It seems like there’s always some hot-button issue for audiophiles to debate. For the last couple of years, it was the ability to play high-resolution (176.4 or 192kHz/24-bit) computer-audio music files. Now it’s almost impossible to find a DAC that won’t play files with at least 192/24 resolution, and many will play 384kHz/32-bit files, even though such files aren’t yet commercially available. This year, the hot-button issue is whether a digital audio system (server and DAC) will play Direct Stream Digital (DSD) files in their native format, without converting them to pulse-coded modulation (PCM) files first. A consortium of industry gurus devised a way to do that, and both server and DAC manufacturers have labored long and hard to produce DSD-capable playback gear. What has been missing until recently is a significant number of commercially available DSD music files to play on the hardware. We thought it might be useful to survey the field to see which sites currently offer DSD and what’s coming. We’ll also review what equipment is available to play DSD recordings without first converting them to PCM. But first, in case you haven’t been following this issue, let’s review a few basics.
What Is DSD?
Direct Stream Digital, or DSD, is a recording system used to master Super Audio CDs (SACDs). Although for a variety of reasons, the SACD wasn’t as successful as its developers would have liked, many recording engineers liked the sound produced by the DSD recording process. But until recently, playing back DSD files directly wasn’t easy unless you had professional equipment. Sony offered playback of DSD files on two of its SACD players and on its VAIO computers. SACDs are copy-protected, so (except for the aforementioned Sonys) they can’t be read by any other consumer equipment that can play pure DSD files.
A PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) encoding system samples an analog waveform from, say, a microphone many times each second. Each sample is a “snapshot” of the analog waveform’s amplitude at the time the sample is taken. The frequency at which the waveform is sampled is called the sampling rate. The waveform’s amplitude is encoded as a binary number (“word”) which in the case of CD is 16 bits long. Each 16-bit sample can encode one of 65,536 discrete amplitude levels. For high-resolution PCM files, the sampling rate may be as high as 352.8kHz, with a word length of 24 bits, or 16,777,216 discrete amplitude levels. With today’s computing power, even higher sampling rates and longer word lengths are possible, but so far these higher rates and longer word lengths have not been used (the limitations are the analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters). The resultant bitstream can be stored as files on a computer in a variety of formats, including WAV, FLAC, AIF, or M4A files. There are several other uncompressed PCM file formats, but the first three formats (WAV, FLAC, and AIF) can be played by all of the high-end music players I’ve tried.
DSD, on the other hand, uses a much higher sampling rate, 2.8224MHz, or 2,822,400 samples per second. That’s 64 times as fast as the sampling rate for CDs. But the word length is only one bit. If that bit is a “1,” the amplitude of the signal is increasing; if it’s a “0,” the signal amplitude is decreasing. The actual waveform is encoded by the frequency or density of the “1s” and “0s.” An actual sample of a musical waveform takes the form of a series of pulses of varying density (those “1s” and “0s” clumped together) and actually looks a bit like an analog waveform. When stored on a computer, DSD files have the file extensions DFF or DSF. If you’d like to delve deeper into how digital audio works, I’d highly recommend Robert Harley’s indispensable book The Complete Guide to High-End Audio. As a former recording and CD mastering engineer, Robert’s first-hand experience adds a valuable layer of practicality to the sometime dry theory.
In addition to the original 2.8224MHz sampling rate, current computing power allows sampling at twice that rate, or 5.6448MHz, and some recordings have been made at that rate. Sometimes these rates are referred to as DSD64 and DSD128, denoting multiples of the CD sampling rate. One DAC I know of, the exaSound Audio e20 Mk III, is capable of playing DSD files sampled at 12.288MHz, which they refer to as DSD256+. I don’t know of any files recorded at that rate, but someone will sooner or later push the envelope that far.
Why Would You Want To Play DSD Files?
