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Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000

Super Audio? See These

High Grade Sound Investments?

by Jim Bray

Get ready for another VHS/beta-type format war, this time in the high end audio world.

I fell in love with DVD Audio a couple of months back, thanks to their release of Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Brain Salad Surgery." The sound quality is spectacular, even on a regular DVD player that doesn't meet the new multi-channel audio format's specifications.

Well, Sony has decided to push Super Audio Compact Discs, a hybrid optical disc format that also sounds wonderful. Unlike DVD Audio discs, however, you don't need to throw away your current CD player to enjoy SACD's.

Well, that may be overstating things a bit. You can play SACD's on your existing player, but the disc might cry tears of frustration because it isn't being used to its potential.

Super Audio CD's encode a second layer of data on top of the single layer found on conventional compact discs, and they require a so-far-outrageously-expensive SACD player to get the full benefit. The format also uses a higher sampling rate than regular CD's, a frequency response of up to 100,000 Hertz (as opposed to a CD's 20,000), and a 120 decibel dynamic range (compared with 96 dB).

Sony sent me three SACD's to try out with one of their high end players and when my listening tests were done I begged them to let me keep the discs so I could use them as demos when testing other equipment.

Alas, the plea fell on deaf ears.

Anyway, one of the discs didn't work, but the other two (a live album and a compilation of remastered analog recordings) sounded so real they almost took my breath away. They sounded great on a regular CD player, too, but there was something about the liveness, the presence, of the true SACD playback that you could almost feel rather than hear.

I'm not sure it's worth the premium price for the players, however; Sony's players start at about $1200!

Meanwhile. Sony has a product for joggers frustrated by tiny little headphones that keep popping out of their ears as they zip along the pathway.

They're called WEAR headphones, a model of which Sony sent me to try.

The MDR-Q33LP/S aren't the kind of hi-fi headphones you'd use in your home theater, but they'll do a good job hooked into your Walkman, MP3 player or portable CD deck. You can tell they aren't meant for home theater use by the fact that they only come with a mini headphone plug (suitable for portable units or computer drives) and a cord that's far too short for stretching over to the couch.

Which is fine, considering the things are only worth thirty bucks.

What makes these phones interesting is the way they stay on your head. Rather than just being little buttons you shove into your ears as if they were large Q-Tips, each earpiece has its own little clip that swings out and over your ear, holding it into place against the side of your head much the same way eyeglasses wrap around the back of your ears.

They're quite comfortable this way and I imagine they'll stay on your head much better than the little button-type earpieces. I didn't actually jog while wearing them, lest the unaccustomed activity on my part tempt a lightning strike, but they feel quite snug and secure.

Oh, they sound pretty good, too.

Each earpiece houses a 30 mm diameter dome-type driver, which is larger than most "portable" headphones; this means you should get noticeably deeper bass response (the frequency response is claimed to be 18 - 24,000 Hertz, which is almost too much to believe). Also worthy of "note" is the 104 decibel (at one watt of power) sound pressure level of the phones, which means they can play loud enough for all but the most blatant head bangers.

If you're really superficial, Sony even kicks in a couple of extra "caps" which, like hubcaps on your car, change the look of the headphones. The ones I used came with blue and silver, and you can get a total of twelve colors if that's your cup of tea. Whee!

Okay, it isn't a big deal, but what the heck, it's different.

Even the cord is different: it's made of oxygen free copper to minimize electrical resistance - and that also makes it look cool.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.

 

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Updated May 13, 2006