|Philips SACD1000 SACD/DVD-Video Player|
|Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players|
|Written by Richard Elen|
|Monday, 01 October 2001|
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The Philips SACD1000 is a multi-channel Super Audio CD player that also plays both PAL and NTSC DVD-Video discs (but note it is not multi-region), CDs, Video CDs and even CD-Rs, but not, strangely, DTS CDs. The SACD1000 retails for $2,000.
About Super Audio CD
SACD is a development by Sony and Philips as a successor to the Compact Disc (and competitor to DVD-Audio), but the two companies have taken a very different attitude to delivering high-quality audio. Sony was first out of the gate, but their players were stereo-only and very expensive, aimed at an allegedly still-existent stereo audiophile market in Japan that has all but disappeared elsewhere. Philips, on the other hand, has been adamant that their players would offer multichannel capability from the start: this worthy decision unfortunately delaying availability of machines for a while.
Following on from the Sony preference for stereo, the vast majority of releases of SACD software have also been stereo only. There are more SACD titles out there at the time of writing than DVD-A (and this will rise still further, no doubt, following the recent EMI announcement and news of Universal Music Group’s trial run with the SACD medium), but while all DVD-A discs are surround, only a handful of SACDs so far are multichannel.
Another big difference between SACD and DVD-A is that the former are – at present, at least – decidedly audio discs, not audio-visual discs. There are none of the on-screen menus, graphics, lyrics or additional features that generally appear on DVD-A software: apparently there is a visual area allowed for on the disc but the decision was taken to focus on audio in the SACD rollout phase. This fact also presumably makes audio-only SACDs easier to author.
SACD discs can take three forms: single-layer (one high-density layer); dual-layer (two high-density layers); and hybrid-layer (one HD layer and one Red Book-compatible CD layer). Each HD layer contains a high-quality stereo section (starting at the center of the disc) and can additionally contain a high-quality multi-channel section starting after the stereo. The hybrid disc can be played back either in a regular CD player (which reads the Red Book layer) or an SACD player (which reads the HD layer).
SACD utilizes a completely different kind of digital recording system than other systems (such as CD and DVD, which use PCM – Pulse Code Modulation). Instead of PCM, SACD uses Direct Stream Digital, or DSD. This is covered in more detail in a separate article but suffice to say here that DSD employs a 1-bit bitstream (rather than the 16, 20 or 24 bits employed in PCM, as used by Compact Disc and DVD), and that DSD uses a sample rate 64 times higher than that of regular CD. Potentially, the audio quality should be at least equivalent to, or even exceed, the quality of DVD-Audio at 24/96.
The first thing you notice about this player is its size and weight. It is about twice the height of many players, and it weighs a lot more. It is evident from the construction that this substantial player is manufactured to very high standards, and perhaps not via standard churn-’em-out mass production methods – which means better quality, but higher price, of course.
Quite a few SACD players are still expensive compared to DVD-A competitors (though the latest offerings from Sony are in the same ball-park, starting at around $350), but looking at the build quality of this Philips unit, it is easy to see why. It is a contemporary of my first-generation Kenwood DVD-A player, which probably cost about $1,100, but it is much heavier, more solidly built… and almost twice the price. Other first-generation DVD-A machines (also playing DVD-V) were rather less expensive: the JVC first-generation machine for example, now discontinued (go to Costco to find one for $280), originally cost $800.
Rear panel connections include a 6-channel analog output, which is optional for DVD replay but obligatory for SACD – no digital output is available for this mode, because SACD is not a PCM system and converting it to PCM for a CD-quality digital output would be completely missing the point (you will see why later). There are two analog stereo outputs (which can be set to offer ‘virtual surround’); TOSLink Optical and S/PDIF Coax digital outputs (for DVD replay only); and two composite video outs, plus S-Video and YUV. Apart from that, about the only other thing on the rear panel is a three-position filter switch for use with SACDs.
The SACD1000 behaves almost as two separate players, one for CD and SACD, and one for DVD-Video. On the DVD side, the unit includes a Dolby AC-3 5.1 decoder, which drives the surround analog outs. It will also provide a Dolby AC-3 or DTS data stream from DVD discs to the digital outs.
However, the unit, in a rather surprising oversight, will not play DTS-encoded CDs, even though DTS DVD-video discs can be played back by using an external DTS decoder. This is quite strange, and it is hard to think why. Almost certainly, lovers of surround audio will want to play back anything they can get their hands on and DTS CDs have been around for ages; and it is not a competing format for SACD, unlike DVD-A (consumers would really like to see all players capable of handling both SACD and DVD-Audio, but for that you’ll have to wait until next year). No matter how DTS CDs sound in comparison, why would Philips be so worried when there is a DTS digital output capability from DVD, it would presumably have been easy to provide it, and it would help to point out the supposed superiority of their high quality audio disc format? Apart from this oversight, the player will handle any kind of disc (including CD-R and CD-R/W) except, of course, DVD-Audio – the competition.
