Wednesday, February 29, 2012

DSD sounds most natural and lifelike

Well, I just had to post something on a leap day.

Early today, at 1.30am to be precise, I played some of the most natural and lifelike music I have ever heard.

No, I did not change my sound system. I played DSD music files that I had downloaded for free from

DSD has been touted to be the format that will take CAS by storm in the near future (see previous post). And I just had to hear what the buzz was all about.

Downloading the three files was simple; playing them was something else.

The DSD files were Zip files. So I had to google to find out how to unzip a Zip file and ended up downloading a free trial copy of Bitzipper.

Frankly I did not quite know what to do next since the music players in my laptop - J River V16 and Media Monkey - could not play DSD files natively.

Using Bitzipper to open one zipped DSD file, I double-clicked on the song title and - lo and behold - J River V16 was automatically launched.

Once the file was unzipped, J River V16 announced that it could not play the music file in the 24bit 352.8KHz format BUT it could be played in the 24bit 96KHz format and asked whether I wanted to automatically change the DSP settings to play the file.

I clicked 'Yes' and beautiful music started to emerge from the resident system comprising a Toshiba laptop with Windows 7 64-bit, J. River V16, Kimber Silver USB cable, Wyred 4 Sound DAC2, Oyaide XLR interconnects, Bryston 4BSST power amp, Kimber 12TC speaker cables and ATC SCM40 floorstanders.

I wouldn't say the music sounded 'analogue' or 'undigital'. Instead I would say the music sounded most natural and lifelike. The solo violin on Emily Palen's Light In the Fracture (DSDIFF file) sounded like the real thing with the right timbres and wooden resonances of the instrument's body and the right silky 'screeches' of the bow sliding on the strings. The leading edges, the dynamics, the decay all sounded right.

On Jenna Mammina and John R. Burr's When I'm Called Home (DSF file), a track comprising female voice and piano, the vocals sounded natural without sibilance and the piano sounded most natural with the right timbres, tones and decay. Certainly, it sounded like a master track.

The third file - Keith Greeninger and Dayan Kai's Bid You Good Night (from their Make It Rain album) - featured male vocals and acoustic guitars. Once more, I was transported to the studio where the recording was made - the vocals sounded natural and the guitars had the right tone, timbre and decay. The wooden resonances could be heard clearly.

On all three DSD tracks, I could hear the acoustics of the recording venue and I could sense the space around the artistes. The sounds of musical notes of the piano and guitars decaying into deep silence was most astounding.

Bear in mind that I was not playing or decoding the DSD files natively as the J River media player had converted them into 24/96 PCM files.

I wonder how much better it would get if I can play and decode the DSD files natively...

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

DSD - The 'new' format in CAS

Just when I thought I had figured out quite a bit about Computer As Source (CAS) hi-fi and had pretty good knowledge about all this newfangled stuff, something new had to crop up.

The new format touted to be the file format of the future in CAS is actually not new. Confused? Well, I was until I delved more into the subject of Direct Stream Digital (DSD) files.

According to, "The term Direct Stream Digital (DSD) was coined by Sony and Philips when they jointly launched the SACD format. It is nothing else than processed Delta-Sigma modulation first developed by Philips in the 1970s. Its first wide market entry was not until later in the 1980s when it was used as an intermediate format inside A/D and D/A converter chips."

So in a way, anyone who has played a CD has heard a DSD file but the data on the CD was in PCM format which was then converted to DSD and then to analogue.

In the studio, songs recorded from the 1980s onwards were converted from analogue to the DSD format before it was converted to PCM format and stored in the optical disk called CD. Many 'master tapes' recorded in the past 30 years and stored in the archives of recording companies are in the DSD format.

Thus releasing these DSD masters is not an issue. The problem lies in getting more audiophiles and ordinary consumers to accept the DSD format and DAC manufacturers to set their DACs to decode native DSD files.

DSD is a single bit recording with a sample rate of 2.8224MHz (64 x 44.1kHz) and this resolution is mostly for SACD production. However, recording equipment offers double that rate at 5.6448MHz (128 x 44.1kHz) and many studios use this resolution for archiving.

