DSD Done Right: Acoustic Sounds' Super HiRez downloads & more
“We’re so lucky that it’s all coming together at once,” said Acoustic Sounds’ Chad Kassem.
On the final morning of the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, editors from Stereophile, AudioStream.com, and AnalogPlanet.com gathered in Kassem’s demo room to learn more about his new Super HiRez DSD download site.
Much of the weekend’s festivities had been highlighted by spirited talk of convergence, cooperation, and timing. During the Sony press conference, representatives were sure and careful to stress the importance of “industry-wide” support, not only of DSD, but of every file format. The words “and the industry” became a common refrain to any mention of Sony’s plans for new products, as though Sony and The Industry were an entirely new company or a hot new band. “This is just the first wave of products to come from Sony and the industry . . .” “Sony and the industry will be making big announcements in the coming weeks . . .” It’s all a part of the “hi-rez initiative,” and we were hearing about it again, Kassem speaking bluntly. Behind him, Sony’s new HAP-Z1ES music player was glowing with metadata.
“This isn’t just about DSD. SACD, DSD, hardware, software, LP . . . We offer it all.”
For sure, Kassem is fond of DSDhe’s got over a dozen years’ worth of DSD recordings waiting to be sifted through and made available for purchase on his sitebut even more important to him is freedom of choice and simplicity of use.
“The key to making this thing fly is making it easy. We want to bring together the highest quality and ease of use. The customers pick what they want. The only reason we’ve hung our hat on DSD is because no one else was doing it and people were asking for it. We’ve had some customers ask us about ‘Double DSD.’ What I want people to understand is that the recording and the mastering are more important than the format. A well-mastered CD is going to sound better than a poorly mastered LP or high-rez file.”
Still, the benefits of DSD done properly are profound. In between Kassem’s discussion, we took time to listen. The system included the aforementioned Sony music player ($1,999), Pass Labs XP-20 preamp ($8,600) and XA60.5 60W monoblock amplifiers ($11,000/pair), and Sony SS-AR2 speakers ($20,000/pair). The sound was marvelous. I’d heard similarly good sound elsewhere at RMAFin the MSB/SoundLab room, in the Sony room, in the Vivid/Luxman room, and in the Wilson/VTL/dCS/Parasound roombut, here, more than anywhere else, I felt transported by the music.
“Peace in the Valley” was a miracle, plain and simple. I’d never before felt so close to Elvis Presley. I found myself thinking how wonderful it is that humans can achieve such beautybeauty of song, beauty of spirit, beauty of art and of technology. This was amazing. Elvis. The soul of Elvishis sadness, his joy, his passion and loveeverything but the man, there in the room with us. How did we accomplish this?
Look, “Peace in the Valley” sounds good through my shitty computer speakers. In DSD, through this system, it was as close to real as I’ve ever heard. We listened to more. Shelby Lynne, Ben Webster, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Joe White. Every one of them was there. I could imagine the players’ subtle motions, the purposeful movements, the necessary twists and turns and pulls of every note, chord, or breath that communicate exactly the right feeling and tone. I imagined myself, on stage, playing my own songs, communicating through motion as well as sound.
What I heard, then, was a greater degree of humanness in the reproduced music. It was like some expertly realized CGI, but instead of a tiger on a raft, there were musicians in a room. The gap between reality and illusion is growing smaller.
My messy notes: “We’re crossing boundaries. To some extent, it’s frightening, but it’s also absolutely beautiful. The force in the musical climaxes is magic.”
I think that’s what’s most impressive about the best DSD playback I’ve heard: There’s an overall smoothness and effortlessness, combined with wonderfully natural and powerful dynamics. Michael Lavorgna expressed it this way: Usually, when we listen to music, we prepare ourselves for the big dynamic bursts. There’s some anxiety involved, some clenching of the fists or tightening of the skin. But with the best DSD playback, there’s only relaxation and sweet thrilla wave of music that gets larger and more powerful as required, but never becomes mechanical or unnaturally edgy.
Everyone should hear it. On that Sunday morning, everyone in the room agreed. Of course, Chad Kassem wants you to hear it. The Super HiRez website is made to be as intuitive and helpful as possible. There is a glossary of terms (“The Download Lowdown”); there are pages for “Recommended Equipment” and “Recommended Software,” all of which can be purchased directly from the site; there is a “How-To Guide,” written by Positive Feedback Online’s David Robinson; there is a history of DSD recording and playback; and, of course, there is music. Kassem sells his DSD titles for $24.98, which strikes me as an incredibly fair and very competitive price.
When you click on one of the available DSD titles, you get a descriptionnot only of the music, but of the recording and its provenance. “The recording and the mastering are very important,” Kassem reiterated. “We want to give you transparency. When we have the information, we’ll make it very clear.” John Lee Hooker’s It Serve You Right to Suffer, for instance, was mastered by Kevin Gray, from the original analog master tapes. When Acoustic Sounds does not know the origins of a recording, they’ll make that clear, too, with a note stating that the info is being researched. They’ll add the information when they can.
Currently, Acoustic Sounds carries 126 DSD titles. Kassem is working to obtain more, but stressed that it will take time. “We’re starting with our own titles, because we’ve got them and we know where they’re from.” Acoustic Sounds will continue to release their material on SACD. The discs will appear about six months prior to the DSD downloads.
No doubt, there’s an element of controla desire for controlto this endeavor, just as there is with Jared Sacks’ NativeDSD.com, but my feeling is that, in both cases, control is necessary, first and foremost, to ensure quality. So far, the quality is outstanding. The potential is awesome.
“The day we’ve been waiting for is here,” Kassem said. “We’ve got the tools and the gear, and we’re doing our best to get as many titles available as we can.”
I'm excited about this, hopeful and confident that Acoustic Sounds, Sony, and the industry will get it done right.