Tag Archives: Absolute Sound

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Finding the golden nugget

The sweet flesh of a Bing cherry exists to support that which we throw away. The pit. From the cherry’s perspective, it’s all about the seed. From the eater’s perspective, it’s all about its outer wrapping.

Focusing only on one aspect while ignoring everything else can have consequences.

In our quest for the absolute sound, that golden nugget of musical truth, we sometimes get so entrenched in what we believe to be inviolate that we miss out on possibilities.

For example, if we identify as vinyl-centric or digital-based we sacrifice potential. One brand preferred over another. One type of amplification preferred over the other.

If possible I strive to put musical truth above technology and brand identity.

It isn’t always easy. At times I have to forego my perceived identity in order to try on another.

In your quest for the golden nugget—the absolute musical truth—are you open to new ideas and different means of getting where you hope to go?

It might feel safer to close ourselves into a small predefined box, but I suspect the view is better outside.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Road maps

Finding your way is easy once you’ve been somewhere. When it’s an unknown, a map is essential.

Problem is most newcomers to high-performance stereo don’t even know there’s a place they should be, let alone locating a map of how to get there.

Years ago in what seems like another dimension, we had the neighborhood dealer to act as our guide. Within the walls of their shop, we could get an idea of what 2-channel audio sounds like, what wonders were in store for us, and a helping hand in how to get there. Today it’s increasingly anyone’s guess how newcomers find their way.

Certainly, print magazines like Stereophile, Absolute Sound, and HiFi News are great starting points. One could even delve into the online mags like John Darko’s, Tone Audio, and the many others. The problem with all these magazines is they seem to come with an entry-level requirement that readers have a clue what’s going on—something unlikely if we’re talking about true newcomers to the fold.

For PS Audio’s part, we help newbies into better sound through Sprout, our all-in-one integrated no larger than a small-sized novel. It’s really refreshing and informative to read the amazing comments and answer newcomer’s questions. No, most Sprout owners are not audiophiles, but they are interested in good sound and proud to have found this little jewel amongst the rough and tumble of the online audio wild west.

Sometimes road maps are not what one might normally expect. Instead, they are found in small tastes of what’s possible.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Subjective sound

We’re comfortable suggesting sound is subjective when it comes to our differences in perception, but then uncomfortable when we speak of it in absolute terms. In other words, we believe the source of sound to be absolute. The perception of sound a matter of personal choice.

The dictionary describes subjective as a central philosophical concept, related to consciousness, agency, personhood, reality, and truth, based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.

So, if the source of sound is absolute and the hearing of it is subjective, what’s an equipment manufacturer supposed to do? Cater to the subjective or the absolute?

This interesting question has always been a source of both inspiration and balance for me. On the one hand, the challenge of recreating the absolute sound has driven our design efforts for years. On the other hand, building equipment that pleases our subjective side has also guided our products since the day we started.

It is the balance between the absolute and the subjective that forms greatness.

Good audio equipment is designed to honor the absolute.

Great audio equipment balances the absolute with the personal.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Bewildering

Imagine the angst of a first-time buyer of high-end audio equipment. Few places offer systems and everywhere there’s a bewildering array of component choices.

Where does one start on a hi-fi journey? It used to be that we went to our local dealer and picked from amongst a tier of systems from the affordable to the absurd. Today there’s far fewer qualified dealers and so first-time buyers are either left to their own devices or take what they can get from megastores like Best Buy.

Even magazines like Stereophile and The Absolute Sound focus more on components than systems. If I didn’t know better I’d simply do my research and purchase the best I could afford in any one category, tie it all together with what I could afford in cabling, press play and then pray.

Nowhere am I helped with maximizing synergy between components. If I bought the best DAC I could afford and played it through speakers that were too forward or bright what would I do to remedy the situation or even know where to start?

I suppose this all sounds like doom and gloom and that’s not my intent. I just felt it was important to let some of the issues facing first-time buyers bubble to the surface in the hopes of sparking conversation and debate. If we can talk problems through perhaps solution are right around the corner.

For our part, we’re working on the end goal of building stereo systems first-time or experienced buyers can slip into without worry or bewilderment: choose your price point and be assured the system will work perfectly together.

I am certain there are other paths as well.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

I don’t agree with this one, especially as relates to bass, but what do I know?

Speaker size should match the room

This fact or fiction question is an interesting one because the notion of matching speaker size to room dimensions is so ingrained into our culture as to be taken for fact. But, some facts aren’t true no matter how much we want them to be.