Some audiophiles would already be familiar with the DSD format since it is used in SACD discs and pros have already used the format for decades in their studio equipment.

The next-generation DACs will be like the Playback Designs' MPD5 DAC
which can accept PCM up to 24 bit 384kHz and DSD files up to 6.1MHz.

At the moment, only a handful of companies offer DACs which decode native DSD files streamed from laptops. These companies are:

Playback Designs ( Every product supports DSD, double rate DSD and PCM up to 384kHz via USB.
dCS: Support for DSD and PCM up to 192kHz via USB.
Mytek Digital: for DSD and PCM up to 192kHz via USB and Firewire
Fostex Its DAC/headphone amp HP-A8 decodes DSD from the SD card.

Some music players are offering playback software supporting native playback of DSD files:

ChannelD Puremusic: Supports DSD and double rate DSD on Apple Mac.
Audirvana: Supports DSD on Apple Mac.
J. River Media Center V. 17: Supports DSD and double rate DSD on Windows PC.
Merging Technologies Emotion: Supports DSD and double rate DSD on Windows PC. Release planned for early 2012.

The following labels and artistes offer DSD files for download (many more are in preparation):

Blue Coast Records:
David Elias:
* Site where various artists and labels offer high resolution recordings for download, including DSD:

If you are interested in archiving your analogue recordings (tape or vinyl) to the highest quality digital format, double rate DSD @ 5.6448MHz sample rate, then you can use Korg’s ( professional MR-2000s recorder to generate the digital files that then can played back directly with any of the above mentioned playback software.

Those who are keen to know more about DSD can go to
They can also get three free DSD downloads from

It's a very exciting time for audiophiles.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

For classical music lovers

Linn Records is now offering some of the best classical music performances previously released as LPs under the Decca Classics and Deutsche Grammophon labels in hi-res FLAC or WMA file downloads.

Linn's newsletter said: "With a catalogue that reads like a who's who of the classical world, performers whose artistry is beyond compare and home to some of the best recorded music of all time, we are very excited to welcome Decca Classics and Deutsche Grammophon to

"It seems only fitting that music from greats such as Herbert von Karajan and Sir Georg Solti is heard in all the clarity Studio Master has to offer. The audio has been remastered at 96kHz in 24-bit stereo from the original analogue mastertapes and sounds, well, amazing!

"The first recordings available in Studio Master are all by conducting royalty: Sir Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Sir Colin Davis conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, and a 27 year old Lorin Maazel conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in the recording which catapulted Maazel to stardom."

More titles will be available soon.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Big box of surprises

First of all, I have to state that the PMC IB2i speakers sound great overall, but unfortunately lack the Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF). It is unfortunate because once the WAF is not resolved, any plan to buy them has to be shelved.

That probably explains why PMC has opted for the lifestyle route in its new line-ups such as the Twenty and the Fact series.

The IB2i are huge standmount speakers which, frankly, look more at home in a studio or a specially-built music room. They definitely do not gel with a typical house's decor. Since they are so big, they have to placed at least 9 feet apart and at least 3 ft away from the rear wall in my living room.

Having said that, the sonic quality outweighs its ugly duckling looks and if you can convince the better half that the ugly ducklings look swan-like when placed in your living room, then you will be in for a sonic treat.

The IB2i is a large speaker that requires a big room.
The metal stand is specially designed for the speaker.
The stands come with special footers so that
there will be no scratches on the floor.

The IB2i is a typically British boring big box measuring 74cm (29.1") tall, 33cm (13") wide and 46.5cm (18.3") deep and comes with its own tuned open-frame metal stand. I tapped the stand with my fingernail and it sounded dead - it was filled with some material, possibly sand. Each speaker weighs 41kg (90.2lbs) and two strong men would be needed to carry it.

Having done with its looks and WAF issues, let's delve into its sonics.

The IB2i speakers are designed to be three-way reference monitors using PMCs proprietary Advanced Transmission Line design and PMC's own version of the 75mm soft dome mid made famous originally by ATC.

