Positive Feedback ISSUE 60
march/april 2012

 

 

The Higher End: From an Editor's Notebook - Downloadable DSD
by David W. Robinson

 

It's about time that this old column of mine was back.

Back in our print days, every issue of Positive Feedback would lead off with some reflections from me, covering whatever was on my mind/in my notebook as a given issue was pulling out from the station. There's something to be said for free-form essays on the fly, as opposed to formal essays or review projects. They're improvisational, and give me some elbow room… a good thing. And it was a helpful way to get the news about developments out to our readers directly, without formal reviewing.

So I'm going to try them again, on as regular a basis as possible.

In which our hero meditates…

Downloadable DSD:

"And there's a slow, slow train comin', up around the bend!" – Bob Dylan

What if we decouple DSD from SACD?

I've been thinking about this a lot over the past few months. And I'm not alone.

What's more, it is a reality. Now.

Playback Designs MPD-5 DAC… do DSD from a hard drive via USB!

There are very significant new developments in DSD-ville. As Andreas Koch reported in our last issue (Issue59/dsd2.htm), a collection of audio industry companies and labels have committed themselves to an Open Standard for DSD-over-USB. This will come to include stereo (mono included) and multi-channel DSD files. The basic framework of the stereo specification is done; the multi-channel is under construction. With this development, which allows the piping of DSD files (e.g., .DFF and .DSF) over USB from a computer's DSD-compatible media player/server to a DSD-capable DAC, the era of downloadable DSD is now arriving. Andreas informs me that a significant number of companies have now expressed support for the standard, or are ready to do so. This will smooth the way for downloadable DSD to become a viable format for music labels and audio distributors, since the technical aspects of delivery and playback are now being overcome quite successfully.

In fact, I am downloading a pure DSD recording from Channel Classics of an album of music by Shostakovich as I am writing this column. Jared Sacks and company have developed a great interface and downloader for their DSD files, one that makes it pretty easy to purchase their recordings in whatever format you want them…including the 64fs (2.8224 mHz) .DFF files that I am downloading and listening to right now. The clarity and purity of DSD over the Playback Designs MPS-5 with USB-X interface sets a true reference standard for our listening rooms…and you can have it right now!

Personally, I consider this to be the most important news in high-resolution formats in many years. It's no secret that I believe DSD, the key format transported on SACDs, to be the true reference format for fine audio. All the way back in 1999, I published that this new format represented "…mic feeds and master tapes for the masses…."

SACD was the optical format for the secure delivery of DSD files (e.g., .DFF and .DSF) via an SACD player. Those files are not bound to an optical format, however; provided that one has the files on hard disk, and a way to deliver them to a DSD-compatible DAC via a DSD-capable music server/playback application, then the resulting analog output can be sent to your audio system in the usual way.

Until recently, the only way to hear DSD files directly was to have a DSD recorder with its A/D and D/A sections playing back the files from hard disk or magneto-optical disc. Mike Pappas did this for me back in 2001, when he brought the Genex DSD recorder to my listening room…we were both on our way to VSAC 2001, where his recordings wowed the crowds. Hearing those original big-band jazz recordings so directly was truly amazing… they really lit up my listening room!

Mike Pappas' 8-channel DSD Genex recorder in my listening room, back in 2001… DSD straight from the M-O discs.

DSD Hardware and Software

These days, you can easily purchase very portable DSD recorders from Korg or Tascam, or higher-end gear like the Sonoma workstation or alternatives from companies like Pyramix/Merging Technologies, EMM Labs, Genex, Mytek, or dCS. In fact, there are companies that use Korg recorders to provide source material for audio shows/events (e.g., Kubala-Sosna) or to playback original DSD (64fs) or Double DSD (128fs) recordings, (e.g., MA Recordings).

DSD-capable media server software isn't lacking, either. On the Apple side of things, Channel D's Pure Music handles DSD and Double DSD files very nicely, with an iTunes-like interface. Merging Technologies, out of the Pyramix group, is working on a DSD and Double-DSD (plus hi-resolution PCM) media server application called Emotion. I'm in the beta group for emotion, and can tell you that it's an outstanding player, with support for Windows 7, DSD-over-USB, and all key PCM file types. JRiver likewise has a Media Center player that handles DSD. The price is only $49.98, accessed from the help menu in the trial version. I'll be checking JRiver Media Center out next week, in fact, in conjunction with the Mytek Stereo 192-DSD DAC.

Finally, Signalyst has a media player for Windows and Linux called HQPlayer that not only supports DSD, built claims support for multi-channel file playback. Multi-channel DSD via download is a promising niche market for DSD, and is already being addressed by the DSD Open Standard Group. HQPlayer has a list of tested hardware that it is compatible with, including the Mytek unit.

The Mytek Stereo 192-DSD DAC: DSD on your desktop!

Speaking of Mytek, I'm really stoked to check out their Stereo 192-DSD DAC. This compact wonder comes in several colors and configurations, handles PCM through 192/24, but also does DSD.

As you can see from Mytek's product literature above, there is a wealth of I/O options available.

The most amazing thing about this new Mytek is its price point: Michael Jurewicz, President and CTO of Mytek Digital, has priced the Stereo 192-DSD DAC at an MSRP of $1500, a truly groundbreaking price point for a DSD-capable DAC. Michael tells me that he's selling out of this DAC just as fast as he can build them… I can believe it.

