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HDtracks and DSD - a mixed bag

post #1 of 13
Thread Starter 

I rarely start threads, but I thought my experience lately with high-res downloads from HDtracks and some SACD releases (out-of-print Columbia Jazz and Telarc Soundstream) might prove useful. So here goes...
 

I downloaded some albums from HDtracks over the holidays and all I can say is that I'm underwhelmed. Here's the list:

 

Getz / Gilberto - 96 / 24

Jazz Samba - 192 / 24

Blue Train - 192 / 24

Allman Brothers Live At The Fillmore East - 96 / 24

Mellon Collie and the Inifinite Sadness - 96 / 24

 

The files were burned to DVD-R media using a trial version of DVD-Audio Solo. I compared using the loudspeaker setup as well as through the ER-4S (system details in my profile).

 

Here are my impressions so far -

 

Jazz Samba (in particular) sounds worse than the CD (Verve Master Edition V6-8432, paper gatefold). The 'high-res' files feature a less vibrant mix with all instruments seemingly obscured by a wool blanket - very boring sounding.

 

Getz / Gilberto is passable, but very close in quality to a Japanese import compact disc (Verve, POCJ-2452) to justify a price increase. That CD copy was mastered at 96 / 24 and I'd be hard-pressed to detect a difference between the 'high-res' and the Redbook version. Again, the Verve Master Edition (V6-8545, paper gatefold) seems to trump both with a warmer tone that still preserves detail. I have a feeling that Verve did not offer up their best source material to either HDtracks or the Japanese engineers for Getz / Gilberto or Jazz Samba.

 

Blue Train may be worth the price of admission since it sounds much smoother than the 'RVG' Blue Train, though switching to an older CD release - the Ultimate Blue Train (Blue Note, CDP 7243 8 53428 0 6) also tames the bright sound of the newer reissue. I go back and forth on whether I prefer the slightly more 'audiophile' sound of the 'RVG' issue or the HDtracks version.

 

I haven't had time to compare the last two with a Redbook version, but given the current track record, I can't say that the results would turn out any different. One thing to note about the Allman Brothers album - there is a double CD release with more than twice as much music as well as excellent sonics (Polydor, 314 517 294-2).

 

However, for examples of great hi-res done right, I'd look to the SACD out-of-print releases of the Columbia Jazz catalog: Thelonious Monk - Straight, No Chaser and Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Out are good examples. Even when compared against the Japanese import "Master Sound" DSD remastered CD releases, the SACDs come out on top. The tone is warmer and richer without sacrificing inner detail. Monk's piano sounds much more realistic - the Redbook version has an unnatural glare when the hammer strikes the string of more forcefully played notes on 'I Didn't Know About You'. This is gone in the SACD reissue. The Verve SACD release of Getz / Gilberto (Verve, V6-8432) is another standout. Milton Banana's cymbal work and Stan Getz's saxophone sounds more fully fleshed out. This can easily be heard in The Girl From Ipanema - the cymbals have a realism that can be matched by the HDtracks or the CD version that I have.

 

Telarc's historic first recordings where on a digital system that featured a 50 kHz sampling rate. They claim that DSD remastering now lets you hear the original recordings in their full sonic glory since the sample rate conversion from 50 to 44.1 involves some tricky mathematics and leads to comprises in audio quality. I have to admit that I was skeptical, but I now have both the CD and hybrid SACD release of Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 "Organ" (CD-80051 and SACD-60634) and much prefer the latter. The orchestra was recorded in a church alongside a Skinner organ and the reverberant acoustics sometimes overpower the performance. Not so with the SACD. Now the orchestra and the organ are now blended more successfully in the recording space. Could it be that the engineer screwed up on the original CD mix? Perhaps - and I haven't listened to the Redbook layer of the SACD to see if the differences remain. One value-add of the SACD disc, though, is that it actually contains *two* previous Soundstream CD releases. So that makes the higher price somewhat justified.

 

However, I think DSD is no panacea - I much prefer the CD release (Mercury, 088 170 069-2) of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? vs. a SACD stereo release (Lost Highway, 088 170 358-2). On 'Down to the River to Pray' the SACD version loses the tactile quality of the banjo picking and Allison Krauss' voice is portrayed with less delicacy and air. I also think that the sonic differences between the CD and SACD release of Norah Jones' Come Away With Me are too close to call to justify a move to SACD unless you really want a multichannel experience. My amateur guess is that either these are not fully DSD remastered instead converted from PCM files or the studio effects obscure any resolving power that DSD has.

 

So in the end, I guess that high-res in general is a mixed bag though there are pockets of excellence, mainly on the SACD side. I can't say that I've been too pleased with HDtracks, though I do give them credit for trying.

 

Hope this has been helpful...

post #2 of 13
I have a number of DSD/HD files; though, none of the ones you purchased. Just as a thought, perhaps your experience would have been different if you played the file with an appropriate DAC, in lieu of using a trial app to burn it onto a DVD-R.

smily_headphones1.gif
post #3 of 13

The only way to truly determine whether or not a high resolution version (either PCM or DSD) of recording sounds better than the standard CD resolution version is to be absolutely positive that both versions were made from exactly the mix and master otherwise one is just hearing the differences in the mix and master rather than the differences between high and standard resolution.

 

And as was also pointed out by the op, how the recording was originally made can also have an effect on the sound of the high resolution version. Was the original recording analog, PCM digital (and at what sample rate and bit depth) or DSD? Also throw into the mix - when was the recording made, which is very important when dealing with recordings made in the early days of digital.

