First Time Ever: Mahler Download in DSD

Just in time for the New Year, Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records has released the first-ever DSD (Direct-Stream-Digital) download of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's recording of Mahler's Symphony No.1. Recorded live in Davies Symphony Hall in September 2001, shortly after 9/11, and first released as a hybrid SACD in 2003, the recording is one of the only four Mahler symphonies in SFSO's complete Mahler cycle that were recorded directly to DSD.

The Mahler 1 files, available in four formats, are all derived directly from San Francisco Symphony's master, not from a copy of the SACD. The formats include two DSD formats: DFF and DSF. For those whose computer playback software or DACs are not equipped to play DSD files, 24/96 and 16/44.1 PCM files in WAV format are also available.

WAV files are larger than the usual FLAC format used for downloads. When, in 2008, Marenco conducted a blind listening test in which she first downloaded 320kbps MP3, FLAC, and WAV files of the same pieces music and then played them back, everyone present felt the WAV sounded cleaner in the low end of the sonic spectrum.

The good news, for DSD lovers, is that DSF files contain metadata and download as fast as 24/96 WAV files. In Marenco's opinion, they also compare sonically with 176.4 and 192kHz PCM. Then again, Marenco is one of the major champions of DSD, which she touts as superior to PCM. Her DSD information site offers both a complete discussion of DSD and why its proponents consider it superior, and a "most commonly asked questions" FAQ.

For those unfamiliar with Mahler's First Symphony, it is possible to audition the recording on the download site. Most alluring are its "Frère Jacques" movement and unmistakable Jewish folk themes, which conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, whose grandparents were the founders and pioneers of the American Yiddish Theater, has in his DNA. And, because it is Mahler, it abounds in those huge emotional swings and tremendous outpourings that make his music an audiophile favorite. You can get a taste of MTT discussing Mahler at the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's Keeping Score website, and hear the whole program on SFS's 2-disc Keeping Score DVD and Blu-ray devoted to Mahler.

In a phone interview, Marenco discussed how the DSD download project began. "At this year's California Audio Show, in July 2012, we shared a room with Sony. When I encountered San Francisco Symphony's recording engineer, Jack Vad, whom I've known for about 25 years, and told him about what we're doing with DSD, he was very excited. After Jack introduced me to the SFS administrative people, I started explaining what I was doing with our microstores and DSD. When I told them that these microstores are designed for labels other than Blue Coast Records who want to release their music in large size WAV or DSD format, they got very excited about opening up some new avenues of distribution."

Marenco is thrilled that Blue Coast Records got access to the DSD master, and was able to work with Jack and Gus Skinas, who had the original files before the SACD was produced, to verify that it was DSD-native. "It's very difficult to get the original DSD masters," she says. "I've been offered a lot of SACDs from major labels to use for DSD downloads, but when I ask them for the original DSD masters instead, I get a look of horror because, especially with legacy recordings, they can't always verify if the master is DSD-native."

She also has a personal attachment to the San Francisco Symphony recording of Mahler Symphony 1. When it was first released, she was on the NARAS surround-sound recording panel that listened to all the surround recordings of the year before nominating them for Grammy Awards, and it was her favorite surround mix. "It sounded spectacular, and the music I loved," she says.

DSD Insights
A growing number of players and DACs play DSD, including models from Playback Designs, Mytek, Benchmark, dCS, Korg, Chord, and EMM Labs. (Others may be announced at CES 2013, January 8–11 in Las Vegas.) There are also a number of music servers that can play DSD files without converting them to PCM, Auraliti's L-1000 being one. As for computer software, both J River and AudioGate for the PC and Pure Music and Audirvana for the Mac can play DSD without converting it to PCM.

Many audiophiles who own SACD players assume that when a hybrid SACD is DSD-native, their player outputs DSD. Alas, this is not the case. According to another major proponent of DSD, Playback Design's Andreas Koch, "The sad story about SACD drives and players is that some of them read the DSD program and convert DSD to PCM before converting to analog. All Philips drives do that. The only drive that I know that doesn't do that is the one from TEAC (the one I use)."

There is also an issue with SACDs that pose as DSD-native when, in fact, the masters were recorded in PCM. Marenco not only refuses to label her music downloads as DSD unless they were originally recorded in DSD or on analog tape, but also asks to speak to the engineer who recorded the music, or those that attended the session, to verify its provenance.

She is currently developing a white paper for labels, distributors, audio engineers and schools that will explain what DSD is and set standards for receiving properly prepped DSD files for download. Among those standards is the importance of historical information about sessions.

Marenco is especially enthusiastic about the quality of the DSD masters that her site offers. "The difference between the DSD two-channel layer on an SACD and what we sell is that we sell the DSD mix prior to authoring for SACD. The SACDs we receive back from the plant never sound as good as the DSD masters that we've mixed. There's so much variation in the discs that come back to me that I suspect there are errors introduced on the disc itself. Our ability to offer a DSD file before it has been put on a disc makes a profound difference."

cookiemarenco's picture

Thank you, Jason, for writing the article.  We are thrilled to give new life to a masterful work that was recorded more than 10 years ago.  We hope to release more works from the San Francisco Symphony.

Many readers know us from Blue Coast Records and I want to mention that the Mahler piece is not on Blue Coast Records and not recorded by us.  There are many fantastic pieces of music that exist in DSD we did not record.  For that reason, we started Downloads NOW!, a sister site that creates MicroStores for other labels to deliver DSD or full size .wav files.

