Category Archives: Music Formats

Use each format for what it’s best at.

This image with an iPod installed in the plinth of a seemingly high-end turntable made me chuckle, and inspired this post.  Anyone reading this blog would think I’m an “analog snob”, but the truth is I like every format for what it offers and seek to find the best in each.

Sure… when I sit down in front of my speakers in the sweet spot, turn off the lights, and settle in for a full-immersion audio experience I nearly always go for vinyl and an all-analogue signal path.  It’s funny how I never mind getting up, cleaning records, flipping through albums on the shelf, cleaning the stylus, etc. when that’s all I’m up to.  Sitting down for a full-immersion music listening session is not a time for multi-tasking anyway.  It’s one thing at a time and when the needle is tracking the groove all the digital devices are off, including the laptop computer I’m writing this on now as I listen to music.

“Wait a sec,” you may say…  “I thought you were describing dedicated music listening sessions?”  Truth is I typically play high-def digital files off my music server to warm up my amps and my ears.  Yes, I find my ears need a good warm up as well, or maybe it just takes a while to shut off my mind to focus entirely on the music.  The music server is great for these purposes, and sometimes I even do my full-immersion listening from some of the better high definition digital recordings I have there, just as I do when I drop the needle on a nice slab of vinyl.

But…  Fact is I love listening to music and like to enJoy it most of the time, doing what ever I may be up to.  So when driving I’m listening to CDs or MP3s from a collection of over 5,000 on a hard-wired iPod.  Great sound quality?…  Definitely not.  But hey, I’m driving and I’m not about to go for full immersion listening (i.e. lights off, eyes closed) anyway.  I also love listening to music while engaged in just about every sport I do (with the exception of free diving) with a pair of ear buds, or helmet speakers in the case of downhill mountain biking, snow boarding, or snow kiting.  Amazing really, how we can have our own personal music collection accessible to us nearly anytime, anywhere.  Now try that with records.  Guess what, Chrysler did! (for a car stereo anyway)

Car record player by Chrysler

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.  And thank goodness they couldn’t afford a professional sound engineer using Pro Tools digital mixing and editing software that would have PCMed all over their original analogue goodness.  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 adjusting 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 ( 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 found here (where excerpt quotes were taken):

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 varies 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.

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.

The new (old) gear coming out

There is a really interesting and growing phenomena in high end audio these days, that of the “retro-cool”.  Everyone knows vinyl is making a huge comeback, but whats interesting is that it’s recently also making a main stream comeback.  Hoarded vinyl collections are no longer the exclusive domain of dedicated audiophiles.  Extensive vinyl collections are showing up everywhere, from college dorm rooms (again) to trendy cafés in chic neighborhoods.

And what is the impetus for vinyl’s rebirth?  Based on the systems I’ve seen at such venues, it’s not for sound quality.  Many of vinyl’s biggest recent fans aren’t old enough to have loaded a CD into a tray and push play, let alone drop a needle in years past when that was the main way to play music.  So it can’t be nostalgia since that implies having done it before and remembering it fondly.

That leaves the inescapable conclusion that it must be the “retro cool” factor.  Like so many fashion trends that are being revived, so is vinyl.  It’s amazing to me, that people are listening to music on vinyl records for the first time, in spite of (or possibly because of) the fact that they have never before listened to music in such fashion.   It’s like the “cool, watch this, it plays music” vinyl revolution is some sort of mysterious new invention.

I’ve also noticed vinyl product placements in modern movies and television, and not necessarily in the context of the era portrayed.  A scene from House of Cards comes to mind, when a modern day woman drops a needle onto a record to listen to music on an otherwise ordinary home audio system, then the camera zooms into the spinning record, or the many vinyl product placements in the Netflix TV show “Suits”, not to mention that the main character has filled an entire wall of his commodious office with records and has a high end (but not too high end as to come across as esoteric) turntable there to play them.

I had to scratch my head a bit over the vinyl product placements since the motive isn’t as blatant as when you see an obvious logo placement of a Dell, Apple, or HP computer, which is clearly paid for as a form of advertising (  Then it dawned on me.  If the music industry (which arguably got hammered by the MP3 revolution) gets the next generation to adopt vinyl they will be able to sell the same music all over again in yet another “new” (old) format.  So there it is, the profit motive.  As usual, the music business follows the money.

