SACD which is the common abbreviation of “Super Audio Compact Disk” is a format that was invented by Sony and Philips in the mid 1990’s as an attempt to create a superior sounding replacement for the CD Audio standard. Unlike CD's and other familiar digital mediums like DAT and DVDA the sound contained on a SACD disk is not stored in PCM format but rather in an encrypted, lossless and compressed 1 bit format (or bitstream) that they refer to as Direct Stream Digital (hereafter DSD). The players mechanism and the file system (UDF) is the same as for DVD but processing and conversion is completely different so the players are not compatible with most current digital converters or processors except via analogue links.
This is not due to some conspiracy on half of Philips and Sony as has been suggested, but simply because the data read from a SACD disk is not PCM, hence it is not possible to use established digital interfaces such as S/PDIF or SDIF to transfer digital audio as they are designed for transporting PCM only, there exists however a standard based around the 1394 interface that supports the transfers of encrypted multichannel DSD data between devices and a few consumer devices also support the streaming of DSD data over HDMI, a number of AV amplifiers and players that sport that interface but it is pretty much only to be found in high end devices.
The sound quality of DSD is considerably better than PCM and you may remember digital recorders from the 70's and the 80's made by companies such as dbx corp. that used a one bit recording format that were considered to sound superior to the competing PCM based offerings from Sony and Denon but lost out in the marketplace when the PCM based CD was introduced. It should also be noted that all DSD data on a SACD disk is solidly encrypted, not watermarked as many people think (the now defunct DVD-A format used that method), this means that SACD disk will only play back on a computer as a CD disk even if the computer is equipped with a DSD converter since the data on the disk needs to be decrypted before you can play it and only hardware DSD decryptors can handle that, however it is technically possible to dump the data from an computer drive to a 1394 interface connected to decryptor (e.g. DSD capable DAC or AV amp).
Now in 2012 we have more SACD players available than have been at any time in the past and the market is looking reasonably healthy, however the format is by now an out and out audiophile format with more and more of the music output being classical music, jazz, MOR and other typical audiophile fare and less and less rock oriented music and electronica being seen, in other words you are more likely to find Rameau than Rammstein on SACD, for better or for worse.
This has meant that the budget SACD player has more or less disappeared and with it the SACD capable multimedia system since neither of these types of devices has anything to offer to the audiophile market, however a large number of audio companies in the mid-sector of the market and the Japanese companies in particular are pushing what they somewhat incorrectly refer to as a Stereo SACD player as a replacement for the mid-priced CD player, this is simply a music only player that will play any CD (usually with upsampling capabilities) and SACD disks but only have a 2 channel output. Most such stereo players have proper DSD or hybrid PCM/DSD converters and filters and do not transcode to PCM, but that is not a rule. A few of these are inexpensive enough to make the loss of the budget player something less of a problem, due to their upsampling capabilities they are usually good enough a CD player to make them a worthwhile upgrade to your current kit with SACD thrown in for free so to speak.
The Universal player is a DVD player that is mainly geared towards playing DVD and Blu-ray video but also supports the playback of CD, DVDA, SACD, MP3 audio disks and usually VCD/SVCD video disks as well, with formats originating in the computer industry such as Xvid/Divx/MPEG4 and WM being common also. All of those players regardless of price range support multichannel playback but most of the cheaper ones do not have a proper 1 bit converters built in but rather convert the bitstream into a PCM format and thus loose some of the advantages of the DSD format, making the point of SACD rather pointless if I may say so. As convenience devices or for those that are primarily used as video players they are valid option, however do not expect the same sound quality when playing SACD disks as you get with a hi-fi player, but it should be noted that a small number of budget and mid-priced universal players use hybrid DAC chips that can work in both DSD and PCM modes but the sound quality in DSD mode is not as good as with a separate DAC but still preferable to transcoding.
