Ask AudioStream: DSD or PCM?

Reader "ironsienna" asked an interesting question in the PCM v DSD Comparison: 16/44.1, 24/96, 24/192, 64x DSD, 128x DSD comments:
...I have a question. It seems that you compare PCM and DSD played from the same DAC. But what about PCM playback from really expensive DACs? Is the difference of sound between 192 PCM played from an ultra high-end DAC, to the DSD played from a mid priced DAC that great? I am asking because I recently acquired a Weiss MEDEA+ DAC. The quality of playing high rez PCM from this DAC is stunning and I really cant think of what more can be done for digital sound to sound better than that, so real and analogue like...But it does not play DSD and personally haven't heard DSD played from a native DSD DAC. So is it worth buying a cheaper DAC to play DSD files natively on it, or my DAC plays PCM so fine that there is not noticeable difference.. Can you please comment on that?
My short answer is—Kierkegaard.

My longer answer begins by pointing out that DSD is not a PCM replacement and it never will be. Rather DSD is another format that at present offers a limited number of titles from a limited number of suppliers. So while DSD sounds really good and unlike PCM imo, comparing DSD playback to PCM playback is pretty much a moot point since DSD will never completely replace PCM. Ever.

So I like to think of DSD as a nice additional feature for music playback. Another arrow in the quiver just like HD downloads as compared to CD-quality as compared to MP3s. The only true either/or comes about when a given title is available in HD PCM and DSD and while these are currently few and far between, the choice is a no brainer for me as I'd pick DSD over PCM any day of the week and twice on Sundays. I am hopeful that we'll have this choice more often with more titles in the near future at which time the decision to upgrade to a DSD-capable DAC will be even more enticing. Not to muddy my simple either/or scenario but some people with DSD DACs even find that they prefer upsampling all PCM data to DSD in their media player as you can with Signalyst's HQPlayer.

The other comment I've seen on some forums is the notion that if you're buying a DSD DAC, you're somehow neglecting PCM performance and this cannot be farther from the rational. Some well-regarded PCM-only DACs today can be turned into DSD-capable DACs tomorrow with the flip of a firmware upgrade. The Resonnessence Labs Invicta is one example. In general, DSD playback is part and parcel of PCM playback.

But DSD is no panacea and is subject to the same laws of mastering as PCM, namely garbage in garbage out especially if its been compacted first. It just so happens that the majority of DSD downloads available today also happen to be very well recorded (here are some sources).

So don't throw away your beloved PCM-only DACs just yet because PCM is here to stay (It will never die/It was meant to be that way/Though I don't know why). We can only hope that DSD is here to stay as well and the only sign that that's going to be the case is the availability of more DSD music.

Here's to more!

Pale Rider's picture

I have a PS Audio PerfectWave DAC MkII, and it sounds very, very good. But I have heard some DSD through the Mytek that frankly just sounds better. So, I am now trying out the Mytek, exaSound, and Invicta. I will be a very happy camper if and when Paul McGowan decides to upgrade the PWD to DSD capability. For now, I will enjoy the addition of DSD playback to my system, and I will continue to enjoy excellent PCM from the PWD. 

Bill Leebens's picture

The only Kierkegaard I recall from college philosophy classes is:
"Truth Is Subjectivity".


...and that pretty well defines the whole magilla of the high end, no?
Having stirred that up, I shall now depart....

Michael Lavorgna's picture

While I'm referencing Either/Or (albeit in an off-hand manner), there's also Fear and Trembling.


DavidZ's picture

I thought you meant K's old standby: "Life can only be understook looking backwards but it can only be lived going forwards." Or something to that effect.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Kierkegaard, the philosopher for audiophiles.


tresaino's picture

Thanks Michael for your frank analysis that DSD sounds better but will never replace PCM.  Too bad the SACD versus DVD-A debate some years back never ended up with anything meaningful. I will wait to see whether way more DSD files become available before buying yet another Dac. 

qualiton69's picture

Vincent Brient wrote a quite detailed feedback on his site (Totaldac) :


What about DSD?
DSD has been invented for high capacity optical discs (more or less DVD capacity, called SACD here) which could store much more data than a CD.
They have decided to select a DSD format:
-higher resolution that 44.1KHz/16bit CD format (but still lower quality than 192KHz/24bit pcm)
-hard to copy (to protect copyrights)
-including a one bit modulation, to be able to use very low cost sigma delta DACs, even reducing the sigma delta electronics to almost nothing, so it targeted the very low cost players. A lower cost disc player should increase the SACD disc sales.