But, there is a far less insidious trend in the industry in regard to the gear itself.  At first glance the Yamaha integrated amplifier (Integrated amps or separates?) in the photo pictured above would lead one to believe it’s vintage (The vintage “crap shoot” ).  Nope, just the styling is adopted from their amplifiers of the 70s.  Nearly everything else about this amplifier is modern, and mostly in bad ways (integrated circuits and digital manipulations, Op Amps are holding back my digital quest).  It makes sense to be sure, just as the auto industry is going for the “retro cool” look for so many of their latest offerings.  They tried to sell us futuristic cars with side panels over the wheels (to make them look like they could fly?…) and other styling cues that impaired functionality.  Form follows function and the most esthetic designs are always those that are true to their purpose.

So while I’m happy to see those idiotic flashing lights and elaborate displays on audio gear finally disappear, I can’t help but think the whole retro styling thing is a farce.  What’s sad is that what’s inside isn’t what was inside from the era it depicts, when sound quality still mattered and a good stereo system was still central to home entertainment.

Why Tape Hiss is Music to My Ears

So I’ve been hearing a familiar sound on some of the very best repressed quality vinyl recordings of music from the 70s…  Tape hiss.  It shows up in the quiet passages of familiar albums and is a very distinctive and welcome sound.

Welcome, you may ask…  why would it be welcome?  The answer is that it means when they remastered the album for the re-release they left it in the analog domain, and didn’t ruin it with digital mixing, which would make it easy to remove the hiss of course, along with much of the music.

And…  the corollary is also true.  I’ve been very disappointed in some of the “digitally remastered” vinyl re-releases, such as The Cure’s “Disintegration” (What a pity) and Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.  I’m not familiar with the original vinyl release of “Disintegration”, but I am certainly familiar with the MFSL (Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs) Original Master release of GBYBR and I’m here to tell you…  digitally remastering it for the 40th anniversary edition to vinyl totally rained on the parade.  Look for the original from the 70s (complete with tape hiss in the quiet sections, along with all the goodness on the original tapes) or just go get the SACD and have fun with the 5.1 surround mix, which is fantastic!

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 – The New Addiction by Andreas Koch

DSD – A Simple Explanation

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.

DSD Music Server project

As many of you know, I’ve been working on a DSD Music Server project for neigh on a year now. Still a work in progress but I just couldn’t resist making some initial comparisons and evaluations that have been a long time coming. I based my purchase decisions for music formats over six years ago based on auditions and comparisons of the formats on a high end system in a shop in Seattle, but now I finally have my own (even better) systems to compare and contrast.

First, the Canada system used for listening evaluations:
Vinyl – Pioneer PL 530 running a Denon 103R MC cartridge
SACDs – Marantz DV-7600 SACD Player
DSD Streaming – MacBook Pro into a Teac UD-301 DSD DAC
Preamp – Threshold FET 9
Power amp – Nakamichi PA-7
Speakers – Magnepan MG-12s without Attenuation
Interconnects – Zu Audio Wylde
Speaker Wires – Heavy gauge hardware store copper, terminated with banana plugs, haven’t upgraded yet (see later post where I upgraded and evaluated the results here).

Ok…  So I’m gonna avoid a lot of the B.S. and cut straight to the chase.  But first, one major caveat.  Since I have no remote control (Why audiophiles don’t get to have a remote control…).  I used the source selector switch on the preamp and therefore wasn’t in the sweet spot.  Before you say, “all bets are off then!” let me explain.  My Maggie’s like to be very far out from the rear wall in my listening room.  That, combined with the fact that they are bipolar speakers and radiate in an equal and opposite fashion back towards the octagonal bay windows (three big panes of glass) I actually discovered another sweet spot behind the speakers, where my amps are.  It’s very small and goes away if I move or tilt my head even inches, but is unmistakably there 🙂

So here are the results of the A/B/C tests (yes, I went to the trouble to sync all three sources and even volume match DSD DAC to SACD Player).

Vinyl – dramatically different, another flavour entirely. This is the first time I’m not going to call it “better” just “different”.  That’s how good my DSD has become.  So the vinyl has a rich, warm, full bodied sound.  My Maggie’s aren’t big in the bass department but I also know from my Maui Kefs (best bass I’ve ever heard) that that is another area where vinyl kicks ass. The high frequency response doesn’t seem as crystal clear as SACDs or DSD DAC, but I’m wondering if that is because it’s less pronounced due to the full dynamic range that vinyl offers.  TBD…  Will need to do more listening and will need to be in the sweet spot, the one in front of the speakers, to evaluate further.

SACDs – The gold standard of digital audio to be sure.  Crystal clear highs, amazing transient response, fantastic imaging. And exemplary during quiet passages due to very little noise.  Sounds just a bit thin compared to the vinyl, but now we are talking pros and cons in that regard since it sounds so amazing in other areas. Although not part of the comparison, I heard Tubular Bells like I’ve never heard it before listening to it from the DSD DAC later in the sweet spot, and that says a lot!  Of course, my Maggie’s LOVE that album, it plays into all their strong suits and I’ve only played the vinyl on my Kefs on Maui.

DSD DAC – almost indistinguishable from the SACD but I’ll give the SACD the edge, which came as a surprise to me since the DSD DAC doesn’t have any issues that come with the transport and therefore if anything should sound better. I’m not saying it sounded harsh or harsher cause neither of the sources sounded that way, they were both amazingly not so for digital (thank you DSD). What I will say is that the SACD player sounded more analogue-like.  Just a very small amount smoother and warmer.   I’m guessing that is due to the OpAmps in the output stage of my DSD DAC (Op Amps are holding back my digital quest) vs the very high quality discreet circuitry in the output stage of my Marantz SACD player. Can’t be sure without other DACs to compare of course, but that would be the logical conclusion, which I came to after doing some further investigation and finding that the DSD DAC uses OpAmps, which make sense for the price – still trying to get champagne taste on a beer budget and I’m doing really well so far!

When I sit down to listen to music, I want the best quality possible, which means DSD, 24 bit PCM and vinyl.  I had loaded up around 5,000 tracks in 44.1k/16 bit PCM (Redbook CD quality) onto my music server, thinking that I’d listen to them if that’s the only format I have them in.  But I never did.  I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise, that when I sit down and listen to music Redbook CD quality just isn’t going to be on the menu.  At first, I did lots of A/B testing of the 44.1k/16 bit albums to the same album on DSD and/or 24 bit PCM.  The results weren’t surprising, very drastic differences in sound quality.  I finally figured, “what’s the point?”, and removed the 44.1k/16 bit tracks from my music server.  Not because they were taking too much space, the inferior bit depth and sampling rate results in very small file sizes, but rather because I didn’t want them cluttering up my selection of high definition digital music with files that are sub-par.

Postscript – I later discovered that it was in fact the OpAmps in the Teac DAC that was infecting my digital music server (Op Amps are holding back my digital quest), so I replaced it with a Marantz that uses discrete circuitry (Marantz DSD DAC).

The word on vinyl mono recordings

I see little or no sonic value in buying mono records, but there is likely some nostalgic value for those who listened to them in mono when they first came out.

Having said that, there is possibly (but doubtful) a sonic improvement if the music was originally recorded and mixed as mono and was subsequently pressed onto a mono pressing and then played with a mono phono cartridge.  This is a long shot, but integrity of the signal path is paramount and could potentially trump the other benefits of stereo recordings.  To realize this potential improvement everything in the front end of the signal path would need to be period specific (i.e from the days of mono so early 60s or earlier), holy PITA!

Such re-releases will likely be cut for stereo phono cartridges (so yes, could be played fine and no need to swap out the cartridge) and therefore the integrity of signal path has been lost somewhere down the road anyway.  So needing to swap out cartridges would only be necessary when playing original mono pressings, not re-releases.

Such a pity…

Such a pity…

I ordered the recent audiophile quality vinyl release of this album with great anticipation, as it is one of my favorite LPs I’ve never heard before, since it was originally released in 1989 and of redbook CD quality only.  No vinyl, so I never got to really hear it,

So I dropped the needle down on one of the most pristine slab of 180g vinyl I’ve ever seen and heard (in the beginning anyway)  – complete silence going into the first track.  “This is gonna be good” I thought to myself as the first song started.