It uses the same 27mm Sonolex  tweeter as some of PMC's lower range speakers, but the woofer is unusual as it has a flat diaphragm instead of the normal cone. The flat woofer is made of carbon fibre/Nomex and is very stiff.

Frequency response is rated at 25Hz to 25kHz and sensitivity is 89dB making it an easy pair of speakers to drive.

In a system comprising a Bryston 4B SST, Kimber 12TC speaker cables, Benchmark DAC1 Pre , Oyaide XLR interconnects and Toshiba laptop playing J. River V16 and Furutech GT2 USB cable, the IB2i speakers had a wide range of music streamed to them.

The dome mid and Sonolex tweeter.
The flat woofer is made of carbon fibre and Nomex.

Compared with my ATC SCM40s (note the difference in price - the PMC IB2i speakers retail at RM59,200 while the SCM40s retail at around RM15,000), the PMC delivered deeper bass which was tight and taut. There were also more details in the bass region.

The treble was smooth and extended but seemed a bit recessed. Unlike the previous PMC speakers I reviewed, the PB1i (see ), the treble of the IB2i did not stand out despite the fact that the cymbals, hi-hats and triangles could be heard. With the PB1i, the treble soared and was more apparent and extended without being bright.

Another difference I noted was that the height of the IB2i's soundstage was a bit lower than that created by the PB1i. I felt it was a bit strange given the size of the IB2i.

And the vital midrange? Sure I heard more details compared with the ATC SCM40s (which use a 'studio' version of ATC's famed dome midrange) and there was greater transparency but there was also a lightness to the sound, a noticeable lack of body and weight to some acoustic instruments especially the left-hand keys of a piano. Again I thought it was a bit strange as the bass - from upper to low - was strong and tight.

Furthermore, the images like the lead singer and guitarists were positioned a bit further back than what I am used to even though the size of the soundstage was large with good depth, but - as mentioned earlier - with lower height.

Another unusual thing I noted was that the PMC IB2i speakers sounded different when I plugged the speaker cables to different jacks. This confirmed the experiences of other audiophiles in British online forums.

The speakers have three sets of speaker inputs for tri-amping or tri-wiring. They come from the factory with thin brass rods to connect all three sets of inputs, but they arrived at my house with short lengths of multi-strand speaker wires with dielectric cut off at the ends to connect to the inputs.

I could change the tonal balance by simply plugging the speaker cables to the bass inputs (for a bassier sound) or to the mid inputs (for what I felt was the best tonal balance) or the treble inputs (for a more transparent but less bassy sound).

The tonal balance changed when I plugged
the speaker cables to different sets of inputs.

I would recommend that you should at least bi-wire these speakers using the bass and mid inputs. I have encountered speakers with three sets of inputs before (such as the ATC SCM40), but their tonal balance was not that much affected by which inputs I used.

Overall, the PMC IB2i speakers are designed for monitoring purposes - they are brutally honest and good components and well-recorded music are necessary to get the best out of them. On the whole, despite the idiosyncrasies the IB2i speakers are the best to have been auditioned in my house. Have I heard better speakers elsewhere? Yes, but they cost much more.

PMC speakers are available at AV Designs which is on the mezzanine floor, West Wing of Rohas Perkasa building, Jalan P. Ramlee, Kuala Lumpur. Call them at 03-21712828 or 03-21712825.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Problem with FLAC files

A few days ago, I downloaded Gustav Holst; The Planets featuring Sir Adrian Boult conducting the Vienna Academy Chorus and Vienna State Opera Orchestra from

The music was in hi-res 24/192 FLAC files which took some time to be downloaded.

However, when I opened J River to play them, I encountered problems.

The first track played for about 1 minute 54 seconds before it suddenly stopped and track two started playing. Track two played for about two minutes before it too suddenly stopped and track three started playing. The other songs also suffered the same fate.

I e-mailed the music website and said it could not be the fault of my laptop or music player because other HDTT files I had downloaded from the same website played normally, and after a series of exchanges the administrator suggested that I should try decompressing the FLAC files into WAV or AIFF and play them.

So that's what I did. I used Media Monkey to convert the FLAC files, which are compressed lossless, to WAV, which is uncompressed lossless.