The audio industry has figured out how to record and play back very high-resolution computer PCM audio files, and they sound pretty doggone good; so why do we need a yet another type? Why is DSD such a big deal, anyhow? There’s only one thing that would justify the trouble and expense of playing DSD files: if they sounded better than PCM files. Why would they sound better? The answer may lie in the playback
requirements. The CD needs a steep brickwall filter to rapidly attenuate frequencies above 20kHz. Raising the sampling rate, as high-resolution files do, reduces the steepness of the filter requirement (although it’s still relatively steep). But DSD files need a much simpler filter—basically just a low-pass filter like you find in many crossover networks. Such a filter should damage the sound less than a steeper one. Like many issues in high-end audio, there are many pros and cons about each of the recording systems, but what really matters to me is: How do they sound? After all, my basic audio philosophy is: If it sounds good, it is good. So while I’d encourage reading about different theoretical advantages of PCM and DSD, I’d really recommend listening to both to determine whether you think DSD files played back natively sound better than PCM files. If you do, you may want to consider upgrading your digital playback system.
The DSD-Over-PCM Standard
Thanks to the major computer operating systems, Microsoft Windows and Apple OSX, there is no established audio playback system except PCM. So to play back a DSD file without converting it to PCM, a group of experts devised a way to fool the computer’s PCM playback system into playing DSD files in their native format. This group called their solution DSD over PCM, which was quickly reduced to the acronym DoP. To play DSD files in their native format (i.e., not converted to PCM), you need a suitably equipped DAC and server. The rendering part of the server must read DSD files from storage and produce a DoP-encoded signal to send to the DAC. The DAC must recognize the DoP signal and convert it to an analog output the rest of your audio system can handle. This should all be transparent to users, who should only have to create a playlist for the server, just as they now do for PCM files.
DSD Playback Equipment
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Similar questions have been asked about DSD files. Which would come first: DSD-recorded music files, or hardware capable of playing back DSD files? Practically speaking, the hardware came first, and continues to come at a steady pace. Actual music files have been slower in becoming available. (I’m talking about actual commercial availability, not the availability of sample files.)
A couple of paragraphs earlier, I addressed conceptually the components needed to play DoP. Actual hardware may take the form of a separate renderer, with music files stored on an attached network; a full server, with files stored on an internal or external hard drive and internal server software; or a digital playback component, which combines the renderer or server with a DAC in a single box. The last device has the advantage of taking up the least space, and requiring the least tuning from the user. There are many different ways the basic components of a DSD-capable playback system can be configured. The LUMIN Audiophile Network Music Player, for example, combines a renderer and a DAC in a single cabinet, with server software and music files stored on a NAS drive attached via a network. Others, like the Wyred4Sound’s MS-1 and MS-2, store their music files on internal hard drives and use an external DAC. Yet others, like Auraliti’s PK100 and PK90-USB, store their music files on external drives, either universal serial bus (USB) drives plugged directly into the players or network-attached storage (NAS) drives connected to the player via a network. The PK100 has an internal DAC, while the PK90-USB uses an external USB DAC.
Personal computers running appropriate playback software can function as the renderer and server. For the Macintosh platform, Audivana Plus, Channel D Pure Music, HQPlayer, and JRiver Media Center can playback DSD files in native format. For the Windows platform, there’s Foobar2000, JRiver Media Center, JPLAY, the Teac HR Audio Player, and HQPlayer. And for the Linux platform, there’s HQPlayer, Minimserver, and MPD (Music Player Daemon).
At the end of this article I’ve included a table of DSD-capable DACs, servers, and players available at press time. When I say DSD-capable, I’m referring to equipment capable of playing DSD files without converting them to PCM first. (Apologies to manufacturers who were inadvertently omitted.)
