Category Archives: DSD

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

SHM SACDs – do they really sound better?

SHM SACDs are Japanese imports.  They are all green, and SHM stand for “Super High (quality?) Material”.  Personally, I think they should be called SGM.  The green is pure marketing and is on the the upper surface, whilst the lower (play) surface has a bit of a gold-ish tint.  They all have the Album title and Artist in small print in the same font, so they are easy to mix up.

They also only have a 2 channel, DSD layer.  No redbook or 5.1 layers.  I’ve compared them to the same releases on regular SACDs and they sound, well… exactly the same.  No surprise there, eh?  What?…  Green doesn’t effect the sound?  How stupid do you think we are over on this side of the pond?  Guess about as stupid as the French thought we were when they first put water in green glass bottles at $1 a piece and we’d buy them.  The difference is the French were right.

Street price on these Japanese imports is $60 and it’s hard to find them for less anywhere.  So there’s the bad about them, they are a rip-off.  On the plus side, there are many titles that simply aren’t available in DSD elsewhere, so thank you Japan for that.  They are still far more affordable than the Out of Print (OOP) USA SACD titles, and the Japanese writing looks cool and says “imported” in a premium sort of way.  Because they are.  All of them.

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 🙂

 

What is DSD audio, a Simple Explanation

You guys know that I’ve been all about DSD for a long while now, years.  Well the music industry is finally catching up and DSD has been coming on strong in the past year.

Why have I preferred DSD for so long?  It sounds better, simple as that.  But since I’ve been listening to DSD and even better, Direct-to-DSD recordings on my music server, I’ve become curious why. This guy explains it as simply as anyone I’ve found to date…

DSD-BlockDiagram

DSD – The New Addiction by Andreas Koch

DSD – A Simple Explanation

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.