So What's the Big Deal About DSD? Listening Notes

I recently reviewed the Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC and it has proven to be one of the most-viewed reviews so far. And one of the things that sets the Mytek DAC apart from other DACs is its ability to play back DSD natively. So what's the big deal about DSD playback? Its the sound, silly. Now that I have a second DSD-capable DAC here, the Sonore exD/DAC ($1,195), and some more native DSD recordings thanks to Channel Classics Records and MA Recordings, I'm hearing things I also heard with the Mytek which leads me to believe that some aspects of this wonderful sound is due to DSD. And that's a big deal.

I wrote about Todd Garfinkle's MA Recordings a while back but back then I did not have a way of playing the DSD tracks he includes on Será Una Noche's self titled release and Ravid Goldschmidt and Sílvia Pérez Cruz Llama. Now I do. And I can tell you that listening to native DSD files is not like listening to the CD or even the high definition PCM versions of these same recordings (24/96 and 24/88.2 respectively). And I know because I spent time listening and comparing.

The main and most immediately noticeable difference for me is a lack of strain in big dynamic swings. Music goes from quiet to loud in a natural and effortless way that takes some getting used to. I can actually feel myself preparing for some stress but it never comes. Instead, with DSD I'm greeting by a freedom from strain and stress, the absence of an unnatural sense of steps instead of swings that I hear in many CDs. And that feels really good.

Other differences include a more natural sense of attack and decay, especially the latter so that a recording's sense of place is better defined. Instrumental timbre and voices are also lovingly portrayed as if caressed by the recording. On something like Vivaldi - La Stravaganza /12 Violin Concertos performed by Rachel Podger and the Orchestra Arte dei Suonatori [Channel Classics 195031], there's a sweetness to her violin's tone that allows you to get a better feel for its unique voice as well as Ms. Podger's artful handling of it. This kind of presentation is more akin to analog tape than to CD and that's a big deal.

Of course we're talking about a limited number of recordings and if we cherry pick a few CDs or HD downloads we can certainly come up with some stunning-sounding recordings. But the point I'd like to make clear is that even with very well recorded 16/44.1, 24/96 or 24/192 sources, there's still a different feel to the overall sound with DSD playback and that difference strikes me as sounding more natural. In PCM-land, only 24-bit recordings have come close.

But lets keep things in perspective. DSD downloads currently number in the hundreds and many titles are classical so the appeal is limited. And there's nothing, no thing, that bugs me more about audiophiles than placing sound quality over music quality. But with file-based playback we can have our PCM and DSD too. And with DSD over PCM (DoP), which the Sonore exD/DAC employs, we'll be seeing native DSD capability added to more DACs in the future (like the Ayre QB-9 which may happen as early as later this year according to Charles Hansen of Ayre).

So if your wondering what all the fuss over DSD playback is about, the answer is—its about the music.

You can see a list of DSD-capable DACs, more info on software and DSD downloads right here.

earwaxxer's picture

I am a complete fan of high res. digital, and quite frankly, I cant listen to 'native' redbook anymore. What I'm not convinced of, is the need for these high res. files to be recorded natively in high res. ex. DSD. I have converted my redbook to 24/96 using a variety of filtering techniques and have settled on a very good sound that I am quite happy with. Native 24/96 also sounds good, but not leagues above IMO. DSD is different, and intriguing.  Like I say, its interesting!

DJ's picture

You might be right in your conclusions about DSD vs PCM but there are several (some technical) things that bothers me.

1. At least with Channel Classics Records, Jared Sacks in your previous article (thumb up for your Q&A articles) explicitly said that they record in DSD format and PCM is converted from it. Such comparison is unfair.

2. Almost all current DACs internally converts PCM to some kind of delta-sigma signal which is similar to DSD. So, double conversion forth and back is not in favor of PCM. For PCM evaluation it would be better to have true PCM recordings (I think Mark Waldrep of AIX Records are making them) and true PCM DAC (like MSB Technology DAC).

3. And then there is yours "Music Matters Most". I can't comment on that but I think Mark Waldrep and some others would say that music is better from PCM path. 

Conclusion. For true and fair comparison we should have separate PCM and DSD recordings made in parallel from the same analog signal and appropriate ADCs and then reproduced in home with two different DACs, true PCM and true DSD. But as we can not guarantee that ADCs and DACs are of the same quality that comparison would never happened.