This format still exists for SACDs although it failed totally replacing the CD.

Instead they could have chosen DVD discs with 192KHz/24bit format on it:
-easier to copy than DSD, bad news for disc industry.
-resolution and noise floor better than DSD contrary to what is said by DSD industry, see the real noise floor of each format.
-much more possibilities to apply a volume control and DSP functions than on a DSD stream. DSD needs to be converted to pcm to enter a DSP or a volume control.
-allows to use any DAC technology directly since pcm 192KHz/24bit is a natural format, it can be sent directly to R2R DACs, sigma delta modulators, PWM modulators, multi-bit DACs and so on.

Internet and computers have created the possibility to download 96KHz/24bit and 192KHz/24bit without using optical discs. 192KHz/24bit compressed to lossless is more efficient than DSD, has a better noise floor and is not limited to one DAC technology. In a computer a SACD can be ripped to DSD format, but it is difficult and illegal to do it because of the copy protections. Only an old Playstation with a specific firmware allows to do it technically. So for people who rip their SACD the DSD computer file is ok, although it could be converted and stored into 176.4KHz/24bit files.
It is surprising that some internet music stores sell music in DSD format whereas 192/24 is better quality and smaller file. If you really check what are the best DACs over the world you will find that most of them are R2R DACs, DSD files try to push people people buying other DAC technologies which are low cost one-bit based. Another way to play DSD files consists in transforming it to pcm format, a DSP operation which can be done in the computer or at the input front end of a non-one-bit DAC.
The DSD files can be accepted by a Totaldac if the conversion to pcm is done in the computer, and now many music player softwares can convert DSD to for example 176.4KHz/24bit."

Michael Lavorgna's picture

"The DSD files can be accepted by a Totaldac if the conversion to pcm is done in the computer..."

Since Mr. Brient's DAC cannot accommodate native DSD playback because of his chosen topology, I find his point of view necessarily prejudiced. We can be absolutely certain that other designers including Andreas Koch of Playback Design, Ed Meitner of EMM Labs, and dCS who offer DSD-capable DACs will not agree with Mr. Brient's assessment on purely technical grounds.

I do not agree with Mr. Brient's position based on listening to native DSD playback on a number of DSD-capable DACs. I find his points regarding DSD ripping and DSD file size to be largely irrelevant.

But I'd be interested to hear his totaldac even though it does not support DSD playback ;-)

Frank Hardly's picture

I find the whole issue confusing when you go behind the scenes. My understanding is that some of what is issued on SACD/DSD is originally recorded in PCM. How does this factor into the whole sound equation? Is it better to leave it in its native format or does the conversion to DSD magically improve the sound (all things being equal wrt poor vs good quality recordings)?

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Some SACD releases began life or was converted to PCM at some point.

At present the DSD download market is a bit more straightforward since the two main sources for DSD downloads, Blue Coast Records and Channel Classics, tell you about the source of their DSD releases (and they're either DSD all the way through or analog tape to DSD). When, and I say "when" not "if" hopefully, other distributors begin to offer DSD downloads, the question of their provenance will be as important as it is with HD downloads. Let's hope this information is more forthcoming going forward.

The question of whether or not converting a PCM recording to DSD offers any sonic gain is another matter. I would suggest that here there are many variables involved including how well the DAC being used deals with PCM and DSD. And there's no magic involved, rather it has much more to do with the different processing and filters used for PCM and DSD data that effect their sound.

2L offers some free samples of DXD (PCM) files and the same source files converted to DSD. I've also heard some PCM source files from MA Recordings that were converted to DSD and I preferred the DSD versions. Again, this has as much to do with the quality of the original recording, the conversion process, and the DAC used for playback as it does with the file format.

whell's picture

Since DSD will never replace PCM, this argument becomes not "Beta VS VHS", but "Beta or VHS?"


firedog55's picture

It doesn't have to be "either my way or no way". I bought a DSD capable DAC b/c it sounded good in general as a DAC, had several features I wanted, and also because it gave me the possibility of playing back DSD.

