Category Archives: Digital Pages

Digital distortion in a purely analog signal path.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is an enigma.  He plays with all sort of digital gear and tools to create his music and distort guitar riffs so they are “just so”,  Then he records the end result on 2″ analogue tape.  Drop the needle on a faithfully released version of Pretty Hate Machine or The Downward Spiral and you will likely be surprised by the sound quality from what is mostly digital sources (though there are still plenty of pure analogue sources in the mix).  So how can music that was produced in the 16 Bit digital era of the 90s, have digital sources, and yet sound so good?…

The answer is deceivingly simple.  Digital wasn’t the recording method, but rather the source of the music itself.  Then Reznor went to traditional analogue recording methods to create the master tapes.  This sounds counter-intuitive, but it really isn’t.  Unlike Daniel Langois, who recorded the analogue sources from U2’s sessions on 16-Bit DAT tapes, thereby destroying the sound quality forever, Reznor created his music mostly in the digital domain then faithfully recorded it on high quality analogue master tapes.  Digital distortion was his favorite creative medium, but he obviously recognized the inability of the 16-Bit digital tape format to faithfully record his digital compositions.

NIN is a very progressive band in all respects.  What’s interesting is how progressive they were by refusing to adopt the “latest greatest” digital technology that reared it’s ugly head in the music industry during the era of their greatest popularity – 16-Bit Digital Audio Tapes (DATs) (The “Dark Ages” of High End Audio).  If you listen to any of their music, past or present, you can immediately tell it was recorded in the analogue domain.

By their own design, NIN creates a very interesting mix of controlled distortion.  Trent Reznor talks a lot about how his form of artistic expression is in the realm of distortion.  Other “old school” bands incorporated distortion into their music of course.  Just listen to any live performance of The Who and you will hear intentionally created analogue distortion all over the place, often created by destroying electric guitars on stage.  But Trent Reznor has taken the concept to an entirely new level by utilizing computers to create, control, and refine it digitally.

What’s fascinating is that, with the revival of vinyl records (The new (old) gear coming out), NIN’s albums are now available and faithfully reproduced from the original analogue tapes on vinyl.  So… for the first time in history, we get to hear his intentional/artistic, digitally created distortion faithfully reproduced with an all-analog signal path.  How cool is that?!

What is a “reference recording”?

You will hear me speak of “reference recordings” a great deal in this blog.  These are go-to recordings I use to compare and contrast sound quality when evaluating new gear and/or tweaks I’m making to an existing system, room, speaker placement, etc.

My reference recordings have a few things in common, such as phenomenal dynamic range and a large variety of instruments and nuances of musicality.  They are typically recorded by the most fastidious sound engineers in a fashion that provides reproduction as close to the source as possible, though there are also some “happy accidents”.  With precious few exceptions, they are fully analog recordings.  Which mean’s they are vinyl records (side note – some exceptional recordings were released from the original analogue master tapes directly to reel-to-reel analogue tapes, but these were the exception rather than the rule).

I also have a few digital reference recordings, and they offer the best sound quality I’ve yet heard from the medium, such as: Blade Runner Soundtrack from Vangelis (DSD), Whites Off Earth Now by The Cowboy Junkies (DSD), and a sample track from Blue Coast Recording called “Cali” (Direct to DSD).

The Blue Coast reference is an obvious candidate since they went to great lengths to go from purely acoustic sources in an ideal studio setting captured by some of the best microphones ever made (rare and hand-crafted by Didrik) directly to a native DSD master file.  No PCMing or digital mixing.  Just the original goods.  No more, no less.  But this left me wondering why the other two digital  recordings were so good…

A little research showed that, due to budget constraints, Whites Off Earth Now was originally recorded directly to analogue master tape in a garage using a single ambisonic microphone.  This is far harder for the band to perform, sort of like the Direct to Disc (If one format is better than another, why doesn’t the music always sound better?…) titles offered by Sheffield Labs back in the 70s,  This was one of the happy accidents where their low-budget recording method resulted in a raw and visceral quality that would have been lost in an expensive recording studio.  Then Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs later did their digital magic by carefully transferring the music  directly to DSD from these original master tapes (once again, no digital mixing).  On a good system that is properly set up, it really does sound like you are there in the garage with the band.  Sometimes less is more.  This is clearly one of those times.

As for the Vangelis Soundtrack, there were many deliberate coincidences.  The first was the use of purely analogue tape for the recordings of both the instruments themselves and the synthesizer tracks. “The control room was equipped with two types of tape machines, each dedicated to a certain function in the recording process. The first was a multitrack tape machine capable of recording 24 parallel audio tracks into a 2-inch-wide magnetic tape. The multitrack tape allowed the individual instruments from a performance to be recorded into discrete audio tracks. This gave flexibility during mixing, as each audio element could be treated separately for panning, gain or other fine-tuning. Vangelis’ multitrack tape machine was the Lyrec TR-532, the same tape machine he used to record his solo albums and his film score to Chariots of Fire.  The second type of tape machine in Vangelis’ control room was a ‘tape master’ machine that allowed the final mixed work to be produced onto a 2-track quarter-inch master tape.”

Vangelis’ studio used to record the Blade Runner Soundtrack had analogue tape machines to record the original master tapes, shown at the bottom of this illustration.