I played the WAV files - the music just flowed. The problem was solved. It was possibly caused by a bug in the compression/decompression feature of the FLAC files and converting them to WAV somehow solved the problem.

It was another lesson learnt in my journey into Computer As Source hi-fi.

Update March 4: Alas there is more to this issue than meets the eye. Initially I had thought that since there was no more skipping, everything was okay.

Then I realised that four of the tracks were rather short. I did some checking and found out that Track One was supposed to be 7:13 long, but my WAV file was only 2.08; Track Two was supposed to be 8:32 long, but my WAV file was only 2:19; Track Three was supposed to be 7:18 but my WAV file was only 2:17; Track Four was supposed to be 5:06, but my WAV file was only 2:18. Tracks Five, Six and Seven were okay.

HDTT's admin was puzzled because I had downloaded partial files and managed to play them whereas any faulty file would not even play at all.

He checked the files in his server and there seemed to be nothing wrong with them as others had downloaded them without any problems. Finally he gave up and said he did not know what was going on and offered me a refund.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

CD sounds better than CAS?

The editor of Hi-Fi Plus Magazine, Alan Sircom, has stirred up a storm with his comment that at the very high-end, some audiophiles are beginning to prefer CD or SACD playback compared with Computer As Source (CAS) playing the same music files.

Alan wrote: Beneath the calm surface of the audio world, there are dark stirrings. The backlash is beginning. It’s starting slow, and starting at the very top of the top-end of hi-fi, but there are people in high-end audio who are comparing CD or SACD with the equivalent computer files, and consistently prefer the spinning disc.

You see, when you compare the very, very best of what CD and SACD replay has to offer (we are talking Accuphase, dCS, Esoteric, Metronome, Wadia and Zanden-grade disc replay, here) and do the same with the latest and greatest in computer audio in all its guises, CD and SACD often come out on top. At less breathtaking levels of audio expenditure, the differences are not so clear-cut. But the fact remains that in many of these tests, CD outperforms its computer audio replacement. It is LP vs. CD all over again.

Metronome Kalista CD transport.

Zanden 2000T CD Transport. Audiophiles using such high-end CD
players like Metronome and Zanden are saying CD sounds better than CAS.

I have performed such comparisons on several occasions and in a number of different contexts, and I have begun to conclude there is no simple answer. In many cases, the sound of disk and computer audio are on a par with one another. In some cases (and even, with some listeners) computer audio sounds distinctly more natural than CD, and also the reverse is true. But once you breach that top-end barrier, the more people you test, the more you come up with preferences toward the spinning disc, even under blind conditions. In fairness, these differences are fairly subtle, and I still maintain that well-handled computer audio is not ruined next to spinning disc, but the preferences are distinct and consistent.

I guess the next two interlinked questions are why? And what can we do about it? While we could do precisely nothing and hope our resolve will grant CD the same longevity as LP, I am more of a prepare for the worst, hope for the best kinda guy. I think the Why might stem from the computer itself; the better USB converters invariably take great pains to galvanically isolate the computer from the audio-side equipment, and the really outstanding server-based music replay systems have been computers that were broken down into separate subsystems, each one EMI and resonant/acoustically isolated from the next. Swapping out the standard power supply for a linear supply from a lab bench, replacing any form of HDD for a hedgehog of USB memory sticks and endless RAM have also all been touted as a path to computer audio salvation. But such options are impractical, expensive and are unlikely to receive approval from the computer know-it-alls.

It may be that the high-end is creating something out of nothing, or that we are falling into the trap of comparing a mature format with a nascent one and criticising the new one simply for being new. But the fact remains that CD and SACD still have loyal followers among the audiophile community and that is not going away, no matter how good computer audio gets.

In the Malaysian scene, there are at least two audiophiles who have stated that the CD player sounds better than computer-streamed music in their systems.

This, of course, is a very sensitive issue as there are two groups waiting to pounce on each other - the diehard optical-disc followers (including the romantic TDA 1541 chip fans) will swear by the musicality of their CD/SACD players while the CAS enthusiasts will also swear by their Macs with iTunes and Amarra while Windows-based users will swear by their J River V16/17 or Foobar and the latest async USB 24/192 capable DACs.

