PCM v DSD Comparison: 16/44.1, 24/96, 24/192, 64x DSD, 128x DSD

A file format shootout. A DSD versus PCM grudge match. Bit wars. A sample rate smackdown. Can 24/96 take 24/192? Does DSD stomp PCM?

There's a lot of buzz about DSD, talk of CD's demise, and music offered in various PCM formats from CD-quality up to 24/192. What's a person who cares about the quality of their music reproduction experience to do? And the answer is, listen. I got the idea to listen to various files in different resolutions and formats after receiving some comments on my Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC review asking about double rate DSD or 128x DSD. Namely, is 128x DSD better than 64x DSD. It sure sounds better, mathematically! But the only way I know to figure out if one thing sounds better than some other thing is to listen. So that's what I set about doing.

Let's get a few things straight before we dive into listening. First off, this comparison is necessarily limited by a number of factors including the fact that I'm using one DAC, the Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC (see my review here), 3 tracks each in 16/44.1, 24/96, 24/192, 64x DSD (2.8MHz) and 128x DSD (5.6MHz) all sourced from the same master tapes and all converted using the same process (see below). I do not intend to draw any sweeping conclusions since I'm aware of the limitations that the environment I'm listening in necessarily imposes. That said, I believe its fairly safe to extrapolate somewhat but I will try to keep my reaches within an arm's length.

Let me fill out the rest of my setup for this listening session: a PC running Foobar2000 connected to the Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC with an Audioquest Carbon USB cable, a pair of Kimber Kable Select KS 1126 Balanced cables to the Pass INT-30A, and out to my DeVore Fidelity The Nines. I'm using a PC because at present the Mytek DAC only supports 128x DSD via ASIO.

Credit Where Credit Is More Than Due
I owe a huge thank you to Bruce Brown of Puget Sound Studios (you can read our Q&A here) for providing me with the music under scrutiny. Bruce was kind and generous enough to agree to create these files for the sole purpose of this listening experiment and I want to thank him for his time and for providing some great music to listen to over and over again.

Here's a word from Bruce on the process he used to generate the various file formats:

These were original master tapes that I had of these tracks. I made one tape dub of these 3 tracks that would facilitate the test more easily. The tapes were recorded to RMGI SM900 tape via a Studer A80RC MKII that has been greatly modified. This was also the playback machine. I created test tones so the tracks would have equal volume and the tape was played 5 times into each sample rate. I started off the test at 16/44.1 into the newer Korg MR2000sBLK using Mogami Gold 1 meter balanced interconnects. No EQ, Compression or Gain was used, just a straight transfer. The files were then transfered and labeled to an external hard drive and sent to you via zipped ftp.
Thanks Bruce! I'd also like to thank Mytek for the very extended loan of their DAC for the purposes of this comparison.

More Details
And here's the details of the Foobar2000 setup for 128x DSD playback over USB (this is detailed in Mytek's setup PDF):

  • Upgraded the Mytek to firmware to 1.7.1 (if you experience static along with your DSD music, make sure you've upgraded to this latest firmware and it'll go away)
  • Install foo_out_asio and foo_input_sacd
  • Go to File > Preferences > Output > ASIO and doubleclick foo_dsd_asio
  • Select "Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC ASIO" for ASIO Driver and "ASIO Native" for DSD Playback Method
  • Open a Dale's Pale Ale (optional)
  • Go to File > Preferences > Output and select foo_dsd_asio
  • Go to Tools > SACD > Asio Driver Mode and select "DSD"
  • Click "Apply" and "OK" and "OK"
Let the listening begin!
There were three sample tracks provided [to avoid copyright issues the tracks names will remain private]. All PCM tracks were provided as WAV files and DSD as .DFF and again we have a 16/44.1, 24/96, 24/192, 64x DSD and a 128x DSD copy of each track. I loaded up all tracks into Foobar2000 and spent time listening. I listened to all tracks all the way through a number of times and then went back and focused on certain parts of tracks that emphasized or highlighted the differences I heard. And I will say up front that the differences between CD-quality and DSD make me want to put that word quality attached to CD in quotes.

