Spend even a little bit of time in the world of headphones, amps, and speakers, and you’ll come across the term DSD Audio. It can be…confusing. Actually, scratch that: unless you’re prepared to do a lot of reading, DSD (it stands for Direct Stream Digital) can seem virtually impenetrable, something that only the most devoted of audiophiles ever get to understand. We say: kill that noise, in the most literal sense. We firmly believe that there is no aspect of music that can’t be simply described, and that’s what we’re going to do here. In this guide, we’re going to take the mystery out of DSD Audio, explaining what it is, how it works, how you can listen to it – and why you absolutely should.
- How Regular Audio Works
- How DSD Audio Is Different
- What Does It Actually Sound Like?
- How Do I Get Some?
- Three DSD-Ready DACs You Can Buy Right Now
To understand how DSD audio is different to regular audio, we need to understand two concepts: Sample Rate and Bit Depth. Sample Rate and Bit Depth are two measures that tell us how accurate a piece of digitally-recorded sound is, and we can understand them by imagining an art critic, looking at a painting.
Yes, an art critic. Work with us here.
Let’s say this particular art critic really wants to get to grips with a particular painting, really understand it, but can only look at it a certain number of times before she has to move on (she’s busy, OK?) Obviously, the more often the critic looks at the painting - the more she samples it - the more she’ll understand about it.
Because she’s really, really good at her job, she can look at the painting 44,100 times a second. Obviously, if her sample rate was higher - say, 96,000 times a second - she’d understand more about the painting. (We’ll talk about why we picked those numbers below - for now, just roll with it).
Now let’s talk about the painting itself. Let’s say our super-fast critic is looking at a particular part of the picture, which happens to be painted yellow. That’s a piece of information she now has. But obviously, because she knows art and painting, she knows that there are different shades of yellow - many, many different shades. So when she’s writing up her review of the exhibition, she’ll be able to describe that yellow section as, say, butter yellow, or lemon yellow, or gold. Not just plain yellow.
Let’s also say she’s reasonably smart, and has the ability to describe sixteen different shades of yellow. Each shade of yellow she can describe is a single bit of information, so in this case, she has sixteen bits of information at her disposal. Couple that with her 44,100 looks at the painting, and she’ll obviously have a very in-depth understanding of what she’s looking at.
(The analogy’s a little crude, because computers work slightly differently, and sixteen bits of information actually refers to 2 to the 16th power which is 65,536 volumes and…look, trust us, you don’t need to know this, OK? Let’s just go with sixteen bits of information. Sixteen shades of yellow. Breathe, everybody. Breathe.)
Now think of this in music terms. A group of musicians in a studio is the painting, and the software recording them is the art critic. The software ‘looks’ at the incoming sound 44,100 times every second, and is able to use up to 16 bits of information each time it does so, to describe what it’s hearing. Audio you hear on a regular CD, or on a standard Spotify stream, is 16bit/44.1kHz (samples are always described in Hertz, and 44,100 Hertz is always referred to as 44.1kHz, or kiloHertz). You could also record higher-quality audio at, say, 24bit/192kHz, which means that the software is sampling the music 192,000 times every second, and is able to draw on 24 bits of information to accurately describe it.
This type of audio is often referred to as PCM, which stands for Pulse Code Modulation. We would prefer not to get into how this works, or we’ll be here all day. What you need to know right now is that most high-quality digital audio on your computer, such as WAV files, are PCM.
If none of the above is clear, then all you need to understand is this: the higher the bit depth and sample rate, the more high-quality an audio file is.
A lot of articles on DSD spend a good deal of time going into the history – one we read recently even starts things back at the invention of the phonograph, which is eyebrow-raising, to say the least. Here’s what you need to know about how DSD was made. A while back, Sony and Phillips wanted to start experimenting with higher-quality audio formats, and DSD was what they came up with. There. Short and sweet. Obviously there’s a bit more to it than that, and you can dive into this article which explains it - it’s a but much for our purposes here.
