Tag Archives: sacd

Event report: Sony demonstrates the high-res audio HAP-Z1ES player at the Audio Lounge in London

I went along to the Audio Lounge in London to hear Sony’s Eric Kingdon (Senior European Technical Marketing Manager) and Mike Somerset (Product Marketing Manager) talk about high resolution audio and demonstrate the HAP-Z1ES player.

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The HAP-Z1ES costs £1,999 and plays both DSD (the format of SACD) and PCM formats, including DSDIFF,DSF,WAV,FLAC,ALAC,MP3 and ATRAC. PCM is up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD up to double DSD (DSD 128). It was demonstrated with the Sony TA-A1E amplifier (also £1999) and the Crystal Cable Arabesque Mini loudspeakers which costs €12,999 (not sure of £ price) including the stands.

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This was a small event for customers and there were around 20 attending. Ruth Phypers at the Audio Lounge gave us a warm welcome and conveyed nothing other than enthusiasm for audio; no high-pressure sales here. The talk and demonstration took place in the basement listening room.

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High resolution audio is controversial, in that there is evidence that even CD quality (16-bit/44.1 kHz) is good enough to capture everything we can hear in normal music played at normal levels – see Monty Montgomery’s excellent technical explanation and accompanying videos for why – and I was interested to see how Sony is pitching high-res to its potential customers. I was also interested to see if it would broach the tricky subject of DSD vs PCM and whether there is any audible difference.

In this respect it was a curious event as you will see. One of the odd things was that little music was played, maybe 10 minutes out of a one and a half hour presentation.

Somerset kicked things off, explaining the battle between convenience and quality in music reproduction. “We’ve lost a lot in quality” he said, thanks to the popularity of MP3. So what does Sony mean by high-res? Anything beyond CD quality, he said, confusing the issue: is it MP3 that is limiting audio quality today, or CD?

“A lot of people out there think CD, that’s as good as it gets, nothing better, obviously we know that’s not true,” he said.

That said, he made the point that the Z1ES is not just designed for high-res, but to perform well with most formats and resolution. It has a DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) which supposedly improves the sound of lossy-compressed audio by “improving the spectrum” (according to the slide; I still have no idea what this means); and a DSD remastering engine that converts lossless PCM to double DSD on the fly (the PCM file remains as-is and it is not stored twice).

Why would you want to do that? I asked Kingdon later who said it was a matter of personal taste; you should take it home and try it. Personally I’m not sure why it should make any difference at all to the sound; you would have thought it would be audibly transparent if the double DSD encoding is doing its job, and if it does sound different it raises the question of whether the DSD conversion ends up colouring the sound; unless perhaps the DAC is more capable with DSD than with PCM. On this latter point Kingdon said no; the Burr-Brown DAC is excellent for PCM. DSD remastering is optional and you can easily enable or disable the feature.

Somerset also explained that the Z1ES does not stream music; it copies audio files to its own internal storage (1TB hard drive). However it can detect when music is added to a network location such as a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive and copy it automatically. The reason it is copied and not streamed is to eliminate network latency, he said. If 1TB is not enough, you can attach a USB external drive, but this must be reformatted to Ext4 by the system, deleting any existing files.

The Ext4 limitation was a matter of some discussion and discontent among the audience. The Z1ES runs Linux internally, hence the requirement for Ext4, but Linux can mount other file formats successfully so a future firmware update will likely remove this limitation.

Kingdon then answered questions – would the unit go out of date quickly? No, it will have a long life, he promised. Why no video output? “It’s a pure audio product,” he said.

Eventually we got to a demo. Somerset kicked off by playing a Bob Dylan track, Blowing in the Wind (recorded in 1963) in three different formats. The first was 24-bit 88.2 kHz flac (I imagine derived from the DSD used for the SACD release, as conversions from SACD often end up as 24/88). The second was 256kpbs MP3. Finally, there was what he described as a “heavily compressed” MP3, though the exact resolution was not specified. All were derived from the same original source, we were told.