16-bit/44.1kHz
Let's start on the positive side - music sounds punchy and bold and is clearly well recorded. There is also a sense of dynamic edginess, a hardness that creeps into the sound at dynamic peaks as if you're not hearing the full sound. This holds for each track and lends the music an overall sense of harshness as if it was recorded in too small a space. There's also an unnatural aspect to decay and reverb where they sound stunted reducing both a clear sense of the space of the recording as well as the full natural voice of an instrument or vocal or a finger snap. There's also an emphasis on transient attack that shifts the music's tonal center away from body.

24-bit/96kHz
Everything opens up as if there's more space in and around the recording. Decays sound more natural, musical images in space take on a more solid and fuller feel. Dynamics have a greater sense of ease, tone colors are richer and overall music sounds more natural and relaxed. On the loudest passages which are most prevalent on Sample #2, there is still some sense of hitting a wall as if some of the sound has been cut off.

24-bit/192kHz
The size of the recorded space is once again larger and much more natural sounding, even compared to the 24/96 versions. There's also a better sense of micro-detail or hearing exactly what the musicians are doing. A more intimate picture. This lends the music more drama, more impact because there's more variety to the sounds. Dynamics also appear to have a greater swing from soft to loud and there's an overall sense of ease that is not present in the previous versions. Upper frequencies take on a sweeter sound, cymbals sparkle, and horns sound more fleshed out and with less glare.

64x DSD
Holy crap! The musicians just relocated into real space. Finger snaps are 3D as compared to the PCM versions. Actually every aspect of the music is more dimensional. Dynamics are astoundingly natural-sounding and there's an overall ease to the presentation that translates into an almost uncanny sense of place. Instruments take on a more complex tonal palette and you can hear into the performance much more. Harmonica sounds like a harmonica as opposed to a piece of one. The CD-"quality" version sounds relatively dull and lifeless as if we're missing out on a ton of detail and subtle nuance.

128x DSD
Space is the place. Dynamic swing sounds unrestrained and fluid. There's absolutely no sense of harshness, edginess, or harmonic foreshortening. Music is rich and full. The scale of the recorded space is rock solid and stable and music emanates from this space in a completely natural way. CD-"quality" sounds like a cardboard cutout in comparison. There's a lot of "space" in the Sample #1 recording and the opening vocals resound in that space. With the double-rate DSD you can hear the size of this space whereas with the CD-"quality" version it sounds as if the singer's voice is hitting a wall. There's no depth, no complexity to this reverb tail with 16/44.1. With each step up the PCM bit/sample rate ladder and with DSD this tail gets more and more fleshed out, solidifying a sense of time (distance) and place.

Conclusions
The differences I noted between 16/44.1 and DSD are dramatic and easy to identify. Even though I was dealing with very good-sounding recordings, you could even say the CD-"quality" versions sounded good, when compared to higher rate PCM formats and DSD you get an increased sense of dynamic ease, harmonic complexity, micro detail, and a better sense of the recorded space (and time). A more natural-sounding presentation. The differences between the 24/96 versions and the 24/192 versions were not as significant but differences were there to be heard none-the-less. The same held for the two DSD versions so the most obvious jump was from 16/44.1 to 24/192 and DSD.

I admit that this could all be due to the Korg MR2000sBLK simply being better at converting to DSD and higher rate PCM as opposed to 16/44.1 or the Mytek DAC's ability to reproduce DSD over PCM. But I've also heard similar improvements with other recordings albeit under less controlled circumstances. My feeling is the differences noted between CD-"quality" and 24/192 and DSD are so marked as to suggest that the medium goes a long way in conveying the message.

Sample #2 opens with the band's percussionists playing soft to loud to louder still. In the CD-"quality" version this sounds flat and stunted as if it was recorded in a room just large enough to fit everyone, nothing has room enough to breath. When you listen to the same track in 24/192 or DSD you easily realize the musicians are mimicking the sound of a train approaching going from far to near, to nearer still as opposed to just going from soft to loud. And you realize this because you can hear into the recorded space and the music comes from a deeper, quieter place. This train reference is central to the message of this song, "...they curse this train that brought them to Johannesburg", so there's more drama, more emotional impact and the higher you go up the PCM ladder the more of this drama you get and you really jump right onto the tracks with DSD.