Setting Up To Play DSD Files
To be sure that my findings weren’t source-dependent, I used two separate sources to play DSD files. The first source was my laptop computer running appropriate server software to read and play back the DSD files. Since I’m a Windows user, I set up both of the server programs I use, Foobar 2000 and JRiver Media Center version 18, to play DSD files. Foobar 2000 needed a couple of add-ons copied to its Components folder, while JRiver 18 will play DSD files without any additional add-ons. I was fortunate to have on-hand for a review MSB Technology’s Analog DAC, which will play both DSD64 and DSD128 files (very nicely, too). JRiver needed a little tweaking to play DSD over PCM, but I figured that out. Source number two was my dedicated Auraliti PK100 file player/server, which recently received a software upgrade that permits it to play DSD files over both SPDIF and USB. The SPDIF connection will only play DSD64 files, while the USB connection will also play DSD128. All the files I have available are DSD64, so I used the SPDIF connection. Fortunately, the MSB Analog DAC will play DSD over SPDIF; many DACs only play it over USB. A really nice feature of the Auraliti was that it required absolutely no setup; it was truly plug and play. That’s extremely rare. I didn’t compare how the two sources sounded—that’s beyond the scope of this article. But I did verify they sounded consistent on all the files, both DSD and PCM, I played.
Finding DSD Files To Download
So far, the only way to acquire DSD files, other than recording them yourself, is by downloading them. When you first download a DSD album, you will realize that the size of a download is huge, especially if you want a multichannel version. The download sites I list below provided DSD albums as of October 2013; there may be others by the time you read this.
Blue Coast Records (bluecoastrecords.com). Operated by renowned recording engineer Cookie Marenco, whose aggressive advocacy of DSD recording has made her a recognized spokesperson for the DSD recording system, Blue Coast Records features Marenco’s own outstanding recordings. She says of her work: “Our own recordings are more ‘chamber jazz’ and ‘coffeehouse acoustic.’” Some of the releases on Blue Coast Records are very short, containing only a few songs, and are described as Special Events rather than full albums. They are priced accordingly; you don’t have to pay for an album if you only get a few songs. The recordings are offered in 44.1/16 WAV files, 96/24 WAV files, DSD64 files in DFF or DSF formats, and some are offered on a gold CD. Prices for a full album are $20.00 for 44.1/16, $40.00 for 96/24, and $50.00 for DSD64 in either DSD or DFF. Gold CDs cost $40.00. If these prices seem rather high, let me just say that the site offers lots of sales.
I decided to download Special Event 19, a collection of ten solo guitar pieces played by Alex de Grassi. To my disappointment, after I had paid for the release, I discovered that I had to download each song separately. Seems like it wouldn’t have been that hard to include all the songs in a single zip file that I could download as a single file. Every other download site I use lets you download an entire album in a single operation. There didn’t seem to be any liner notes or cover art, either. Since each song was a separate zip file, that meant I had to extract each one separately—not hard, just time-consuming. I went through the steps necessary to extract the DFF files and load them onto my server. Then I cued up the first piece, “Shortening Bread.” Holy cow—what a fantastic recording! It’s probably the best recording of guitar I’ve heard, with amazing detail but still sounding so lifelike. If I quibble at all, it would be that the guitar seemed to lack a little body. That’s a quibble, not a complaint. I also noted that both cover art and track data were present on JRiver, something I can’t say about some other DSD downloads. Well done, Cookie! And Alex de Grassi, of course.
Downloads NOW! (downloadsnow.net). The sister site of recording engineer Cookie Marenco’s Blue Coast Records, Downloads NOW! has a limited number of releases, but offers both DSF and DFF versions of some albums. Besides DSD releases, albums are offered as physical gold CDs, 44.1/16 WAV, 88.2/24 WAV, 96/24 WAV, 176.4/24 WAV, and 192/24 WAV PCM downloads. Note that only uncompressed WAV files are sold—no compressed FLAC files. Prices depend on the format and the program length, but generally mirror the Blue Coast Records prices.
The performers on most of Download NOW!’s albums are small groups or soloists, decidedly not classical. The exception to this is recordings of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony playing Mahler Symphonies 1 and 2. These are the priciest of the site’s recordings, with Symphony No. 1 selling for prices ranging from $20 for 44.1/16 WAV download through 176.4/24 WAV download PCM recordings, and both DSF and DFF versions of DSD recordings sell for $50. This 56 minute recording takes 2.2GB of space. Didn’t I mention that DSD recordings are huge? But that’s nothing; the 88-minute Symphony No. 2’s recording takes 3.51GB of space, and is priced at a commensurately high $75! If that seems exorbitant, remember that this recording was originally released on two SACDs. Incidentally, Blue Coast Records also offers a helpful Web site called DSD-Guide.com, with lots of very valuable information about DSD recordings.