And a (thankful) lack of digital manipulation as evidenced by this quote, “While creating music in a multitrack tape studio environment offered immense opportunities for adjustig the recorded performance, it lacked many of the convenient tools that arrived with later technologies, such as mixing desk automation, SMPTE time-code for synchronisation and much of the digital facilities that swept the sound-recording and film production studios in the late 1980s and beyond.”  While I view these factors, combined with Audio Fidelity’s (https://audiofidelity.net/about-us) careful transfer directly to DSD, to be the essential reason the quality and nature of this recording survived in the digital age (The “Dark Ages” of High End Audio). there was a great deal more  that also went into the perfectionism of Vangelis.  More on that can be here (where excerpt quotes were taken): http://www.nemostudios.co.uk/bladerunner/

Most of my vinyl reference recordings have been “old friends” for decades, but every now and then I drop the needle and find a new one.  Most notable recent additions are many of the vinyl releases from Nine Inch Nails (Digital distortion in a purely analog signal path.), David Gilmor’s relatively recent release “Rattle That Lock”, as well as a new discovery of Ben Harper’s “Pleasure and Pain” by Cardas (Pleasure And Pain Ben Harper & Tom Freund).

The point isn’t for me to share my “reference recordings”, though a short list may be a useful starting point if you share my music taste.  The point is for you to find your own.  That’s the fun part.  As you upgrade your system you will start to notice that your music collection will take on new life and sometimes you’ll find a revelatory change that makes you want to listen to your favorite albums all over again.  Very soon thereafter you will find you have discovered your own set of reference recordings.  Enjoy the journey!

 

If one format is better than another, why doesn’t the music always sound better?…

So here’s the deal….  DSD recordings are the gold standard of high definition digital audio.  They are not always the best digital recording of any particular album, but they have the opportunity to be.  Just because a title is released on SACD (i.e. DSD recording) doesn’t mean that the recording engineers did everything else possible to provide the best quality.  Sound quality various title by title, and I’ve listened to many DSD recordings and found that  some are better than others, just as I’ve found some vinyl recordings are better than others.  A perfect example of a dismal DSD formatted release is the SACD version of U2’s “Achtung Baby”.  The fault isn’t in the DSD format, but rather in the fact that the original master tapes were 16 Bit DATs (Digital Audio Tapes – The “Dark Ages” of High End Audio).  So the SACD version faithfully reproduced the totally flat (lacking dynamic range) and lifeless sound quality that the original 16 Bit DATs were limited to.  Garbage in, garbage out syndrome and, as much as the purveyors of such releases would like you to believe that upsampling performs some kind of voodoo magic, it doesn’t.  You simply can’t make chicken salad out of chick shit.

The very highest quality DSD recordings are those made “direct to DSD”, meaning that the artist’s were assembled in the studio for the purpose of “cutting” a DSD master recording.  Since “direct to DSD” recordings have only been around for less than a decade, they are limited to new and relatively unknown (though often very talented) acoustic artists.  The “direct to DSD” concept is analogous to the “Direct to Disc” recordings put out by Sheffield Labs in the 1970s, where the artists would record direct to the vinyl cutting lathe without interruption.  That’s right, at the time “disc” meant vinyl record.  Not only did the artists have to perform flawlessly for an entire record side but, perhaps an even more amazing feat, so did the recording engineer who was continuously adjusting and mixing the levels of up to 24 tracks simultaneously.  Screw it up and everyone starts over, not from the beginning of the song but from the beginning of the 20+ minute LP side.  Painstaking to say the least, but these releases eliminated one more link in the recording chain, the analog master tapes – the recording went straight to the LP cutting lathe and the recordings were used industry-wide to showcase what audiophile quality sound was all about.  In fact, Dave Gursin’s “Discovered Again” direct to disc recording was one of the reference LPs (What is a “reference recording”?) of choice for the loudspeaker designers at Audionics of Oregon when I worked there back in the late 1970s.

Second to DSD digital quality is PCM with a resolution of 24 bits, at a sampling rate of 96 kHz or 192 kHz.  I’ve found that the 24 bit depth resolution to be the key factor, and the sampling rate to be far less significant.  This makes perfect sense when you think about it – 24 bit sampling offers a resolution that is 256 times greater than the 16 bit that “Redbook” CDs offer.  Since digital is binary, we are talking about 2 to the power of 24 (16,777,216 bits) vs. 2 to the power of 16 (65,536 bits), whereas a sampling rate of 192 kHz is only 4.3537 times greater than that of 44.1 kHz.

And not all titles are available in all formats.  That’s why I’ve got a mix of different formats and have several titles in more than one format.  Interestingly, DVD-As are going way up in price since the format is dead and they are becoming more collectable.  A sealed copy of Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” on DVD-A sells for around $120 vs. $15 for a sealed SACD copy, even though the SACD release has superior sound quality.  Go figure.

Online downloads are getting better all the time and are perfect for those who prefer the convenience of having a music server.  But be careful as many tracks are just up-sampled and resold as being higher definition.  In case you are wondering what a music server is, just think of iTunes.  It is the most ubiquitous music server in existence and remains the ultimate example of convenience over quality (as for audiophile quality music servers, see DSD Music Server project).  The files sold on the iTines Music Store are grossly inferior to even Redbook CD quality (16-Bit/44.1K), and useless for high definition audio playback, though useful for other listening (What I love about MP3s).

Online downloads of high definition audio files come at a premium price.  For example, the cost for a PCM 96K/24 bit download of Eric Clapton’s “461 Ocean Boulevard” (a fantastic recording) costs $25 and the better quality DSD version on a sealed SACD costs only $16.  But listening to the SACD means you need to get  out of the listening chair and insert the SACD disc into your player whereas with the PCM 96k/24 bit file on a music server you can buy individual tracks, make playlists,  and sit on the sofa and change your mind, all iTunes style.

And… the techies love the gadgetry that the music servers offer, “Hey, check out what I can do with my iPhone remote”, and are willing to compromise quality for it.  Some will argue that is not the case but they are likely spending more time discussing it on the forums than sitting down and listening to their music.

