Music in the Round #61
Sometimes, things happen so fast it's almost unsettling. DSD is the high-resolution recording format used on SACDs and I closed my May column with the expressed hope that the exaSound e18 multichannel DAC would eventually be able to decode DSD data, that Oppo would implement DSD streaming in its universal players, and that I'd be able to get my hands on a working trio of Mytek DSD DACs. I didn't expect that, even before that issue went to press, I'd have to add a footnote (p.61) indicating that stereo DSD streaming was a reality for the exaSound e18, and that Oppo had made available "test" firmware to empower their universal Blu-ray players for stereo and multichannel DSD. On March 26, Oppo publicly announced that this DSD capability was part of the comprehensive "Public Beta Test Release" made available that day. Then, with the May issue not yet hitting the streets, I got a proper multi-Mytek setup. I had a lot of catching up to do.
Oppo universal players now play DSD files
Oppo's announcement has evoked strong commentary on the Internet. Many have exulted, though a few mutter that there are as yet too fewor too few affordableDSD downloads to warrant Oppo's inclusion of this capability. It's a matter of perspective. Sure, only a few companies now offer multichannel downloads, but DSD is the center ring for those of us committed to high-resolution, multichannel sound; the appearance of a well-distributed, mid-market player of DSD files is essential for the growth of that sound format. Others argue that DSD offers no significant advantage over hi-rez PCM. On this I have no definite position, except to say that the very best pure DSD recordings have produced the best sound I've heard in either of my systems. Converting them to PCM sacrifices some ease and transparency, but the conversion alone muddies the water. If there are better pure, original PCM recordings of comparable content, I haven't heard them.
If you already own an Oppo BDP-103 ($499) or BDP-105 ($1199) universal Blu-ray player, as I suspect many of you do, there's no cost to experience DSDthe firmware is free. But I offer a strong warningnot that this experience will spoil you for any other recording format, but that Oppo's "Latest Public Beta Test Release" is not their "Latest Official Release Version." Once the former is installed, you won't be able to revert to any prior firmware, whether Beta or Official. You'll be stuck with the entire upgrade, which includes a slew of other features I haven't yet assessed and with which others have found fault. So download and upgrade at your own risk, until Oppo releases an Official firmware revisionwhich, at the current speed of events, they may have done by the time you read this.
I took the plunge and installed the Beta Test firmware in my BDP-103 and '105. Following the suggestion in Oppo's firmware release notes, I attached a USB drive with downloaded DSD files with DSF and DFF extensions. I'd used these same drives before , but the Oppos had refused to recognize or display them in the track list. With the new firmware, the DSD files now appeared interspersed with the other familiar formats, and, more important, the Oppos play them perfectly. In my Connecticut system, when I connected the '103 to my Marantz AV8801 A/V preamplifier-processor via HDMI, the Marantz's front panel displayed "DSD" as well as the proper array of input channels. Since the signals were coming in by HDMI, I could rapidly switch between my default, Audyssey-corrected mode and Marantz's Direct or Pure modes, which, by bypassing all processing except channel levels, should be the equivalent of a DSD DAC. I confirmed this by also connecting the Oppos' multichannel analog outputs to the Marantz's multichannel analog inputs.
The difference between processed/corrected and Direct (with either connection mode) was clear. Processed/corrected was properly balanced, spatially and harmonically, with excellent depth and well-defined soundstaging. However, Direct mode offered even better depth and imaging as a consequence of apparent increases in detail and transparency. The cost was, as expected, the prominence of some individual instrumentals, especially in the bass, and a generally cooler sound. Presumably, these differences were imposed by the uncorrected room acoustics in the bass and the slightly peaky treble from my Paradigm speakers. These issues weren't particularly disturbingI could comfortably listen either waybut, more and more, I came to prefer listening to DSD "direct" via HDMI, or really direct via the multichannel analog inputs. Ideally, I'd like to have the clarity of "direct" and the acoustical corrections. See my discussion of Audyssey related issues at the end of this column.
I could also compare a DSD file to an HDMI feed from the SACD of the same recording: Iv†n Fischer leading the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony 1 (Channel Classics CCS SA 33112). The A/B comparison was not rapid; I had to step through the Oppo's menu to switch formats. The multichannel DSD downloads were impressively satisfying, and marginally preferable to the sound from a disc of the same performance. Without a faster A/B, I won't push the distinction, but I perhaps not having the Oppo's moving parts in operation made for a more relaxing experience.