Anyone interested in more DSD from various labels on our Downloads NOW! MicroStore system you can check here for a list of titles.  Each title has a MicroStore.

Happy Holidays to the wonderful crew at Stereophile and the passionate music lovers who continue to support super resolution audio.

Cookie Marenco
Blue Coast Records

dalethorn's picture

I think this was a great selection for a high-resolution release because of the very natural sound they achieved in the recording.

wozwoz's picture

This is a nice and interesting article, but it seems there are a number of errors. 


1. The title:

  ***  "FIRST TIME EVER: Mahler Downloaded in DSD"

suggests that this is the first time Mahler is available for download in DSD. It might be the first MTT version available for download, but as far as I know, the Channel Classics Mahler 1 with Fischer was the first DSD download available of a Mahler Symphony:

I have the latter on SACD (I prefer physical format) and the sonics are fantastic.


2. The statement attributed to Andreas Koch:

"The sad story about SACD drives and players is that some of them read the DSD program and convert DSD to PCM before converting to analog. All Philips drives do that. The only drive that I know that doesn't do that is the one from TEAC (the one I use)."

... is also misleading.Philips hasn't made a standalone SACD (or even CD) player in YEARS AND YEARS AND YEARS. The main culprits for not using direct DSD to Analog D/A converters are the cheapie universal players that also play DVDs. Almost all (thought not all -- so do check) decent standalone SACD stereo player will have a dedicated DSD to analog D/A. The entire Marantz range of SACD playes ALL have built-in dedicated DSD-> Analog D/a converters, for a start.


3. Finally, I am highly dubious about the suggestion that there is a difference between the DSD file sent for mastering, and the disc that is returned. The native format of SACD is the DSD file ... both should be in the same native DSD format, as I understand it. 

JasonVSerinus's picture

You are correct; Channel Classics has been offering DSD downloads of their recordings since February, 2012. I was unaware, because their site is not listed in the article by Andreas Koch that I used as a reference. I believe, thanks to you, that it will be updated.

Channel Classics' DSD information page - - lists an additional manufacturer of DSD DACs, Canada's exaSound. It also lists an additional manufacturer of DSD software for the PC, Signalyst.

The statement attributed to Andreas Koch is a direct quote supplied for the article. As for your scepticism "about the suggestion that there is a difference between the DSD file sent for mastering, and the disc that is returned," Cookie Marenco's opinion is based on her own listening tests. The only way to verify is to conduct listening tests for yourself. Of course, some systems and system set-ups are far more resolving and full-range than others.

cookiemarenco's picture

Thank you, Wozwoz, for these questions.

This is the first time the San Francisco Symphony has released any music in the DSD download format.  (By the way, the same piece of music is available as an SACD and in various PCM formats at Qubuz and HDtracks, just to be clear).  

We are a production, recording and mastering house (as is Jared Sacks, Channel Classics).  Due to increased interest in delivering super resolution files, we created Downloads NOW! which creates MicroStores for other labels beyond Blue Coast Records.  Since very few mastering engineers communicate directly with their customers and since very few companies are distributing DSD we are in a unique position to talk to our customers and work to resolve the issues of delivering a new format.  

DSD still has some rough edges that will require software, hardware and mastering engineers to coordinate their activities.  Since Jared is probably doing his own mastering, he is most likely not encountering the issues we face because he is (wisely) using the DSD files pre-mastering....  as we do with our own label, Blue Coast Records.

Nearly every DSD download file we have received ripped from SACD, required we do a slight remastering to avoid a small 'click' at the beginning or end of the piece.  It is quite time consuming and we are alerting mastering engineers to this issue to help with prevention.  In time, this will be handle by the software players more effectively, but for now, we are doing what we can to coordinate a better experience for listeners.

Not all players encounter this issue which more notably occurs with Apple products and not on all systems, which makes diagnosis difficult.  This same kind of issue occurred with PCM downloads when we were first delivering in 1997 at Liquid Audio.

There are three reasons why we prefer to get the pre-SACD ripped files.  

* We routinely make copies of PCM and DSD, checking for any loss.  On blindfold tests, there is a slight difference.. somewhat insignificant, but still a difference.  

* We've been involved with several SACD pressings using Sony DADC with a highly regarded reputation.  On repeat pressings, there can be differences in the sound, usually a lack of high end.  We keep test pressings and compare with newer test pressing to verify our listening. Rather than take a chance on inferior playback, when possible we prefer to use the pre SACD master DSD files.  I'm guessing Jared does the same.

* When receiving files from mastering engineers, we can never be sure if they were given accurate information from the record label as to the actual recording format.  Record labels are notorious for not keeping documentation (but that's another article).  We do our best to verify that the originals came from analog or DSD native recordings.  It's not uncommon to find the original files were 9624 then converted to DSD for SACD production.  Very few recording studios have access to DSD multitrack recording.  The provenance is important to us, so at this time, we prefer to get the actual mixes for assurance as to the provenance.  

I hope that better explains our position.  Please feel to write to us with questions, comments or wigh in with your opinion. 

Thank you again, for your interest in this subject.

popluhv's picture

Glad to hear that Cookie is working on a paper to spread the format around. This kind of stuff needs to go mainstream. It is frustrating to see all of the well recorded "audiophile" music and sound effects out there, but then have so many poorly mastered titles from the artists we all love. 

deckeda's picture

The industry needs more people like her.

Trouble is, she's doing the work of several different people, many of whom don't usually talk to each other or share common goals regarding provenance and the reasons behind wanting it.