Today I want us to compare the lovely Norah Jones album Come Away with Me from three sources: DSD download, 180 gram vinyl, and Apple iTunes AAC. We will process everything through Audirvana Plus and then finally listen to iTunes direct without any processing. This should be interesting. If you already know that everything will sound the same please go on your merry way.
I am assuming and hoping that all the files in question came from the same master tape, but I do not know this for a fact. The album is relatively new and was probably recorded using single bit DSD technology as are many contemporary albums. Barnes and Noble which sold me the vinyl, says they go back to the source as do Apple. Acoustic Sounds are know for their impeccable sourcing. See AcousticSounds.com
In the last comparison I used a 24/96 flac for high-resolution which relies on PCM (Pulse Code Modulation). Today I will be using DSD (Direct Stream Digital) for our high-resolution source. What is the difference between these two sources? A very simplistic technical explanation is that they are both using the same recording, but processing it differently.
CD’s sample or compare 16 bits at a time, oversampling them at 44.100 times per second (44.1KHz). Higher resolution flac files look at 24 bits of information at a time and oversample them at 88.2KHz or higher – out to 196 KHz.
DSD oversamples the bits one at a time, but at a very high rate of 2,800,000 times per second (2.8MHz). Theoretically, this is equivalent to analogue sound. Fast enough to fool the ears, right? Contemporary master tapes are processed this way initially, and, the argument goes they should be translated this way. SACD recordings are made this way. Nonetheless, pure DSD is not so pure because it is often edited and mixed in PCM because it is easier to do so. In the end, the files are transferred back to DSD.
Do DSD files sound better? Some would say so. In fact, PS Audio sells a very well respected DAC, the DirectStream. See photo below:
It, supposedly, converts all sources, regardless of what they are, to the highest resolution DSD. Here is how PS Audio markets it:
“Astounding“, “Gave up vinyl finally“, “Never heard anything like it!” Product of the year in both Stereophile and TAS, Darko Knock Out award, Editor’s choice and Golden Ear awards. DirectStream is one of the most remarkable DACS ever built and the reviewers agree. Hand written, discrete, perfection based conversion that uncovers all the missing information hiding in your digital audio media. CD’s, high-resolution PCM or DSD based media are expertly upsampled in the DirectStream to twenty times DSD rate and output as pure analog directly into your amplifier or preamplifier.
We have no reason to doubt PS Audio’s sincerity. They make very fine products. No one would be buying a $5,999 DAC if it did not sound very good indeed. Giving up vinyl is another matter. We shall see.
We listened to all the sources mentioned above. There were differences in the sound we heard. We concentrated on Norah Jones’ voice for starters. She has a wonderful, beguiling voice, and the AudioEngine 2A+ speakers are excellent at reproducing voice. In addition, the Audirvana Plus music player does wonders with voice, no matter what the recording format is.
The best voice reproduced came from the vinyl recording. Norah’s voice was sweet, relaxed, and unstrained. The DSD file was a very close second. The straight iTunes version had too much edge, but when processed by Audirvana Plus it was much more listenable. Female voice is the acid test. We just do not want the voice to sound like acid to the ears!
Overall, my listening session was quite enjoyable, relegating the unprocessed Apple AAC to mostly casual listening. The vinyl and DSD versions made you feel that you were sitting in a real performance. Both were three-dimensional. The processed Apple AAC through Audirvana Plus was more two-dimensional but still enjoyable.
The vinyl had a little more bloom which made you think you were listening through a very good tube amplifier. (The class AB built-in amp in the left A2+ speaker is quite good, by the way.) Some might say this bloom is a form of distortion. It may be but I love this sound. It grabs you emotionally and brings you into the performance.
The DSD seemed to have a tighter bass response than the vinyl, though both were extended. (No doubt a five-figure turntable/tonearm combination would help close the gap.)
I liked the brush sound on the cymbals more on the vinyl. This is where AAC really failed. And for the female voice, vinyl is still king.
I clearly liked DSD. It is better than high-resolution flac. I am told that 24/192 PCM will give DSD some stiff competition. Have not tried this yet. If this has been your experience, please chime in. I would to hear about your listening tests.
As I have said before, there is more music in digital recordings than our CD’s have been revealing. What is the future of digital music? Some are saying that MQA recordings may be the answer. Politics and turf wars might trump what ultimately is decided.
But that has to be left for another time. It is interesting that Audirvana Plus will process MQA files now and that PS Audio has now provided such processing in its DirectStream DAC.
What is exciting for me is the relatively low-cost approach of DSD downloads and Audirvana Plus. Digital sound is getting better and the price of admission for the participation of the masses has been greatly reduced!