But the fact remains that optical-based music is on its way down while CAS is on its way up.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Thunderbolt to strike soon

The next big thing in computer and multi-media connections will not be USB 3 or some new version of FireWire. It will be the Thunderbolt port.

I came to this conclusion after a chat with a geek friend who edits a computer magazine and website.

The latest models of Apple laptops already have Thunderbolt ports and one company has already marketed a Thunderbolt external hard disk drive.

And in the Weiss (manufacturer of the respected DAC202 Digital-Analogue Converter) website, you will see an ad for a third-party component called the Sonnet Echo ExpressCard/34 Thunderbolt adapter which enables you to connect FireWire and eSata peripherals and high-speed memory cards to laptops with Thunderbolt ports.

The Sonnet Echo ExpressCard/34 thunderbolt adapter enables
you to use a laptop with Thunderbolt  with a FireWire device.

It has to be stressed that the Thunderbolt port was designed specifically for audio and video functions.

From "The technology was specially designed for audio and video enthusiasts, Intel said. Users can get real-time processing by synchronizing high-bandwidth audio and video between PCs and other devices, cutting the lag time that exists with other technologies.

"Thunderbolt will be able to transfer a full-length high-definition movie from an external storage device to a PC in less than 30 seconds."

From "Thunderbolt began at Intel Labs with a simple concept: create an incredibly fast input/output technology that just about anything can plug into. After close technical collaboration between Intel and Apple, Thunderbolt emerged from the lab to make its appearance in Mac computers.

"Intel co-invented USB and PCI Express, which have become widely adopted technologies for data transfer. Apple invented FireWire and was instrumental in popularizing USB. Their collective experience has made Thunderbolt the most powerful, most flexible I/O technology ever in a personal computer.

"MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac, and Mac mini now give you access to a world of high-speed peripherals and high-resolution displays with one compact port. That’s because Thunderbolt is based on two fundamental technologies: PCI Express and DisplayPort.

"PCI Express is the technology that links all the high-performance components in a Mac. And it’s built into Thunderbolt. Which means you can connect external devices like RAID arrays and video capture solutions directly to your Mac — and get PCI Express performance. That’s a first for any computer. Thunderbolt also provides 10 watts of power to peripherals, so you can tackle workstation-class projects. With PCI Express technology, you can use existing USB and FireWire peripherals — even connect to Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks — using simple adapters.

"All that power and blazing-fast data transfer flows through the Apple Thunderbolt Cable, one of the most advanced cables ever made. No single cable has been able to do so many things and do them with such astonishing speed. It doesn’t just connect high-performance devices. It is one in its own right.

"And because Thunderbolt is based on DisplayPort technology, the video standard for high-resolution displays, any Mini DisplayPort display plugs right into the Thunderbolt port. To connect a DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI, or VGA display, just use an existing adapter.

"Thunderbolt I/O technology gives you two channels on the same connector with 10 Gbps of throughput in both directions. That makes Thunderbolt ultrafast and ultraflexible. You can move data to and from peripherals up to 20 times faster than with USB 2.0 and up to 12 times faster than with FireWire 800. You also have more than enough bandwidth to daisy-chain multiple high-speed devices without using a hub or switch. For example, you can connect several high-performance external disks, a video capture device, and even a display to a single Thunderbolt chain while maintaining maximum throughput.

"Thunderbolt I/O technology provides native support for the Apple Thunderbolt Display and Mini DisplayPort displays. It also supports DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI, and VGA displays through the use of existing adapters. So you can connect your Apple LED Cinema Display or other display, along with multiple high-speed devices, all from a single port."

So it is very likely that next-generation Blu-Ray/DVD players and LED/LCD and plasma TVs will have Thunderbolt ports. Media streamers and DACs will also migrate to Thunderbolt ports while more companies will market Thunderbolt to USB and FireWire adapters so that older DACs can still be used. Canon has already announced that it will have Thunderbolt ports in its higher-end DSLR cameras and soon the video camera makers will follow suit.

