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Positive Feedback ISSUE 1
june/july 2002


Digging Into DSD
by Kelly Tang, Ph.D, Assistant Professor in Composition & Musicology, NTU, Singapore


After nearly two decades, CD has made remarkable headway in extricating itself from the pulse-code-modulated mire of its origin. Employing high-tech DACs, savvy filter designs, and cleaner power supplies, current "affordable" players like the Linn Ikemi or the Electrocompaniet EMC-1 exhibit fluidity and warmth, circumventing the serrated "edge" that was the trademark of digital audio. It is ironic that these initial stirrings of musical life had to be wrought by farming the outermost boundaries of CD’s capabilities, but there is only restricted leeway for technical wizardry within the rigid enclosure demarcated by 16 bits and 44Khz. The onslaught of groundbreaking digital wonders in the nineties has fizzled to an awkward stasis in the new millennium, stalling the hopes of digi-philes that one day, up-sampling, 24-bit processing, or some other miracle cure would transcribe their CD libraries into quasi-analogue.

Despite the blaze of incredulous accolades inspired by the first SACD players, I was not eager to migrate to any format that would render my painstakingly-assembled CD collection obsolete. I secretly wished that SACD would wither and die. By mid-2000 however, it had become apparent that progress in CD player design had hit an impasse. In a largely stagnant market, the trickle of new high end machines had only diminishing improvements to offer. As it turns out, the "convergence" of high-end CD performance celebrated three years ago in Stereophile, was merely an early indication that the 44 kHz/16 bit well was fast drying up.

As a professional composer, I work regularly with symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles. I also produce live rock concerts on occasion. From the perspective of live music, CD playback seems doomed never to outgrow that endemic glare that blurs kaleidoscopic timbral colors into pale monochromatic shades. CD’s cramped dynamic range still suffocates climaxes, while expressive flow remains frozen by an antiquated sampling rate. Most dismaying is that unshakable lethargy that deflates even the most inspired performances. This left me no recourse but to reluctantly drag myself to a Sony SCD-1 demo, as to a long overdue visit to the dentist. A few moments of DSD magic was all it took, before the aching bane of 44 kHz/16 bit PCM was extracted from my life forever. In the world of SACD, stringed instruments writhe, scrape, and strain as they do in an orchestral performance. Grand pianos produce tones so weighty and expansive, they resonate within the gut of the listener. Brass chords radiate a naturally metallic halo. You feel the size of woodwind instruments and sense the materials they are made of. Timpani explode and resonate with irrefutable authority. SACD is the entirely more visceral experience musical reproduction I had always dreamed of. Within two weeks, my entire CD collection had been sold to finance a new Marantz SA-1.

After nine months with the SA-1, it became clear that you cannot simply "plug’n’ play" SACD. Vinyl adherents declaring that LP still sounds more musical probably get that notion from sloppy SACD setups. The workings of SACD are as digital as those of CD. If not delivered from vibration and power line interference, SACD will manifest the worst traits of digital audio.Marantz SA-1

There has been a growing trend towards ball bearing devices for isolating SACD mechanisms, and my SA-1 rocks and rolls atop Symposium Rollerblocks. These surpass even the respected DH and Black Diamond cones and shelves, revealing a transparent perspective into SACD’s life-sized, panoramic soundstage. Supporting the Rollerblocks is a Symposium Ultra Platform, which adds ultra impact and depth by absorbing vibration through its "constrained layer sandwich." A bristling fortress of mains filtering stands guard over my power line. The mainstay of these defences is the King Cobra power cord from Shunyata Research. Encapsulated by three-layers of noise-eating "stardust," it fleeces away copious amounts of interference from the AC and drains out internal hash generated by digital circuitry, providing an immaculately unsoiled sonic backdrop against which the vivacity of DSD can leap out. Those wondering how any power cord could be worth $2300 must witness the King Cobra’s singular ability to resurrect music from digital death.

The King Cobra engendered an intolerance for any residual noise, prompting me to enlist the latest "High Current" IIIC revision of the venerable Tice Powerblock ($2000). Tice does not seem to have made waves in the press lately. Therefore, I was surprised when the new Powerblock IIIC surpassed trendier products by unleashing such overwhelming dynamics, such an expansive soundstage, and such substantial, fleshed-out images from SACD. I never imagined filthy AC could rob digital of such vital qualities! Judge AC conditioners not by the noise they make in the press, but by the noise they suppress on your power line. I already had a Quantum Symphony line conditioner ($300), which exhibited an uncanny ability to animate DSD from within. I could not resist adding a second Symphony, and later, the turbo-charged Symphony Pro ($600), just to quadruple the fun! Quantum technology supposedly "organises the chaotic flow of electrons" in the AC. However strange this sounds, just remove the Symphonies and observe how the music promptly "turns off," like a disinterested lover!

At this point, a slight fog was still seeping through, misting up the extreme rear of the soundstage. This called for a filter with a radically different approach from the devices already in use. PS Audio’s new Ultimate Outlet (20-amp version) incorporates a "Balun" choke that swallows all common-mode noise in its vicinity. This potent design virtually vaporized that residual mist, allowing a much further and deeper into the roots of DSD recordings. The amount of air behind the performers was simply dizzying to behold. Significantly, the combined effect of these AC filters did not bog down musical vitality, but freed it up, bringing a more natural sense of flow to the music.

I used to find it incomprehensible that people would rough up their discs with cleaning fluids until I heard a CD treated with the Auric Illuminator. Digital audio images tend to sound gritty, as if they were pulverised at the molecular level. By improving optics, the Auric coating realigns the dispersed sonic fragments, restoring coherence to the sound image. The gel works superbly with SACD, pulling into sharper focus the wholesome, solid imagery latent within DSD recordings. However, don’t use it on Sonopress hybrid discs, as they will haze in reaction to the gel. Consequently, a "micro-coarseness" is always conspicuous with these untreated discs, compared to Auric-coated SACDs.

Such an elaborate concatenation of tweaks may seem untenably paranoid, but each accessory plays a crucial role in illuminating a different facet of DSD’s beauty. Judiciously configured, SACD playback reproduces music so viscerally real and convincing it elicits a disorienting sense of aural vertigo. This holds equally true for direct-to-DSD recordings as for the many magnificent vintage analogue tapes transferred to SACD.

As the growing ranks of new Super-Audio-philes have been discovering, SACD yields ready and bountiful sonic rewards in response to good tweaks, whereas tweaking CD is akin to scraping the bottom of the barrel. At its highest pinnacle, CD only serves to provide a faint whiff of the musical vistas yet to be harvested in SACD. CD is like paddling in your backyard swimming pool, while SACD plumbs the fathomless depths of a vast ocean. Bored of treading water? Try Deep Sea Diving, or, in short... DSD!