Ask the right question

November 16, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

Sorting out recording qualities from the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of choices of high-resolution DSD offerings can be a challenge. We go to a label's offerings and read the blurb, listen to the sampler, and then roll the dice.

More often than not, high-resolution DSD releases were not recorded in DSD. Instead, they were "remastered". If done correctly, these can sound good but, in my experience, never as good as when they were originally recorded in either DSD or analog tape.

Ask the right question before you buy. If the source was from analog tape, transferred to DSD, then you're off to a good start. Your chances of acquiring a great recording are good. If the source was direct from the microphones to DSD, then too you're likely in for a treat.

Unfortunately, most offerings I see in the high-end music market started out life as PCM recordings and later were transcoded to DSD. This makes no sense to me. All the advantages of DSD capture of the original analog are forsaken. The only possible benefit might be if the PCM were first converted to analog, rejiggered and remastered to sound good, then transferred to DSD.

But that too is a compromise.

Asking the right question will get you closer to the right answer when it comes to purchasing your media.

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37 comments on “Ask the right question”

  1. Correct.
    But who would have thought that the whole mass of digitally provided music (PCM), which is probably 99%, is questioned that way now compared to DSD and analog…

    1. It’s probably 99.99% and is only questioned by about 0.01% of people, and that’s probably being generous. There are probably as many people who think the earth is flat or the moon is made from cheese.

        1. There was a risk of a cheese discussion. My turntable was made a short distance from Wensleydale, but it's not made of cheese. I could live with a turntable platter made of aged Pecorino, but I suspect my wife would eat it (if she got there before me).

          Analogue to DSD is apparently one of their main audio workflows.

  2. I've heard some fantastic remasters, where the original analogue studio recordings
    were made in the 1970's...I suspect that DSD wasn't an option back then.

    "Compromise"...a key concept in home-audio music reproduction.

  3. Virtually all DXD, DSD and SACD over the last 20 years have been done on Pyramix, from Bob Ludwig (they have 5 Pyramix set-ups) to 2L in Norway.

    The choice of the use of DXD or DSD at each stage of the workflow is clearly explained by Merging, see page 7 of their guide.

    There are lots of different workflows, but the reason for using DXD capture is the basic need to mix and edit and the fact that Pyramix say the number of conversions should be minimised.

    So the reason why the majority or recordings are captured in DXD is because that is what Pyramix advise you should do.

    From Pyramix’s perspective, DXD (which they say they invented) is ultra-high rate PCM for music capture without the alleged issues of normal or high rate PCM.

    So if a 2L DSD file was captured in DXD, it is likely because they were using Pyramix’s recommended workflow, as demanded by the particular project. There is an interesting article with lots of pictures here.

  4. Here’s a link from Cookie and the gang.

    Note the originating file format…. And see Paul’s line regarding capture above. Put 2 & 2 together.

    There seems to be some major sides of the fence disagreements happening on the recording side.

    Not that long we were told that DSD playback (as done the TS way) was the answer. Now we’re being told not only do you need a DSDAC MK2 you also need to ensure the recording is being done in DSD and that as a minimum it started life from tape or was recorded in 4xDSD.

    Understanding that high rate DSD rate is ‘technically superior’ for capture I understand.
    I’m not going to buy a music recording that is ‘technically superior’ based on just that fact. In fact that superiority is probably the last thing on the to buy check list. Music I like 1st.

    It gets deeper than that. Let’s assume that Paul’s way is the correct way and he has found every sonic flaw in pcm. To truly compare and show the world he has to record the exact same session in a minimum of 2 formats at the exact same time. Leave them unmixed and unmastered and make them available so the ‘audiophile’ consumer and recording industry can compare. Direct to digital so to speak. No human (or machine) involved other than the mic set up and a level control set to be exactly the same.

    Then there’s the issue of the playback DAC. It can’t be doing any conversions if we’re to truly compare. So the DSDAC MK2 is out of the running for true comparisons of formats. As is any playback DAC that changes the format.

    Personally I find these discussions interesting, but they’ll do nothing to influence my music choices. They may have a small influence on which format to purchase for the formats available.

    1. Yes to what Mike said. I want to make my own choices about what music I want to listen to and I find that most of my PCM CD’s sound just fine to me, not as much by streaming but quite satisfactory to excellent on physical media.

      Suggest watching the YouTube video of Bernie Grundman speak about his feelings about analog versus digital and why he feels that analog released from the original analog tapes is the superior medium to reproduce music in the best possible way. He’s not a fan of any kind of digital reproduction especially DSD releases and he gives his explanation of why he feels this way.