"How can I be sure..."
I think Bruce Brown was teasing by picking the song for Sample #1, each time I played it I wondered why some doubt was creeping in (kidding). I figured it was worth putting my findings to a test so I put all tracks on random play, turned off my monitor, took off my glasses (which is the same as being blind) and let the music play. Out of 8 random trials (this was all I had the patience for), I was incorrect once thinking that I was listening to was 24/96 when it was in fact 24/192 (this was my first trial and I rushed my decision). All other selections were correct.

But I'd say I got lucky with some picks. The differences between 24/96 and 24/192, for example, are not huge but there are differences if we listen closely. It also helps to listen to complete songs as opposed to switching back and forth between snippets. I do feel confident that I could identify the 16/44.1 version each time as well as identify PCM v DSD but even here Sample #2 and Sample #3 were easier to determine as compared to Sample #1. Then again, if you asked me to do this again in a few months using your computer's speakers all bets are off.

Getting Engaged
This was an interesting and informative comparison and I hope I conveyed a sense of the differences I heard. More importantly I'd like to stress how these differences can affect the way we perceive music and how they can impact the meaning of a song as opposed to just a focus on sound and sound effects. For me its clear that 24/96, 24/192 and DSD are superior to 16/44.1 in many meaningful ways and I've come to this conclusion based on listening to more than today's 3 tracks in different system settings. But the ability to listen to these various samples all generated from master tape using the same equipment and methods, thanks again to Bruce Brown, has helped to solidify this belief.

Where does this leave us? Well, there's the pesky issue of the quality of the original recording which obviously trumps all of the above. Then there are all of the variables, some of which we've touched on here, which makes drawing any firm conclusions potentially misleading. But to my mind when speaking in generalities why not go for ideals? Sure CD-"quality" can sound really good but higher bit/sample rate PCM and DSD can sound better. How much better will come down to the quality of the recording, the quality of the transfer, the playback chain, and your listening habits and preferences. Better still, if you value music first, all of this takes its rightful place in line.

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COMMENTS
CG's picture

This is depressing.

You have to wonder how these PCM tracks would fair if they were converted (Torn?  Un-ripped?  Pired?) using an Ayre QA9 or something similar.  Perhaps the greatest difference between PCM and DSD is the filters used - or not used - in the process.  Better filters might make all the difference. Or, maybe they do but there's more to the story as well.

Are we back to buying really great vinyl, playing it on a really great turntable/arm/cartridge/phono preamp and piring it all with a great A/D just so that we can get really high quality digital playback?  Think of the hobby hours one could devote to just that.  Nobody would have a minute to read Audiostream.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Yikes! I certainly didn't see that coming and I'm sorry you found it so.

I see all of this as a positive since we're talking about an obvious improvement over CD-quality. And not everything is available on LP. And digital recordings, especially HD digital recordings (24-bit and DSD), delivered in their native format sound marvelous.  Lovely. And tape to HD or DSD can also sound marvelous. Lovely, even.

There's always room for Audiostream ;-)

CG's picture

I have some doubts that most of the fine record companies we have all grown to know and love (you know the exceptions) will ever embrace releasing high resolution files.  And, if they do, some modern creative genius - in other words, not Bruce Brown - will provide his or her own brilliant remix in the tradition of those Perfect Sound Forever 12 bit CDs from early on.

I'd like to be optimistic, but...

firedog55's picture

In general, my experiences mirror Michael's.

Since I aquired a Mytek DSD DAC, I also acquired about 20 albums in DSD. Most are classic rock and  jazz that were transferred to DSD (SACD). A few (classical) are native DSD recordings.

 The native DSD recordings sound amazing. Analogue like and realistic, but with all the advantages of digital. NONE of the negative "digital" sounds often complained about.

Many of the analogue tape to DSD albums also sound great. Certainly more lifelike, realistic, and analogue sounding than their CD counterparts. Not as good as the native DSD, but really good, and not "digital" sounding. It's clear to me that analogue direct to DSD is the best way to digitize older material.