I’m of a different cloth, where sound quality is paramount and everything in my system is selected to that end.  That isn’t to say that I won’t connect my iTunes server to my high end system and put on background music.  But when I do my “sit down and listen” sessions, I want the best quality possible.  As I write this I am listening to DSD off my music server and warming up my amps for a vinyl session.  Not many people sit down and listen to music anymore, and that’s fine.  I just happen to be amongst those who still love doing so.  Over… say, watching TV or listening to NPR any day.  I suspect few with high-end music servers sit down and listen to their music much, where they do nothing else but enjoy the music.  And that’s fine, they have some of the finest quality background music playlists the world will ever know.

Linn has been leading the charge for good quality high definition digital audio with their SACDs and music servers.  This is ironic, since they established their name based upon their venerable LP-12 turntable, which is still sold to this day for several thousand dollars.  More importantly, they are “all about the music” and go to great lengths to get the recording right in the studio.  And, when they put one of those recordings on a SACD the results are astounding.  The first time I sat down and listened to one of their reference recordings simply redefined what I considered digital audio capable of.

http://www.linnrecords.com/linn-formats-history.aspx

Marantz HD-DAC1 DSD DAC

So I’ve had my eyes on DSD DACs for sometime, and realized long ago that $500 to $1,000 would be the sweet spot on quality for price.  I waited about a year and sure enough, the DSD DAC market heated up as Acoustic Sounds, Blue Coast,  and other music vendors starting singing the praises of DSD.  And the prices of high quality DSD DACs came down from prices in the thousands to well under four digits for the same goods dressed up differently.

Thankfully down into the realm I was looking for, I pulled the trigger on a Teac DSD DAC that offered promise and by virtue of being DSD it was the best sound quality I’ve heard from a music server, but I still found it lacking in some areas of nuance.  And isn’t nuance what this all about, especially at this level of the game?…

So I waited patiently whilst listening to vinyl for the next DSD DAC player to come onto the scene.  And when Marantz stepped up with their recently released HD-DAC1, I figured it held promise since I had already noticed the superior sound of their SACD player to my Teac DSD DAC, which came as a surprise (DSD Music Server project).  I later attributed this to the Op-amps in the Teac vs. discrete circuitry of the Marantz in the form of their HDAM circuits (Op Amps are holding back my digital quest).

And, the Marantz has a remote control, a luxury my Teac lacked but I was willing to forego to prevent some crappy volume control IC (Integrated Circuit) messing with my fastidiously preserved signal path (Why audiophiles don’t get to have a remote control).  So I almost held my breath to figure out how the Marantz was pulling that one off, since more likely than not it would be a deal breaker.  To my delight I discovered it utilized an ALPS motorized POT (ALPS analog volume controls and rotary switches), and with that I would finally have remote volume control whilst streaming DSD music from my Mac Mini music server (Mac Mini as a Music Server).  PCM files have digital volume control, but not DSD (the less digital processing the better, just the digital to analog conversion thank you very much).

So I purchased the HD-DAC1 and had it shipped to Maui, where I could do an A/B test against my Teac prior to bringing it to Canada.  Sure enough, unquestionably better sound quality.  I forget all the subjective terms some use to describe the differences: warmer, more transparent, airy, full-bodied (are we tasting wine here?), etc.  I’ll just say that if you ever have the opportunity to hear the two DACs side-by-side you will hear the difference and leave you to come up with your own accolades.

Off the HD-DAC1 went to Canada (it still wasn’t available for sale in Canada when I purchased it in the USA) to perform for my mostly digital music collection serving my Magnepans.  As you have probably gathered if you’ve read much of this blog, I have two very different reference systems in the works.  My Canadian system is digitally oriented with planar speakers and the amps to drive them whilst my Maui system is analog (vinyl) oriented with Kef speakers that love everything analog (The venerable Kef 104/2).  They will both be overlapping in time, but that’s how things sit as I write this.

So I had great expectations as to what the HD-DAC1 would do for my digitally oriented Canadian system, and it didn’t disappoint.  I grabbed a few reference recordings (What is a “reference recording”?) and nearly giggled when I heard them.  My only regret was that I didn’t have more time to listen to it.  Something to look forward to next time I go back.  And, just in case I ever capitulate to listening to music with headphones?…  (Headphones, Earspeakers, or whatever you want to call them…) I’m set!

ALPS analog volume controls and rotary switches

I love it when I see this kind of thing…  So I’m doing a little research on the new Marantz DSD DAC (bought it…  review here) and I see that it’s got a remote control, which makes me suspicious.

We all know that remote controls can spell disaster to high quality analog signal paths, so before I pull the trigger on this beauty, I’ve gotta know how it’s pulling off remote control of the volume, which is by definition directly in the signal path.

Many “audiophile quality” components pass this duty off onto an integrated circuit (IC) and I immediately call foul if that’s the case, so the internet search begins…  Of course, no one else on the forums is looking at this.  You can find out everything about this DAC from here to Sunday and a great deal about a lot of things that make absolutely no difference to sound quality.  But try to find out this essential ingredient and it’s neigh on impossible.

So, I start looking at nude pics of the circuitry, which usually tells the story (Nude photos of analog gear usually tell a big part of the story).  There’s nothing from any of the usual suspects on the USA forums, but I hit pay dirt on the Japanese ones (the general population of Japan just seems to care more… that’s why they came out with SHM SACDs (SHM SACDs – do they really sound better?).  And, loh and behold, there it is in all it’s glory, an ALPS motorized POT (shown in the upper left of the photo), exciting!

