What is DSD audio? How the format works, where to download files, and more

What is DSD audio? How it works, where to download files, and more
(Image credit: Sony)

The DSD audio format has been back in fashion for a few years now. Most new digital products (from DACs to music streamers) boast DSD compatibility, and the music catalogue is now big enough to command respect, especially if you’re into jazz and classical music.

But what exactly is DSD? And how is it different from the digital signals used in CDs and every other hi-res music format? Let us explain.

First, PCM explained...

What is DSD audio? How it works, where to download files, and more

Digital signals take the form of two states that can be represented by 0s and 1s, but this information needs to be arranged in a specific way to be of any use. In just about every case, the system to organise the digits is known as PCM (Pulse Code Modulation).

Let’s have a quick recap of how PCM works before we continue.

With PCM, the original analogue music waveform is described in two parts. The first is its amplitude (size). In CD this is represented by 16-bits of digital data, which gives us the ability to define 65,536 different signal levels.

The original music waveform has to be measured at regular intervals in order for it to be represented properly. The measurement is done 44,100 times a second. While that looks like an arbitrarily large number, it’s chosen quite carefully to ensure that the full frequency range of human hearing (20Hz to 20kHz) is covered.

So, what is DSD audio?

DSD (Direct Stream Digital) takes a different approach. Back in the mid-1990s, it was originally conceived as a way of archiving old analogue recordings.

It was designed to be a simpler, more space-efficient way of storing digital music data than PCM. Importantly, DSD was also designed to be easy to convert to PCM files with sampling rates based on multiples of 44.1kHz.

Around the same time, Sony and Philips were developing a replacement for CD, something that ultimately became the SACD disc. DSD seemed an ideal system to build the new format around, particularly as it has great copy protection.

The main attraction of DSD is its simplicity and, with that, the cheapness of implementation. It needs less processing than PCM and can use simpler, far less expensive DACs.

How does DSD work?

What is DSD audio? How it works, where to download files, and more

DSD uses a single bit of information, and all this information tells us is whether the current sample of the analogue waveform is higher or lower than in the previous one. Compared with the over 65,000 different values 16-bit PCM has, the two values (0 if the new sample if the signal is lower or 1 if it’s higher) of DSD appear mighty limiting.

That resolution shortfall is made up by the very high sampling rate of over 2.8 million times a second – that’s 64 times the speed of CD. Standard DSD is sometimes called DSD64 for this reason, with double- and quadruple-speed versions called DSD128 and DSD256 respectively. There's even a DSD512 spec, though we've never heard any material encoded in it.

Standard DSD recordings are still relatively rare compared with the PCM alternatives, and those higher-speed versions are extremely niche. DSD fans claim the format is as close to analogue as digital gets.

If you could look at a DSD digital stream, it’s possible to draw the analogue waveform simply by looking at the density of 0s and 1s. The more 0s there are, the lower the waveform goes, and it’s the opposite for ones. Where there is a balance of the two values, we’re at, or close to, the zero signal point.

What are the downsides to DSD?

Astell & Kern Kann Alpha Urbanely Blue

Astell & Kern's Kann Alpha supports native DSD256 playback (Image credit: Astell & Kern)

That all looks good, but there are also issues with DSD. It’s not very practical to manipulate a DSD recording, for starters.

All the things that are required post-recording such as equalisation, editing, dynamic range control and adding reverb usually involve the DSD stream being converted to PCM to do the processing and then switched back.

That’s hardly a pure way of doing things, right? Just about every studio recording made with DSD goes through this process. It’s down to a lack of suitable equipment and processing software.

You may come across the term DXD on a recording. This is where the original DSD signal has been converted to 24-bit/352kHz PCM and processed in that form throughout. While the name (intentionally or not) sounds like DSD, it is simply very high-resolution PCM.

When it comes to measurement, DSD also has issues with high levels of noise compared with PCM. Clever processing techniques allow the engineers to shift the noise above our hearing, and optimise the performance and dynamic range in the audible region. The high-frequency noise is generally filtered out.

Is DSD hi-res?

So how high resolution is a DSD recording? There’s no exact way of striking equivalence between PCM and DSD but it’s around the same as 24-bit/88.2kHz PCM.

In terms of dynamic range, DSD is claimed to be around 120dB in the audible frequency range. In comparison, CD measures around 96dB, and 24-bit/192kHz recordings have a theoretical maximum of around 144dB.

Although the bigger numbers are more impressive, even the range of CD is considered more than enough to cope with any recording.

How do you play DSD?

Chord's Hugo 2 plays up to DSD512 files

Chord's Hugo 2 plays up to DSD512 files

DSD playback has become far more common in digital equipment over recent years and that’s down to the greater availability of downloadable music files. Just make sure your portable music player, music streamer and/or DAC are compatible with the format.

Most recent mid-to-high-end digital playback equipment tends to be compatible, so if you have something suitable there’s no reason to treat it any different from FLAC or WAV files. Some flagship smartphones support DSD natively. You can even play DSD audio files on an iPhone using additional equipment.

On a download site, you may occasionally come across the terms DSF and DFF. These are two kinds of DSD files, but the only thing you need to know about them is that you should always choose the DSF version if your player is compatible – it’s better at holding a track's metadata information (artist/song name, album art etc).

Where can you buy DSD audio files?

What is DSD audio? How it works, where to download files, and more

You can buy DSD albums on HDtracks

While hi-res download sites are far and few between these days, those audiophile music sites that are still around mostly sell DSD downloads. The likes of HDtracks (opens in new tab), and Native DSD (opens in new tab) are good places to start.

Alternatively, if you prefer physical formats and have a compatible disc player, then SACDs are still fairly widely available.


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Here are the best portable music players, the best music streamers and the best DACs – many of which support DSD

Ketan Bharadia
Technical Editor

Ketan Bharadia is the Technical Editor of What Hi-Fi? He's been been reviewing hi-fi, TV and home cinema equipment for over two decades, and over that time has covered thousands of products. Ketan works across the What Hi-Fi? brand including the website and magazine. His background is based in electronic and mechanical engineering.

  • Angelwars
    Good summary but DSD does not involve any samples as with PCM. The stream of 1' and 0's bits is created by the modulation of a bit clock carrier a process called Pulse Density Modulation of which DSD is specifically the 1 bit version. 1 bit PDM capture can be argued as not being digital - certainly not in the sense that PCM most definitely is.
  • ajm057
    Thanks for this BUT: there appear to be a number of DSD formats. Not all DACs are able to convert each of them.
    DSD 64 = the basic rate - sample rate is 64 times that of a CD - this seems to be the most common DSD format available on HD TRACKS, and HighResAudio very few albums are distributed in this format.
    DSD128 = Double Rate - sample rate is 128 times that of a CD - this seems to be the maximum "resolution" format generally available on HD TRACKS, and HighResAudio very few albums are distributed in this format.
    DSD256 = Quad Rate = 256 times -- I found about 10 titles on HD Tracks - also see below
    DSD 512 = Octa Rate = 512 times -- - also see below.
    For those hunting downloadable DSD -- try NativeDSD (https://www.nativedsd.com/) - who had 289 titles in DSD512 and many more at lower resolution when I looked this morning.
  • djh1697
    Roon will convert a PCM file to DSD, the difference is jaw dropping, especially on anything below 88/16 resolution. Sadly Roon now costs $700 for a lifetime membership, or $10 a month. I think it worth every cent, you need to provide your own music, via CD rips, Tidal, or Qobuz. My March DAC will decode up to DSD256, works well with my i7/Windows 10 NUC