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DSD vs FLAC vs WAV [What's better? 2023]

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Audio Basis - articles about audio

At first glance, the difference between DSD and FLAC audio formats is outstanding. Except for some limitations and specific features of each format, the comparison is very similar to DSD / DSF / DFF / SACD vs FLAC / WAV / PCM. Many endless discussions are there about which format is the best. But this question has no simple answer. Read the explanation and Frequently Asked Questions. We compare FLAC and DSD sound quality. Watch the video to study the details below.


Author: Yuri Korzunov,
Audiophile Inventory's developer with 25+ year experience in digital signal processing,
author of the articles that make audio easy for beginners


Watch and share: FLAC vs  DSD [Format Comparison]


What are DSD and FLAC and WAV and SACD and others



To understand, which is better DSD or FLAC, we should explain what they are. From a technical point of view, the comparison between Direct Stream Digital and Free Lossless Audio Codec isn't relevant. And we'll explain how to compare them correctly.

Watch and share: How to convert DSD files to FLAC


FLAC (WAV, PCM). What is FLAC format?


FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) has 2 meanings:

  • FLAC is a format of a container file;
  • FLAC is a data compression method for sound recording or streaming.

FLAC, WAV, AIFF are lossless implementations of PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) format. So, we should compare PCM versus DSD.

Both WAV and FLAC may be used as container files with compressed and uncompressed PCM or DSD in DoP (see below).


DSD (SACD, DSF, DFF). What is a DSD in audio?

DSD (Direct Stream Digital) is an audio recording or stream format by Sony and Philips. DSD sample rate is significantly higher than FLAC and other PCM (WAV, AIFF, etc.). And bit depth is reduced from FLAC's 16/24/32 bit to minimum 1-bit resolution of Direct Stream Digital format. One bit is too low even for 2.8 MHz and higher frequencies. How 1-bit is allowable in Hi-Res audio read below.

DSD may be stored as DoP (DSD over PCM) in a lossless PCM container (FLAC, WAV, AIFF, etc.).

DSD has implementations: DSF, DFF, SACD optical disk, SACD ISO file (image of SACD optical disk), DoP.


Both DSD and PCM (including FLAC format) may present the same original song in different ways.

In instance, we can present the music as an image consists many elements (mosaic).

Let DSD be like the smallest square elements (DSD samples). And let PCM be like the smallest circles (PCM samples).

We can compare 2 mosaic types (DSD and PCM formats) for the same original image (song).

Image quality (sound quality of playback of audio format) depends on positions, size, color of the elements (audio format implementation).

When we convert one element type to another one (convert DSD to/from PCM), we have some losses (sound distortions).
If the conversion uses qualitative math, the losses (distortions) are very low.

What is PCM vs DSD? It's almost the same FLAC vs DSD. To be technically correct, we compare implementations of both formats. FLAC is a certain application of PCM.




DSD vs FLAC comparison


Is DSD better than FLAC? DSD vs FLAC sound difference

The most popular DSD and FLAC comparison is listening to a single album by the same label in two different formats.

However, DSD and FLAC (PCM) sound quality comparison is a complex matter. Because there are many variables:

  • recording, mixing, postproduction,
  • level of recording loudness,
  • playback software,
  • hardware (player, DAC).

A sound difference between DSD and FLAC may be produced by a variance between these factors.


Watch and share: WAV and FLAC. Are binary identical or not?


Watch and share: How to split CUE FLAC


All these variables are defined by an implementation. Thus, it is impossible to say for every case: what sounds better DSD or FLAC. Because each case should be studied apart.

When we try to compare FLAC / WAV / AIFF ... other PCM and DSD album variants at home, it is easy to get sound difference due to 0.5 ... 2 dB variance between DSD and PCM circuits or software processing, in instance.

The variance may be considered as almost unlistenable as level difference. But we can get some impression of sound or audio quality difference.

So, before tests, it is necessary to compensate the level variance between DSD and PCM outputs to 0.1 ... 0.2 dB difference, approximately. It allows for avoiding an imaginary sound difference due to various levels.

Otherwise, we risk getting "better quality" for a louder DAC or DAC mode.

In instance, one person has louder PCM output and likes FLAC more. But other person has louder DSD output and prefer DSD. As a result, they can discuss "what is better" indefinitely.

And it is only one of several control goals, when the listening test is performed. And there are many details, that are invisible at first sight.

Read about hi-fi blind tests >

To DSD and FLAC format comparison:




Modulation (digital audio type)

The main difference between FLAC and DSD is a kind of musical signal modulation. Or a kind of analog signal coding to digital form. Further, we consider the difference in the modulations.