Note that the universal player is not necessarily universal, the DVD-Audio format is no longer supported on most players and quite a few players do not support some video formats for a variety of reasons, mostly political it would appear but in the case of budget players there may be financial & licensing reasons as well, but just as with the issue of transcoding it is something you should look into when purchasing a player, a "universal" device that will not play a part of your disk collection is a mildly frustrating experience.
Thirdly there is the High End SACD player, those are players made by traditional high end audio companies that are aimed squarely at audiophiles but vary somewhat in execution, most of these players only support 2 channel playback but some of them have multichannel and a few even have video outputs, but those can usually be switched out in keeping with the audiophile pretensions of the device.
Accuphase Replaced the long running Accuphase DP-100 and Accuphase DC-101 in late 2006 with a combination of a transport called DP-800 and a companion DAC called DC-801. The DP-800 is somehting that Accuphase have been talking about introducing for a few years but where really spurned into releasing by the withdrawal of the pro Sony DVD transport that the DP-100 was based around. The DP-800 features an all new high end transport mechanism designed in-house by Accuphase and with the base parts machined out of a slab of metal rather than cast, this makes it more accurate than the older product and more immune to external vibrational influences, but it also makes it one of the more expensive transports out there. The DC-801 in an interesting DAC, first of all it is the first Accuphase product that does not transcode DSD in to PCM but also that the DAC is actually a DXD capable part designed by the company from the ground up, even the basic DSP engine is a custom part implemented in a Xilinx FPGA and in fact all digital signals that are transferred into the unit get upsampled into 5.6 MHz DXD and then converted into analogue signals. The conversion process is done by banks of 2 x 8 DAC chips, with each of the DAC chips being shifted one clock step from each other. They also manufacture the DP-85 player. The company has more recently introduced a new SACD integrated player called DP-77, notably the unit has digital outputs AND inputs allowing you to use the high end converters in the device for other digital units but it also has an option for a SACD digital link.
Alouette Audio Makes the plainly named but exquisite looking SACD player, it's housed in the same nice case as their CDD, but I have been unable to find any reviews of it.
Audio Aéro Has recently introduced the Prestige multichannel high end player that also upsamples normal CD's to 196KHz/24bit resolution before converting , this is not a true SACD player however, there is no DSD D/A converter on board the DSD data is resampled at 88KHz (they do not specify the bitrate) and then upsampled like the CD data.
Bel Canto Designs Makes the PLayer an universal DVD player that supports DVD, DVDA and MP3 in addition to the usual, has multichannel analogue outputs.
Cary Audio Design Makes a high end 2 channel player called CD 306 SACD that has the unusual ability to be able to mixdown data from the multichannel partition on the SACD disk into 2 channel audio although in most cases you would probably prefer to just play the 2 channel partition. The converter specification of the unit is impressive, it can upsample CD's at rates of up to 768 kHz and has a filter for HDCD material, in addition it can act as a DAC since it has both unbalanced and balanced digital inputs in addition to similarly specified outputs, thereby giving your other digital gear the option of using the built in dac and upsampling features of the 306, more info here.
Classé Makes the high end Omega SACD-1 a high end player that uses the top loading Sony transport, 2 channel only but has both balanced and unbalanced outputs for the analogue and digital sections, upsamples CD's to 24bits/96KHz and has a HDCD filter (getting rare these day's).
Daisy Laser This industrial supplier has a SACD module that you can use to build your own player with.
dCS Makes the Verdi a high end SACD transport that has a high speed 1394 interface for connection to an external DAC, while this will hook up to any DCS dac they probably want you to hook it up to a Purcell or an Elgar. The Verdi/Elgar etc. setup from the company is amongst the most accomplished is playback systems on the market, however it is also amongst the most expensive as well, the system is derived from the company's professional range of Dac's and clocks and is and is thus supremely flexible but for the average home user something of an overkill, even if he could afford it. Since average home user is mostly interested in just playback of their music collection the company introduced the P8i but that is a high end dedicated CD/SACD player that incorporates the technology from the rest of the dCS range in the form of the Ring DAC from the dCS Elgar and the DSD upsampling technology from the La Scala but that allows you to transcode the 16 bit PCM data from a CD disk into 1bit DSD format before conversion. The player is described as "affordable" in the company literature, that is perhaps an overstatement, but the P8i is certainly more affordable than the company's other offerings as it retails at something like the third of the cost of the Verdi/La Scala/Elgar setup, more info on the unit can be had here (PDF file).