Exciting you say?  A 50+ year old technology (ALPS has been manufacturing volume controls and rotary switch since 1948) in a brand new, state of the art, DAC?…  Absolutely!  The folks at Marantz had the guts to concede that the technology of an era past far exceeds (in sound quality anyway), that of the present IC crap that fills all AVRs and even some “audiophile grade” components today.  It’s the same APLS potentiometer (POT) used on on my Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier from the early 1980s (The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier), just with a motor on it to facilitate remote volume control (yes… when you push the button on the remote it actually turns the volume control with a motor, which is awesome 🙂

 

Op Amps are holding back my digital quest

After listening to my music server for several months now, there are things I love about it and things I’m not so in love with.  I love the dead silent background during quiet music passages.  I love the convenience though never seem to mind getting up to put a record on.  I love the portability and the ability to  travel with over 25,000 high definition digital tracks in a carry-on bag (two 3 TB hard drives).  I’ve found plenty of high definition (DSD or 24 bit PCM) digital recordings that sound better than their re-released vinyl equivalent, since they were originally recorded and mixed digitally anyway.

What I’m not so in love with is what I can only describe as an “edginess” of even some of the finest “gold standard” DSD digital recordings (most PCMs lack some dynamic range and sound a bit “flat”, but that’s just the format).  It’s mostly subtle, but still… there.  I’m almost certain this is due to the op amps used in the output stage of my DAC.  The DAC uses the best chip set currently available, dual mono circuitry, but cuts corners with op amps in the output stage.

When did it become acceptable for high end audio gear to use integrated amplification circuits?!…  The answer is, of course, never.  We’ve seen IC’s (integrated circuits) in audio electronics since the early 1980s, and if you pop the lid on any modern day AVR (Audio Video Receiver) it’s mostly ICs.  This is an obvious trade-off of a typical AVR, you get lots of features, controls, remote control functions, and low cost in a single chassis and sacrifice sound quality for it.  Fair enough.

But, when vendors are claiming to provide some of the best sounding components on the planet that cost well into 5 digits and I see ICs in there, I’m calling “foul”.  I don’t care what their literature claims, I never heard a component full of ICs that I wouldn’t trade in a heart-beat for one that is fully discreet components.  In fact, that has been the hallmark of my personal acquisitions.  My Audio Research SP-9 MkII does however have two ICs, big kinda clunky looking ones (this was the early 1980s, after all), but they control ancillary functions and therefore are not anywhere near the fully analog signal path.

Integrated circuits that are particularly contrary to audio quality are op-amps.  Integrated circuits that aren’t in the signal path may be OK, but amplifiers are by definition directly in the signal path.  When I did some A/B comparison between my Marantz SACD player and my music sever running my Teac DAC playing DSD files I noticed the Marantz sounded better (DSD Music Server project), which was contrary to what I expected due to possible noise from the transport (i.e spinning disc) in the Marantz (What to look for in digital playback from disc).

Output stages are not complicated, nor expensive to manufacture with discreet components.  To throw the whole circuit into an op-amp and “call it good” is simply unacceptable for high end audio, period.  Marantz and Mark Levinson have tackled this deliema with discreet circuitry modules that have a similar footprint on the PCB (printed circuit board) as an IC, and sometimes even fit into the same pin configurations.  Marantz calls this “HDAM” and claims to have invented it, but this isn’t anything new.  All the output stages prior to the advent of the IC chip did the same.

Aftermarket vendors offer discrete component upgrades for some components (such as Oppo disc players) that plug right into the op-amp IC’s pin holes.  Desolder and remove the IC, insert discrete circuitry upgrade.  But why are we having to do this, when paying thousands of dollars for components?!  There is definitely something wrong with this picture when seeing op-amp ICs in pricey audiophile quality gear.  Enter the Marantz HD-DAC1, an under $1K DSD DAC offering top notch DAC chips and discrete output circuitry in the form of their HDAM.  It just came out and is top of my list to give a listen, fingers crossed…

Follow up.  Very pleased with the HD-DAC1, review here (Marantz DSD DAC).

Digital manipulation of recorded vinyl

I’ve heard about this and will investigate further if there comes a time to record my vinyl to DSD.  So far I’m happy to drop the needle on my vinyl and don’t mind buying more than one copy for more than one location (i.e. Maui and Canada).

If recorded in DSD, the signal processing would also have to occur in the DSD domain since once it gets converted to PCM it’s all over and sound quality would be forever lost.  I would rather have the ticks and pops than that.  And as I understand it those DSD native workstations/ programs are pricey (mostly for professional recording studios).  But so was DSD in general until very recently, like in the last year or so, so who knows what the future holds.

Click here for example of click repair software.

Mac Mini as a Music Server

I’m not an Apple fan.  All the less so for the limitations of OS X for handling high definition digital audio.  And trust me, if there’s a way to screw up your audio quality, iTunes will find it.  So I’m also not a fan of claimed audiophile software that uses iTunes as the user interface.  And native DSD playback isn’t possible with such iTunes-structured programs, that are PCM based.  If the volume control in iTunes changes the volume on your system, you’ve been PCMed (Why audiophiles don’t get to have a remote control…).

But the obvious and most ubiquitous choice  for a dedicated computer as a music server is a Mac Mini.  So a friend gave me a not-so-old Mac Mini and it’s now my Music Server on Maui.  And I subsequently purchased a new one for Canada.  So a few thoughts after listening to the Mac Mini’s so far…

First off processing power is virtually irrelevant to sound quality.  Anything in the last few years is plenty.  Why?…  Remember, this is a dedicated computer so you are only running your high definition audio software on it, right?  This software uses less than 10% of the processing power any relatively new Mac Mini offers.

Second, RAM could make a difference depending on your hard drives.  The most demanding requirements will be playing 5.6 MHz DSD files and 392 KHz/24 bit PCM files.  You may run into occasional buffering issues with these files, but it’s not insidious to sound quality, more glitchy in nature.  In other words, you won’t hear a sonic difference due to insufficient RAM, but if a song suddenly stops playing then catches up, you need more RAM to buffer your files.