Since I’m a Mahler fan, I decided to download the San Francisco Symphony’s Mahler First. After choosing the DFF version of the album, I paid up with PayPal, and came to the download manager. Download arrangements were the same as on Blue Coast Records. All the symphony’s movements were individually zipped, or compressed. Extracting the DFF files from the zip files wasn’t hard, but requires an additional step for each movement, which may be a challenge for someone with limited computer experience. If all the movements of the symphony and the cover art/liner notes had all been included in a single zip file, I would have only had to download a single file. That’s how Cybele Records handles its downloads, and it automatically extracts the DFF files from the zip file for you.
All the downloading complications were worthwhile. Under conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony has become a world-class orchestra, and on this recording MTT leads them through one of the most popular symphonies in the modern repertoire. Recorded at a fairly low level, this recording features string sound that is just exquisite. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard better. Reference Recordings’ album of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps, a 176.4/24 PCM recording, was my previous benchmark for symphonic string sound, but MTT’s Mahler First sounds more realistic. The orchestra plays with great discipline and climaxes are thrilling.
Channel Classics Records (channelclassics.com). Channel Classics’ name gives away the type of repertoire the company specializes in. Channel Classics has several major artists in its stable, including conductor Ivan Fischer and violinist Rachel Podger. I’ve been a Channel Classics customer for some time, since it offers a combination once thought to have been impossible: great performances in great sound. Now that it offers its recordings in DSD, the sound is even better. Channel Classics is a full-service music company, offering recordings in MP3 ($9.94), 44.1/24 FLAC ($15.47), 96/24 FLAC ($18.78), and 192/24 FLAC ($22.10), and now DSD64 DFF files ($33.15) in either two-channel or multichannel 5.1 format. For those who prefer physical media, SACDs are available for $22.10, the same as 192/24 downloads. The download prices are marked Special, but have been in effect for quite a long time. Prices are higher for multiple-CD recordings. For example, Rachel Podger’s recording of Vivaldi’s La Stravaganza, normally on two CDs, costs $35.36.
Channel Classics offers a free download of the week so you can sample its wares in full fidelity, not just the streaming samples offered by most music companies (and by Channel Classics, too). They also have several sampler albums at a reduced price: $8.84 for all formats. Channel Classics has its own download manager, which makes downloading music files easy.
I had already downloaded Channel Classics’ sampler Super Artists on Super Audio vol.5 for a review, along with some sample files. Samplers are good choices for reviewers, since they offer a collection of the different types of music a company offers, and in this case, at a definite savings. Channel Classics’ download manager makes the download process simple, and places the downloaded files on your computer’s desktop, where they are easy to find and move. I compared this album in both DSD and FLAC format, and found the DSD to have consistently more natural sound.
Cybele Records (cybele.de). Sometimes overseas download sites won’t let U.S. customers download music, but I had no problem downloading an album from Cybele Records’ Web site in Germany. Cybele offers mostly classical music, with an emphasis on contemporary classical music. But it also offers some old standards, like the album I downloaded: Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonatas in A minor, D. 845, and in A-flat major, D. 959, played by Thomas Günther. Files are offered in 44.1/16 and 96/24 FLAC, and DSD64. Multichannel 5.1 recordings are available in the 96kHz FLAC and DSD64 formats. Prices range from €15.90 to €22.90 ($21.20 to $30.54 USD as of this writing) for the DSD multichannel. The files are zipped (compressed) for download. If dealing with a zip file is a challenge to your computer skills, don’t worry; the downloader program extracts the files for you. SACDs and CD are offered for those who prefer physical media.
