Charles Arthur On Technology

The new audio revolution

If you bought Elton John's
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on vinyl, and then CD, you're just the person the record business is looking for. They'd like you to buy it again, please - but this time as a Super Audio CD (SACD), remixed with cinema-style surround sound and requiring a whole new player.

If you bought Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on vinyl, and then CD, you're just the person the record business is looking for. They'd like you to buy it again, please - but this time as a Super Audio CD (SACD), remixed with cinema-style surround sound and requiring a whole new player.

You might think this is just a cynical marketing ploy. But the industry has proved to itself that it can work: when Pink Floyd's classic 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon was reissued recently as a SACD, "sales leapt from 150,000 annually to 700,000", says Dirk de Clippeleir, the managing director of Universal Music in Belgium.

Most of the buyers so far are owners of home theatre systems that can recreate the higher-quality sound that SACD produces. And they tend also to be the baby-boomers who are happy to re-buy albums from their youth such as T Rex's Electric Warrior, available remixed on SACD.

SACD offers improved sound: the surround effect is interesting. On Elton John's album, the backing vocals and guitars on "Candle in the Wind" are routed to the speakers behind you, giving the feeling of being inside the studio where the song is being played.

But it's not just old albums that are appearing on SACD. Urged on - and with a multimillion-pound investment - by the record labels, who have a very definite agenda for the new format, modern artists including Snow Patrol, Groove Armada and Beyoncé are also producing SACD albums. The reason the music business is putting in all this money is that the introduction of the format is part of a wider plan that would - if they get their way - see the 21-year-old CD format eventually abandoned in favour of SACD. The reason: pirates cannot crack or duplicate SACD discs.

"The ultimate aim is that you switch to the protected SACD format," says De Clippeleir. "What we need is a new format that protects us against piracy. If this format takes off like DVD films did, then there's five to seven years and we could say that you could release everything like that. The industry is in a phase of testing, experimenting, looking for a solution to the [piracy] problem."

But privately, record executives admit that they have only two years to get buyers to adopt the new format. The big labels will abandon it if, after that period, the new technology fails to push up their sales.

The alternative is that SACD will join the graveyard of music formats, following such things as 78rpm vinyl, 8-track cassette, and the short-lived Dataplay format, which arrived, hyped by a Britney Spears release, and then disappeared two years ago. Some wonder whether it will ever be possible to stop selling CDs.

"I don't think the consumer will ever wear it," says Philip Hobbs of Linn Records, which is making both SACDs and SACD players. "There are one billion CD players out there already in the world. They can't play SACDs. To lose access to all those at once is unthinkable."

Such frankness is rare. But stopping piracy is still the record industry's biggest obsession. Current estimates by the International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI), which represents global labels, suggest that one-third of all CDs sold are actually made by pirates.

"We have to try to protect something out there," says Hobbs. "This sound is better quality, it's surround, and is protected. We're giving people something that's clearly superior. SACD is just getting to the stage where its artistically interesting." Producers are becoming interested, and now acquainted, with the potential that surround sound offers.

However, the industry's ambitious scheme to solve its problems in one fell swoop faces two serious obstacles. The SACD format was developed more than seven years ago. While it has been creeping to the market, the widespread arrival of the internet and cheap computers means people are "ripping" music from CDs to put it on to portable music players such as Apple's iPod player.

But "ripping" is impossible with the pure SACD format. Is that good? In an ideal, music-executive-led world, yes. But in the real world, where most people simply don't care about better sound but do like being able to move their music around as they wish, you can't foist a new format on people, and certainly not one that immediately makes obsolete both their existing players and kills off the new-found convenience of carrying thousands of songs around in a pocket.

That has forced executives to accept that the only way to sell SACDs is to produce so-called "dual-layer" discs that contain both the SACD and CD formats. Ordinary CD players will not "see" the SACD part of the disc, and so can play the music ordinarily. But the new generation of SACD player detects the extra format, and plays back the surround-sound music.

The other problem is a rival "better" format, being pushed by Warner Music, called "DVD-Audio". It too produces surround-sound music with higher quality, and is also being pushed as the solution to piracy. And its existence is confusing buyers - who sometimes think that the discs contain films.

Even though there are fewer DVD-A releases than SACDs - 700-odd against 2,000 - both are dwarfed by the number of CD releases every year. "SACD is going like CDs did initially," says Steve Gallant, the product director for HMV Europe. "But dual-layer discs mean it can play in CD players too. That's a huge advantage."

Yet is all this focus on physical things also missing the point? At the launch of Napster's UK music download site last week, its chief executive Chris Gorog forecast it would lead to the end of high street stores in a decade. (Then again, a little hyperbole always makes for a quotable event.) If he's right - even slightly right, so that some big-name artists appear only on single-layer SACD, and online, but never in CD format - we could be heading towards a world where to listen to music at good quality you have to buy the same track twice.

Worrying? Not for the record executives. But perhaps for the buyers, even as they enjoy the sound quality and surround sound of the guitars on their latest purchase.

Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice