“Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.”
Those are the words of Bill Hicks – stand-up comedian a vocal supporter of psychedelic drugs. It doesn’t take much Google search work to find evidence of Hicks extolling the virtues of mushrooms in contrast to alcohol and nicotine [link, NSFW]. Essentially he testified to heightened empathy and awareness through which all sensory experiences are elevated. He’d often be quoted that his ‘third eye was squeegee clean’.
Remember Bill Hicks’s words on mushrooms – I’ll be coming back to them.
The AURALiC Vega (US$3499) has brought me my first taste of DSD – a relatively new soft hi-res format that began life at the core of SACD. Its aim: better dynamic range and wider frequency response than CD.
DSD64 is what I’ve been listening to. It’s a 1-bit format with a sample rate of 2.8224mHz. That’s 2822.4kZ, 64x the 44.1kHz sample rate of Redbook; itself 16 bit. Check out the Well-Tempered Computer’s DSD page for a deeper technical drilling on the DSD format.
Regular readers will know that I don’t listen to ‘audiophile’ music. You know: chick-with-guitar stuff (both obscure and well known), Nils Lofgren playing live, The Eagles (any album), traditional jazz and classical pieces. There’s nothing wrong with any of it, only that it gets hammered into oblivion at hi-fi shows and audiophile gatherings. I’ve since grown allergic to it. Someone, pass the anti-histamine.
And yet – nearly all of the freely available (both paid and free) DSD content is that music. Check out the list of DSD download websites – as well as DSD-ready DACs – over at Michael Lavorgna’s excellent Audiostream.
The question remained: how does an indie-rock or electronica fan assess DSD? Answer: SACD rips. As the Sony/Philips hi-resolution disc format locks down the DSD with encryption, this lends such rips a questionable legality. Several audiophile chums stopped by with their hard-drives of their own rips.
I wanted to get as close to audiophile territory as possible with my choices for DSD listening. I went with Donald Fagen, Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel. Some Nick Drake too.
First up, I sat down with Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly. My listening notes rang out with comments on superior channel separation, extra detail leading to more textural information (the shimmering cymbals that bring in “I.G.Y.”) and deeper saturation of tonal colours (the keyboard that drives “Greenflower Street”). I scribbled something about significantly improved micro-dynamics too (the elastic bounce of “New Frontier”). The entire album communicated more air throughout – a metaphorical opening of ALL windows in between the Magnepan MMG. This was a sensory experience that recalled Bill Hicks’ words on psychedelics – the window on music had been squeegee cleaned. My ears felt squeegee cleaned. With a first class recording, master and playback format to hand, my senses were squeegee cleaned.
Dark Side Of The Moon. I noted a soupçon more elegant decay on Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” (2003 remaster) than its Redbook equivalent. Interestingly, the 2011 Discovery Edition Redbook closed the gap on the DSD. The delta moved from small to marginal. A Redbook FLAC of Peter Gabriel’s “This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)” sounded a little more brittle, a shade more rigid when played back-to-back against the DSD of the same. Tonal colours were tenuously more greyed, bass propulsion marginally leaner.
So and Dark Side Of The Moon are long-standing, all-time favourites from my teenage years. When I dig ’em out for a listen it’s like spending time with old friends. That the Knickerbocker Gloried DSD files of two favourite albums sound ever-so-slightly better than the vanilla scooped FLAC doesn’t necessarily equate to my enjoying the music more. I guess it all comes down to perspective.
It’s hopefully obvious from my adjective choices that I’m talking about differences that don’t amount to more than a single percent; smaller deltas than changing DACs. Probably on par with switching out an interconnect. A well mastered Redbook CD can – and does – hold a candle to DSD. A remastered CD might bring more improvement over and above an older SACD issue. Quality matters up and down the chain, from recording studio to lounge room. Most good home setups will readily expose crappy mastering. I’m looking at you Arcade Fire.
Digging for fire. The Pixies’ Bossanova got the A/B treatment. The orginal CD (ripped to FLAC) is a little rigid and uptight when compared to the MFSL mastered DSD version. The former offers thicker mid-bass whilst the latter is altogether softer. These are most likely mastering differences. What I think is more prominent with DSD is elastic bounce with drum hits and bass plucks and tonality is painted from a larger palette. Listening to this MFSL SACD rip was an incredible rock n roll thrill ride but the 16/44 FLAC just ain’t that far behind it. It’s only via immediate and direct contrast that vanishingly small deltas can be called out.
Here’s where the double-blind boys would have a field day: I sat a friend in front a 16/44 FLAC of “Sledgehammer” and told him it was DSD. “That sounds amazing!”, he exclaimed. Ha! Does that prove that a well-recorded, nicely mastered Redbook version is sufficient? Possibly. The quality of mastering and recording would seem to have more impact on the listener experience than whether DSD or Redbook is deployed at the end of the chain. DSD reproduction of a poor recording or master will still cause you to wince.
Of course, there could be another explanation for the short quality jump from Redbook to DSD: the DAC itself. AURALiC’s Vega lends 16/44 source material a hi-res vibe. It’s as if one’s CDs have been dipped in DSD and/or coated in hi-res. No glare, no MSG but plenty of weight and spaciousness. There’s a graceful ease to its ability to trawl for detail that’s reminiscent of NAD’s Direct Digital recipe. Transients slice with sharpness and softness. Imagine using a sharper knife to cut an apple – this simple task feels easier, more graceful.
I’ll be writing more about the AURALiC’s Redbook-handling and (hopefully) pre-amp abilities in due course. DSD gets a separate piece because it’s still a fringe concern in my opinion – for bleeding edge audiophiles only. HDTracks have stated they currently have no plans to sell it. You can’t blame them – file sizes are large (DSoTM is 1.8Gb) and they are presumably still trying to pull customers into the hi-res PCM space, itself a niche within a niche. This renders DSD a niche (super hi-res) within a niche (hi-res) within a niche (digital audio).
Besides, the DSD you hear on SACD was most likely sourced from a PCM master.
It’s a nice-sounding niche though and if you have access to some music you like in this format, I urge you to give it a whirl for fun. Always make sure you’re having fun whatever you’re listening to. With the AURALiC on both DSD and PCM decoding duties, I am. The paucity of source material choices renders DSD 99% irrelevant. The Vega’s footwork with PCM dances the remaining 1% out of the room.
- Metrum Hex
- REDGUM RGi60
- Magnepan MMG
- Peachtree Nova125
- 47Labs Lens
- Pink Floyd – Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)
- Nick Drake – A Treasury (2004)
- Peter Gabriel – So (1985)
- Pixies – Bossanova (1990)
- Donald Fagen – The Nightfly (1982)