I also have lots of PCM hi-res from HDTRACKS. Mostly tape to hi-res digital. Some are analogue to DSD to PCM, others are straight to PCM. Again, I find the hi-res just sounds more relaxed and realistic than Redbook, and definitely gives a better sense of space and instrument location. The exceptions are when the hi-res is fiddled with too much after the conversion, and volume compressed. 

So I don't care what all the "objectivists" say, or all the engineers that can explain to me why hi-res "can't" sound better than redbook. I just enjoy listening to it more, and it gets my foot tapping. That's all that really matters.

I just wish there was a lot more classic rock and jazz released in DSD, or at least in 96K. To really build a library that would fit my tastes, I'd need to locate the right PS3 and start buying and ripping SACDs. Something I really don't want to do. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much chance of that older stuff being released that way, as the big labels don't seem to want to allow true "master tape" quality files out in the marketplace. Hopefully they will start/continue releasing new material in some form of hi-res.

bwr's picture

Any thoughts on how close a 24/44,1K file would be to a 24/96K?  In other words, does the increased bit depth have more of an impact rather than the frequency? 

It's intersting that some labels -- BIS is an example -- make such a big deal about "24 bit" recordings but don't focus on frequency much at all.

Suggestion for an AudioStream interview:  contact Richard von Bahr at BIS and ask why his lable is still doing most of it's hiz-rez recording at 24/44,1.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I'd venture to say there's more of consensus regarding the efficacy of moving to 24-bit than there is regarding higher sample rates, but 24/96 and 24/192 have their  proponents. Like me!

Maybe Bruce or Barry or Dr. AIX would like to add something regarding your 44.1 v 96 question. I have not done this comparison.

Bruce B's picture

When I was doing some of the mastering for FIM, many of the files were "only" 24/44.1

Even though it was 44.1, the files were some of the best I've ever heard. I'd much rather have a 24/44.1 file to work with than 16/352.8kHz file!

earwaxxer's picture

I think we can take these findings and use our computers to optimize our redbook. I have personally found that using Sox with min phase filter, dither, and allow aliasing when upsampling 16/44.1 to 24/96, gives better, smoother more realistic sound that native redbook.

So, yes, these findings are helpful I believe to optimize our music libraries, whatever the resolution.

CG's picture

Better to go to 88.2 with SoX and 44.1 KHz input files.  Less rounding error due to integer conversion and the internal word length used by SoX. At least that is my experience.  No dither needed when adding more bits to the output file.  YMMV, etc.

earwaxxer's picture

I tried going in multiples. I still felt 96khz was 'better'. Its funny, because I was just listening to an HDCD of Buffalo Springfield. It was ripped to 24bit/44.1 with dbpoweramp. I had both 'native' and upsampled Sox 24/96 in one folder. Listening to each song back to back. Very little difference between the two. I ended up deceiding on the 24/96 due to a very intangible improvement in 'fluidity' that I could identify.

RnRmf's picture

Since so many modern recordings are PCM, is it worth converting them to DSD if that becomes the dominant HD distribution format?  Or does the 24/192 file sound better unvconverted?

If you could convert your 24/192 file to DSD, and compare the resulting DSD file with the 24/192, it would be interesting to know what differences in sound quality exist.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Unfortunately I packed up the Mytek DAC for return. I may be able to get to this in a few weeks with another DSD-ready DAC but we're getting into even more variables including what software we're using for the PCM > DSD conversion.

And in a similar vein, some players, like the HQPlayer from Signalyst, allow you to upsample everything to 128 x DSD on the fly.

firedog55's picture

My experience says it's not worth it; it doesn't sound better than the original.

valenroy's picture

Hi Michael,

I am so envious that you have all the different file formats derived from the same master tapes and mastering equipment! I have always wanted to do such a comparison but have never able to find the availability of such files that are fit for the purpose. Do you think Bruce will mind if you share the files for the sake of personal observation and experimentation? I would love to experience what you have experienced personally as well!