Denon Their DVD-2900 is a mid priced universal DVD player that has a reputation for an excellent video performance, amongst the best if not the best in it's price range but less so for audio, that is for audition general nb. the player has a full DSD converter, it just has a tendency to sound slightly harsh or bright regardless of media used (in comparison with other players in this price class that is), but should be on your short list if you prioritise video performance, it's stunning making this one of the best balanced choices out there. Recently introduced 2 new universal DVD players, the high end DVD-5900 that appears similar to the DVD-A11-N Japanese model and the budget priced DVD-1400. The company also has 2 dedicated audio only SACD players that are only sold on the Japanese market namely the high end DCD-SA10-N and the more moderately priced DCD-SA-200-N, these 2 are replacements for the high end CD players from the company that also never showed up in the west and are aimed squarely at the audiophile market.
Esoteric Has recently released the DV-50, a high end multichannel universal DVD player that features balanced analogue outputs for the 2 channel section, when this was written it was so new that the only info we could find was the above Japanese link and this first impression that should not be taken too seriously, they also released the DV-30 also a universal DVD player that is around 40 to 45% cheaper than the DV-50 model.
ISEM Audio DVD players The French ISEM company makes 2 high end DVD players that have SACD playback capability, they are in fact more or less the same player that is based around the Philips SD 6.3v platform, but that is a combination of a professional disk transport and a high end video upscaling & SACD processor that Philips sell to manufacturers of high end audio and video equipment.
The models are called Element 1 and Element 2 and the only difference between them lies in the video output circuitry but the Element 1 has a full set of high resolution digital video outputs like HDMI while the Element 2 only has analogue S-VHS and composite video outputs, it is in other words intended mostly as a audio player that has a video output to aid with menu selection of formats such as DTS and DVD audio (not DVD-A) disks that require a DVD player, the removal of the digital outputs is one less source of HF interference inside the player.
A look at the I/O section of the player is enough to convince you that it is primarily built as an audio device rather than an video one but while the Element 1 sports only 2 channel outputs (will play multichannel disks though) those come in balanced, coaxial/cinch and Toslink variants on the digital side and balanced XLR and unbalanced cinch on the analogue side and unusually enough for a DVD player sports a HDCD filter. It is often stated that the Element 2 is for audio only but that is not quite true because you can watch videos off it, it is just that is not its intended usage.
Lexicon Makes the high end RT-10 universal player, apparently based around a Pioneer transport but has Lexicon designed processing electronics.
Lindemann Has the D-680 player, a high quality unit with a Sony transport that has some real high end features such as dual mono conversion and analogue path, the CD portion is upsampled to 192KHz/24 bits and the unit features balanced analogue outputs. Notably this was the first SACD player to the market that was not designed in Japan and it got rave reviews in Germany, was even dubbed the worlds best CD player in one of them.
Linn Makes the Unidisk 2.1 an universal DVD player that supports multichannel SACD playback.
Luxman The first company in the world to manufacture a universal player, i.e. a player that can play back VCD's, DVD's, CD's, SACD's and DVD-A disks, it's very high quality and expensive like most other Lux products. It's a behemoth that features all the high end features that you would expect from the company and is named DU-10, in addition a cheaper model called DU-7 is available in Japan, it's still no slouch all outputs are balanced etc.