“For me, focusing on the vocals, you can really hear the difference in brightness,” said Somerset.

The odd thing was that (to my ears) the 24/88 version did indeed sound brighter and slightly louder than the MP3, which I find puzzling. I’m not aware of any technical reason why high resolution audio should sound any brighter (or tonally different) from CD or MP3. There was not a dramatic difference in overall quality from what little I could tell in the few seconds of music we heard, but I was not sure that the brighter sound was an improvement; Dylan can sound a little strident at times and the slightly mellower (and dare I say, more analogue-sounding) MP3 version could well be preferred.

We switched back and forth a couple of times, and then Somerset played the “heavily compressed” version. This sounded OK too, from what I could hear of it, which might explain why Somerset talked over it and stopped playing it quickly, saying how bad it was.

Next we heard a DSD download from Blue Coast records; it was Immediately Blessed by Keith Greeninger. This sounded superb, far better than the Dylan, though I doubt this was much to do with formats, but more because it was a modern recording made by a dedicated audiophile label. It was the best sound we heard.

Daft Punk followed, at 24/88.2, and then a 24/96 Linda Ronstadt track from 1983, and then a Nat King Cole song from 1957 in 16/44.1 format.

That was it for demos, if I remember right. What was notable to me was that Sony never demonstrated high-res vs CD quality, played only one DSD track, and used mostly older recordings. Some of these older recordings do indeed sound great, but I doubt it is the best way to demonstrate high resolution audio. If you attended the session as a high-res sceptic you would have heard nothing to change your mind.

Another odd thing was that we heard tracks there were available on SACD but played to us as PCM, most likely converted from the SACD source. Why did we not hear the DSD? It is probably do to with the difficulty all of us have in ripping SACD to audio files, which can only done (as far as I am aware) with a hacked PlayStation 3 with old firmware.

I asked Kingdon why Sony does not make its high-res products like the Z1ES more attractive by giving us the ability to rip SACD at best quality? The record companies would not like it, he said. “I’ve had this discussion so many times, I’ve got a big SACD collection, some of it isn’t available any more, I’m sorry, I don’t have an answer for you.”

Despite some frustration at the brevity and content of the demos, this was an enjoyable event with great hospitality from the Audio Lounge, some fascinating recollections from Kingdon of his time with Sony over many years, and a high level of warmth and friendliness all round.

Now if I were Sony I would use the best possible sources to show off high-res audio and the new player, and avoid misleading comparisons or doubtful technical statements. The fact is that many high-res sources, whether SACD, DVD Audio (which you can easily rip to a player like this) or downloads, do sound excellent, and for many that is more than enough to justify purchase.

Would a beautifully mastered CD or CD-quality download sound just as good? Possibly, and the fact that Sony did not attempt to demonstrate the difference, but compared high-res to MP3, lends support to the idea. If there really is a big difference, why not demonstrate it?

As for the Z1ES itself, I heard enough to know that it can sound very good indeed. It is disappointing that it has no surround sound capability, and no digital input so you could use it as an external DAC, but those are not show-stoppers. For myself I would be more inclined to invest in a standalone DAC, maybe one which is both DSD and PCM capable, but if you like simplicity, then a machine with its own storage, DAC, remote, and handy screen for album artwork does make sense.

Now you can rip SACDs

Sony’s Super Audio CD (SACD) is an audiophile format featuring high resolution and multi-channel sound. The discs are are copy protected, and until now it has not been possible to create an exact copy. Of course you can capture the analogue output and re-digitise it, and certain players from manufacturers such as Oppo enable you to capture digital output converted from Sony’s DSD (Direct Stream Digital) format to high-resolution PCM (Pulse-Code Modulation); but still, it is not an exact copy.

Ripping an SACD is still not that easy. The crack depends on getting hold of an early model of the PlayStation 3 that has not been updated to the latest firmware. Recent PS3s do not play SACD at all, plus you need firmware of 3.55 or lower, before Sony removed the capability of running an alternative operating system. There is no downgrade path, so it is a matter of scouring eBay for one that has not been updated.