I have the Mytek too and the most recent experiment I had conducted was to upsample all 44.1/88.2/176.4kHz files to DSD128 in real-time to stream over to the Mytek for decoding with Type D SDM (the lastest foobar SACD plugin (v0.6.1) by Max has an experimental provision for 44.1kHz based materials to be upsampled to either DSD64 or DSD128 on-the-fly). Personally, I feel all the upsampled material has been given a new lease of life. i.e. they end up sounding much smoother and less fatiguing to listen to, more analogue-ish if you may. Perhaps you would like to give it a spin as well! I guess the concept stems from the way in which Playback Designs and EMM Labs upsamples all PCM material that are fed into their DACs to DSD128 via hardware implementation.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

..I cannot share the files. I'd recommend trying the files that Barry Diament has made available through his Soundkeeper Recordings. You can find them here.

tbrads's picture

Ivan/Valkenroy,

I've posted elsewhere about this, but here is a perfect chance for those who have DSD-capable DACs (which they like in PCM, too, of course) to test the issue.  There is a DVD-A/SACD 2 disc set by a small label called Ludomentis, weherein pianist Massimo Gon plays Liszt's Grand Etudes to two different signal paths, where one is recorded directly to 24/192 and the other directly to DSD.  To quote from SA-CD.net "They set up a 5.0 array in a near single-point source configuration with Shoeps microphones at front row distance from the piano, recording direct to hard disk in DSD (and PCM for the DVD-A disc). Editing was in DSD or high-res PCM realms as appropriate."

What's nice is that this recording can also be compared in mch 5.0 DSD vs 5.0 PCM too.  On my Mytek, and on the Exasound E20 I have currently inhouse for demo (never tested this disc set on the Sonore eXD), the differences are consistent and yet not terribly important.  I'd live with either (and I am a hufge DSD fanboy with 850+ SACDs ripped, etc) but ultimately like the attack on DSD better.  With my main rig DAC, the Meitner MA-1, the DSD is clearly preferable by a larger margin, with much better piano attacks and decay, and a better sense of the venue.  I take this to be DAC specific, as my Meitner uses 1 bit chips and upsamples eevrything to DSD128.

Ted

P.S.  great job Michael and Bruce!!

deckeda's picture

And it also reminds us that the totality of the chain matters. Regarding the first commenter's lament, yes, sometimes the best sound will come from investing the time and cash into a great analog system and making your own digital copies.

A lot of what's been sold as hires conversions of old material is presented either with squashed dynamics, "creative EQ" applied or was possibly done with an ADC that's no better than what you can buy today as a consumer/prosumer. JA's recent QA-9 review in Stereophile was a real eye-opener and hopefully a more complete opening salvo for others to follow.

That said, digitizing LPs is a hobby within a hobby within a hobby. The good news is that often the best source material is a cheap used, orig. LP and not an expensive reissue.

In my experience for PCM, 24-bit, any resolution, is clearly better than 16-bit. As to what sampling rate matters to you I think that's as much a function of how well your particular ADC or DAC performs at a given sample rate as the sample rate itself might influence the outcome.

I'll also add that the apparent reduced number of common choices for DSD formats (and yes I know there are a few more than were mentioned here) are a practical advantage when discussing or choosing "what's best." The plethora of sample rates for PCM strikes me as a paradox-of-choice problem overall, and an unfortunate distraction usually.

Rob McCance's picture

Nice tests, nice post. Really enjoyed the read. 

There's absolutely nothing surprising here as going right up the resolution scale, the output improves, given all files created from the same source material.

What is interesting is your perceptions of HOW they differ. What get's "added back" are exactly the dimensions I am constantly trying to get back in my mostly-redbook playback chain. 

So - perfect correlation there!

Aside from all this, and trumping all, is the original recording quality, as we all acknowledge. I have 24/192s here that sound no better than 44/16 and it's due to the source.

I've got some unbelievable sounding 44/16, as we all do, and some 44/16 that's so bad it's unreal.

One big uniform solution is probably not in the pipeline during our lifetimes. So we will continue to scrap it together best we can for now and enjoy the good recordings we can find!

earwaxxer's picture

The original recording quality is definitely important, but IMO, there is something fundamentally different and more 'real' to any high res. data when compared to redbook. Its a certain 'connectedness'. Its just more real. I can appreciate more what the vinylphiles appreciate when I up the sample rate. 

firedog55's picture

http://music.e-onkyo.com/

Use Google to translate.