Now, as we said, your regular CD or Spotify stream has a bit depth and sample rate of 16bit/44.1kHz. DSD Audio, however, has a bit depth and sample rate of 1bit/2.8224MHz (MegaHertz). In other words, a piece of DSD Audio is sampled 2,822,400 times every second, and each time, it only produces one bit of information.
Why yes, we have just thrown our neat art critic metaphor out the window. You’re welcome. Also, we’re now going to replace it with the metaphor of a ruler. We promise this will all make sense. Pinkie-swear.
Imagine a ruler with 44,100 lines on it. In other words, you can measure something in 44,100 increments. If the bit depth is sixteen, you’ll then be able to gather sixteen bits of information from the segment you’ve just measured. But if you have a ruler with 2,822,400 lines on it, then obviously you’ll be able to take much finer measurements, yes? And when you’re taking measurements that fine and that accurate, you simply don’t need sixteen bits of information. You only need one.
That’s because the segment you’ve measured won’t be all that different from the ones to the left and right of it. Having sixteen bits of information won’t be any more beneficial than one bit, in this case. When the sample rate is that high, there’s no benefit to having a higher bit depth. You can simply record that information as a 1 or a 0 - or, in sound terms, whether the amplitude of a sound wave is increasing or decreasing. By the time those 2,822,400 1s and 0s are put together, you have an insanely-detailed picture of whatever it is you’re measuring - as if you’d suddenly zoomed out of a close-up of a collage, where each tiny segment only differs slightly from the ones around it, to find it forms a map of the United States.
(Obviously, there is a lot more to it than this, but this is the simplest way we can think of to describe it).
2.8224MHz is far from the upper limit, by the way. You’ll frequently see terms like DSD64 and DSD128, which refer to DSD audio with even higher sample rates. The maximum, so far as we know, is DSD256+, which has a sample rate of 12.288MHz. That is completely stupid, and recordings in that format are so rare as to be practically non-existent.
DSD Audio is different. It upends the rules of regular music. But as you’re about to find out, it’s something you truly need to experience.
There’s no getting away from it: DSD is geeky as hell.
In order to really understand exactly how it works, you have to be familiar with and conversant in not just concepts like bit depth and sample rate, but quantization, jitter, non-linearity, amplitude, noise-shaping algorithms and more. That is, to be honest, way, way more detail than most of us will ever need. If you want to find out more, there’s plenty of information elsewhere that goes into excruciating depth (here’s a vaguely-understandable explanation) but what you need to understand is this: DSD audio sounds really, really damn good.
A slight tangent: One thing we hate here at TMS is when an audio reviewer names specific tracks or musicians when testing. You know what we mean: “In the opening piano chords of Aja by Steely Dan, the headphones truly showed their character with rich, intense, chocolatey detail…” Yeah, no. Just no. That’s very useful if you’re a fan of Steely Dan, but if you’re not, it’s a tedious way to get an answer to the question of whether something sounds good.
However, DSD Audio isn’t like regular audio. So in this case, we’re going to break our rule. We’re going to use a specific song as an example: John Coltrane’s jazz masterpiece, A Love Supreme.
At the start of the third track, ‘Pursuance’, there’s a drum solo, which goes on for about three minutes. That’s all there is: just a guy, playing a drum riff. But when you’re listening to it on a DSD Audio recording, it becomes so much more than that. You’re in the room with the drummer. You are standing right in front of him while he shows you what he can do. You are hearing each kick and hit in extraordinary, pinpoint detail. You stop listening to a piece of recorded audio on headphones or a pair of speakers, and you’re transported directly into the recording studio. You are mainlining pure music, snorting the goddamn motherlode, injecting three minutes of the best drumming you’ve ever heard right into your carotid.
