SACD or DVD, that is the question

The race is on to standardise a format for our future listening pleasure.

Sony has made a strategic foray in the war to find a worthy successor to the CD format, announcing European launch dates for the first Super Audio CD players -- the SCD-1 and SCD-777ES.

Super Audio CD (SACD will compete head-on with DVD Audio to become the next generation CD replacement, and is the first consumer audio format to use Sony's Direct Stream Digital (DSD) technology.

DSD uses a 1-bit signal to record source music in digital format. This gives a theoretical playback range of up to 100KHz -- compared to CD's 44KHz -- and a dynamic range of over 120dB.

Sony is targeting both players at high-end audiophiles, who are less likely to flinch at the hefty $2,500 (£1,525) price tag. A Sony spokeswoman described the typical purchaser as "someone who likes fine wine, drives a Ferrari and wears designer clothes."

This is where SACD's rival format, DVD Audio, may have the advantage with it's appeal to more down-to-earth users.

"DVD Audio could become the mass market system, due to the availability of cheap players," said Andy Clough, editor, What Hi-Fi magazine. "Especially as Philips has already announced plans to launch DVD players that will play all three formats."

Disgruntled Japanese manufacturers such as Matsushita, which owns the Panasonic brand, are also pushing for the DVD Audio format to become the standard. They are tired of paying royalties to Philips and Sony -- who developed the standard CD format -- for every CD player manufactured.

However Sony believes that DVD Audio will only prove important for feature films.

"DVD Audio is at the end of its life, it's just an extension of DVD video," said a Sony spokeswoman. "What's more we don't even know if it will be forward and backwards compatible."

Clough believes that "in the end it's all down to the record companies." Although Sony is obviously supporting the product, releasing fifteen titles for the launch and a further ten per month thereafter, there has been little support so far from the rest of the record industry.

"The day I see the whole of the Top 40 in SACD is the day that I'll believe that there is a mass market for this product," said Clough. "The key thing to remember is that all players will be backwards compatible with today's CDs, [so] you're not going to have to chuck out your whole collection."

The SCD-1 will be available in October and the slightly cheaper SCD-777ES in November.