Bit depth and noise

Bit depth of DSD is reduced to 1 bit. But it causes huge quantization error noise and a low signal-noise ratio. To improve the ratio, noise energy is pushed out of the audible frequency range.


Sample rate

Bit depth reduction demands frequency range reserve for noise energy pushing. The range reserve may be added by a higher sample rate.

DSD sample rates: DSD 64, DSD 128, ...

FLAC sample rates: up to 384 kHz.


Useful band for audio (music)

The range reserve causes useful DSD audio band reduction, comparing [sample rate]/2 band of PCM.

DSD is intended for audible range transmission. As rule, DSD64, has minimum noise levels in the band below 20 ... 24 kHz. Above this band noise level grows with frequency.
A higher DSD sampling rate allows for expanding this low-level noise band.
The aforementioned figures depend on implementation.


Size compression (data compression)

DST (Direct Stream Transfer) is a size compression method for DSD audio stuff. It is implemented in DFF and SACD ISO files. DSF has no size compression ability.

What is size compression

We have actual issue with price of high-capacity storage devices. It's important for mobile devices, especially.

So, compression of audio data size allows more optimal use of existing storage devices.

FLAC format is intended for size compression primarily. But there is the opinion (without objective evidence, known for the author), that computing for FLAC uncompressing causes additional electromagnetic interference of a computer (or a playback device), that degrades the sound. To avoid unpacking, uncompressed FLAC is used. The FLAC is used because it contains a metadata standard way.

FLAC-container file also can contain MQA-compressed audio stuff. Such FLAC may be played back without MQA decoding.


How DAC works

As rule, PCM DAC is intended for FLAC playback and based on a sigma-delta modulator and demodulator. The demodulator is a low-frequency filter.

DSD DAC can contain the filter only.

Read details about DSD >


Text metadata

Text metadata (album and track names, performer, etc.) contains in SACD ISO, DSF, FLAC files standard way. DFF metadata support has some issues. DSF metadata has ID3 format. It is widely supported.


Artwork metadata

SACD ISO and DFF don't support artwork metadata standard way. FLAC and DSF both can contain multiple artworks (album cover, band photo, etc.)



DSD vs FLAC comparison



Frequently Asked Questions


F.A.Q. sound quality



What is the highest quality audio file?

Lossless files, both PCM and DSD, are the highest-quality audio files. DSD to/from PCM files may not be transformed without losses by technical reasons. However, these losses may be minimized and comparable with qualitative resampling.

Read details...


What is the highest quality audio format?

Highest quality is provided by lossless audio formats.



Is FLAC the best format?

FLAC is one of a lossless formats. These formats have better sound quality than lossy ones. Free Lossless Audio Codec provides size compression. But the sound quality is the same WAV, AIFF and other lossless formats. Also, FLAC allows a maximum sampling rate and bit depth limitation (32 bit, 384 kHz).

However, .flac file may contain lossy compressed stuff coded in a format another than Free Lossless Audio Codec.



Do FLAC files sound better?

Here we'll discuss:
- do FLAC files really sound better that other files? and,
- is FLAC the highest quality or not?

FLAC files carry lossless audio. And we can be sure, that FLAC fully keeps sound quality of a source digital signal. DSD and PCM are just different modulations and it is not a matter for coded musical signal in the digital domain (when no processing, of course). However, ADC and DAC implementations may make difference between PCM and DSD formats. Read more...


Is FLAC better than 320 Kbps?

FLAC is lossless audio format. So, technically, it is better than lossy formats with 320 Kbps bitrate.

Practically, if you listen to sound difference, use FLAC format.



Is FLAC better than MQA?

FLAC is a lossless format. As the author know, MQA is lossy format. Read details...


Is FLAC better than CD?

FLAC keeps full CD audio quality.



Which is better AIFF or FLAC?

AIFF is a more flexible format (almost non-limited audio resolution, but some limitations with file size more than 4 GBytes). FLAC has better metadata compatibility with music devices and software. AIFF or FLAC is no matter of sound quality. Read more...


Is there anything better than FLAC?

If compare with lossless formats .wav and .aiff, FLAC has limited sampling rate and bit depth.

However, FLAC hasn't length limitation of 4 GB like ordinary WAV. WAV/RF64 solves the issue.

DSD and FLAC are compared above.







Is WAV lossless?

Yes. WAV is a lossless audio format.


Is there anything better than WAV?

WAV is one of PCM formats. It is very flexible. However, you can get compatibility issues with metadata displaying and WAV subtypes, like RF64.

Metadata issue may be avoided via FLAC format using.


Which is better quality FLAC or WAV?

Both FLAC and WAV are lossless formats. WAV provides wider resolution support. FLAC provides size compression and better metadata compatibility with music devices and software players.

Sound quality is the same for both formats. However, some discussion is there.