 

So unless one is comparing high and standard resolution recordings made from exactly the same master one is only comparing apples to oranges.

 

One last thing: a question for the op - were all the discs (DVD-A, SACD and CD) played back using the same disc player?

post #4 of 13
FWIW, the bulk of the files on HDTracks were mastered by Puget Sound, so they're not identical to commercial offerings. This isn't to say, of course, that one may prefer one to the other.
post #5 of 13
Quote:
Originally Posted by Shaffer View Post

FWIW, the bulk of the files on HDTracks were mastered by Puget Sound, so they're not identical to commercial offerings. This isn't to say, of course, that one may prefer one to the other.


Where did you get this information?

post #6 of 13
Quote:
Originally Posted by ralphp@optonline View Post


Where did you get this information?

It's not a secret. If you shoot me a PM, I can point you to a forum where you can talk to the very individual who did the actual mastering.
post #7 of 13
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by ralphp@optonline View Post
 

The only way to truly determine whether or not a high resolution version (either PCM or DSD) of recording sounds better than the standard CD resolution version is to be absolutely positive that both versions were made from exactly the mix and master otherwise one is just hearing the differences in the mix and master rather than the differences between high and standard resolution.

 

 

I attempted to do this with the DSD mastered Columbia Jazz CD's and the SACD release. I could detect subtle differences (warmer, more fleshed out tone) in favor of SACD playback. As for HDtracks, you just don't know what you're getting, so the point is moot. I can only compare what they offer with what I have on hand and determine preference. I think the main point of my original post is that high-res can sound good if done right, but that HDtracks (in my admittedly limited experience) is not necessarily giving the customer the best sound quality for the money. The best example I can give is HDtracks' Jazz Samba release vs. the Verve Master Edition on CD - there's a big difference in presentation. Is it the mix / mastering? Is it source material? I can't say for certain, though I know I prefer the Redbook disc over the high-res download. One interesting note is that I recently read a (very old) thread about how Norah Jones' Come Away With Me SACD stereo release used a PCM 44.1/16 master and this matches my experience comparing it to the CD (http://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/john-marks-of-stereophile-attacked-for-article-on-norah-jones-sacd-defends-himself.41682/).

 

I think there is also another argument to be made - that no matter what the entire recording / mastering chain is, as long as it results in something that is appreciably better, sonically speaking, that the technologies used are rather immaterial. I guess what I'm trying to say is that whether it's all DSD or DSD -> high-res PCM -> DSD, or all high-res PCM as long as it sounds fantastic it doesn't matter to me, I'm just interested in the end result. So this is as much a matter of taste as it is technical competence.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by ralphp@optonline View Post
 

 

One last thing: a question for the op - were all the discs (DVD-A, SACD and CD) played back using the same disc player?

 

Yep, Ayre C-5xeMP. I recently acquired it so I wanted to test the high-res waters. Prior I'd mainly been purchasing CDs - no downloads. The rest of the system is in my profile.

post #8 of 13
Quote:
Originally Posted by yage View Post

...

 

I think there is also another argument to be made - that no matter what the entire recording / mastering chain is, as long as it results in something that is appreciably better, sonically speaking, that the technologies used are rather immaterial. I guess what I'm trying to say is that whether it's all DSD or DSD -> high-res PCM -> DSD, or all high-res PCM as long as it sounds fantastic it doesn't matter to me, I'm just interested in the end result. So this is as much a matter of taste as it is technical competence.

 

 

Yep, Ayre C-5xeMP. I recently acquired it so I wanted to test the high-res waters. Prior I'd mainly been purchasing CDs - no downloads. The rest of the system is in my profile.

I completely agree with you in that it's the final sound that really matters. And thanks for the info on the disc player.

post #9 of 13
I have a little over 1300 albums on DSD now so I am pretty firmly planted in the DSD game!! smily_headphones1.gif
post #10 of 13
Are there any sites around that offer DSD beyond old classics?
Interested to sample some metal, hip hop/music that came out in the last 10years.

I've had a poke around but didn't see anything. Appreciate any leads smily_headphones1.gif
post #11 of 13
Quote:
Originally Posted by SECT View Post

Are there any sites around that offer DSD beyond old classics?
Interested to sample some metal, hip hop/music that came out in the last 10years.

I've had a poke around but didn't see anything. Appreciate any leads smily_headphones1.gif


I would venture a guess that almost anything recorded in the last 10 years is going to be an original PCM recording and not a DSD recording. Which means that any DSD version that you might find would be sourced from the original PCM digital master, in which case I would just look for a high resolution (24bit/96kHz) PCM version instead.

post #12 of 13

Several of Norah Jones' albums have been properly remastered from analog tape to DSD, rather than upsampled from 44/16.  I don't know if they're available anywhere else yet, but they're currently at Acoustic Sounds.  I have these DSDs, as well as the SACD and CD for Come Away With Me, and this version is very different from the SACD issue (up to you to decide if 'different' also means 'better').

 

http://store.acousticsounds.com/index.cfm?get=results&searchtext=norah%2Cjones&categoryID=372

 

The notes for each of them state:

 

Mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio from the original analog master tapes!

post #13 of 13
Quote:
Originally Posted by jb2240 View Post
 

[...]

 

The notes for each of them state:

 

Mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio from the original analog master tapes!

I do appreciate how, unlike HDTracks, Acoustic Sounds attempts a little bit of transparency as to what masters they're working with, if their DSD files are the same as what's on a given SACD, etc...

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