I agree with Michael's basic take on the the sound of DSD. From what I've heard, the best sounding analog to digital transcriptions are done in DSD and played back in DSD. A DSD rip of an SACD sounds  better than that same rip converted to 176k.

The native DSD recordings I've bought from Channel Classics sound amazing. Very likelike. Not like what we think of as digital. Best sounding orchestral recordings I own. 

That said, hi-res PCM can sound great too. Hi-res transcriptions of the old Blue Note catalog on HDT sound amazing. The DSD to PCM hi-res conversion of "Heavy Weather" I bought from HDT sounds much better than my CD - it simply doesn't have that "digital edge". 

As Michael noted, it's obvious that DSD won't replace PCM. Most studios and labels have invested in PCM infrastructure, and for that reason only they won't change. (And anyway, some of them regard the sound of hi-res PCM as superior). 

So let's stop the arguments about which format is better and just enjoy the good recordings made available to us in the various formats of hi-res.

Larry Ho's picture


I love this article, so want to add few more things here. Although I don't want to, my following points maybe will make things harder to tell regarding DSD vs PCM. ;-)

* A lot of PCM DAC (maybe 99%), there are not PCM DAC decoding engine inside. They use delta-sigma engine with up sampling to convert 32/24/16 bit PCM signal into 6/5/4 bits upsampled signal. So their playback performance should not be considered as 100% PCM. Should be the PCM music + DS multibit playback, to be accurate.

* A lot of DSD recording, in order to do the music mixing and editing, even like apply volume control; They will convert DSD to PCM, done the editing in PCM, then covert it back to DSD. It's hard for us, at least to me, to trace back how the studio engineer did to the track.

* This wil make things more compliated.  Again, a lot of ADC use DS technology in the core coversion part. Some people claim they can hear the digital artifacts when music is recorded in this way. 

* In order to do the really comparison, we got the original DxD(PCM) recordings files from 2L, and some DSD recorded files from Blue coast. Play in our Da Vinci Dual DAC, which have two separated decoding enigne for each file format. I think this should be a more fair comparison. 

The result is quite interesting.... But I am not the reviewer. ;-)

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Excellent points. I would also mention Channel Classics who offer wonderful native DSD downloads. They even include a list of the equipment used for each recording.

dvavc's picture

Hi, Michael. There are allot of people out there (mostly Computer Audiophiles members ;~)) who believe(or at least pretend) that playback from computer WAV files sounds better then playback of the same CD. To me it just a joke. One has to be deaf not t hear inferior sound quality of playback from files (even full WAV, not even mention other, space saving, formats). Micro musical nuances, voice timbres etc., disappearing and/or changing, right there after CD converted to WAV files. Though convenience of having all my albums on one HDD is quite tempting;~). I believe, and this is my humble hobbyist’s theory, for whatever it worth, that problem is in conversion itself and if it was possible to copy from CD PCM to HDD PCM may be it would not cause said loss of musical nuances, and sounded identical. But there is no software, at least as I know of, that would allow it to happen. So, is it possible, even theoretically, to copy PCM to PCM without conversion to WAV, or am I missing something?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...but it is in actuality trivial to make a bit perfect copy of a CD to a file-based format. What you appear to be neglecting are the myriad of variables involved with playing back a CD versus a file.
dvavc's picture

Unfortunately I'm comparing played back files on the same computer where it was ripped a minute ago, listen through headphones hooked in to audio jack for headphones on the back of the motherboard (next to USBs), and CD played back by the same CD ROM on the same comp using same ITunes for both files and CD playback and same headphones. Files always sound noticeably inferior.

Michael Lavorgna's picture're better off listening to the CD ;-)
dvavc's picture

I'm listening to LPs.) But convenience of digital format is tempting.

bigears's picture

My first post here (i.e. anywhere on Audiostream) . Much of this is above my head and I'm just starting to think about streaming audio in an apartment I'm renovating. I have an excellent pure analogue system that I want to connect to my roughly one terabyte of lossless music files. Since this system will inhabit my living room and be the only place I will be doing 'critical' listening, I thought something like the Sony HAP-z1ES would work for me. Has a DAC with DSD and 'DSD remastering engine'. Music is stored in it's internal (expandable) 1T hard drive and has line out only after conversion to analogue. What do you think of this kind of deivice/option and do you plan on reviewing this machine any time soon?