In my NYC system, the results were a bit different. While the speakers (Bowers & Wilkins 804Ds) and the room acoustics are better there, the Meridian Reference 861 doesn't accept DSD signals, and is limited to 24/96 PCM input. Given that, there was no point in defeating its processing and/or room EQ for multichannel. The only "direct" option I had was to feed the analog XLR outputs of the BDP-105 through Parasound's Halo JC 2 BP in stereo. As a dedicated multichannel guy, just going from multichannel to stereo made me impatient to switch back.
That's not to say that I can snub the stereo performance of the Oppo or the system. Direct or via the Meridian (using HDMI), Marianne Beate Kielland's silken tone in "Come Away, Death" (a 24/176.4 PCM download track from record label 2L) floating between the speakers was simply thrillingbut even this simple recording of voice and piano had greater clarity unprocessed. Nonetheless, since spatial issues were also simpler, the Meridian route seemed pleasingly warmer.
Then I received a flash drive from Tom Caulfield and Jared Sacks, of Channel Classics, containing DFF files recorded during the sessions for Fischer/BFO's well-received Mahler First and their Mahler Fifth (to be released soon). Sacks had set up the mikes and balanced their feeds for the five channels, but these files had not been subjected to any editing or other postproduction. This was pure DSDno conversions to and from PCM, not even brief ones.
Knowing all of this before listening, it was impossible to remain unbiased, but wowthe electricity and communication I experienced was unprecedented. Listening to the uncompromised session files in both systems, I felt the same frisson of being virtually transported to the performance. They were as musically convincing as anything I've heard, and immediately distinguishable from both the SACD and DFF downloads by an inner clarity in the lower midrange and bass. Sacks has indicated that he's looking for a way to market such recordings, to make them available to all.
When I first read Oppo's firmware release notes, I interpreted their statement about "support for Direct Stream Digital (DSD) file playback from local storage" to mean that the local storage device must be physically connected directly to the player's USB portand, anyway, DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) connections don't support DSD. However, DSD files can be played over the SMB protocol communication because, as Oppo says, "For any media file playback, networking via SMB shares is pretty much the same as locally attached USB drives. This is because the player accesses the media files via file system block or sequential read/write access, just like a computer reads and writes its hard disks." The new firmware also supports exFAT drives, so I loaded my music files on two 2TB drives, one for each system, and hoped that this would make playing them a piece of cake.
First, I navigated to the SMB option under Networking in the Oppo's menu, but was unable to get past the log-in request. When I set up my PCs for guest access to share their music directories, all of my music files, including DSF and DFF files, appeared on the Oppo-connected screen, and I could play them with the same success via my home network as from my physically connected drives. Oppo warns that other PC tasks may interfere with the "intensive disk read access" demanded by playback of DSD files, but I experienced no dropouts while simply surfing the Web or processing words. The sound quality was as good as with physically attached drives, and it was great to be able to select from large collections of files stored elsewhere.
This ain't the answer for everyone. First, since DLNA doesn't support DSD, you can't "push" DSD from a remote server. This means that you're restricted to Oppo's content listings, which are limited and inflexible compared to the display options of such music-management softwares as JRiver Media Center, Amarra, Pure Music, etc. It also means that you have to maintain a local display Oppo's mobile app is even more crippled by comparison. The other major limitation is that none of the current multichannel-DSD options support gapless playback, something that's very critical for many listeners, especially with classical recordings. Oppo has provided something of a workaround in the form of support for CUE file playback. With this, a single file contains all the tracks, but the CUE file distinguishes which tracks should be played without gaps. I haven't yet tried it, but Web reports suggest that this is no trivial task.
No matter. If you prefer, you can wait for a setup that will permit gapless play from a remote server; meanwhile, I'll be accelerating my acquisition of multichannel DSD files because Oppo's BDP-103 and '105 players let me play and enjoy them now. I strongly urge all Oppo owners to install the new software as soon as an Official Release Version is made available, and get started by downloading some free sample files.
From a background in making sound-processing gear for professional recording studios, Mytek Digital has entered the consumer-audio market with its two-channel Stereo192-DSD USB/FireWire digital-to-analog converter ($1595), a product taken almost intact from its pro line. Readers might want to read Michael Lavorgna's review of the Stereo-192DSD on AudioStream; I agree with him on the unit's quality, but here I focus on the Mytek's use in a multichannel system.