Once you have the right hardware you can follow the instructions here  to rip the SACD:

SACD-Ripper supports the following output formats:
- 2ch DSDIFF (DSD)
- 2ch DSDIFF (DST) (if already DST encoded)
- 2ch DSF (DSD)
- mch DSDIFF (DSD)
- mch DSDIFF (DST)
- mch DSF (DSD)
- ISO (due to the 4GB FAT32 size limit on the PS3, files will be splitted when larger)

There is some discussion of the procedure here from where I have grabbed this image:

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Is it worth it? Good question. There are SACD enthusiasts who swear that DSD reproduces sound with a natural fidelity that PCM cannot match. On the other hand, researchers conducted a test showing that listeners could not tell the difference if the output from SACD was converted to CD standard PCM. I have also seen papers suggesting that DSD is inferior to PCM and may colour the sound. Expect heated opinions if you enter this debate.

Nevertheless, there are many great sounding SACDs out there and the format is not completely dead. Universal Japan, for example, issues SACDs made of SHM (Super High Material) at premium prices, and whether it is thanks to the super super technology, or simply clean mastering from good tape sources, these are proving popular within the niche audiophile market.

The fact that these discs cannot be perfectly ripped is part of the appeal from the industry’s perspective. Now that is no longer the case, and the torrent sites will be able to offer DSD files with full SACD quality.

How to get better sound: higher resolution, or something else?

A topic of enduring interest for me is the audible benefit (or otherwise) of high-resolution audio such as SACD, the near-obsolete DVD Audio, or increasingly downloads offered in 24-bit/96 kHz or better resolution, versus the 16/44 resolution of CD, also known as “redbook” because this part of the CD’s specification was defined in a red book.

I wrote a piece on this last year, which is still among the most-read articles on this web site, so I am not the only one.

Today I came across some old articles by Dave Moulton which I enjoyed. He is an audio engineer who has also worked on the subjective measurement of audio systems – in other words, if you are a maker of audio equipment you can go to him and say, “this new feature of ours, does it really make a difference or sound better?”

Moulton wrote a series of pieces starting here which examine the human aspect of audio technology. One of them explains why we exaggerate small differences. He is also, as I suppose I am, sceptical about the benefits of high resolution audio:

… the resolution benefits of 20-bit and 24-bit signals are not only hard to hear, they’re, well, inaudible as we currently do it. Uh-oh!

and I like his awareness of the “system” – not just the equipment in our living rooms, but the entire chain:

When we have a SYSTEM with really smooth response (say, +/- .5 dB) from 30 Hz. to 17 kHz., from microphone diaphragm to eardrum, well, then we really have something to brag about. And UNTIL we can do this, it doesn’t do a lot of good to invest a lot of bucks in dramatically extending the response of a single stage.

Another series of articles is specifically on high resolution audio.

Of course high-resolution is valuable for mixing, mastering and audio processing, where there is a danger of cumulative error; and I accept that there could be cases where there is some small benefit in high-resolution playback equipment. That said, this is a much-misunderstood area; and audio vendors are happy to exploit our natural instinct to believe that bigger numbers must mean better sound.

I still see people drawing sound curves with steps in them to show that increasing the sample rate must improve the accuracy of the curves – when it has been shown that this is not the way digital audio works. There are some excellent papers here (click the link for Support) by Dan Lavry of Lavry Engineering, makers of high-end digital audio converters, which explain the mathematics:

Let us review Nyquist Sampling Theory: A sampled waveforms contains ALL the information without any distortions, when the sampling rate exceeds twice the highest frequency contained by the sampled waveform. Note that once we agree on what constitutes audio bandwidth, we need not sample much faster than twice that bandwidth to have the ability to retrieve 100% of the original signal.

Despite my high-res scepticism, I am still keen on getting the best sound I can afford at home. In fact, this is why it is important to have this debate. We need to know what it is worth spending money on.

In the end, it makes sense to invest in differences that you can easily hear, such as those between loudspeakers, rather than in differences that are subtle to the point where you can debate whether they are audible at all.