Marantz Marantz has the 8400 universal DVD player and the but much more interesting is the SA8260 a multichannel audio only player with discrete channel outputs.
McCormack Manufactures the UDP-1 universal player, it's a high end model but does not have a separate DSD converters.
Micromega Manufactures DVD player called Reference SACD upsampling capabilities for 24bit/96KHz and balanced digital and analogue outputs test here in Italian that compares it with the venerable (but much cheaper) Philips 963.
Musical Fidelity Has the Trivista TRISACD digital inputs, upsamples cd's or other digital data at it's input to 24bit/192KHz based around the "tri-vista" valves, in a limited supply since the valves used in it are rare..
Music Hall Audio Makes the Maverick, this is a 2 channel audio only high end player that features upsampling on the CD section.
Onkyo Makes 3 universal DVD players that support the playback of SACD, note that the links below are to the European specifications, but if you go to the Onkyo homepage you can get links to the specs for other local variants (the differences are not all that great anyway). The DV-SP502 and DV-SP503 are mid range DVD players more info on the 502 here and the 503 here. while the DV-SP1000 universal DVD player 1000 here.
Oppo Digital The only SACD capable player from the company is the DV-970HD which is an universal player more notable for the advanced HD video features if offers for the price rather than the audio portion, although unusually for the price class it does offer an option to turn off the video circuitry if you want to minimise the interference it has on the audio circuitry when playing back CD's or SACD's. Another unusual feature is that it is usable anywhere in the world, the power supply will work with anything from 100 to 240V and 50 or 60Hz and the video output can be PAL, SECAM or NTSC, however there is no SCART output which may make it slightly more inconvenient for use outside of the USA. The unit also has a USB port although what purpose that exactly serves is unclear, more info here.
Philips Has the DVP-900SA universal player that offers quite a few novel features for this price point includes upsampling from CD's to DSD, the ability to turn off all video circuitry for improved audio performance and so on, as a DVD player it supports HDTV resolutions and has and HDMI in addition to progressive scan etc..
Pioneer Under reconstruction.
Primare revealed the DVD 30 in early 2004 and while it's is a universal DVD player at heart, the company has been making lots of noises about the units SACD capabilities.
Revox There are persitent rumours of an updated version of their S 27 DVD player that supports SACD and in fact a number of Russian shops list a SACD capable version but I have not been able to get further details.
Shenzhen Shanling Makes the SCD-S200 player, a reasonably priced model that is still built with audio in mid (separate converters for SACD and CD audio for instance) but the product that has been getting all the attention is the stunning SCD-T200 has both valve based and discrete analogue processing circuitry and output connectors for both that uses Sony's top drawing mechanism and features volume control so you can connect it directly to a power amplifier if you so choose.
Sharp This Japanese manufacturer is usually only known for their budget audio system, however in late 2000 they released the 1. Bit system, a high end SACD transport and digital amplifier combo that took many by surprise, not the least since it included digital transfer of the DSD data between the player and amp, something that has not been available from Sony. It got rave reviews despite being a bit expensive and you can read more about the technology here or just about the DX-SX1 SACD Player. Note that the recent 1 bit microsystems do NOT have a SACD player but a CD unit whose PCM info is converted to bitsream and then to analogue in the amplifier.
Sigmatek Has the XM-400 Pro universal player which is notable for being the cheapest truly universal DVD player ever introduced, but it retail for just over 40£ or 60+€, for audio fans it is also interesting to see that it has a HDCD filter which in turn is almost unheard of on DVD players and definitely a novelty at this price point. Anyhow it supports the playback of both multichannel SACD and DVDA material via the built in 6 channel output but can also downmix to 2 channels if needed, has built in Dolby Digital, Dolby ProLogic II and DTS decoders, the video side is less inspiring but it is quite reasonable in both quality and formats supported (DIVX/WMA/MPEG4/AVI etc.). This is definitely something too look into if you are an AVphile on a budget, this unit is not going to blow anyone's mind but as it costs less than deal at a proper restaurant you cannot go all wrong with it, more info on the XM-400 Pro here.