But, after the first couple of tracks I knew something was wrong… really wrong.  I didn’t even listen to the remaining 3 sides (yes it’s a total of 2 LPs so 4 sides) and just put it back onto my shelf pretending it didn’t happen.

So as I’m copying my digital music collection onto the hard drive that’s going to Canada with me, I gave it another listen on my Maui system.  About half way through side two, I figured out what is so far amiss.

The vinyl itself is perfect.  My phono front end is very close to as good as it gets.  The recording came from the original master tapes as far as I can tell…  But it sounds flat, muddy, and lacks definition and transient response.  In other words, all the good stuff I typically find when going “back to black” is sorely missing.

So I think to myself, “there’s only two more places this could have gone so wrong: the method of the original recording or the mixing”.   I did a little research and… sure enough, that’s exactly what happened on both counts.

So the ensuing crappy CD-like sound quality is as good as it gets for this album, and as good as it will ever get short of getting the band back together to re-record it.  I’ve heard rumors that recording engineers and even mixing artists became lazy and complacent during the age of redbook CDs, since they thought the music  would only ever be played back at PCM 44.1k/16bit.  Or, as Lynn Olson at Audionics of Oregon so eloquently put it, “an era that left a legacy where the music quality will be forever lost as the bits were shaved off on the ADC sampling floor”.  I knew he was right and that I’d likely run into it sooner or later.  And now I have, on one of my favorite albums of all time.  Such a pity.

I’ll still enjoy listening to this album from time to time, and am happy to have the best quality version ever released, even if it sucks by comparison to my other audiophile quality vinyl.   But, unfortunately I just don’t feel compelled to sit down and listen to the whole album or even just one side (which is 2 sides on this release).  I expect far more when I plant my butt in my listening chair to do nothing else but enJoy music for music’s sake

The “Dark Ages” of High End Audio

OK..  first a bit of a rant.  How many of you out there are aware that most of U2’s music is lost forever to the world of high fidelity?  Yep.  Original master tapes were 16-Bit DATs (Digital Audio Tapes), which are finally recognized as inadequate for audiophile quality sound reproduction.  Which means there will never be a MFSL (Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs) “Original Master” version.  The original master DAT (i.e. so not analogue) tapes are garbage.  It’s immediately apparent when you listen to their music of the era of 16-Bit DATs, no matter if it’s vinyl, CD, SACD, up sampled 24 bit FLACs, or what ever (and yes, I’ve tried them all).

Short of getting the band back together and back in the studio there is no salvaging their music for high end audio reproduction.  And even if that were to happen (which it isn’t), the magic would be long gone.  As much as I admire Brian Eno and his creative genius, I gotta say he totally dropped the ball on this one and perhaps kowtowed to the (very mistaken) direction of Daniel Lanois, who was the recording engineer for U2 at the time.  He must have been paying far more attention to the flash and glitter of the “new era” (i.e. dark ages) of audio engineering than sitting down and listening to the music being recorded or he would have caught this huge (and forever) miss.

Who remembers the three part ratings on CDs when they first came out?  Each of the three rating were all either “A” or “D” to represent Analogue or Digital.  The first was for the original master tapes, the second for the mixing medium, and the third was the for the actual delivery method you held in your hands.  Of course if you are holding a CD the third was completely redundant and pure marketing hyperbole.  Just how stupid did the music industry think we were?…  Stupid enough to like how quiet CDs sounded between tracks whilst totally abolishing the music quality of the tracks themselves I suppose.

Of course audiophiles now know that any 16-Bit “D” of that era stands for “Death” of sound quality, especially for the first D in this rating as that meant the original studio work was recorded on 16-Bit digital audio tapes (DATs), which would always ensue with a DDD rating on a CD release.  But it can certainly also be f’d right up by converting stellar original analogue tapes to 16-Bit digital files for the purpose of mixing (i.e. “ADD”).  See Such a pity…

And with the digital death of the recordings themselves, the quality of high end audio reproduction components also withered on the vine.  Desperate to stay in business, many purveyors of high end audio gear sung the praises of the digital “revolution” and many manufactures tried to make some lemon aid out of the lemons the original recordings had become.

And, as the music quality failed miserably, listeners stopped caring and home stereos took a second seat to iPods and ear buds.  Enter the second digital “revolution” in the music industry, the era of MP3s, making any sort of high end audio quality completely hopeless.