Has a pretty interesting selelction of 24/192 - some classic rock and jazz. Mostly converted from DSD (there seems to be more SACD being released in Japan than in the West). Interesting they don't offer straight DSD downloads.

I have good experience with analogue converted to DSD; how does conversion to 24/192 affect SQ? Is it barely audible,  a minor change for the worse but still really good,  or a serious reduction in quality?

Onkyo  e-music says they are going to open a US store - will be interesting to see what titles they are licensed to sell, and in what format.

jbliguori's picture

I'm downloading The Rolling Stones Stiky Fingers in 24/192, Thanks again

Archimago's picture

When i see an article like this where the subjective evaluation between 16/44 and DSD128 appears so MASSIVE written by someone who tries to control the variables, I have to ask one simple question...

Why not upsample the 16/44 to DSD128 and ABX the two files, then post the results? The upsampled 16/44 should be aweful given the extra PCM -> DSD step, right?

If the writer cannot put his/her hearing and subjective certainty on the line for such a simple test, then this article is just more BS to tout DSD for whatever reason... Addendum: even better how about posting samples (30 seconds?) of both DSD128 for folks with DSD DACs to try for themselves (if permission is granted).

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Whenever I see a comment like yours I smile.

...then this article is just more BS to tout DSD for whatever reason.

I'm touting DSD because it sounds better.

Archimago's picture

Then why don't you try something so simple... I think it's just intellectually honest given what COULD BE hyperbolic subjectivity.

Look, I do appreciate the article - good entertainment for the hobby. But when big claims are made, why not dig deeper? To be able to convincingly show an objective difference would strengthen the case massively for many to strongly look at getting into DSD.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Talk about hyperbole.

I very clearly stated the purpose of this comparison and my position right up front:

But the only way I know to figure out if one thing sounds better than some other thing is to listen. So that's what I set about doing.

If you do not feel that listening is a valid means to determine listening preference, then we'll have to agree to disagree.

Archimago's picture

Oh well. That's fine. Just trying to suggest a simple test that I would do and something you could do for the public at large to try given your results...

deckeda's picture

Someone who hears something and has an opinion about it owes nothing to anyone else in the form of "proof." The very concept is irrelevant.

If you're uncomfortable with the notion that each person can have their own "truth" and that no universal truths exist in perfectionist audio that's a major roadblock to your personal enjoyment.

In short, if it sounds good/better to you, it is. That also applies to someone else, for them.

More plainly, Michael told us what he likes better, not what's better for us.

johndarko's picture

Amen to that.

zjaj's picture

An ABX test, as Archimago suggests, is listening. It is simply a more intellectually honest form of listening than the one you undertook here.

Here's the thing: I want to agree with you. I have DSD recordings that, to me, sound better than their red-book counterparts, and HD downloads that, to me, sound better than an equivalent ripped CD. But I also think it's important for me to know whether I'm fooling myself or not.

Granted, you're not obligated to do anything you don't want to do. But to claim that one sounds better than the other without taking the step of eliminating the variable of knowing what you're listening to means that your opinion is just that, and it carries no more authority than mine, a first-time poster.

The fact is, more and more science is lining up against the audiophile "opinion" that red-book audio is insufficient compared to 24/96, DSD, or anything else. If you're not willing to engage the science by walking into the ABX lion's den, then the rest of us have every right to question that.

I'm very comfortable with the fact that I may be fooling myself. It's my brain, I can do what I want with it. You don't seem willing to admit that might be the case.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

And share your results?

The fact is, more and more science is lining up against the audiophile "opinion" that red-book audio is insufficient compared to 24/96, DSD, or anything else.

I'd be interested in reading some references.

If you're not willing to engage the science by walking into the ABX lion's den, then the rest of us have every right to question that.

Of course you can question my findings and I'm perfectly OK with that. Ideally, people will be curious enough to listen for themselves which, imo, is the only way to determine one's listening preferences.

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