Sony Under reconstruction.
Soulution The company makes the Model 745 a 2 box SACD player that has a separate power supply, this is a seriously expensive unit introduced in 2010 that is based on the older Soulution 740 upsampling CD player that the company made around 2005/6, it has simply been upgraded with an SACD capable transport and a DSD to PCM upsampling converters (operating at 380kHz). Despite the price reviews have in general been very favourable and there is nothing to fault the unit when it comes to specifications, I/O and build quality, all are excellent, the classy and unusual power connector is in particular notable.
Known reviews: German magazine Hifi & records published a review of the 745 as an update to an earlier article on its 740 predecessor, you can download the article here, in addition the magazine gave the unit an editor’s choice award for 2011 as best CD player. Polish webzine High Fidelity reviewed the 745 and was fairly impressed, read the review here, an English translation done for the 6 Moons site is available here.
Theatris The company's new C-3 high end DVD player/server has support for multicahannel SACD playback.
Van Den Hul Makes the high end Multi Format Player or MFP, this is a part of their new SixCA series of multichannel audio products and it plays MP3 files, a VdH product that plays MP3? Downright weird.
Yamaha Corp. Makes the DVD-S2700, a full size mid end universal player that supports multichannel SACD playback, has wholly separate DSD converters (no transcoding to PCM), supports the transfer of SACD content over iLink (it has 2 1394 connectors) to other devices that confirm to the DTCP standard and unusually enough has bass and volume management for the SACD portion as well as the DVD/PCM portion, although that will only function if you are using the analogue outputs and has some impact on the sound quality. Since Yamaha no longer offer any kind of high end audio only player they have obviously decided to focus on home theatre, however because the audio sideo of things has been improved considerably over the Yamaha DVD-S2500 that it replaced that needs not be so bad at all, the the audio side of the unit sports has a seperate power supply from the video side. The S2700 has a 192 KHz @ 24 bits capable PCM audio DAC although that high a sampling rate can only be utlised with the a few 2 track DVDA or by using the units upsampling function (multichannel DVD and DVDA do not support sampling rates above 96 KHz) it also has all the usual video goodies that you would expect from a player in this price bracket including HDMI, a 216MHz video DAC and a quality video scaling chip et. al. Note that in addition to the usual country specific models there is a "Generic" model available that will work in all countries with an auto transformer etc., it seems not to be sold in most electrical or AV specialists but can be found in stores that specialise in selling internationally and to the "diplomatic community", the inclusion of DSD converters in a universal player at this price range is noteworthy, in fact the only weak point in the whole set-up is the remote which looks like it came from a budget DVD player but that is easily rectified via third party options, more info on the unit here.
The recently introduced DVD-S1700 a slimline universal DVD player is much improved on the video side from the Yamaha DVD-S1500 that it replaced alheough they look somewhat similar and are in the same market segment. Noticably it has a HD1080p cabpable HDMI interface and a 216 MHz @ 12 bits video DAC in addition to a Faroudja scaning processor, the video DAC has a noise saping feature for added quality but that is basically the same technique as dither, a feature herto unseen on a low end video player and all in all the video output quality of the S1700 is getting dangerusly close to it's bigger brother the DVD-S2700. The audio side is more convetional although it has added support for VMA but earlier models supported MP3 only, 6 channel outputs, and DVDA and SACD playback, more info here. The DVD-S657 is a budget priced universal player that supports the playback of both SACD and DVDA in addition to the usual, it has a fairly basic video specification with no digital video outputs, a cheap 108MHz video DAC and no iLink interfaces, the audio side however has been upgraded and now the DAC supports 192 KHz @ 24 bits although it appears to transcode DSD into PCM, but that is to be expected at this price point, it also does upsampling of lower bitrate audio material such as CD's and allows for the video circutry to be turned off if the it is used for audio only playback and features a 6 channel audio output. It does have a few features that do not appear on it's more expensive siblings like the ability to read DVD+R Dual Layer disks and play DIVX disks, more info on the S657 here. And BTW, all current Yamaha players have at the least basic karaoke support, please do us the favour of not mentioning this website and Karaoke in the same sentence if at all possible, we do not want to have to hurt you ...... .