My opinion(!) is that DSD and PCM are just two sides from the same medal and the same (similar?) quality of music could be obtained with appropriate implementation and usage of technology.


Michael Lavorgna's picture

Another important point for me is native DSD playback is becoming a more accessible option in terms of the cost of associated hardware as well as access to native DSD recordings.

RGibran's picture

There's a reference we're all familiar with!


Michael Lavorgna's picture

I'll assume you are being sarcastic RG and that your sarcasm means that you think it would have been helpful for me to provide a description of some of the sonic qualities of analog tape for those people who have not had the opportunity to hear it. I'd be happy to since you asked so nicely - in my experiences listening to analog tape, there is a complete absence of stress or strain, a sonic smoothness that I have not heard in any other playback medium. This effortless quality translates into many things but one of the most apparent is how music seems to be untethered more fully from the speakers. There's a solidity to the perceived sounds in space that is remarkable, that old palpably present thing. While I've heard different aspects of these differences in other formats - 78s can also sound incredibly present, for example - I have not heard the combined qualities in any other medium. DSD comes close to this bundle of sonic traits, imo, which makes it more akin to analog tape than to CD.

kenmac's picture


not to pick nits, but would you say the "palapble" traits of vinyl fall somewhere between tape and DSD ?

From what you're reporting it seems like digital is getttin closer...


Michael Lavorgna's picture

Yep - Barry Diament says something similar in our Q&A regarding 24/192,

"For the first time in my experience, those reservations I have always had about digital, where I felt there were some things the best analog did better, simply evaporated."

Good news, eh?

agentsmittie's picture

This is the first I've heard of Ayre implementing DSD over PCM, and I cannot google any info on it either.

Could you provide a bit more details/reference?  Will the current QB9 be firmware upgradable or it will be new hardware?

I have been waiting for the promised DSD upgrade for my dCS Debussy for almost a year with no release in sight, I may be looking for alternative.


Michael Lavorgna's picture

I had an email exchange with Charlie Hansen about the QB-9 and DSD after I read this post of his on Audio Asylum. Charlie confirmed that the QB-9 can in fact be upgraded to support DoP via firmware but they may couple this upgrade with "something else".

At this time, Ayre does not have a hard date in mind for this upgrade.

thatsit's picture

I'm one of these whacky DIYers who mods gear for "improved" sound. 

With a mucho-modded Pioneer Elite DV-59AVi (a 2004 'Universal' player), I could NOT get the SACD section to within sonic spitting distance of a DIY-modded 1986 Magnavox CD-650 (the Magnavox was modded based on Naim-like 'architecture'; it sounds like the better Naim CDPs). FYI: I was comparing SACD layer on the Pioneer to the CD layer on the Magnavox. 

Some DIYers have noted that the real top-of-the-line SACD players (dCS, etc.) are better for DSD/SACD -- but, of course, at a $$. 

Shifting gears ...

QUESTION: If the DAC chip on my souncard can handle DSD (it can: A TI PCM1792 on a Asus Xonar XT) I assume the ONLY reason the PC + soundcard can't play DSD is lack of PC's lack od DSD decoding 'utilities' (either hardware or software)? There are software-based DVD players. Any software-based DSD players that inject the steam to the SC? Or am I missing something here?

Michael Lavorgna's picture

You'd need a media player that can decode DSD (JRiver, Signalyst's HQPlayer, or Foobar2000) and associated drivers for your Asus (I don't know if these exist).

And if we're to continue having a conversation, I'll have to ask you to please re-think your avatar. I get it but that's the problem ;-)

firedog55's picture

He also records in a way that his recordings sound "natural". Recording live and using mics, etc so that  the recording presents your ears and brain with something similar to what you would actually hear at the performance.

So of course his recordings sound great. But very few recordings these days sound that way. Most are close miked and mixed and manipulated after recording so that they don't resemble "live" at all. That may be fine, especially since a lot of modern music isn't really intended to be presented live.

Basically, even with 24/192 and DSD, you can still get recordings that don't sound that great, because the recording and mastering don't take advantage of what these hi-res mediums have to offer. I love lots of my hi-res stuff, but I do have plenty of well recorded redbook that sounds great. So the recording is always more important than the medium (as you implied with your comment about 78's).

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Thanks for making it and it gets me back to a point I also should have made - DSD is another arrow in our music-appreciating quiver.

labjr's picture

I think I agree with Charlie Hansen. Choice is good but is it really better than the 4X PCM sample rates?  I guess we'll debate that as the next the next generation of DACs come to the market.

