Originally published 2016
Paul McGowan .....
Now that we have a rough understanding of the differences between classic digital audio (PCM) and the format Sony popularized in their SACD version of digital audio (DSD), it probably makes sense to explain why any of this even matters.
We recognize that at the end of the day, all most of us want is to be able to sit and enjoy music on our stereo systems. How that music is captured, stored and played back is of interest only when you’re digging deep to figure out what SHOULD work best for you and how to set an acceptable level of performance. If you’re digging a track of music do you really care how it was recorded?
In my case, for example, the vast majority of my listening is on good old PCM CD’s, a few albums and the occasional high resolution digital. Many of my favorite recordings and music are chosen not for their format – but how they sound and how they make me feel. Much of that has to do with the music itself. Occasionally I’ll find a recording of music that’s extremely well done but I simply don’t engage with the music. In other cases I appreciate the music but the recording is so bad it just doesn’t work for me. Do you feel the same?
My friend Jim McCullough of Cello recommended a track off of the Harmonia Mundi recording (Peter McGrath engineer) of Apollo and Dafne that I enjoy (track 8), but I listen to track 9 because it’s one of the loveliest pieces of music I know of, plus it is a tough one to playback properly. Written by Handel, it features soprano Judith Nelson singing in harmony with the oboe. The majesty of the piece depends entirely on the interplay between the two “instruments” working together. When everything’s right, it’s easy to imagine how the composer must have wanted the performance to sound. When not right, the singer and the instrument are disjointed and separate from each other. One is magic, the other just good.
This is a standard PCM CD at 44.1kHz, 16 bit and it’s amazing. Could it be better in DSD? Better in a higher resolution? Indeed, but I don’t want that to ever get in my way.
So, why does it matter to us the format, the technology, or any of that when a good old CD sounds just fine?
We care because the quest for better is built into most of us; certainly me. I am not willing to give up something as lovely as the track I just described for technology, but if I can have better I will always go for it to the best of my ability.
That’s why it’s important to understand the boundary conditions we set for acceptability of what we care about – whether music, performance or both.