Performers range from symphony orchestras to chamber groups and soloists. I didn’t recognize many of them; composer/conductor Pierre Boulez was one of the few individuals I’d heard of, and he appeared in an interview about his music, not as a performer. That doesn’t mean the performances aren’t first-rate. The Schubert Sonatas I downloaded were sensitively played, with unusually realistic sound. The total album occupied 2.96GB of disc space. The downloading process was quite easy and straightforward: After choosing to view the Web site in English, I selected the DOWNLOADS option. Then I scrolled through the catalog offerings until I found one I wanted and clicked on the title. A page appeared that showed me the choices for formats, and I chose the version of the album I wanted (DSD stereo, 2.96GB). If I had selected DSD surround-sound 5.1, the download size would have been 8.87GB!
DSD File (dsdfile.com). This Swedish Web site sells downloads of Opus 3 and Fidelio recordings in DSD64 and DSD128 formats only. Prices are fairly low by DSD standards: $17.99 for DSD64, $19.99 for DSD128 recordings. The small catalog includes classical, jazz, and some samplers, which are priced at $9.99 for DSD64 and $12.99 for the same programs in DSD128. There are several Opus3 LPs I really like, but none of them have been converted to DSD yet. Since I had heard interesting things about the Fidelio album From the New World, I took a $17.99 hit on my PayPal account and downloaded it. This is a collection of music from the Americas: Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, Arturo Márquez’s Danzón #2, and John Estacio’s Bootlegger’s Tarentella.
The music is a live recording by the Youth Orchestra of the Americas led by Jean-Pascal Hamelin. The recording captures the musical excitement and gets some of the orchestral sonorities very accurately; however, important parts of the music just aren’t sufficiently audible, and I’m guessing that’s due to recording problems. Maestro Hamelin clearly knows how to play the symphony, and the young orchestra plays superbly, so I surmise the recording engineer is to blame for the lapses in orchestral balance. Anyhow, it’s an excellent snapshot of a fun concert, but it wouldn’t be my first choice for a recording of Symphony No. 9 or Danzón #2.
I had never heard of Bootlegger’s Tarantella, but it was a hoot. With Channel Classics offering Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestral playing Dvorak’s Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 in DSD64, I think I’d give those the nod. They’re a lot pricier, though: $33.15.
2L (2l.no). This Norwegian company is owned by Lindberg Lyd (hence 2L). It offers a wide variety of high-definition downloads, ranging from 96/24 and 192/24 stereo FLAC to stereo DSD64 and DSD128. Unusually, it also offers stereo Digital eXtreme Definition (DXD) FLAC downloads (352.8/24—be sure your DAC will play these before downloading them). It also offers multichannel 5.1 recordings in the 96/24 FLAC and DSD64 formats. Prices range from $24.00 for 96/24 FLAC albums to $35.90 for DSD files. DXD albums sell for $42.00. 96/24 FLAC albums are available for $18.00, while MP3 albums can be purchased for $12.00. For those who prefer physical media, several releases are available on SACD for $18.00, and a few releases are available on vinyl for $35.00.
2L catalog consists largely of classical releases, with mostly Norwegian performers in the 2L stable. Some of the 2L artists include Marianne Thorsen and Trondheim Symfoniorkester, and Tone Wik and Barokkanerne. A limited number of releases are available in the contemporary, soundtrack, wind band, jazz, and folk genres. And there’s one album of Christmas music. There are a lot of Scandinavian composers in the 2L catalog, but plenty of others, as well.
2L provides a nice selection of test tracks in different formats so you can download them free to compare how different formats sound. There are even some DXD files in the free download section, so if your DAC can play them, you can compare the 352.8/24 DXD masters with their DSD64 conversions.
I selected an album titled The Schubert Connection, which contained Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 (Death and the Maiden), and Grieg’s String Quartet in G Minor Op. 27, played by the Oslo String Quartet. With a playing time of 1 hour and 9 minutes, the downloaded zip file occupied 2.75GB of disc space, and took well over an hour to download on my 12Mbs DSL connection. The download process went especially smoothly, except when I elected to pay with PayPal and found myself looking at a screen in Norwegian.
