Hooked up a Sony SACD player to our system the other day and popped in one of the newly remastered Bob Dylan SACDs*. Our MSB Link DAC is auto-sensing, and knows what’s plugged into it. Was amazed that as soon as the SACD started playing, the DAC’s signal detect lights went dark and the system went silent. Eh? The player is connected to the DAC via optical Toslink, but analog also goes out for other purposes. Using the player’s remote to enable the CD layer rather than SACD brought sound back, but it was clear the DAC was totally out of the picture (and the extra SACD data was being ignored).
What gives? Leafed through the player’s manual and found a note at the bottom of page 75: “The player does not output digital signal when playing SACD.” Has to be some mistake. Called the nearest Sony store, the salesman was befuddled and gave me Sony’s tech support line. Finally got a guy on the line who understood the situation well. He said this was the question they spent the most time during training learning how to answer. Turns out SACD is encoded digitally, of course, but SACD players do not output digital signal — signal gets forced through the internal DAC and output analog. It’s not a Sony thing, it’s an industry thing.
There are two possible explanations I can think of. One is that the data rate for digital SACD would be too great for current connections, especially with 5.1 or 7.1 channels. In fact, this page says:
Until 1394 Firewire digital interface is available for SACD players and receivers, high-resolution digital output from the player is not possible.
Wow. Either that, or this was an intentional move born out of copyright protection fears, similar to the lack of digital outs from Minidisc players.
The drag for me the consumer is that since my DAC is auto-selecting, I can’t force it to take analog signal if a digital connection is present (even if that connection carries no signal). And that means I would have to either select “Normal CD” on the remote every time I want to play SACD (thus discarding all the extra audio information) or re-cable my system to all-analog.
And you know what? The latter solution doesn’t sound half-bad. Pulled the DAC and re-cabled with a pair of Cardas. Now everything goes out analog. Normal CDs still sound great, and I get all the SACDs have to offer without futzing. Simple is good.
* These Dylan remasters are amazing – it’s like hearing these records again for the first time – so much subtlety buried in the original mixes comes forward. “Ballad in Plain D” — you can hear the air around him vibrating in the studio space. “Masters of War” – I never appreciated how much the mic choice mattered on this recording, but his voice is right inside your head. They’ve done an incredible job. Even if you don’t have an SACD player, these remasters are worth owning.