I hadn't heard about commercial music releases on unencrypted DSD Discs he mentioned. That's interesting. I'll buy some.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

And suggest that DSD recordings are simply another means of enjoying music. In my new & admittedly limited experience playing back native DSD recordings, I find they can sound different from PCM recordings just as a 78 can sound different from an LP. So while I would not say that 78s are better than LPs, the ideal imo is to have the ability to enjoy them both/all.

firedog55's picture

DSD file of The Police "Synchronicity" to MFSL CD rip in 16/44.1, both played over FW to the Mytek DAC:

My understanding is that both are remasters from the original analogue master. Both sound vastly superior to the standard CD release. But while I can hear differences between the DSD and the Redbook if I A/B them,  I can't say one is "better". The DSD reveals the detail slightly better and is a bit punchier and louder overall; the MFSL is a bit warmer sounding.  I think I prefer the DSD for its' "punchiness". I'm pretty sure just "walking into  a room" where either is being played I wouldn't be able to immediately  identify which is which.  Both are worthwhile compared to standard commercial RBCD.

Note: The master of this was very dynamic (DR rating of the MFSL CD is average 15; some tracks as high as 17) - which is almost unheard of for pop/rock. And certainly nothing in the genre being released today is left with such great dynamic range intact. So kudos to the original mastering/producing team for not compressing this and losing the dynamics.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Interesting....I would suggest that using well-recorded HD source material - either PCM (the MA Recordings examples I refer to were converted to DSD from HD PCM originals using Korg's Audio Gate software) or DSD (the Channel Classics are DSD recordings) will yield more dramatic differences when compared to CD-quality versions.

stephhance001's picture

DSD has not been broadly successful in the studio recording or the consumer markets, even though the SACD format has gained more traction than its direct competitor, DVD-Audio. The advent of very-high-resolution PCM media and tools e.g. DXD has led to a decrease in the uptake of DSD in the studio market.-Garrett Hoelscher

tbrads's picture


It has been difficult to register here (did not like my ted_b user name or my normal home email addy, oh well) but I'm finally on. 

I just wanted to say, as a longtime DSD supporter and long time Mytek beta tester (customer only) etc that I really appreciated the broad scope and insight in your Mytek DAC review, and now this article about DSD in general, and Todd and Jared's recordings in particular.  Your work is very good.

Todd and I have discussed DSD vs PCM for some time now; he loves his modded Korg and wishes SACD were a bigger market (his only real SACD release is MAonSA, a wonderful sampler btw).  But now that DSD downloads and personal collection ripping (I wrote a guide as many here know) ar realities I am confident that Todd will do more in-field DSD recording and distribution.  Note:  his 24/176 PCM recordings are damn good too.

I am hoping Jared comes around to the DSF format (I convert his DIFF to DSF via Audiogate but it leaves a click or two at the end of tracks) as a downlaod format, since it brings with it full ID3v2 metadata (tagging) support.  Cookie (BlueCoast) agrees!  :)  But regardless, Jared is da man.  His recordings are world class, and his DSD downloads are leading edge (albeit a bit pricey...there I said it  :)  )

I may have missed your Sonore/exD review, or maybe its coming.  I loved the smoothness of that DAC as well (posted about it on CA, etc) and find that the under $2k DSD DAC category has now at least two very special high-value entries.  I especially like that the exD does USB Class 2 audio for those who want DSD on driverless Linux MPD, for example (doing exactly that on one of my music severs, the Auraliti PK90USB)

Now that Steve is onboard your publication has an even nicer real-world real-experience feel to it.  Congrats.


Michael Lavorgna's picture

First off apologies for the registration troubles - I will pass this along to the appropriate people.

I certainly 'know' you from the CA forums and have enjoyed many of your informative posts, including your SACD ripping series. My Sonore/exD DAC review is still in the works but I hope to have it completed by next week. I also have another DSD-capable DAC coming and a DSD-related Q&A in the works as well.

I had a recent email exchange with Todd regarding DSD and a very nice conversation with Cookie just the other day. There's something special about DSD and I hope we see more content come our way. I agree with you on Todd and Jared's recordings as well. Great stuff.

I am very fortunate to have Steve contributing to AudioStream and I thank you for your kind comments.

I hope we hear more from you on AudioStream.