And after this column is published, I rather expect that he'll sell a lot more of them.

DSD Download Sites

We are in the early stages of DSD download materials and sites, although I'm sure that we'll see that changing over the next year or so. Some companies really do get it, and are committed to DSD for the highest in uncompromising quality. For now, and to get up to speed, you can download DSD files from the following sites:

2L; they also have some downloads at the e-Onkyo site at http://music.e-onkyo.com/goods/detail.asp?artist=2L

Blue Coast Records at http://www.bluecoastrecords.com/blue-coast-collection

Channel Classics at http://www.channelclassics.com/dsd.html

Cybele Records has a good set of DSD downloads, intermixed with other format selections; note that you will arrive with the site in German, but then you can quickly select English. Not all titles have DSD files…you'll have to search…but DSD Surround downloads are available on some titles.

e-Onk yo (http://music.e-onkyo.com/contents/hd.asp and http://music.e-onkyo.com/goods/detail.asp?artist=その他・ DRMフリー )...though you'll have to find the DSD listings among descriptors that are mainly Japanese. It's not impossible, but it is challenging.

Of course, part of me asks why Japanese audiophiles should be treated to downloadable DSD, while most of the rest of us are not?

Good question.

While researching I discovered the useful site PS3SACD.COM, which has a listing of available online DSD download sites. Looks like it's regularly updated, so I'd have an eye on this site. There are some good onesy-twosy sites out there worth checking out.

Anyway, of the options listed above, Jared Sacks' Channel Classics site sets the interface standard here, and I want to draw your attention to that site in particular. Channel Classics has developed a very polished and mature online sale and download site, with downloads available in various formats: DSD, PCM out to 192/24 (FLAC), and MP3. The transaction system works very smoothly, the real-time .ZIP archive assembler does its job efficiently, the Java-based download manager is pretty intuitive (it even handles the file unzipping at the far end), and the downloads show good throughput generally. I recommend the Channel Classics site as a model for DSD e-commerce… other labels should be checking this out very carefully.

In fact, the main question here is: where are the major labels with downloadable DSD?

The quick answer is: clueless, as usual. In fact, the major labels have trouble with anything other than iTunes/Amazon, some streaming media, and the meltdown in CD sales. There are some great catalogs that would generate some very good sales if the titles were available in DSD… in fact, this is one of the few areas of demonstrable pent-up audiophile demand, now that DSD over USB, the DACs, and the media players are all coming together.

The more important question is: where are the good guys… for example, HDTracks.com, Acoustic Sounds, and Linn Records…when it comes to downloadable DSD?

These are clearly three significant players in the downloadable hi-rez game. (For this reason, I leave iTunes and Amazon out of consideration; they prefer the hammered-resolution formats.) My conversations with various folks in the industry indicate that HDTracks and Acoustic Sounds are looking at downloadable DSD quite carefully. It wouldn't surprise me to see them put a line in the water in the near future; there is an emerging market for downloadable DSD, and thousands of titles that have been mastered to that format already. No big production overhead here…seems like an obvious thing to do.

The very thought of Chad Kassem or David Chesky putting downloadable DSD online is enough to make an audiophile/music lover smile. They have the smarts and the infrastructure to deliver the goods and make the format fly off the virtual shelves. I likewise hope that Winston Ma of First Impression Music will support downloadable DSD; he has a library of brilliant recordings that exist in DSD format…it would be phenomenal to be able to experience these via DSD playback.

On the other hand, Linn Records doesn't seem to be doing anything right now, although I have approached them about downloadable DSD. Their site has a number of good titles, and from more than just Linn Records, but there is nary a sign of the DSD files that had to have been created when their SACDs were produced. I'd love to see these accessible to audiophiles and music lovers everywhere.

It will take time for all of this to sort out, which will take much of 2012, I suspect. As the list of download sites increases, I'll keep you posted.

A Conclusion… For Now

The future seems to hold a growing prospect of DSD (and SACD) issues available to us. What I am hearing already in our listening room here via the Playback Designs MPS-5 with USB-X interface indicates that there is a level of exceptional performance that can be had from downloaded DSD files. While SACD title releases have actually been increasing for the past two years (http://www.ps3sacd.com/news.html, January 1, 2012 news item and graph), we are also seeing a potentially large window of DSD titles available via download. By unbundling SACD and DSD, labels/distributors would be able to harvest greater profits, while simultaneously delivering their recordings in stereo and surround modes without any compromise in sound quality whatsoever. If this growing movement hits critical mass, there is no doubt that both the recording companies and audiophiles will benefit significantly from this breakthrough.

Stay tuned. I'm watching these developments very carefully, and will share updates with you as regularly as possible.

BTW: Those of you who will be in attendance at THE Show Newport Beach 2012 are hereby invited to attend a panel discussion about downloadable DSD that I'll be moderating. We don't have the specific times yet, but one session will be on Saturday, and one on Sunday. Each will be 90 minutes in length, with time allocated for audience Q&A.

As of this time, the panel participants include Michael Bishop of Five/Four Productions, Bruce Brown of Puget Sound Studios, Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records, David Chesky of HDTracks.com (schedule permitting), Gus Skinas of the Super Audio Center, Rob Robinson of Channel D, Tom Caulfield for Channel Classics, and Jonathan Tinn of Playback Designs.

If you are interested in DSD and its distribution via Internet download, this will be the session for you to catch, definitely!

 

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