audio: DSD digital nirvana approaches

Four years ago I blogged about wanting “the master tape,” the exact version that the musicians are hearing in the control room.

Since then there’s been some progress.

1. High-res digital tracks for download

Although Best Buy long ago junked their shelves of DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD “better than CD” disks, HDtracks will sell you high-resolution audio files. I can buy Steely Dan’s Gaucho at 96kHz/24bit for $18.

2. Better quality compressed music

Meanwhile Apple’s “Mastered for iTunes” program is encouraging producers to start from higher-than-CD resolution digital files when they create the compressed 256kbps files sold on iTunes, for alleged better quality. And Apple hints at delivering higher resolution to users: “As technology advances and bandwidth, storage, battery life, and processor power increase, keeping the highest quality masters available in our systems allows for full advantage of future improvements to your music.”

3. Audiophile digital file playback

There has also been audiophile embrace of playback of digital files stored on a computer. Instead of claiming huge sound differences between $3,000 and $30,000 CD players, audiophile reviewers now rhapsodize over how a $170 USB cable sounds better than the one that came with your phone, or how a digital track sounds better if the USB cable goes into a $1000 box to convert into the S/PDIF digital format before plugging into a DAC that actually converts the 1s and 0s to analog audio.

Meanwhile the ultimate format advances…

However, the consensus remains that the DSD format used on SACDs sounds better than the PCM audio format used on DVD-As and high-resolution downloadable tracks, no matter how high you crank the kHz and bit depth of the latter. Sony has been predictably clueless in failing to promote its DSD format or extend its use beyond the nearly defunct SACD disk (though the PS3SACD site claims SACD releases are picking up steam); consequently to enjoy this ultimate format audiophiles have had to borrow hard disk recorders from recording studios, use a digital hand-held recorder, or burn special PS3 Bluray disks. But it seems:

  1. Personal computer software that can store and transmit a DSD file,
  2. a transfer format to send the DSD 1s and 0s over USB,
  3. and consumer audio equipment that can decode DSD

are arriving. There’s a great article in Positive Feedback about this progress.

With Amazon, Apple, and Google all giving away free tracks, regularly offering classic albums dirt cheap, and offering any song you hear and like for $1.29 or less, my library of digital-only music is steadily growing. (I know it’s cheaper still and probably higher-quality to buy a second-hand CD, rip the songs, then sell it, but it bothers me that the artists don’t get money.) I was considering a box like the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus to play songs from my computer over USB and songs from my smartphone over Bluetooth on my stereo, but now there’s a good reason to wait for playback of DSD masters. It used to be that a handful of audiophiles would get a reel-to-reel copy of the studio master tape through unofficial channels, but soon the “golden master” will be available to anyone!

While waiting for the future to arrive I plug my smartphone’s headphone out into my pre-amp’s line in, the low-quality un-digital un-audiophile playback method. The best is the enemy of the good.

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