Tag Archives: DSD

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

A whole new experience

Octave Record’s first release, pianist Don Grusin’s Out Of Thin Air, was a huge success and much loved by those who bought it on SACD or download. We’re nearly sold out of the final edition of the SACD.

The recording is one I am very familiar with, having heard it any number of times on the big system. It’s one of the best piano recordings I have ever heard.

And now we’re getting closer to releasing Out Of Thin Air on vinyl. We will press a limited edition of 500 LP’s on 180-gram virgin vinyl, mastered at 45 rpm and released on 4-discs.

But here’s the crazy thing. Having been personally involved in the process from day one, as Gus worked with the cutting engineer, I am flabbergasted by the sound. It is Soooo different (in a magical sort of way) than the master DSD from which it was cut.

How can this be?

These discs were cut directly from the DSD master, something almost never done (as we’ve learned). To facilitate the transfer our chief engineer, Bob Stadtherr, designed a DSD delay splitter that made certain the real-time cutting head feed (that sets the groove width in accordance with the signal amplitude) is identical to the delayed musical signal. Every step of the way we made certain the purity of the original master DSD tracks were perfectly preserved.

It should sound pretty darned close to the master.

It does not. There’s a vinyl magic that sets it apart from its source.

This drives me frickin’ bonkers. I know we’ve been many times down this road, but still…

It’ll likely be a few months before we have the finished discs so you can hear for yourself.

I think I am going to go run some cold water over my head.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl

Too many “weeds” here from Paul, but interesting to some.

Sample rates

There sure is a lot of confusion over sample rates. We hear about CD-quality sample rates at 44.1kHz (and its multiples), or another common sample rate, 48kHz (and its multiples), and then there are multiple higher sample rates (176kHz, 192kHz as examples) and of course DSD.

Lots of numbers. All very confusing.

Perhaps a short primer would help.

First, what is a sample rate? Simply put, it’s a snapshot of the audio signal. A slice of time where we capture the voltage level of the music signal. The number of times per second we take that snapshot determines the sample rate. (Bit depth determines the loudness range we can capture within each sample)

First, what’s the difference between 44.1kHz and 48kHz and why do the two exist? The former is what Sony/Philips set as a standard for the Compact disc. When we do higher sample rate versions of this standard we get 88.2kHz, 176kHz and so forth. The latter, 48kHz, is the standard the “pros” use (because, well, they can’t use something as conventional as consumers, now can they?). 48kHz gives us multiples we’re familiar with like 96kHz, and 192kHz.

What’s painful about the above two standards is the difficulty moving between them. When recording studios record at “pro” sample rates of 48kHz they then have to interpolate down a few Hz to 44.1kHz to make something we poor consumers can listen to.

Silliness.

When we nerds talk about sample rates we use different terminology. We base our discussion on how many multiples of the base frequency (44.1kHz) are in play. So, for instance, the CD sample rate is referred to as 1fs. Its multiples are 2fs, 3fs, etc.

The sampling frequency or sampling rate, fs, is the average number of samples obtained in one second (samples per second). Think of 1fs as the minimum baseline to capture 20Hz to 20kHz.

While we might be familiar with all the differing PCM sample rates, DSD brings in a whole other dimension with its far higher sample rates. For example, standard DSD is 64fs while double rate DSD is twice that at 128fs. So what’s that mean? Well, 1fs is running at 44,000 times per second, while 64fs is running at 64 times that frequency, or 2,822,400 times per second! That’s fast, man.

And, while DSD is so much higher of a sample rate as to raise a few eyebrows, it’s instructive to remember it’s a 1-bit system compared to a basic 16-bit system like PCM (remember that the number of bits is needed to measure amplitude). This boils down to something less hair raising if we do a bit of math. 64fs (1xDSD) runs at a very high clock rate of 2,822,400 Hz (2.8mHz). Now, simply divide that by 16 (the number of bits in a PCM word) and guess what you get? A sample rate of 176kHz. Sound familiar? 176kHz is the same as 4fs PCM. So, while PCM requires 16 bits to adequately measure amplitude, and DSD needs 16 single bits to do the same, it all kind of works out in the end. (Don’t take what I just wrote about DSD and 16 bits as literal. I use it only as a means of helping form a picture. DSD is far more complicated, using a Sigma-Delta Modulator, noise shaping, etc.)