Canon's high-end DSLRs will have Thunderbolt ports.

With the capability to move 10 Gb of data per second, streaming 24bit 192KHz music files will be a breeze and - who knows? - audiophiles will be talking about the quality of 32bit 384KHz files by then...

Saturday, February 4, 2012

USB and FireWire sonically equal

Weiss DAC 202 with Firewire port selected.

Daniel Weiss, the owner and designer of the renowned Weiss DACs, is now of the opinion that FireWire and USB ports are "equivalent in terms of potential audio quality".

I had e-mailed several questions to Daniel after I found out that his much sought-after and high-end DAC 202 will now offer a USB port. Weiss had championed the usage of FireWire for his DACs from the very beginning and it came as a surprise that he has finally accepted USB as being sonically equal to the FireWire.

Oyaide Neo FireWire cable that is bundled with the Weiss DAC.
The ubiquitous USB port.
I asked him that after championing FireWire for so long, was it because of market forces that he decided to offer a USB port.

His reply was: "Yes, because people are asking for it."

I then asked him if USB technology had improved so much that he now felt comfortable offering the USB port. His reply was: "Async USB (which we use) is fine."

My next question was whether he felt the FireWire connection is still superior to USB 2. He replied: "I would call them equivalent in terms of potential audio quality."

Daniel said the extra cost of the async 24/192 USB port is around 1,100 Swiss francs and the new DAC called the Weiss DAC 202U is available now.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

King of FireWire now offers USB

Surprise, surprise. Weiss, which has championed the usage of FireWire for its DACs for as long as any audiophile can remember, is now offering a USB option for its popular and excellent DAC 202.

To be called DAC 202U, the DAC is essentially the same as the 202 except for the async USB input - which has become more popular than the FireWire - that accepts up to 24/192.

It appears as if Weiss has given in to market demand as all laptops these days - Windows or Mac-based - have USB ports and I am not sure if any Windows-based laptops still offer FireWire connections. The newer laptops also offer USB 3 connections.

And in the Apple range, the MacBook Pro, iMac, MacMini and Mac Pro (meant as a server) have FireWire ports but the company seems to be more keen on its Thunderbolt port.

Information on the Weiss DAC202U is scant and I only managed to find out that the USB will be asynchronous, uses the XMOS chip and supports up to 24/192 on OS X without additional software. As for Windows users, they have to install Thesycon drivers (which are also used by Ayre).

The USB option for the Weiss DAC 202 was announced during the recent CES in Las Vegas but  there is no news on when it will start shipping out or the extra cost of the USB port.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Belting out good sound

Late last year, Malaysian turntable tweaker Michael Lim telephoned me and asked whether I wanted to try out his Rega turntable belt. I quickly said yes and he turned up in my house with a small plastic bag containing his belt.

I have been using Rega's white belt for a while and have been very satisfied with the results.

Michael Lim's belt, which is sourced from Italy, is made of silicon and is reddish in colour.

Rega's white belt and Michael Lim's red belt.

I quickly slipped his belt onto the motor and plastic sub-platter (I'm still using the original Rega sub-platter) and played an audiophile pressing of Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms.

Immediately I noted that the music sounded laidback and relaxed and the images were pushed backwards.

It crossed my mind that I had never heard Dire Straits sounding that way before.

I removed the red belt and slipped on Rega's white belt. Immediately I noted that the music sounded dynamic and punchy - the way I am used to hearing Dire Straits' songs - and the images were moved forward.

I was quite mystified as to how a simple belt could affect sound quality and after much thinking, I came to the conclusion that it had to be linked to the torque of the motor.

Again, I used the red belt and noted that it took about two and a half revolutions before the platter spun at a steady speed. With Rega's white belt, it took only one and a half revolutions.

Thus the white belt, which felt stickier, had more grip on the motor and sub-platter and delivered enough drive to make the platter spin at the right speed faster and ensured speed stability.

The red belt, however, was not as sticky and had less grip and could not provide sufficient drive.

In the end, it boils down to what kind of presentation you prefer - the relaxed, laidback way or the dynamic and punchy way.