Third, your power supply doesn’t make a hill of beans of difference to sound quality.  Sonic benefits claimed my the vendors of upgraded power supplies are borderline fraudulent.  It doesn’t require a physics degree to grasp this, but if you have one you will immediately realize that the vendors selling upgraded power supplies for the Mac Mini to improve sound quality are claiming to defy the most basic laws of physics.  I’m all about high quality power supplies in amplification circuits, but EMI (electromagnetic induction) simply doesn’t effect the sound quality of digital circuitry.  If it’s “bit-perfect” than the job is done and it ends there.  And all the Mac Mini is responsible for is digital file delivery… you’ve got an external DAC, right?

Fourth, hard drives can make a difference, especially for music with soft passages.  Go fan-less!  (What are the best external hard drives for a music server?) Which unfortunately precludes all NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices.  I have yet to find one without a fan.  And, ethernet is a noisy, high-traffic, and relatively slow cabling solution anyway.  Noisy to the point where it can effect that “bit perfect” pass-off you’re looking for.

Which brings to mind the fifth requirement, a USB DAC.  Not toslink or digital coax, both of which are the legacy of Home Theatre audio.  And… if you have a USB DAC, you may want to keep your hard drives off the USB bus as it will already have it’s hands full if playing 5.6 MHz DSD or 392 KHz/24 bit PCM files.  So put your external drives on the Mac Mini’s Firewire 800 bus, which is latent anyway if your Mac Mini is a dedicated music server.   You could also use Thunderbolt but I see no benefit over Firewire 800 and two possible detriments, the first being high cost and the second being the possibility of having to share it with a monitor.

Speaking of monitors, the video circuitry in your Mac Mini won’t effect sound quality at all.  This is very different from an SACD player that has video circuitry in it, where the SACD player is performing the DAC (digital to analog) conversion internally and therefore has analog circuitry that can in fact be effected by video circuitry and therefore the possibility of sonic degradation exists.  Having said that, why not use screen sharing from your laptop in your listening chair and not have a video monitor hooked up at all, then you have the ultimate remote control!  (still no volume control for native DSD playback however).  Or if you’re using JRiver for your music server software you can use the very capable JRemote iPad app.

I’m not going to point any fingers here, but I will say there are a few vendors selling “upgraded” Mac Minis in excess of $10k.  Don’t go there, stick to the the basics and spend all that cash saved on good quality music!

 

DSD recorders – the modern day reel to reel?

Teac was a big player in the 70s in reel-to-reel tape decks, and made great gear.  Them and Korg are the only two companies currently offering consumer grade 5.6 MHz DSD recorders, the preferred  digital format to record vinyl.  Not surprisingly, two inch master tapes won out against direct-to-DSD in multiple listening tests of recorded live music.  But who has the cash, space, or inclination to store hundreds of two inch master reels around and thread them through a tape deck every time they want to hear one of their favorite albums.  I still find it interesting that age-old analog recording technology still exceeds the best that current-day digital has to offer though (The case for modern analog master recordings).

Teac slam/dunked that market when they recently came out with the DA-3000 with a street price of $1k and refurbished units available on eBay for around $700.  Until then it was the multi-track Sonoma workstation that was (and still is) sold to recording studios for around $50k.  Trouble is the DA-3000 is lacking one key feature that sort of cripples it.  Its’ a DAC/ADC combo so all the electronics are in place for it to act as an outboard DAC as well as a DSD recorder.  But even though it has a USB port it doesn’t have USB DAC capability built in so one must load an album onto a memory card and insert it into the DA-3000 to listen to it.  I spoke with a pretty knowledgeable tech guy at Teac about it and he agreed (as much as he could anyway) that they made it that way because they didn’t want to cannibalize the sales of their own DSD DAC, the Teac UD-501.  And Korg has neglected to update their tired and overpriced offerings, deeming the consumer market too small I suppose.

So I still wait for other players to come onto the consumer DSD recorder scene.  Back in the 1970s, everyone was in the reel-to-reel game since it was the only way to record vinyl with any sort of high fidelity intact.  Cassettes showed up and their quality was remarkable considering just how small the magnetic recording medium was, but still vastly inferior to reel-to-reel decks.  The tape hiss from cassettes was so prominent that it was only when Dolby came out with noise reduction that they were even feasible for quality sound reproduction.

And DSD recording faces other challenges.  So many titles are already offered in high definition digital formats, be it 24 bit PCM or DSD, why would anyone bother to record their own vinyl to DSD?  I can think of many instances where vinyl recording to DSD makes sense, such as titles that aren’t otherwise available in high def digital or recordings which were digitally remastered, following the advent of the CD, therefore making the vinyl release the only one in existence with pure analog mixing (Why Tape Hiss is Music to My Ears).

In the past, if you wanted a copy of a record you had to make it yourself by taping it.  But it’s become possible to obtain just about any title in one digital format or another, so it remains to be seen wether DSD recording for vinyl is in demand.

 

The Golden Age of Digital Audio

Yep… We are only just now coming into the golden age of digital audio, where the hard disc space and computer processing are capable of it’s requirements – I now have 9 TB of storage space, something that wouldn’t have been financially feasible even a year or two ago.  The late 70s/early 80s were the golden age of analog, which is why i’m buying analog gear from that era.  It was arguably as good as it gets then, and in many respects it hasn’t gotten better, just (far, far) more expensive.  Some technologies from the 70s remain relatively unavailable in modern audiophile gear.  Technologies such as direct drive turntables which are often superior to the modern day belt drive ones with prices starting around $3k (Turntables – Direct Drive vs. Belt Drive).