Here’s the deal. Any size loudspeaker will work in just about any sized room. The exceptions are easily found with common sense: no, a pair of bookshelf speakers won’t work in the Astrodome just as an IRSV won’t fit into a closet.

As long as we’re on the same page with respect to common sense, let’s take a look at where these ideas came from.

Our natural human tendency is to match object size to the space they occupy, which is why a small dining room table in a big home looks out of place, or a king sized bed hardly works in a tiny room. But it’s our visual sensibilities that are at fault here, not the size mismatch. In fact, for a family of two with the occasional visiting couple, a 4-seat dining room table is all we need irrespective of the dining room’s size. And I can tell you from personal experience a king bed sleeps as well in a cramped room as it does in a palatial suite.

I remember one of my trips to NYC, while on a visit with Lyric HiFi owner Mike Kay. He took me to an old Brownstone somewhere on the city’s West Side to visit an IRSV owner. To my surprise, the giant 4-piece Infinity speaker system dominated their tiny living room to such a degree that the owners had to walk between the midrange and woofer towers to access their upstairs bedroom. The beasts consumed 80% of their living room and looked absurdly out of place to me, but oh man did they sing! These were some of the finest sounds I had ever heard from a pair of the massive speakers—almost as nice as another tiny room filled with them at the home of the Absolute Sound Magazine’s publisher, Harry Pearson.

With common sense boundaries in mind, I am calling this one fiction.

 

.

 

 

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Without design compromise

Origin stories of Infinity’s flagship loudspeaker, the IRS, have as many variations as M&Ms but this is the one I was told.

It all took place over a dinner attended by Infinity partners Cary Christie and Arnie Nudell along with their international sales manager Leon Kuby. It was Kuby who challenged Arnie to consider building a line source loudspeaker without design compromise. Nudell is reported to have scoffed at the idea saying such a speaker would be absurd, taking up most of the room and costing a king’s ransom. Over time the challenge moved from the absurd to the possible and finally to the practical.

From TAS’ Jim Hannon:

“Like Infinity’s previous flagship loudspeakers, the goal of the formidable seven-feet, six-inches-tall, four-tower, Infinity Reference Standard (IRS), introduced in 1980, was to reduce “the musical distance between the live performance and its reproduced illusion.” Its sole design objective was to “achieve the world’s highest level of musical accuracy, and to develop the new technology needed to attain that objective.” Originally conceived as a statement of what a large line-source dipole without any design compromises could achieve, the IRS attained surprising commercial success, and served as HP’s long-time reference. That alone should be enough for the IRS to reach iconic status!”

In fact, Stan and my first meeting with HP of the Absolute Sound was at a time when this very speaker was his reference. We had come to visit Harry and show off our new little phono stage, a $120 silver box about the size of a pack of English muffins that was our sole product. Harry kept promising to give the phono preamplifier an audition while we sat transfixed by the sound of the IRS—but the audition never happened. When 2 a.m. rolled around we were all tired. Stan and I went back to California the next day changed by those speakers. Our horizons had been forever extended as we witnessed what few people ever get the chance to do: be in the same room when the musical distance between a live performance and its reproduced illusion had been reduced to near nothingness.

The IRS loudspeaker system changed my life and the lives of others. It was a seminal work that deserves its place in history. It will live in permanency at our new building with its own dedicated room. Sometimes history has to be preserved so we can understand our roots.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Can modern music be high-end?

If our definition of high-end audio is lifted from The Absolute Sound Magazine’s tenet: “the sound of unamplified instruments and/or voices as heard in a natural, acoustic performance space” then does it make sense that modern electronic or multitracked music can ever be considered high-end?

I believe it can, but not before broadening our definition. Perhaps it makes more sense to say “the natural, lossless, uncolored, reproduction of recorded music.” Probably too wordy and in need of editing, but I think this quick stab at defining that which we strive to achieve might make more sense than the flag waived by TAS founder, HP.

I remember asking Harry this very question and found his answer illuminating. Though I do not recall his exact words I do remember their essence. He suggested that any system capable of “the sound of unamplified instruments and/or voices as heard in a natural, acoustic performance space” would accurately render any recording without loss or coloration, even recordings that did not fit the definition of live. It was HP, after all, that played for me on his reference system Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, a track most definitely not live, certainly not unamplified, and most definitely not heard in a natural, acoustic space.

So yes, I believe modern music can be considered high-end. I’ve put together a short video on the subject if you’re interested. You can watch it here (as well as watch me get the crap scared out when I fire up the Tesla coil).

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest, Brevard and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Inc.