DVD-Video performance and functionality
The video quality on DVD replay is exceptionally good on composite and especially S-video: I do not (yet) have a monitor with YUV capability, so cannot report on that. My favorite test movies, "The Fifth Element" and "The Mask of Zorro", both authored by the high-definition unit at Sony (the former was one of the discs that convinced me to enter the DVD market), came across extremely well, with a slight edge over the performance of my Kenwood – but bear in mind that the Philips costs twice as much. The digital audio outputs from the two machines in this mode were indistinguishable, which is as it should be, relying on my Pioneer receiver’s D/A converters.
Many useful features are included, such as automatic aspect ratio compensation. The on-screen display is also very clear and easy to follow, although the control philosophy is a little different from that usually encountered on a DVD player, perhaps due to the difference between European and Japanese approaches to the user interface question. There are several unusual icons and letter codes but they are generally pretty easy to guess the meaning of. The configuration screen allows access to the usual functions, and on the audio front this includes 6-channel speaker sizes and availability, plus delay times – but these settings only apply to DVD-Video replay and not SACD.
When it comes to playing audio discs – SACD or just plain CD – the SACD1000 turns into a different machine. There is a very basic setup screen and some on-screen information when you are playing a disc, but quite honestly you can get all that from the front panel and there is no need to have a monitor connected when replaying audio discs.
One very significant achievement of this Philips player is the ability to switch seamlessly and instantaneously between the stereo and multichannel HD sections of an SACD at the touch of a button, despite the fact that they are on quite different parts of the disc.
SACD and the DSD recording process promise a dynamic range in excess of 120 dB (which is about as good as a practical 24-bit PCM-based system) and noise is certainly not a problem on this machine: any system noise is dwarfed by noise on the original masters if analog, or an open mic preamp on the recording console. SACD’s frequency response extends beyond 50 kHz (according to the write-up in the SACD1000 manual, which might be considered by some to be a bit conservative: there has been talk of SACD going up to 100 kHz in some cases, and in theory there is no reason why not). This would give SACD a more extended frequency range than DVD-Audio discs with a 96 kHz sample rate (where the response would end a little under 48 kHz) but less than that of a 192 kHz DVD-A recording (which would be stereo only and extend up to just under 96 kHz). However, while there are several SACD multichannel recordings out there, there are so far few DVD-A recordings originated at 192 kHz to make that comparison.
Not all sound systems may be able to cope with the high frequency energy that accompanies a DSD recording. Reports suggest that some Mark Levinson gear, for example, has failed as a result. It has been debated whether or not this is due to actual high-frequency signal content, or to the presence of high levels of out-of-band noise produced as a result of the heavy noise-shaping curves employed in DSD. It is also highly likely that claims of potential damage are greatly exaggerated. In any event, the Philips SACD1000 includes a rear-panel filter switch to deal with possible problems. According to the manual, the three positions offer a 40 kHz rolloff, a 50 kHz rolloff on the front speakers and 40 kHz on the others, and 50 kHz rolloff all round. This seems a little odd: one would have thought that an extra 10 kHz wouldn’t make much difference between your system working and blowing up, and indeed the data sheet for the product refers to "filter on" and "filter off" responses, the former going up to 40 kHz and the latter 100 kHz, which is more like it. My very ordinary system did not fail in any position. I might possibly have noticed a little more high end on high frequency instruments like triangle, bells and stuff as I switched between 1 and 3, but equally I could be fooling myself.
There is no means of configuring the analog outputs in SACD mode, which in particular means no bass management. The SACD system takes the idea of all channels being full-range very seriously (all channels in DVD-A are also full range, but generally there is the capability to define the size – i.e. bass management – and position of speakers, just as with a regular DVD-video player). Whatever the reasoning behind this decision, it will be a nuisance to many listeners – and it should be noted that the latest $350 Sony SACD surround player has perfectly adequate bass management built in.
Most surround SACDs seems to display as "3/2" which means three front channels and two surrounds, but sometimes you see "3/2+1" which presumably indicates something on the 6th channel. This may not always be a sub feed: one of the discs I have is a Tom Jung recording in which the sixth channel is used for height, and I will be listening to it as soon as I have successfully hung a speaker over my head.
I’m all in favor of using the LFE for something sensible, such as an overhead. There is no need for a Low Frequency Effects channel: a) in music as a whole, where neither dinosaur footfalls nor asteroids hitting the Earth are normally part of an orchestral or even heavy rock (sorry) arrangement; and b) when you have all your channels capable of handling the full frequency range, as is the case in both SACD and DVD-A. I am not, however, in favor of omitting bass management – which, when present, means essentially that whatever low bass there is on any channel will be routed to any speaker or speakers that can handle it.
If you are like me, the analog 5.1 input on your receiver is essentially left alone by the manufacturer as much as possible to maximize the purity of the sound. If the player’s 5.1 output doesn’t have bass management either, then in my case you have the possibility of heavy bass being fed to my relatively small CF or surrounds and not either to my sub or to the large front speakers, which could handle it.