But… it took analog many, many years to get there, the height of it’s glory in the mid 70s/early 80s.  It has taken digital just as long, 32 years and counting and it’s only now starting to come into it’s golden age.  Amazing that DSD has been around for at least 15 years and only recently starting to gain momentum.  But… it has begun, and that’s a good thing.

I’m at the very forefront of digi quality by virtue of creating a DSD music server by ripping files with a PS3.  And, I’m also putting together an analog system in both Canmore and Maui that is of the era that was the height of analog (i.e. vinyl).  The only major difference in my analog pursuits from what I did in the late 70s will likely be to replace a reel-to-reel with a 5.6 MHz DSD recorder.

DSD DACS… affordable at last.

23Jan2014 – “I won’t (spend $1.5k on a DSD DAC).  I guess you didn’t read through my email, where I suggested to wait for the DSD/PCM combo DACs to come down to $500 or less, which they will within a year:)  It’s highly unlikely I’ll spend more than that on a USB DAC for my digi signal path.”

Review of the UD-301 here

 

17Feb2014 – and, i now have nearly 100 titles of my SACDs for the time when the DSD music server becomes a reality.  i would estimate that to be at least a year away since it will take that long for DSD DACs to become main stream and hence more reasonably priced.  once again, worth the wait for the pursuant quality.  shootz, i’ve already waited over 20 years for quality music again (i.e. since the day when 44.1/16 bit CDs took over), what’s a little more?…

Recording your vinyl to DSD

DSD is sampled at 2.8 MHz.  This is what is used on SACDs and results in similar results to an analog wave form.  The differences between vinyl and SACDs still remains very audible to me though (pros and cons – the pros still far outweigh the cons for me), even on a modest system by audiophile standards.  But I consider both levels of quality, vinyl and SACD non-fatiguing and very worthy of “sit down and listen to music” sessions.  CDs I don’t and I stopped doing it in spite of having a very good audiophile system with ESLs.  The return of quality by virtue of DSD and vinyl are why I’m back into it.

The Korg can record analog sources at 2.8 MHz or 5.6 MHz.  Having a higher sampling rate than SACDs or PCM and leads to many intriguing questions to me.  Could I get even better results recording my quality vinyl to DSD at 5.6 MHz than listening to the same music recorded and mixed to SACD at 2.8MHz, for example (I doubt it).  And… it leads to potentially amazing archival and convenienice possibilities as well.  Travelling to my places with a hard drive is certainly a lot easier than with a collection of vinyl, or buying multiple copies of my vinyl albums so i have one in all places and having multiple turntables, which is the road i figured i’d likely to down but may not have to after all 🙂

I have found that DVD Audio at 192K/24 bit to be very good and a huge improvement over CDs at 44.1K/16 bit.  I have several titles on both SACD using DSD and on DVD-A using 192k/24 bit and have compared them (I’ve got at least a dozen on both formats: SJ Gaucho, Elton John GBYBR, Fleetwood Mac Rumors, etc.) and find I prefer the SACDs but both formats are miles above CDs.  And, every title various according to whiter original master tapes were used, how it was mixed, and how it was recorded.

Remember that with PCM, the bit depth is more important than the sampling rate.  So 24 bit is key (and almost all of them are).  Blu-ray Audio offers 96khz @ 24 bit.  I’ve collected a few of those titles but haven’t listened to them yet since I don’t have a player.   They play on all blu-ray players (that’s their selling point of course) but in order to give them a proper listen i would have to get an audiophile quality one, such as the Oppo.

The pecking order of high end audio source formats

when i did my vinyl vs. SACD vs DVD-A (i already knew not to bother with CDs, i already know where they stood from years of ginning and bearing it until i gave up and sold my MLs and Adcoms) tests five years ago.  i uncovered on my own exactly the same conclusions that Harley and Lynn have come to.  I went in almost hoping vinyl would lose since i had none of it and had a vast collection of high def digi music.  Within less than an hour of critical listening to music i brought in and know well on a reference quality system it became unecquivacally evident that vinyl still offered the best quality, SACDs second, DVD-As (at 196K/24 bit, not all are) a fairly distant third.  harley endeavors to explain why SACDs are the best digi format.  Lynn just mentions it in passing.

I still love my digi collection.  and one thing they offer that vinyl never did is fantastic 5.1 surround mixes.  quadrophonic, finally realized.

What to look for in digital playback from disc

1 – D to A converters, also known as DACs.  You want good quality DACs in your player, get it to output 5.1 analog, then get everything else in the signal path after that to leave it alone as much as possible (beyond amplification of course).  That’s one of the many reasons why HDMI rains on the parade for a high end audio signal path.

2 – Discreet analogue signal path for all 5.1 channels once the signal has been converted to analogue by the DACs (i.e. BDP-95 – take a closer look at that unit and you will immediately see what i am referring to).

3 – Transport mechanism.  Pretty hard to screw this up too dramatically, but the higher end players make certain this is of the highest integrity so the digi info on the discs is read with as much accuracy as possible.  Other’s fudge it with some sort of error correction protocol, such as parity.  They recognize that there will be a certain % of errors reading the disc so they have algorithms to correct for that. Obviously, it is better still if the laser reads with as close to 100% accuracy as possible.  The higher end units separate the Transport and the DACs into two components.  very pricey of course, and the cost isn’t warranted by a digital sourced signal path IMHO, especially for CDs.  Like I said, garbage in, garbage out… what ever else they try to say.  But there are many who would beg to differ, until recently at least.

The most obvious difference between 2 channel audio and 5.1 home theatre.