Fortunately, I was able to get past that and found myself back in English. Once the DSD files were extracted from the zip file and copied to my laptop server, I fired up JRiver to play the album and was rewarded with string sound that was just sublime. I think 2L is right at the leading edge of sound quality, and DSD seems to have an affinity for gorgeous string sound.
High Definition Tape Transfers (HDTT) (highdeftapetransfers.com). This company uses open-reel tapes as masters for HD downloads, which include several DSD64 and DSD128 albums. The originals are mostly classical recordings from the early days of stereo. Currently there are six DSD releases in the catalog. Unusually, no PCM editing is used to create the DSD files, which means the files never undergo any DSD-to-PCM-to-DSD conversions. Files are in the DFF format. Prices for DSD albums are determined by the length of the program, and current albums range from $10 to $16. Well, that’s what’s advertised on the Web site, but when I got my bill for a download, it showed $18; perhaps PayPal charges were added to my bill. Total playing time was 38 minutes. Most of the albums are rather short, since they were originally developed for LP release, so that’s why some releases are less expensive. I like that. Other releases are available in DXD format, 96/24 and 192/24 FLAC albums, and physical CDs. Many famous performers of yesteryear are on HDTT’s releases.
There weren’t a lot of DSD albums to download, but I chose a recording sourced from a 1958 London 4-track tape of Massenet’s Le Cid and Meyerbeer’s Les Patineurs, both favorite ballet suites, played by the Israel Philharmonic led by Jean Martinon. The download was a zip file, 1.12GB in size. That’s smaller than most DSD releases, but recall that the playing time is just over 38 minutes, whereas most of today’s releases are at least an hour long. One of my fave LPs was Massenet’s Le Cid ballet music played by Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on a 1971 EMI recording. Hoping to duplicate that experience, I cued up Martinon’s Le Cid and… disappointment. While the Israel Philharmonic didn’t flub any notes, it was scarcely on a par with the Birmingham band, and the 1958 recording was hardly the last word in tonal suavity. Just because a recording is in DSD doesn’t mean it will sound wonderful. Maybe I just picked the wrong album.
Highresaudio (highresaudio.com). Another German download site, this one offers 96/24 and 192/24 FLAC downloads for $20 and $30, respectively. DSD64 downloads cost $35. This site has a wide variety of musical genres, although not all selections are available in DSD. Many albums were restricted from downloading in the U.S. Due to time constraints, I did not sample a download from this site.
Premonition Records (premonitionrecords.com). I considered leaving this out, since it only offers one DSD download: a recording of Patricia Barber’s companion album, which has an interesting lineage: originally recorded at 96/24, it was mixed down to analog tape, and then the DSD version was created from the analog tape. Price is $30. I’m not a Patricia Barber fanboy, so if this interests you, you’re on your own.
Acoustic Sounds (superhirez.com). Yes, that Acoustic Sounds, the huge audiophile on-line record store, which in response to customer demand has expanded into the download business. The special Web site shown above was opened up just to handle downloads. Downloads are offered in DSD format, priced at $24.98 per album and PCM releases, priced from $24.98 for 192/24 FLAC or ALAC to $14.98 for 44.1/16 CD-quality files.
I was particularly interested in a promise to release all the Analog Productions’ reissued RCA Living Stereo albums on DSD. Jonathan Valin enthusiastically recommended the LP versions of these reissues in Issue 235, and it will be great to have them as DSD downloads. I think that will be the fifth version of these recordings I will buy; in addition to many of the original RCA LPs, I’ve bought Classic Records’ original LP reissues, the original SACD reissues, and several high-resolution PCM downloads. I must be an audiophile.
Visiting the superhirez.com Web site on opening day, I found it looked a lot different from most download sites—there were no classical selections! I rather liked Holly Cole, so when I saw her Temptation album among available downloads, I eagerly downloaded it. The download file was a 1.83GB zip file, from which I extracted the music files onto my server hard drive. I was surprised to see the files were DSF files, unlike all the other downloads I had tried. But both JRiver Media Center and my Auraliti file player played them back without a hiccup. The album didn’t disappoint—extreme clarity, deep well-defined bass, accurate instrumental harmonics. I didn’t have another version of the album on-hand, but this relaxed, natural-sounding album has made me a much bigger Holly Cole fan. And the DSF files had the metadata— track names and cover art.
