Kind of Blue: DSD v PCM

“Comparison is the death of joy.” ~ Mark Twain

“Audiophiles care too much about sound.” ~ Stephen Mejias

Preamble
The sure sign of an addict is the recursive "I'm never going to...again". I'm never going to buy another version of Kind of Blue but I did. The most interesting question here is exactly what are we addicted to? Is it the music? Or is it the sound? If we go by the strict definition according to Merriam-Webster, an audiophile is "a person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction". Sound reproduction? Really? Not "music reproduction"? According to the Urban Dictionary, an audiophile is also a bunch of other things including, "One who enjoys sex acts involving the ear.", "Someone who usually looks at young audio equipment. And rapes it through various input and often output sockets.", and "This is a person that makes you break out in a cold sweat and shudder when he says 'So something interesting happened today...'"

So something interesting happened today—I compared the 24/192 PCM version of Kind of Blue from HDtracks to the new DSD version from Acoustic Sounds. But did I really? Or did I necessarily also compare the conversion processes from tape to digital, the hardware involved in the conversion processes, and the way the particular DAC I used for the comparison, the Auralic Vega, handles PCM versus DSD? The answer is D) all of the above. Since we are not comparing file formats when we compare file formats, what are we doing?

The answer for me is finding the version of a given recording we prefer listening to. Thinking that we are in fact determining which is the best format is not only misguided, it misses the main point which is the best version of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is the one we own and enjoy listening to. Period. When we begin fretting over file formats and arguing over how bits are handled within a DAC chip and is it "true" DSD, multi-bit DSD, delta-sigma'd PCM, or "real" parallel resistor PCM...we begin to lose the music. Comparison may also be the death of music. The music gets lost in the dust up and we end up talking about sound. I suppose this kind of thing is inevitable in any enthusiast perfectionist endeavor but it seems especially egregious when it comes to music.

The Comparison
Through the Auralic Vega DAC, the DSD download of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue sounds simply stunning. Gee, where have I heard that before? "But more importantly, the remastered Kind of Blue sounds simply stunning." This is what I said about the 24/192 version from HDtracks (see review) and nothing has changed now that we also have the DSD version. First off, the DSD version is the stereo mix and includes the alternate take of "Flamenco Sketches" which is not included in the PCM version. I'm assuming the PCM and DSD versions were remastered from the same speed-corrected analog tape (the included PDF liner notes are also identical), both score a DR14, and both sound simply stunning. I'll add that the Vega had no problems running in "Exact" clock mode with the DSD version but I had to back down to "Fine" mode with the 24/192 version. You can draw whatever conclusions you want from this fact but I would have to assume that one possibility is the 24/192 version is inherently a more jittery source than the DSD version.

The DSD version through the Vega DAC has that lovely round full smooth saturated sound and that effortless quality to dynamic swings that DSD does so well. Overall, I'd say the DSD version sounds more colorful, more expressive, and more natural through the Vega while the PCM version, by comparison, sounds flatter.

If I had to choose just one version of Kind of Blue, I'd choose the DSD stereo mix and the mono 24/192 mix (music is, after all, comprised of sounds).

Miles Davis Kind of Blue in stereo DSD from Acoustic Sounds

Miles Davis Kind of Blue in mono PCM from HDtracks

COMMENTS
dekker's picture

It's highly likely that DSD version is the one for the original sacd done over ten years ago.  Doesn't mean the older can't sound better but it is an apples to oranges comparison.   Also, accepted audiophile wisdom says the japanese sacd mastering done in 2007 is superior to the original sacd.  That latter version didn't contain the bonus track.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

It is an apples to oranges comparison for more than one reason.

Archimago's picture

Agree. The best version I've heard is this Japanese 2007 SACD DSD rip. The multichannel version also sounds very good IMO compared to the original 2001 Sony multichannel SACD release.

Not exactly night-and-day difference but the kind of thing KoB afficianados should check out...

firedog55's picture

See: http://www.analogplanet.com/content/miles-davis-kind-blue-monophonic-reissue-sonylegacy-analog-planet-exclusive

Apparently new digital transcriptions were done for these recent re-issues, both PCM and DSD.

Michael - 

I appreciate this column, but I'm almost sorry I read it. I bought the HDT KoB and love it. Like it better than the LP, the 1997 CD, and the previous Columbia SACD/DSD rip.

I did a quick comparison of the HDT and my SACD rip, and liked the HDT better. I'm not even saying it has a better sound, just that I like listening to it more. I don't really care to go crazy comparing them more than that. 

That said, I'm tempted to by the new AS DSD download. I trust your taste on this issue and think we have a similar reaction to the sound of DSD. But I"m holding off. How many good sounding versions of the same recording do I need? I'll feel a little bit like a tool of Columbia/Sony marketing if I buy the DSD download too. But if I know myself, I'll spring for it one day on a whim anyway...shopping therapy.

Thanks...againsmiley

dekker's picture

like they do for the PCM versions.    For the DSD version they say "DSD file created by Gus Skinas from the original Sony Super Audio CD cutting masters." 