My experience with surround sound (usually found in audio systems for home theatre) is that it relies greatly on the centre speaker to create the sound stage.  This is obvious for movie sound tracks, but also prevalent on surround sound music mixes, such as those found on SACDs and DVD-As.One of the real benefits of  digital surround sound is that it can combine both the highest digital quality available along with amazing 5.1 surround sound mixes.  A win/win for anyone who has longed for more than just two channels to present the music with.

But traditional ESLs (electrostatic loudspeakers), such as the venerable Martin Logan Sequels and the Sequel IIs, were a product  of 2 channel stereo sound reproduction.  They were never intended to be part of surround sound speaker set.  Not that they wouldn’t be great at it, just that the nuances of the sound stage they have been designed to create would certainly be lost once you throw the centre speaker into the mix, which pretty much destroys any intended 2 channel sound stage anyway.

This isn’t all cons, however.  In very difficult rooms or where the rooms esthetics trump the ideal speaker placement, a centre channel can serve to save the day.  But with good room acoustics and  a reasonable option of placements for ESLs, a pure two channel signal path will reproduce a more engaging and intimate soundstage every time.

What is Blu-Ray Audio (BD-A)?

A new high definition audio format
A new high definition audio format

looks like BD-A is but a grass routes crusade at this point.  yeah, right… don’t hold your breath.

having said that, i’d pick up any titles by artists you like that appear.

BTW, this (BD-A) is a dumbed down version of SACD and DVD-A.

DVD-As are already doing 192kHz/24 bit sampling rather than just 96kHz/24 that BD-As are.

SACDs do one better with one bit DSD sampling.  Techy jargon, but I’ve got some music on both SACD and DVD-A (Fleetwood Mac Rumors, Eagles Hotel California) and the SACDs definitely sound much better, even on my modest system.  With what you’ve now got going on, the differences will be far more dramatic.

So… bottom line, with BD-A at only at 96K/24 bit, I’m not holding my breath for good audio.  Better than CDs?…  Absolutely, far better in fact.  But still a full notch below DVD-As which are already a full notch below SACDs.  Remember that the buck stops (or begins) at the quality of the source.  Crappy source and all the gear in the world will just get more glorified crappy music.

The benefit of BD-As of course is that they will be playable by anyone with a BD player, which is most everyone these days.

 

Just say “no” to HDMI

HDMI

When I discovered Oppo isn’t supporting component video out on their players I immediately called foul:

http://www.oppodigital.com/blu-ray-bdp-103/blu-ray-BDP-103-Images.aspx

While I don’t consider myself a videophile, I know from direct experience with my home theatre system that component video provides far better video quality than HDMI does.

my thought was to wait until Oppo comes out with a 4K player (NOT just an up-sampling unit but one that can play 4K when the media becomes available) then grab one as their players almost always support SACD and DVD-A with analogue 5.1 outputs (thankfully still there).

they have been know as being the low end of the high end for some time in the audio world, with good quality, discreet DAC’s.  anything more than what they have to offer would be overkill on the system i have now, and i would venture to say that it’s possible it’s even overkill for that even, though without doing an A/B i wouldn’t know.  The primary part of an SACD player that will make an audible difference is the DAC.  Second, and a distant second, is the quality of the transport.  At the high end of the high end, these are separate units.  And… even at SACD quality, it will never touch a good 2 channel vinyl system anyway so why bother.

i’ve never paid to much attention to their video side of things, and i guess neither have they if they are capitulating to HDMI output for video signals.

players with component video outputs may become more and more rare.  I was sadly disappointed when HK left any and all audiophiles behind by no longer supporting analogue 5.1 inputs.  i’m sure videophiles feel the same way about the loss of analogue component video support.  my experience in both audio and video is to let the DAC happen once, at the source with good quality DACs, then go all analogue from there for best quality.  or, in the case of vinyl, never let the signal path be downgraded by a ADC digital conversion in the first place.  Analogue the whole way.  Don’t think think you will find any argument there from those who are particular about sound quality.  Of course the “techies” love to banter the arguments around, but that’s cause they like to hear themselves talk (or type).

remember, there are two kinds of audiophiles, those who love the music and those that love the gear.  the latter tend to love all the whistles and bells that digi offers.  but you will see the former seeking out the simplest gear capable of the purest sound reproduction possible (these things are mutually inclusive, simplicity and pure signal path).  and their true treasure will be their collection of music.  after all, the equipment is replaceable but the media (be it vinyl, SACD, Blu-Ray, 4K or whatever)… perhaps not. (think of the movie “V for Vendetta”)

i would venture to say the same is true with videophiles as well.

fun that we are both getting back into this!

mark

What is DoP (DSD over PCM)

DoP

When I first discovered that this was the only way to transmit DSD files from an Apple computer to a USB DAC I was dismayed.  Buy virtue of the name itself I thought that the signal must have to be converted to a PCM signal and that would rain on the parade of native DSD goodness that has revived the world of high quality digital music.

Well, very thankfully that wasn’t the case.  The signal remains native DSD, it is just packaged up differently in order to be transmitted.  No PCM conversions are made.  Without going into technical details, think of it like this.  A 24 bit 384k PCM signal path is capable of transmitting (? MB/sec), so think of that as a very large pipe.  The DSD signal is in fact a far smaller pipe at ? MB/sec, so all that is done is to get the signal to flow inside this larger pipe.

More later…

What about mass market DVD players for audio?…

A nude photo showing discrete analog circuitry for each channel.
A nude photo showing discrete analog circuitry for each channel.