Committed

I’ve been called stubborn a lot. Mostly by my family, but often by my employees. Once I get committed to an idea, a concept, it’s hard to move me off the dime.

I had been convinced for many years that long speaker cables were the way to go. That notion was inadvertently reinforced by a trip to Sea Cliff New York and the home of Harry Pearson.

Arnie Nudell (the founder of Infinity) and I had travelled to HP’s home to set up a new pair of Genesis loudspeakers we were proud of. We had hoped for a great review in the Absolute Sound—and great reviews from Harry were scarce as hen’s teeth.

HP employed setup men to install new products and get them running. If I remember correctly, the setup man at this time was Scott Markwell. The Genesis speakers were not easy to install. They were big, heavy and bulky. Scott did his best and fired them up. They sounded bad: rolled off, dull, lackluster.

It would fall to Arnie to set them up for Harry’s evaluation, but first Scott and I were charged with getting them close. They were not close. He called me into the room while Harry and Arnie chatted. He played them for me and furrowed his brow at the sound. I had to agree. They sucked.

I had been asked to join HP and Arnie for lunch, but declined, staying behind to find out what was wrong, instead. I won’t bore you with a long drawn out tale, but it turned out the long interconnects between the Audio Research preamplifier and the power amplifier were the cause. The distance was about 20 feet and it sucked the life out of the sound. Tube preamplifiers are not known as good cable drivers, but the equipment choice was not mine to make.

Working with Scott, we moved the room around so we had long speaker cables and shorter interconnects. The speakers suddenly came to life. The sparkle was back and he offered me an apple and a cup of coffee since I missed lunch.

That incident only served to reinforce the notion I clung to with all my heart.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Inc.

Emotional listening

Just as I was heading out the door this morning to catch a plane to O’Hare, then on to Axpona for the Legend’s forum and then….my phone beeps and flight’s cancelled. Storm of the century and yet…there’s not much snow outside. Sigh, my apologies. Blame United Airlines.

Some write they feel vinyl in their souls, but digital in their head–implying the one’s visceral, the other more cerebral. I am not sure I am affected in the same way, but I do perceive a major difference between the two formats.

Vinyl seems to separate noise and distortion from the music, as if each were apart from the other. Digital seems the opposite. Noise and the tiny bits of harshness typically seem meshed into the fabric of the music, one affecting the other, seemingly linked together.

The first time I experienced the separation afforded vinyl was at the home of Harry Pearson, the late founder of the Absolute Sound Magazine. From the moment the needle dropped onto the record I was made aware that surface noise seemed almost on a separate channel – as if another pair of speakers were reproducing it. Of course, there was only the one pair of speakers–the Infinity IRSIII. Still, on disc after disc (this was before the advent of CD), ticks, pops, surface noise were distinct and separate from the music. One did not seem to influence the other. Some writers have suggested the noise might be out of phase with the music, but I struggle with that concept.

As digital continues its progress it is this separation that I am after – and have been heartened as we make progress towards its acquisition. I remember the first time I got to audition Ted Smith’s seminal masterpiece, DirectStream DAC. I was immediately struck with how the surface noise of a digitally recorded vinyl had that same level of separation I had heard only with vinyl scraped by a needle. That was my first clue that DSD might be the key to getting us closer to vinyl’s magical separation.

More tomorrow. More snow’s falling and I am going for the shovel.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Inc.

Concert seats

When you go to a live concert where do you prefer to sit? If it’s orchestra, I prefer the right side, several rows back from the stage, where the lower frequency instruments like cello and double bass are emphasized. Others prefer center stage, while the left side seating affords a crisper sound, closer to the smaller stringed instruments.

If the venue is jazz or bluegrass, I want to be a little further into the audience to enjoy the crowd as well as the music which, almost always, has to be amplified.

But when you set up your speaker system, what seating position do you focus on for imaging? The question isn’t about where the sweet spot is–dead center between the left and right speakers and just slightly lower than the tweeter axis. No, the question is one of speaker placement and equipment choices and how they affect the imaging in the room.

I set up for a deep, wide soundstage behind the loudspeaker pair, emphasizing separation of instruments and a clear picture of the space musicians play in. Others I know like the image to come forward of the loudspeakers; a practice that drives me up the wall.

But then, they’re likely to scratch their heads when they hear mine.

Fascinating to me is the variability built into stereo systems. We can tweak the image and stereo presentation with placement, cables, room conditioning, and electronics. Like an artist’s pallette, our range of colors and textures available to us are as many as we can dream up.

And it begs the question posed by the title of a magazine. Is there an Absolute Sound?

There certainly is a sound, but absolute?