    2. I held out for a long time, but now enjoy streaming with (in my case) lossless Apple Music content. I now spend more than 90 percent of my listening there. Sometimes I ask Siri to just play a genre and enjoy what comes up next. When I find something new and interesting, I add it to my virtual library, where I can later listen to it in my main system or remotely through headphones. It’s been somewhat refreshing.

      Streaming DSD content is miles away, and there isn’t much true DSD content as described by Paul. It’s quite an investment for a small number of esoteric recordings, and not one that I care to chase.

  5. Like Mike, when I’m choosing new music the fact that it may be recorded in DSD is not at the forefront of my mind. Artist, genre and musical style are the key factors. If it is DSD, HDCD, SBM or has any other potential nods to the audiophile, indicators that care has been taken in its production, then that is a bonus. The issue I find with DSD is Disc Supply Dire.

    1. I’m happy that guys like Mike and Richtea are getting to heart of the matter by making their listening preferences their priorities towards the emotional content regardless of format that effect each listener in their own way and the real importance for us is the process of making every recording from start to finish with the proper oversight to make sure that everything in this entire process is done properly.

  6. I am very interested in sound quality possible with re-mastering. The one really exceptional example I can think of the Cowboy Junkies, Trinity Sessions album. This was re-mastered, and released as an SACD, and vinyl LP. Why this is so interesting is that the session was recorded direct to DAT, in two channels only; so it was sample rate limited to 48 kHz and 16 bits. I got the SACD version anyway, being a big fan of DSD myself, and I was stunned at how much better the remastered, DSD version is than the original CD. Clearly the engineer(s) performed some sort of alchemy on the original files! I suspect that some portion of the remastering process involved an analog stage (of course for LP analog is necessary) and subsequent DSD capture, but I have never seen a complete accounting of what was actually done.
    At home, all my playback is DSD, and my DACs are chosen for their performance with DSD. I convert all formats to DSD 256 on the fly, in a powerful server (physically and electrically isolated from the audio system) using the amazing HQPlayer software system. As with the PS Audio DS DAC(s), I find that DSD conversion done well, with high rate DSD input, has sound quality advantages. So it is clear to me that conversion to DSD, if done really, really well, can improve sound quality in playback, despite the fact that one is doing more processing on the original source.

  7. I have many of Paul's recordings on SACD and vinyl from Octave records. They sound wonderful, however, they are not the music that I like the most. As some of you know I listen mostly to classic rock and the blues.

    For this kind of music there are three sources that I have relied on for high quality SACD's and vinyl.

    The first ( which sadly is not producing much anymore ) is Universal Japan SHM-SACD's. Forget about the SHM part, the SACD's they produced in the last ten years were all from analog masters and many of them were flat transfers from analog to DSD.

    The principle source that I use today for both SACD's and vinyl of the music I like most is MoFi. Yes, there was a tempest in a teapot about a month ago over their use of a DSD256 step in their transfers from analog tape which did nothing to change my opinion of their very high quality SACD's and vinyl.

    I should also mention my number two source which is Analog Productions which operates in a manner very similar to MoFi and i believe has done some vinyl cutting and pressing for Octave Records.

  8. The need to preserve the original analog on analog is as important as preserving analog on DSD. While digital storage is the best way to preserve analog long term the analog buffs who believe playing back analog on analog playback systems is priceless and sounds best need some help here. Lets not forget them. Can we improve pure analog storage and its analog playback capabilities? I hope there are those audio engineers dedicated to that as well as DSD and CD's. Digital with its convenience of playback is here to stay. Analog storage and analog playback needs some love.

    1. The fun thing is, that if you hear those familiar with tapes like Grundman and Gray, they even say tape (the right one) or vinyl is the only safe and quality way to store music long term. Something that even surprised me. Heard it once more in a recent Kevin Gray YouTube interview.

      1. Might be right, especially LP which seems to be the best way of storing media but not the most convenient way to play it back. Audiophile quality is not supposed to be convenient. It's the price we pay to be audiophiles.

        If all the ones and zeros are copied in a memory or on a CD those could deteriorate too or get lost if a hard drive crashes so they need to be backed up a bunch and reburned every 10 years.

  9. Just curious ... if you had a 'pure' DSD recording A, then converted that to PCM, and then converted the latter back to DSD, version B; and then listened to, compared DSD A and DSD B on the highest quality, 'pure' DSD playback, how many people would pick the difference? And if they did, would they just sound different in some minor way, or would DSD B be subjectively quite degraded compared to A? If so, in what way?

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