Any modicum of high end audio remaining became more and more of a niche market and prices increased as such.  What’s so very ironic about this demise is that all through the 90s and up to around 2010 the primary front end source for nearly all high end audio was CDs, so listeners were chasing their tail paying more and more money to try to get good sound out of a hopeless source format to no avail.  That’s what I call the “dark ages” of high end audio.

Vinyl is back, though not necessarily for it’s better sound quality (The new (old) gear coming out).  And at the same time we are coming into the golden age of digital, with DSD formats just coming into vogue in the past couple years.  Though even the best digital release can’t match a carefully recorded all-analogue vinyl release, it’s come a long, long way from the days of the 16-Bit DAT recordings of the early 90s.  And… convenience as well as lack of vinyl’s surface noise is a legitimate trade-off for some.  And, as more people start to buy high end gear again and it goes from the esoteric realm and nudges back into mainstream, the prices will come down, which is already happening.

Losing the forest through the trees?…

First let me clarify that I’m an old school audiophile from back in the days of, “stick with the things that don’t claim to defy the laws of physics”.  Having said that, I was very much looking forward to experimenting with “modern” cables and interconnects once I’d built my reference systems.  Those now built, I’ve tried my share and, surprisingly but maybe not so surprisingly, haven’t found them to add sonic improvements over their solid quality and reasonably priced equivalents, much the same as used before the advent of esoteric (i.e. expensive) cables and interconnects (see Speaker Cables).

After listening to CDs yet again on a six digit reference system in Edmonton (with thousands of dollars worth of interconnects and cables) and doing A/B comparisons on my own reference systems at home, I can’t imagine why anyone listening to “Redbook” (44.1k/16 bit) compact discs would fuss over their cables or interconnects, which would be “losing the forest through the trees” in my opinion.

I performed extensive listening tests on a reference system at a high end dealer in Seattle around 8 years ago, including a DVD-A (PCM @ 96k/24 bit) release of George Benson’s “Breezin” vs. the same album on Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs (MFSL) Original Master (OM) vinyl.  If the vinyl was a 10/10 I gave the DVD-A a 4/10 (I later discovered that this particular DVD-A was a very poor recording).  I also did an A/B comparison of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” on SACD (a very good recording) vs. the MFSL OM vinyl release and gave it an 8/10.

I’ve subsequently done many more A/B comparisons of high quality vinyl vs. high definition digital recordings on my (far better) home reference systems and have found that, while there are certainly many exceptions (If one format is better than another, why doesn’t the music always sound better?…), my initial observations were essentially correct.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll sit down and listen to any of the music I like in the highest quality I can get it.   Vinyl if available and the analog signal path has been fully preserved (see What a pity… ), otherwise SACD, otherwise 24 bit PCM.  And, if all else fails, even Redbook PCM at 44.1k/16 bit.  But I doubt I’ll be inclined to sit down and listen to music recored that far down the quality chain since I experience listening fatigue pretty quickly with Redbook quality CDs (I was already experiencing it within the first 10 or 15 minutes on the reference system in Edmonton).  Whereas I find just the opposite to be true with music recorded via DSD, vinyl, or 24 bit PCM – I just want to keep listening and turning it up.  As for MP-3s, I listen to them too, all the time!  I just don’t sit down and listen to them.  See…  What I love about MP3s.

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?…

The lines begin to blur…

this is a super interesting interview with one of your neighbours (Dave) and a BIG DSD advocate (thank goodness)

this iconic quote says it all,

“One day she invited a dozen engineers and artists to do a blind test of three different audio formats. Analog tape recording, high-resolution digital (better than CD) and DSD. “Tape was still everyone’s choice in a blindfold test,” says Marenco, but they all agreed “that DSD was the closest thing to tape.””

and that has been my impression when I listen to DSD  on SACDs and compare it to vinyl.  still not analogue, but the next best thing and certainly the closest thing in today’s digi world.

the industry is catching up, now with faster computers, internet connections, and bigger hard drives.

we will most certainly see a movement towards DSD in the near future.  audiophiles, the ones who listen to digi anyway, will demand it.

“I told you so” post

“might be a few years before we see DSD take over.  but mark my words… it will.”

as i wrote this to you guys from Canada, the Acoustic Sounds (the de-facto standard in quality music content, including vinyl) catalog was sitting in my mail box here on Maui.