Read details...


Is FLAC or WAV better?

We'll discuss is WAV better than FLAC? WAV is a more universal format:

  • almost non-limited audio resolution,
  • file size limitation (4 GBytes), which may be solved via RF64 format.

FLAC has better metadata compatibility with music devices and software. Both formats have the same sound quality.



What does WAV mean?

WAV (Waveform Audio File Format) is a format of audio files.









What is DSD music?

DSD music is music provided in DSD format. Some DSD music samples are recorded in DSD and distributed without editing.



What is DSF?

DSF format by SONY is one of Direct Stream Digital file formats.



What is DSD files?

DSD files (.dsf, .dff, .iso [SACD ISO], .flac/.wav [DoP]) contain audio data in Direct Stream Digital format.



Are DSD files better than FLAC?

DSD files are intended for DSD DAC. FLAC files are intended for PCM DAC.

If you want to get the best sound quality of your DAC, you can read how it can be done...


Is SACD better than FLAC?

SACD optical disk contains DSD audio content. You can read about FLAC and DSD comparison...


Can you hear the difference between DSD and FLAC?

In some cases, you can hear a difference between DSD and FLAC.

But it is not difference between formats as abstract items. It is difference between implementations of the technologies.



Is DSD better than PCM?

We'll consider is DSD better than PCM (including WAV and FLAC)?
What is better DSD or PCM (FLAC, WAV, AIFF, others) depends on:

  • recording;
  • implementation of recording and playback equipment.

Lossless PCM files (WAV, FLAC, AIFF, etc.) have similar sound quality. However, they support audio in various resolutions.


Is DSD audio worth it?

Is DSD better that other audio format? There is no single answer. Theoretically, DSD allows solving issues of an analog filter of a digital-to-analog converter. Practically, it is a matter of recording quality and equipment distortions.



Is DSF better than FLAC?

.dsf is DSD file. .flac is PCM file. Read more here...


Can DSD be converted to FLAC?

Yes. DSD may be converted to FLAC.

Read guides:


Is DSD to FLAC lossless?

When DSD is converted to FLAC, it causes losses. However, for pro-audio conversion tools, the losses (distortions) are the same qualitative resampling.

Read details...


Does FLAC support DSD?

FLAC is a container. It can contain DSD in DoP format.



Is DSD better than CD?

DSD gives potential abilities to achieve lower distoirtions than CD. However, depending upon used hifi system, recording quality, personal issues, a listener doesn't prefer DSD.


Are DSD files better?

Despite DSD gives some audio-equipment-design advantages to achieve better sound quality, only audio device implementation defines the actual sound quality of a device. How to look for the best quality of your audio system read here...


Is DSD better than mp3?

DSD is a lossless audio format. mp3 is a lossy audio format. Thus, DSD is better in sound quality, but consume more file storage space.

Read more about audio formats...


Is DXD better than DSD?

DXD is PCM format. So, recording quality together with playback setup makes audio quality for a listener when DSD and DXD are compared.


Where can I listen to DSD audio?

You can listen to DSD music here...


What is the difference between DSD and DSF?

DSD is a sound format for high-resolution audio. DSF files contain audio in DSD format. Read more...


Is SACD better than CD?

It depends on recording and equipment.


Is MQA better than DSD?

Many factors impact to sound difference between MQA and DSD: implementation of recording and playback equipment, mix and postproduction quality of a recording. Also, it needs to remember, that MQA is lossy. But we can compare only the implementation of given audio systems. Because the small losses may not be a "bottleneck". Read more...


What is DSD audio?

DSD audio is a method of coding an analog signal in a digital form. Read more...


Is DSD the best audio format?

In theory, DSD audio system reduces number of required components. However, given system design makes actual distortion level. Quality of recording (including mixing, post-production) impacts to listenable experience.

Read details:

  1. DSD vs PCM...
  2. DSD vs PCM DAC...





F.A.Q. audio conversion



Does conversion FLAC to WAV lose quality?

When audio processing is not applied, WAV converted from FLAC provides absolutely the same sound quality. See video...


Should I convert FLAC to DSD?

You can convert FLAC to DSD, when it gives actual sound advantages to your equipment. Read details...


What is DSD512?

DSD512 is a sample rate 22.6 MHz=44100 Hz * 512. Read more...





F.A.Q. play audio




What can play DSD files?

You can play DSD files via audio player software...

Alternatively, convert DSF file to FLAC and play FLAC with different players...


How do I play a DSF file?

You can play DSF files with DSD players...

Also, you can convert DSF to FLAC and play back it with any player...





F.A.Q. audio streaming




Is Tidal a DSD?

Tidal is PCM streaming service.

See DSD streaming...




Read also