The bleeding edge of the audiophile universe – inhabited by those of us who probe ever deeper into the outer reaches of diminishing returns in search of audio playback perfection – is strangely characterized by apparently outdated, abandoned, superseded technologies, shouting their last hurrahs in stunningly expensive Technicolor. Tubes and turntables are guilty as charged here, and I own both.
Why do some apparently
stone-age technologies still persist, yet others less venerable vanish
never to be heard from again (hello cassette tapes, receivers, and soon
CD players)? In the cases of tubes and turntables, I venture to suggest
that these are technologies which, at their zenith, were the products
of craftsmanship and ‘black art’ rather than the concentrated
application of science. Their full scientific potential was never truly
reached, and they were replaced for reasons of practicality,
convenience, and cost. But they still have not gone away.
slightly different situation arose for the SACD, a technology developed
by Sony and Philips as an intended replacement for the CD around the
turn of the millenium. SACD was designed from the start to be a vehicle
for delivering notable superior sound quality compared to the CD, which
is strange, since the same two companies foisted CD on us under the
pretext of “Pure Perfect Sound, Forever”. But whereas in the 1980’s
they were able to create a real consumer demand for a delivery platform
which was convincingly marketed as being superior to the LP, with SACD
they found that there was in fact no market interest in a sound quality
superior to CD. In fact, their customers were more preoccupied with a
delivery format of demonstrably INFERIOR sound quality – the MP3 file.
But that is another story.
The SACD fizzled upon launch, but
thanks to the Japanese, it didn’t actually die. There is a healthy
market for the SACD in Japan, and this is sufficient to keep the format
alive, if not necessarily healthy. So what is it with the SACD? Does
it actually sound better? And if so, how does it do that?
Well, yes, there is broadly held agreement that SACD does indeed sound
markedly better than CD, and arguably even CD’s high-resolution PCM
format cousins (with 24-bit bit depth and higher sampling rates). You
see, SACD stores its digital music in a totally different way than CD.
It uses a format called DSD, which I shall not go into here, save to say
that conversion from DSD to PCM seems to consistently result in some
significant sacrifice of sound quality.
Here in the West,
where we never really adopted the SACD, we moved from listening to music
on CDs to listening to music stored in computer files. So, instead of
wondering whether or not to adopt the SACD, we ask whether or not we can
store music in DSD format in computer files and have the best of both
worlds. Well, of course we can! What did you think?...
file formats, one developed by Sony called DSF, and one developed by
Philips called DFF, seem to have recently emerged. If you have a PC,
you can easily send DSD bitstreams from DSF and DFF files to DACs that
support DSD. In the Mac, it is a little more complicated, and there is
an emerging standard called DoP (DSD over PCM) which enables Mac users
to transmit DSD over USB and other asynchronous communications
interfaces. Boutique record labels are emerging, such as Blue Coast
Records, which record exclusively in DSD, and sell DSF/DFF files for
Perhaps most intriguing is that many of the major labels – but DON’T go
looking for much in the way of public acknowledgement – have discovered
a preference for using the DSD format for archival of their analog tape
back catalog, having once already gone down the path of digitizing it
to PCM and finding it to have been sadly lacking. Don’t look for this
to happen any time soon, but this lays the groundwork for the major
labels to finally release their back catalog in a format that truly
captures the sound quality of the original master tapes. Before that
happens, the labels are going to have to realize that the only
sustainable format for music distribution is going to be one that works
on-line, and they are going to have to find a way to make that work for
DSD could end up emerging as the format of choice for audiophile quality audio playback.