. The price for the only box set I could find was $240, although the single discs can be had for much less if you only want to pick and choose -- though they’ll run you from $23 to $40 each.

Roxy Music's Avalon [Virgin ROXYSACD-9] is a classic album. Brian Ferry’s voice here is a thing of beauty and the instruments are clear and vivid. It's not easily found, but it is available if you look hard enough. Just be prepared to pay for it with selling prices running from $80 to $130.

T-Rex had a small but dedicated following that has grown as the years have passed. Their album Electric Warrior [A&M Records 493 707-2] was probably their pinnacle of achievement. The original SACD sells for between $60 and $90 on the used market.

Michael Jackson’s Thriller [Epic ES-38112] was a huge seller when it was first released on vinyl. Its SACD release was a big deal as well. I think most of us can hum at least one song from this album -- it was that popular. But the SACD has long been OOP, and if you’re interested, it’ll set you back between $75 and $300, at least according to recent sales. Keep in mind this is a single-layer disc and thus not playable on CD players.

One of the rarest and most sought after SACDs is Groove Armada’s Lovebox [Jive 9230668]. A recent copy sold for $75, which isn’t as much as I would have expected given its supposed rarity. I’ve personally never even seen or heard a copy, so I can't speculate on why so many people want it.

Finally, the original Sony issue of Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic [Columbia CS-57362], another single-layer disc, is also on the hard-to-find-and-expensive-when-you-do list. I found copies that sold from a low of $62 to a high of $82.

As you can see, once an SACD goes OOP, prices begin to rise -- sometimes substantially. Despite SACD’s seeming marginalization there is still a very strong market for used discs. Of course, new SACDs are being produced on a regular basis, from classical (mainly) to jazz and rock/pop. One of the latest variations of the SACD to hit the market comes from Japan -- the SHM-SACD (SHM stands for Super High Material). These are single-layer discs and cost around $60 brand new. For a good look at how many new SACDs are being released on a regular basis simply check out and scroll through page after page of new and upcoming releases.

So the SACD is in its fifteenth year of existence, and despite all efforts to the contrary, it is still a going concern. Not only are there many companies committed to producing SACDs, such as Mobile Fidelity, Acoustic Sounds, ORG, Audio Fidelity, and a host of classical labels, there are the SHM-SACDs that encompass many different types of music. Toss in a thriving secondhand market (provided you can afford the asking prices) and you have an anniversary to celebrate, not lament. Just don’t sit on your wallet if you see a disc you yearn for. It just may not be around -- or the same price -- for as long as you think.

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