Without getting too much more in the weeds, that’ll give you a brief simplistic overview of sampling rates.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl

I’ve got great DSD recordings, as well as great PCM recordings. Which format doesn’t tell the story on how good a recording sounds. Lots of other reasons why things sound the way they do.

Is higher better?

Working with DSD and PCM has been a real learning experience. The two formats sound different from each other though it is unclear why. Is it the analog to digital conversion processor? The DACs? That DSD is closer to analog? They are all different technologies.

On the one hand, DSD runs at a much higher sample rate than any PCM. Single rate DSD is 64 times higher sample rate than CD quality PCM. Yet, there’s not much more audio bandwidth available because of that higher sample rate.

And then there’s PCM. Few today would argue that 44.1kHz is the bare minimum required for decent reproduction. Anything less and we lose the audible frequency range. But double that, and now we can capture twice what we are capable of hearing. And 4 times that (176kHz) and we’re able to capture 80kHz. Much more than we can hear and more than sufficient for phase linearity.

Yet more seems better: 2X, 4X, 64X, 128X, and so on.

We don’t know if the “better” we are hearing is due to the change in architecture or sample rate or both.

But, in a way, what does it matter?

I have heard CDs trounce 192kHz versions just as I have heard DSD smash anything PCM.

In the end, I don’t think higher is necessarily better any more than I think lower is always better when it comes to distortion.

Gotta listen.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

No guarantees

“Flummoxed.” Now there’s a word you don’t hear that often, but it perfectly describes the problem so many people struggle with when it comes to sample rates and bit depths.

How can a high sample rate and full bit depth master sound significantly worse than a lower sample/bit rate track?

The answer is somewhat the same as how great ingredients don’t always taste as good as poor ones: why the best artist paints don’t always make a better painting, lower distortion doesn’t guarantee a great amp, or a big engine the fastest car.

It isn’t the ingredients or technology that matter as much as the skill of the creator.

In the same way a talented photographer can use an iPhone to produce a better picture than an amateur with the planet’s fanciest camera gear, the quality of ingredients matters most as a final touch rather than the starting point.

Just because a record is mastered at a famous label, a release is in quad rate DSD, or the track was little more than a mere CD, does not in itself help us determine its sonic merits.

We need to listen.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Blind squirrels

There’s an old saying that even a blind squirrel on occasion finds a nut. A humorous aphorism about stumbling into success.

The more we get involved in the recording industry the more convinced I become that the paucity of great recordings comes from the same set of circumstances dictating the quality of the average home stereo. Most people wouldn’t know what we audiophiles consider truly great sound if their lives depended on it. Run-of-the-mill recording engineers included. The majority of their work is by audiophile standards mediocre. Once in a while, they stumble upon a great recording.

At Octave Records, we record exclusively in DSD because it sounds better than PCM and analog tape. But it’s a pain in the butt to edit which is why few engineers take the time and effort to use it. And, if what you’re working with sounds great to you, why would you bother?

Audiophiles know what remarkable sound is.

We’re a rare breed of sighted squirrels.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Most of what we listen to is PCM and with a great DAC, like the T+A DACS’s, PCM can sound fantastic.

Vinyl best

In my earlier post, Audio Pedigree I waxed on about how nice it would be to know the true origins of our music’s recordings. Remastered vinyl “improved” by digital enhancement from the original analog tape is rarely as good as the original and often worse.

This prompted a few juicy questions about our own Octave Records process as we move into vinyl. While we’re completely transparent as to the recording methods and source materials, it would seem to some that vinyl mastered from DSD falls into a similar category as the aforementioned digital remasters I do not like.

Not so.

The ultimate quality of vinyl is achieved by what we used to call Direct-to-Disc recording. Where the long-ago norm was to first record on magnetic tape then transfer to vinyl, a few labels skipped the tape recorder altogether. Artists would play live while vinyl cutting engineers went direct to the lathe. These direct-to-disc recordings were amazing but not because of any superior cutting techniques.

What made direct-to-disc recordings sound so great was the elimination of the magnetic tape recorder. That was it. Tape recorders have limited dynamic range—less than what’s possible on a vinyl disc.

So the problem is in the recorder, which is why it seemed to make sense to record digitally. Digital recorders have dynamic range capabilities that far exceed the limitations of vinyl. Thus, with digital, it should be possible to obtain the same performance as we got with direct-to-disc. And while that is true when it comes to dynamics, it isn’t true when it comes to sounding like the live event.