Many mass market DVD and Blu-ray players are capable of playing high-def audio, such as SACD (most Sony players have this capability since they invented it), DVD-A, and Blu-ray Audio.  So how do they perform in a high end audio system?…

When looking at the  signal path in these players, it boils down to three things, which you won’t typically find in the  specs of mass market players (they wouldn’t be, since they aren’t really intended to play high end audio).  These three things are, in order of their importance to your audio quality:

1 – D to A converters, also known as DACs.  You want good quality DACs in your player, get it to output the analog signal (on RCA or XLR jacks), then get everything downstream in the signal path to leave it alone as much as possible (beyond amplification of course).  That’s one of the many reasons why HDMI rains on the parade for a high end audio signal path.

2 – Discreet analogue signal path for all channels once the signal has been converted to analogue by the DACs.  Take a closer look at the inside of the Oppo BDP-95  (which is not a mass market player) and you will immediately see what i am referring to).

3 – Transport mechanism.  Pretty hard to screw this up too dramatically, but the higher end players make certain this is of the highest integrity so the digi info on the discs is read with as much accuracy as possible.  Other’s fudge it with some sort of error correction protocol, such as parity.  They recognize that there will be a certain % of errors reading the disc so they have algorithms to correct for that. Obviously, it is better still if the laser reads with as close to 100% accuracy as possible.  The higher end units separate the Transport and the DACs into two components.  very pricey of course, and the cost isn’t warranted by a digital sourced signal path IMHO, especially for CDs.  Like I said, garbage in, garbage out… what ever else is claimed.  But there are many who would beg to differ, until recently at least.

When DSD isn’t DSD

Ok…  so  most of you probably know that I consider DSD to be the best thing going in the digital audio world.  I came to this conclusion with A/B/C listening tests of reference quality source materials around 6 years ago and my initial conclusions have been reiterated time and time again.

Are all DSD recordings really that good?… Absolutely not.  There are still plenty of opportunities to screw things up and I’ve heard a fair share of DSD recording that have done just that.  With DSD, I can hear their mistakes, but 44.1k/16 bit PCM puts a veil over everything such that it really doesn’t matter anymore.

That said, a pure DSD signal path requires diligence to obtain.  You can have the best SACD player known to this world playing one of the best DSD recordings every made and, if you hook it up with an HDMI cable you are no longer listening to it in DSD.  That’s because HDMI converts everything to the ubiquitous PCM world to pass the signal off for DAC and subsequently analog amplification.

By the same token, you can be playing DSD files on your computer-based music server and still listening to the sonically degraded PCM version.  In fact, very few computers are able to perform a DSD DAC conversion, and none that are presently available (Sony once had that capability in their VIAO line of laptops, but they subsequently took it away as they did with the PS3).

So, how do you make sure you’re listening to a purely native DSD signal path?…  If listening to an SACD player you need to use the analog (usually RCA) outputs so the DSD DAC conversion happens inside the player (more on what to look for in a player in another post).  If you are running a computer-based music server you will require a native DSD external DAC, passing the DSD data off via USB.  Once carefully configured, it’s possible to use DoP (DSD over PCM which is a very clever way of passing of the DSD data fully intact for Mac computers – see other post) or ASIO for Windows, since Windows has no built-in audio drivers in the first place.

And… most popular SACDs have been tainted by PCM somewhere along the way.  Are they still sonically superior to their fully PCM equivalents?…  Yep. They just aren’t fully showcasing what an entirely DSD native signal path is capable of.  Most audiophiles haven’t heard a entirely native DSD signal path, and therefore many are non-plussed by it.  And, there are some recordings that have their best release in PCM.  “Riding with the King” by Eric Clapton and BB King comes to mind.  The PCM version sounds as good or better than the vinyl since the vinyl version was mixed in PCM anyway.  A fantastic analog recording, mixed in PCM then rereleased on vinyl obstensibly for it’s superior analog characteristics.  Can you say… missing the point?!

Same thing is true for the Cure’s “Disintegration”.  They even have a sticker on the vinyl jacket proudly advertising “Digitally Remastered”, which might as well read “Just buy the CD instead and don’t pretend you’re getting better sound quality from vinyl cause we already PCMed this one”.  Also true for Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Digitally Remastered” vinyl release.  You might as well go buy the SACD and be one step closer to the already digitally degraded source.  Cutting a lacquer to press vinyl from a digitally mixed recording simply makes no sense, unless for nostalgic value rather than sound quality.  If they already PCMed this recording, than at least give me the 24 bit version but alas… no.  If you really want the analog goods, you’ll need to seek out a mint MFSL (Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs) Original Master version of this recording from when it was originally released in the 1973.

In order to truly hear what a fully native “Direct to DSD” recording sounds like, grab one of Blue Coast Record’s DSD downloads.  They have gone to great lengths to preserve the integrity of the all-DSD signal path.  Of course, they have also gone to great lengths to gather some very talented musicians and engineer fully acoustic studio recordings with some of the best microphones ever made (from the 1980s I believe).  Their attention to detail is extraordinarily obvious on a quality system playing their native DSD files w/o being PCMed along the way anywhere.

There are also some more ecletic SACD samplers, such as those released by LINN Records, that gather together a variety of artists and music styles to showcase what the DSD format is capable of when left alone to do it’s thing.  Unfortunately, most of the more popular main-stream SACD (therefore DSD) titles will have been PCMed somewhere along the way.  Do they still sound better than their fully PCM equivalents?…  Yes, consistenitly so.  But have they fully unleashed the sound quality available by DSD?…  Unfortunately not.

Maybe someday we’ll see audiophile re-releases of such titles where they are remastered on a fully native DSD signal path from the analog original master tapes.  As it stands now it’s a mixed bag.   Most of the MFSL DSD releases should be direct to DSD using a Sonoma DSD workstation to do so, as well as some of the more prominent titles such as Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and “Dark Side of the Moon” (let’s hope so, with the likes of James Guthrie back at the controls).  But it still remains a “you know it when you hear it” kind of thing.