DSD Done Right: Acoustic Sounds' Super HiRez downloads & more

AudioStream.com's Michael Lavorgna took a front-row seat for Chad Kassem's discussion of his company's DSD download site. Photo: John Atkinson

“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 DSD—he’s got over a dozen years’ worth of DSD recordings waiting to be sifted through and made available for purchase on his site—but 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 RMAF—in the MSB/SoundLab room, in the Sony room, in the Vivid/Luxman room, and in the Wilson/VTL/dCS/Parasound room—but, 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 beauty—beauty of song, beauty of spirit, beauty of art and of technology. This was amazing. Elvis. The soul of Elvis—his sadness, his joy, his passion and love—everything 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 thrill—a 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 description—not 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 control—a desire for control—to 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.

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John Atkinson's picture
Say it!

Stephen Mejias wrote:
I'm excited about this, hopeful and confident that Acoustic Sounds, Sony, and the industry will get it done right.

Amen to that thought, Stephen.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Geoff's picture
Thanks Sony. Not.

I was going to buy the upcoming Sony HAP-Z1ES, then I inquired and apparently this music player only comes in silver finish. All my audio gear is black. The last top-of-line Sony ES source was XA5400ES disc player sold only in black finish. Nice marketing decision Sony - thanks. As there is enough negativity on audio forums I'll go positive as these are exciting times for Hi-Res audio file downloads! I applaud Acoustic Sounds for the DSD offerings, although I already own all the Acoustic Sounds SACD offerings I wanted, I won't be paying  again for recordings I've owned in LP, CD, SACD. This time I'll leave the "keeping up with the Jone's" to the Jone's.

Stephen Scharf's picture
Excellent article...

Stephen,

I've been purchasing and listening to a number of the DSD downloads from SuperHiRez with the incredible little Schiit Loki DSD-only companion DAC (you must pick one of these up for only  $149!), and I fully, fully agree with your comments of  "overall smoothness and effortlessness, combined with wonderfully natural and powerful dynamics." and from Michael "But with the best DSD playback, there’s only relaxation and sweet thrill—a wave of music that gets larger and more powerful as required, but never becomes mechanical or unnaturally edgy."

These descriptions are EXACTLY what I've been experiencing with these wonderful DSD downloads, and it's...well, pretty wonderful. 

Really excellent article, thank you.

earwaxxer's picture
oh boy "super high rez:!?

So what comes after that? - super, super, high res? Its nonsense. I have NOT noticed a difference between "properly" upsampled and filtered redbook and "high resoulution" audio. Sorry. Its all crap. With that said, I WOULD buy, for example, DSD resolution audio on a blu-ray for a resonable price, as long as its done properly from the master tapes. 24/96 is yesterday. Forget that.... IMO...

John Atkinson's picture
Crap?

earwaxxer wrote:
Its nonsense. I have NOT noticed a difference between "properly" upsampled and filtered redbook and "high resoulution" audio. Sorry. Its all crap.

Interestingly, I have been attending the AES Convention these past couple of days and the majority of the engineers I have been speaking to feel that double or quadruple PCM sample rates and bit depths >16 offer real improvements when everything else is done without compromise. But the problem is that Hi-Rez is not the dominant factor when it comes to sound quality: as Chad Kassem explained "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.”

This reflects my own experience with the Stereophile CDs: I take enormous care to avoid sonic compromise at the original session and through the editing, mixing, and mastering. I am proud of how my CDs sound, but there is a sense of loss when I compare  the hi-rez original to the Red Book version, even when I have tried hard to use the optimal dither/noiseshaping/sample-rate conversion.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Archimago's picture
Nah... 24/96 is way good enough.

Although I do like how DSD sounds including upsampling from PCM to DSD64/128 in JRiver, I'd be perfectly happy with good proper 24/96 (native 24/96 or downsampled 24/192+, not the upsampled 44/48 stuff of course).

As I demonstrated on my blog, upsampling of PCM to DSD adds distortions even if euphonic and sadly many SACDs appear to be sourced from 44/48kHz PCM. Caveat emptor.

Provenance management is essential to ensure native DSD or direct from analogue...

For those unaware, I have fun with my little audio blog here:
archimago.blogspot.com

BTW: One more thing I've been harping on for quite awhile now - for DSD, lets get better file formats please!!! PLEASE get rid of DSF and DFF... They're so last decade if not last century. If we're to get DSD done right, we NEED to see good lossless compression and proper file tagging. This is a foundational issue and needs to be done properly to get the features up to speed with PCM.

Nacho Belgrande's picture
Awesome Insight!

Thanks - and congratulations - on the piece.I took the liberty of translating it to Portuguese so my fellow Brazilian audiophiles would have the chance to appreciate it as well. I gave you full credit, of course.

Dr. AIX's picture
Give the Customer What They Want!

I'm a musician, composer, recording engineer and producer but can only tolerate DSD. The new iTrax.com download site will provide DSD downloads from labels that limit their "high-resolution" catalogs to that format. I've come around to the position that I should sell audiophiles what they want rather than what or what I believe they should have. This runs contrary to my own preference for real HD-Audio productions that were actually recorded at the time the musicians were actually in front of equipment capable of capturing high-resolution audio. A transfer from an older analog tape to DSD or HD-PCM will only sound as good as the analog tape original...no better. So take your pick, DSD or PCM.

There is so much misinformation surrounding the production chain when it comes to DSD releases that I've been writing a daily post at realHD-Audio.com since April. Come by and look at the spectragrams of tracks that were recorded at DSD and then sold as DSD, 96, 192 and even 384 kHz PCM files. Very interesting.

I've been making high-resolution audio recordings just about as long as there's been a format to release the on (over 13 years now). For me, there is nothing that beats or even comes close to a native 96/24 PCM recording done well (and no we don['t nee more than that). It is the microphones, the venue, the placement of musicians and the entire production chain that defines a spectacular recording. And that's where 40 years of being a musician and engineer come in.

If you want to hear some native high-resolution recordings (not transfers of older analog tapes), stop by the site and click on the FREE HD-Audio link. I'll send along the credentials to hear a variety of tracks done in HD-PCM. I look forward to hearing from readers of Audiostream. You might just be surprised.

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