And… guess what it’s all about?…  DSD downloads and DSD DACs.  I knew it would play out this way, simply cause DSD sounds better.  The difference is immediately evident even on my medium-fidelity 5.1 HT system at my Pookela rental.  I’ve got numerous titles on both SACD and DVD-A (which runs PCM at 192k/24 bit) and have compared the two extensively. I’ve also compared them to vinyl and SACD comes far closer, and Acoustic Sounds says exactly the same thing as does every other audiophile I’ve met who loves vinyl like I do (the guy in Calgary even shared my love for the very fussy Denon 103R LOMC phono cartridge).

I’ve attached a scan from the opening page.  Then it was followed by numerous (overpriced) USB DSD DACs.  They are charging a premium for what they should have been providing all along, but PCM had a great deal of momentum since that was the format used for CDs at 44.1K/16 bit.  DACs (even USB DSD ones) are extraordinary simple devices since they operate primarily in the digital domain.  A few chip sets, an accurate word clock (important to reduce jitter, although “word clock” only applies to the PCM word, just plain “clock”, and a very fast one, for DSD), and a descent line stage output buffer are all they require to produce top-of-the-line (digi) sound quality.

Next… they will be trying to sell us all these titles we already own on SACD (in my case anyway) as DSD downloads for $25/album.  This is just plain wrong IMHO.  We gotta get our hands on a hackable PS3 to rip SACDs to DSD files soon before they are all gone!!!  I’m gonna run another want ad here on Maui but the chances are slim.  Dave…  you’ve got the specs for one a want ad the Bay Area  Andrew, LMK if you want the specs…

I will eventually rip my entire music collection, including vinyl, to DSD so I can easily travel with it.  There are 5.6k DSD recorders out there and one is in my future.  I should be able to get equivalent or better results recording records to DSD files as I did with a reel-to-reel tape recorder back in the 70s. And, a hard drive is a lot easier to travel with than a bunch of reel-to reel tapes 🙂



P.S. The Acoustic Sounds catalog is an excellent resource for modern, quality music content.  They offer 2 LP 45 RPM vinyl titles on 180g and 200g, as well as every digi format you could ask for (including PCM to support digi customers still on that format, which is most everyone).  I suggest subscribing, it’s free of course.  I often find the titles cheaper elsewhere, but they are leading this parade and were the one’s who put out Pink Floyd’s WYWH on 5.1 SACD and they have re-mastered many, many titles on both vinyl and SACD and even have their own vinyl production facility.  They not only sell quality music for the modern age, they create it!

Begin forwarded message:

careful… you might get the vinyl bug! 😉

i’ve got some big ideas in regard to music servers.  but…  we’ve gotta wait for the industry to catch up.  they are still in the PCM world and unfortunately that’s where most of the momentum is.  might be a few years before we see DSD take over.  but mark my words… it will.

if i have high end systems in Canmore, Maui, and maybe Utah down the road it’s gonna be necessary – i.e. carrying an external hard drive rather than duplicating my entire high def music collection (including vinyl) in two or even three places…

i’ll still continue to collect vinyl, but i’ll get a DSD recorder so i can sample it at 5.6 MHz and travel with it easily.  it will likely sound as good (or possibly even better) than very high quality reel-to-reel recordings i used to make.

Out of Print (OPP) music titles

ironically… it’s been mostly my DVD-As that having been going up in value since the format is dead and they are going OOP.

Steely Dan Gaucho on SACD? – bought 3 copies for $15 each and still worth $15 each
Steely Dan Gaucho on DVD-A? – bought 3 copies for $15 each and now worth $90 each

Of course, some SACD titles with stunning 5.1 surround mixes that went OOP are soaring in collectable value, such as Roxy Music Avalon and Bryan Ferry Boys and Girls, buy these are the exception rather than the rule with SACDs (thankfully!  even though i have collectable copies that i will sell later).  these have increased in value mainly because the only surround mix known to man is on them (in DSD quality) and only a limited number sold before they went OOP.

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.