Acoustic Sounds will begin offering a large number of titles from Sony Music and Universal as DSD downloads by the time you read this. The goal is to offer 500 mainstream titles in DSD by the end of 2013, with many more to follow.
HDtracks (hdtracks.com). By the time this reaches you, HDtracks should be selling DSD recordings along with its other download files. The largest download site, HDtracks has lots of DSD files in its collection, and should field a wide assortment of genres to satisfy most musical tastes. Prices had not been fixed at our deadline, but were expected to be comparable to 192/24 PCM files. I look forward to spending lots of money on HDtracks—no, make that lots more money there.
Will Other Download Companies Offer DSD Files?
Based on a quick survey of several companies from which I download high-resolution files, plans for additional DSD downloads vary. Linn, CD Baby, The Classical Shop, and Gimmell do not plan to offer DSD files for download.
iTrax.com will offer DSD downloads if the original recording was recorded with DSD, but not music recorded with PCM and converted to DSD. It will offer DSF and DFF files in DSD64 and DSD128 in both stereo and multichannel. Look for iTrax to offer DSD files within 12 months. Prices will be the same as its PCM prices: $15–$25 per album (yay!).
eClassical.com will offer DSD files, but it’s not its first priority (that’s multichannel), so it’s not clear when DSD downloads will be available. Native DSD and files transferred from analog will make up its catalog. Its DSD offerings will follow the format of the original files, including multichannel. Prices will be the same as other high-resolution files (another yay!) and will be set according to duration. eClassical will continue to offer its money-back guarantee and allow re-downloading of anything you’ve bought.
So where do things currently stand for DSD file playback?
First, although the situation is improving, there still aren’t a lot of music files in the DSD format available for purchase, and most of the ones available are classical. That makes sense; most existing DSD files were recorded to serve as masters for SACDs, and most SACDs were classical. But that’s about to change now that Sony Music, Universal, and Warner are opening their vaults; with HDtracks and Acoustic Sounds offering DSD downloads, I expect a much wider variety of music to be marketed, which should increase interest in downloading DSD albums. Several of my audio buddies have expressed increased interested in DSD now that more non-classical material is available.
Second, although lots of hardware is available that will play DSD files, we’re still on the leading edge of development, and as several of my recent struggles to use DACs and servers with DSD capability have shown me, it’s still not a plug-and-play operation. A good dealer who can help you set up your equipment is worth his weight in gold.
Third, by far the most common format for DSD recordings is the DFF file. DSF files may hold more metadata, but DFF files are probably a safer way to go if you have an option when purchasing.
Fourth, many DSD files available for purchase are priced at a premium level. I hope/expect their prices will go down at least to the level of high-resolution PCM downloads, but who knows? SACD prices never went down to the level of CDs; if they had, the medium might have succeeded.
Fifth, DSD is not a magic bullet. It does not guarantee that a recording will sound good. Many factors in the recording environment affect the sound quality: microphones, the acoustics of the recording venue, the performer’s ability, cables, and doubtless other things all contribute to the quality of a recording. To my ears, a really good DSD recording can sound quite special, but not all DSD recordings are really good.
Sixth, downloading music files may require customers to perform some computer operations to create folders on their server’s music-storage drives, extract files from a compressed zip file, and transfer them to the new folders. While those are not difficult tasks, they may be beyond some customers’ abilities. Several advanced audiophile friends told me they wouldn’t be able to perform the operations necessary to handle downloaded files. This isn’t just a DSD problem; it exists for all computer-audio downloads.
For now, as with any new development, if you’re willing to pay premium prices and go to a little (or maybe not so little) trouble to set up your hardware, DSD music files provide some of the best sound available. This should be no surprise; it always costs more to be on the leading edge of technology.
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