.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I checked with Acoustic Sounds and they confirmed that the DSD version "...is not from the newly remastered (from the 3 tracks) version". The DSD version is from the original Sony SACD as stated on their website.

Here's an excellent account of that provenance from John Marks in Stereophile, The Fifth Element #34.

deckeda's picture

Thanks again, Michael.

deckeda's picture

See: http://www.analogplanet.com/content/miles-davis-kind-blue-monophonic-reissue-sonylegacy-analog-planet-exclusive

Apparently new digital transcriptions were done for these recent re-issues, both PCM and DSD.

The more recent piece here that included the video interview with Steve Berkowitz only mentions a 24/192 transfer. I'm not saying MF was wrong, but as far as I know it's the only place a fresh DSD transfer from analog has been mentioned.

And I gotta say, it does beg the question of why they would do two transfers, especially since each would have to have been mixed from scratch from the 3-track tracking tapes, as they had to do for the PCM iteration since the masters are now toast. And especially since studios have a way of claiming ONE thing is best for us, not offering a variety of bests.

I got no dog in this race, but it actually (and ironically) seems like Sony's just not "into" DSD these days on the archival side.

It bothers me to get "this much" into the weeds about these things, for the reasons Michael mentions above. But I suppose it bothers me a little more that once again, anythnig less the clear and simple provenance causes unecessary confusion about where our dollars are going.

We were burned a long time ago with Perfect Sound Forever marketing hype and "It's DSD, so ... it's DSD" is really more of the same message. On the other hand if old DSD can sound this good, then that says something very positive about the overall process.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I just had to know. ;-)

But dekker was correct - this DSD version was generated from the Sony SACD cutting masters, not the current remastered version.

jim tavegia's picture

I don't find it a fault to care about sound quality as that is what higher fidelity is about. Because I nearly refuse to listen to mp3s is not really a fault if I prefer better quality playback when I have the same music available in better qualIty. Why listen to 256k if you can afford to buy 2496 or better and enjoy the difference? 

Does listening to only mp3s make one a music lover?  Not necessarily if all it is is background filler while doing something else. A violin concerto played on a Stradavarius certainly deserves to heard in the best way possible, or just go buy a starter violin from Sam Ash and let it rip.  That doesn't make much sense to me. 

Great talent playing a great instrument deserves to be played back well.  That is what audiophiles do. 

junker's picture

It's not just about the music for me - I enjoy the gear and the music. If it was only about the music we would all play an instrument!

I love seeing the format comparisons even if it is not completely apples-to-apples.  And you closed with what you would purchase. It was on the same DAC, cable, computer, and player so there is something there even if they are mastered a bit differently. I hate it when everyone just equivocates everything, and qualifies it with a YMMV. I appreaciate the review - It's an interesting data point...

 

I thought these comments from Morten Lindberg regarding formats was also interesting:

Digital reproduction of analogue sound

At venue recording sessions our analogue to digital converters can do both the one-bit DSD and the multi-bit PCM formats. We can also listen directly to the analogue output from the microphones. Digital eXtreme Definition is a professional audio format that brings “analogue” qualities in 24 bit at 352.8 kHz sampling rate. DXD preserves 8.4672 Mbit/s (3 times the data of DSD) per channel. This leaves headroom for editing and balancing before quantizing to DSD for SACD or PCM for Blu-Ray.
All audio formats on The Nordic Sound are sample rate converted from the same DXD master. Comparing them in our studio we find only subtle differences from DXD down to 192kHz and 96kHz. The obvious degeneration is from 96kHz down to 48kHz. We find DSD, as used in the SACD format, somewhat different in colour from PCM; in some mysterious way DSD is softer and more beautiful but slightly less detailed. In DXD we find the shimmering brilliance from the original analogue source as directly from the microphones. 

I personally prefer extremely high resolution PCM over the DSD and I would claim that DSD is not transparent. But it all comes down to what the sound from your speakers can do to your body and mind. I find that the placement of microphones has an infinite more important role in the final experience of music, than the difference between HiRes PCM and DSD. Sometimes a lie can be more beautiful than the truth!

firedog55's picture

I can now quit being OCD about it and fully enjoy my 24/192, as I like it more than the DSD anyway.

junker's picture

Well, his comparison was between 24/352.8 and DSD128. I need to check files sizes, but I wonder if that is closer to DSD128 or DSD 256. DSD is more "bit efficient" becuase of the noise shaping so I'd need to check file sizes on 2L's site.

Still, it looks like diminishing returns after about 24/96 with regards to PCM anyway and that is good to know.

jim tavegia's picture

I tend to look for the best sound of the piano in KOB.  I find the recorded piano in KOB to be the weakest link in this great album. 

I do enjoy my newest 180 gram lp version over my old lp or the newer cd, and I missed out in the last SACD version, which I should not have done. 

Once I get a 24/192 capable USB DAC I will probably get the HD Tracks version, not because I need a new version, but it is out there and why not. I'm leaning towards the Meridian right now. This market is changing and why I'll wait until after Christmas. 

All of this is probably akin to us vinyl guys worrying about the sound of various cartridges. Is one really better, or just different? 

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