Here are listed music systems that have SACD playback capability, the definition of a music system is rather loose, but to be considered as such it should have at the least an amplifier built in, most systems are designed to provide basically everything needed for a home cinema system bar the visual interface (that's a TV, mate) plus FM radio as well usually.
Philips Makes the HTS3500S/05 which is one of the best such systems seen in the last few years, not surprisingly since it is based around the underrated and now discontinued Philips DVP-720SA and shares all of it's features, more info here.
Yamaha Corp. Makes one system that appears to be only available in Japan, namely the Cinemastation DVR S200, it's actually a quite capable system that I am not sure of why the company has not released in the west considering the popularity of similar systems from Sony, it has a 6x 100W amplifier and a AM/FM tuner section in addition to an universal DVD player that supports multichannel SACD playback and has 4 column style loudspeakers in addition to a centre channel speaker and a subwoofer, unusually for such an integrated system if features a tape output and a monitor input.
Software for SACD comes in 4 variations, the most common one is for audiophile and classical disks is the Hybrid, but in that case the disk comes with a 2 layers of stereo mixes, layer 1 is visible to a standard CD player and contains a standard 16 bit 44.1 KHz PCM data, this layer usually ignored by a SACD player but allows the disk to be played on any CD player. Layer 2 is on the other hand invisible to a CD player but is seen by the SACD player and contains a high resolution DSD stereo track. This sort of a backward compatibility is a first for the audio industry, while there have been formats like Digital Compact Cassette that allowed you to play back old software on your new machine, the SACD player will not only play your old CD's but you can play your SACD's on your CD player as well. This not only allows you to build up a collection of disks in anticipation of a player purchase but also allows you to interchange music with others without any headaches. In the near future there is a real possibility that all full price releases will be hybrid SACD's (This has already happened with a number of classical and audiophile labels), relegating the CD to a role of a budget carrier.
Hybrid Multichannel is by far the most common variety of pop SACD disks and is built up exactly like the normal hybrid disk but in addition to a stereo DSD and PCM mixes as with a standard hybrid release the disk contains an additional partition on the DVD layer containing a 6 channel DSD sound mix, to be able to use that partition you will have to own a multichannel player, but the disk will still play on a stereo SACD player and on a CD player. (NB. At the least one stereo player that I have seen will downmix a multichannel track to stereo but this is a bit silly since the disk already has a DSD stereo mix). Note that the multichannel ability is not tied to any surround sound format, it's just a discrete six channel system that can be used for either discrete set-up or encoded with a surround sound info of any type but due to the popularity of home theatre setups most disk are mixed for common 4.1.1 setups (5.1) although a couple of companies are releasing music mixed for 6.0 or 4+2 (2 height info channels) setups.
Plain SACD disks are 1 layer disks just like most DVD disks and will only play back on SACD players, this makes the disks slightly cheaper to make than the hybrid variants but kills any compatibility advantage that the format has. At the present time only Sony Music is putting out plain SACD disk in the west and most of them are stereo mixes only but the company has recently started to put out 1 layer multichannel SACD disks as well, those disks contain a stereo DSD mix along with the multichannel one so that they are playable on any SACD player, note that in Asia some publishers are referring to plain SACD disks as DSD disks to differentiate them from hybrids. A fifth variant of the SACD format is technically possible in the form of a multichannel only version with only a one partition and no 2 channel compatibility, this would cut down mastering costs a bit but would be a bit daft though and no such disks have appeared.