We are not even a little bit joking. DSD is incredibly geeky, but holy hell, it’s worth your time. It’s the single highest-quality source of audio we’ve ever heard, and we’re not kidding when we say it’s left us breathless. Forget the maths. Forget the clunky examples. If you take one thing away from this guide, it’s this: a song playing back as DSD audio will be among the finest things you have ever heard, and you owe it to yourself to try it out.
And now we come to the downside of DSD Audio. Actually, that’s downsides, plural.
The most obvious is that your favorite artist probably isn’t available in it. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Carlos Santana, or indeed Steely Dan, you’re gold: there will be a DSD version of your preferred album available online, at stores like Acoustic Sounds. But if you like Kings of Leon? Kanye West? Taylor Swift? Arcade Fire? Any chart song released in the past decade? You, my friend, are out of luck. Right now, DSD recordings are overwhelmingly dominated by what one might charitably call legacy acts, and if that’s not what you listen to, you’ve got problems.
And even if you do, be prepared to pay significantly more for an album than you would if you bought it from iTunes – DSD albums usually nudge the $25 mark. They take up far more space on the hard drive to, clocking in at around one to two gigabytes in size. And oh, by the way, don’t expect to be playing these things in iTunes, or on your phone. You need a specialised audio player to handle them. We use the free Pine Player on our office Mac, But by far the most popular one is Audirvana Plus, which costs an eye-watering $74.
Streaming? Ha. Oh, hahaha. Excuse us while we snort uncontrollably.
So, you’ve bought your audio and downloaded Pine Player. Did you think you were done? Sure, you could just plug headphones into your computer, and start listening, but let’s be real here. Listening to DSD Audio through your computer’s crappy digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) and terrible amp circuits is like getting a bottle of aged single malt whiskey, and drinking it out of a cereal bowl. Be nice to your music, and be kind to your ears. Invest in a DAC that can specifically handle DSD Audio, and you’ll ensure that what reaches your ears sounds sweet and accurate.
We give three examples of DSD-ready DACs at the end of this guide, but you can also see our list of the best DACs of this year. While you’re at it, you’re going to need a really good amplifier, too. And a really good pair of headphones.
OK - you can technically cheat, and up-sample a piece of PCM audio into DSD format. Amp/DACs Like the Sony TA-ZH1ES (review coming soon) actually have circuitry that remasters audio into DSD, up to 11.2MHz (which is a huge sample rate). And don’t get us wrong: it’s still very, very good. But if you want the full experience, your source recording needs to be DSD.
We’ve yet to come across a simpler, smaller, more effective way of dealing with DSD audio. Optoma’s palm-sized little DAC Has a tiny light that turns blue when it detects the presence of DSD, and it outputs some pretty magnificent sound. It’s not going to trouble the big boys, but it’s an excellent entry point.
In our review, we said: “You could argue that it’s overpriced, that $200 is too much to pay for a device that hangs its hat on a file format that very few will ever hear. But who cares? Even without resorting to DSD playback, the uDAC5 is a simple, effective device, with almost no downsides. Just shell out for the thing already, and thank us later.”
We’ve got this absolute beast of an amp/DAC sitting on our testing shelf, and will be publishing a full review soon. What you need to know is this: it costs around $2500, can handle just about any audio format you can throw at it, can remaster any audio into 11.2MHz DSD (yikes!), and it sounds brilliant.
In the time we’ve spent using it, we’ve been left in awe at just how clean and clear the sound is, with distortion so low as to be practically non-existent. It’s definitely an audiophile-focused amp, but if you’re serious about investing in your setup, and experimenting with DSD, it’s well worth looking at.
This is a DAC that takes a little while to get to grips with, with a number of interesting options and modes that require – no, demand – exploration. It’s another unit we have in for testing, and in the limited time we spent with it, we’ve had a lot of fun with its DSD capabilities.
Of particular note are the multiple modes it offers for transmitting DSD audio, allowing you to alter the range. It’s not the most accessible DAC we’ve ever played with, but it’s an affordable way to get involved in this particular aspect of music.