Why I can’t listen to just part of Wagner

I never really heard Wagner and thought “what’s the big deal” until I listened to The Ring start to finish on a good system, which moved me to tears the first time I did so. Now I never listen to The Ring unless I’m in the mood to listen to it in its entirety. When you think about it it makes perfect sense.  It was written that way and when it was first performed in fact the only way to listen to it was live performances in their entirety since the original gammaphone wasn’t even invented until 24 years later.

It’s the same with albums that were released when the only way to listen to them was vinyl.   Most of the best albums were written to be listened to one side at a time as a complete composition.  This of course became lost in the world of MP3 players set on “shuffle”.

What I love about MP3s.

I have nothing against digital audio reproduction in general, even MP3’s.  I love that I can listen to music with headphones mounted inside my downhill mountain bike helmet, waterproof headphones surfing waves, and earbuds playing off an iPod shuffle road biking.  Not to mention having a few thousand tracks in my vehicles, all of which have iPod integration installed.  Try that with a turntable, eh?

When I gave up on sitting down and listening to music in the late 1980s since vinyl was gone and high definition digital hadn’t arrived on the scene yet, leaving only Redbook (44.1k/16bit) CDs, I figured I might as well make the best of the MP3 world and ripped all my CDs  into iTunes and put the tracks anywhere and everywhere.  and i still kept buying music.  and still kept listening to and enjoying music, all the time, for what it was.  and i only bought CDs cause i knew i might be able to sit down and listen to music again someday and i might as well have at least that level of quality, instead of the MP3 garbage for sale on iTunes.

it didn’t make sense until recently, with SACDs and vinyl (finally) making a comeback.  it was a long wait (as Lynn said, nigh on 20 years), but i figured enough listeners who still cared would survive long enough that it it would come back sooner or later, which it is now.  so now is a time of “best of both worlds” scenarios, exciting!

and yes… absolutely in regard the the HT improvements!  Amazing.  but even then i would venture to say that they were mostly just hype until Blu-ray came along and provided descent quality at the source.

i think you may be confusing SACDs with HT though.   They are completely separate and SACDs have survived in spite of HT, which does sampling in an entirely different way.  SACDs were a redesign, from the ground up as to how to make digital sound better.  and a very successful one.  They have survived in spite of the HT market, and most certainly not because of it (HT would love to see it disappear, it interferes with their marketing).  The mass market of AVRs and other HT stuff don’t want SACD around, it is one more thing to have to support.   That’s why the vast majority of Blu-Ray players don’t support it (Even Sony, who invented, often doesn’t support it on their blu-ray players).  I pointed you in the direction of one of the very few that does, Oppo, and you pay a very high premium for what they do, your unit retails for $500 vs. $99 for a regular blu-ray player.  And… the majority of SACD units are not HT players.  They do audio only, period.  Sometimes, no usually, only 2 ch audio at that.

The reason SACD and vinyl has survived is that it is truly better and enough people (barely enough) cared.  The fact that it is making a (modest) comeback tells me that maybe some who didn’t care before are starting to.  Maybe they have started listening to music again.  That is what was lost all along, after all.  Listening to music for music’s sake.

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.

Savour the music.

And, of course I’d much rather savour the music one album at a time as most of the best albums have been written that way. I never really heard Wagner and thought “what’s the big deal” until I listened to The Ring start to finish on a good system, which brought me to tears the first time I did so. Now I never listen to The Ring unless I’m in the mood to listen to it in its entirety. When you think about it it makes perfect sense.  It was written that way and when it was first performed in fact the only way to listen to it was live performances in their entirety since the original gammaphone wasn’t even invented until 24 years later.

The music we will never get to hear.

Talk about The Cure Disintegration on vinyl.

ok… so this guy and i are obviously singing the same tune.  maybe cause we were both into it during the “golden age” of hi-fi (the late 70s), and both worked at AofO at that time (BTW- where he mentions Sony/DSD he is referring to SACDs):

“full credit must be given to companies for Sony/DSD and dCS upsampling, but what’s the point of wasting 20 years to end up right where we started?

This time, though, unlike the solid-state fiasco, we leave behind a legacy of 20 years of low-resolution 44.1/16 digital recordings. It’ll take some pretty fancy fractal-analysis technology to add resolution that simply isn’t there in the data storage medium. Those bits fell on the floor during the first A/D conversion, never to be recovered, only guessed at by clever computer algorithms many years later. “

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.