This is where we draw the line between PCM and DSD. PCM can often sound artificial while DSD in the right hands sounds analog-live.

A new era is upon us. It is now possible to create direct-to-disc quality vinyl without requiring the musicians to play live.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

I purchased this from PS Audios website and will be able to hear it in its native DSD glory. I ask all of you to buy this CD, as the music seems very good and the effort Paul makes to bring stuff like this to market, is deserving of our support.

Temporary Circumstances

Boy, talk about aptly named. Octave Record’s latest release, Temporary Circumstances, is more than half gone. We just launched it yesterday.

This is one hell of a great recording and tasty as it can be musically.

We had to commit to a fixed number of SACDs due to our Austrian pressing plant’s lead times. So, when this batch is gone that’s it. If you want one, I suspect you’d best go to the website and grab it.

Download bundles will always be available.

We do plan on releasing a limited run of virgin vinyl 45rpm pressings—probably 500 pieces—sometime next month if we’re able. Gus and our engineering team have struggled to get a clean cut from the DSD masters. Seems the extended bandwidth and the nature of DSD are upsetting the cutting lathes. To solve this our chief engineer, Bob Stadtherr, designed and handcrafted a solution. It involves a new type of device unseen in the industry. Turns out the cutting head and the preview track (which knows in advance of the cutting process what to expect in loudness) are delayed so the cutting equipment works together. Tradition has two identical masters feeding each system, one slightly ahead of the other. This can be tricky, but more importantly, it relies upon equipment whose quality we cannot control. Bob’s custom FPGA based solution takes in a single master file and sorts everything out to the exact DACs we wish to use, then reclocks everything, thus maintaining our level of quality from the direct master DSD files. Wicked cool work Bob.

We’ll let you know when the vinyl’s ready.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Audio pedigree

Pedigrees authenticate bloodline lineage. They’re important for dogs, royals, and source materials.

If you’re hoping to purchase an analog recording, it’s not genuine if it was first recorded digitally. Which is why there’s often so much confusion around modern LPs or even remasters. I shake my head when I learn a particular vinyl LP released remaster was first digitally transferred from analog tape.

That’s a mutt.

In a similar vein, it’s unhelpful when labels offer us versions of their libraries in multiple formats without being clear as to their pedigree. First recorded in PCM then released in both DSD and analog does not a DSD or analog recording make.

Here’s a vote for transparency into proper breeding.

If I want to purchase only purebred DSD recordings, I want an accurate pedigree.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

I don’t necessarily agree with this, but PS Audio is heavily invested in DSD, with their top of the line DAC, converting all PCM recordings to DSD. At its best and that means the recording and playback abilities of our stereo systems being able to pay back DSD, DSD does sound better than PCM.

However, almost all of what I have, and by a lot, is PCM and it sounds fantastic, as long as the recording allows.

Sweeping statements

Here’s a subject I am perhaps more guilty of than most. The practice of making a sweeping statement about how everything is one way or the other. This is wrong and this is right. This matters and that does not. This guy’s a liar, and this one always tells the truth.

The problem with this line of communication is two-fold: nothing is always one way or the other and we cannot know everything.

I find myself making sweeping statements in an effort to emphasize a point important to me. DSD always sounds better than PCM. And you know what? In the examples I have experienced, that happens to be true. Unequivocally true. Thus it must be universally true—only, it isn’t.

This is how divides happen. When all you have ever experienced suggests one conclusion, then it must be the same for everyone else—which is true only in the case where others have experienced exactly what you have.

If our goal is to effectively communicate then perhaps it’s best to include the caveat “in my experience”. That’s a hard one to get wrong.

I’ll do my best to be better at that.

 

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Format wars

Whatever happened to the format wars? We lost sleep over FLAC , WAV, DSD vs. PCM, MQA in competition with everything else.

Did our playback equipment suddenly get so good that these various formats now perform with varying degrees of excellence rather than acceptability?

I can tell you that playback of 44.1kHz through DirectStream is so close to higher resolution formats that one has to question the need to purchase higher resolution media. But that’s just us in a sea of other DACs.

Have we, as an industry, elevated playback quality to such a degree that the wars are over? Is there a white flag flying that I missed?

It’s hard to know if the most vocal among us got tired of the battle, or found peace in the improved performance.

I do appreciate a lull in the battles.