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How to get better-than-CD audio quality with Direct Stream Digital

Decent sound quality gets a fighting chance with DSD-compatible DACs and playback software

Chord Electronics QuteHD

As far as the record-buying public is concerned, digital audio was born in August 1983. That’s when the first CD was delivered from Philips’ European pressing plant in Germany. See Digital Home Advisor.

Little did co-inventors Philips and Sony know that the CD would not only come to rule the music world for decades to come, but help trigger aftershock revolutions in home video and PC storage.

For readers of a certain age, who can forget the sight of jam being spread on a disc on Tomorrow’s World, with the sound of the Bee Gees still playing as the laser ploughed through the strawberry preserve?

Even now, ‘CD-quality’ is taken as the gold reference by which many judge good sound reproduction quality. That was depressing more than two decades ago when flaws in the format were first uncovered; trebly so today on CD’s 30th anniversary, when technology and our knowledge of digital audio has advanced so far beyond what was possible when the format was developed in the 70s.

Maybe it was the impending end of the 20-year patent cash cow, or maybe it was a genuine drive to make amends for their far-from-perfect sound, but in the very late 90s Sony and Philips put all their marketing might behind a successor to CD, the Super Audio CD.

While half the consumer-electronics industry was backing a new high-resolution music format based on the runaway success of DVD video - DVD-Audio or DVD-A - using more bits to describe the music, Eindhoven and Tokyo proposed something altogether more radical.

They found another way to sample music digitally. It needed just one bit to toggle 0 or 1, rather than 16. But then they set the sampling frequency, the number of times per second that the music wave was measured, at 64 times more frequent than the 44,100 times per second of regular CD.

The result was better-than-CD quality, yet the format, in common with DVD-A, practically disappeared (excepting some audiophile interest and independent record labels keeping it alive). Victor in the high-resolution music wars was... MP3, then AAC, as the iPod generation put convenience (and ‘free’) above awkward and expensive.

Thanks in no small part to the happy hacking of PlayStation 3 enthusiasts, the obscure DRM of SACD was cracked. And Direct Stream Digital (DSD) is returning - not enough to upset the iTunes Store, but restoring a glimpse of better-than-CD quality. It’s only fitting that we should unite computer with hi-fi to hear what the CD could have become. Turn to our reviews of Audirvana Plus and the Chord Electronics QuteHD to see what's possible when DSD is liberated by PCs and USB cables.

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