Tag Archives: audio system

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.


Labels are necessary for communication yet offered without thought of consequences they can be destructive.

There’s no harm in labeling sodium chloride as table salt. In fact, labeling a shaker of white crystals as “salt” is extremely helpful at the dinner table.

But what happens when we label stereo equipment with opinions? For example, labeling a particular phono cartridge as wooden or tight-assed can destroy a product’s reputation. Imagine taking home an expensive moving coil cartridge and on your audio system, it doesn’t sound right. You label it with your opinion and it is forever tainted—even if all that might have been wrong was your ability to set it up properly.

I remember the first time I heard about Cambridge Audio products. Asked what their shtick was I was told it earned the label: cheap gear. Good, but cheap. It wasn’t until I spent the time to audition their products myself that I realized the label was not only unwarranted but unfair. Not because it wasn’t inexpensive gear (it was) but because that label assigned it a low value in people’s minds. I began to support the brand by telling people it was an exceptional bargain.

PS Audio products were for years labeled as “The poor man’s Audio Research”. I guess that’s a compliment, though I probably could have picked a better label.

I guess my point is we should be careful about the labels we assign products and certainly people.

They have a habit of sticking.

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’ve heard the PS Audio system at their previous location and very good, although that room was too small for the Infinity IRS V loudspeakers.


The three P20 Power Plants, two BHK monoblock amplifiers, 12 channels of 1,000 watt amplification, the Infinity IRSV and all the other peripherals to be found in Music Room Two form the basis of the PS Audio Reference System.

Is it the best system in the world? Of course not. There’s likely no single system that might qualify for that honor.

What we can say, however, is that it is a reference-quality system. And what does that actually mean?

In my view, a reference system has a number of requirements. It must be neutral, full range, highly resolving, unflappable, and most important, reliably utilize all its merits to test the identity, strength, quality, and purity of any connected gear. In other words, it cannot impart its identity on devices under test.

While constant improvements to the system are expected—even demanded—those improvements must always be made with the goal of neutrality without suffering sonic bias.

A true reference system is different than a maxed out home audio system. In the former, we want limitless unbiased resolving power where, in the latter, we accept bias in favor of knocking our socks off.

You probably don’t have a reference quality system at home, but in the long run, that’s likely a good thing.

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.

And the music, room and listening tastes!!

Best place to set volume

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a simple set of rules and guidelines for audiophiles to follow?

Do this and get that?

I’ve tried my best, in the Audiophile’s Guide, to get as close as possible to that standard. Do this and get that works in the Guide because you’re part of a process that involves feedback. Your ears tell you if you’re getting close and then the Guide explains what to do if you’re not.

What we don’t have is a simple set of “switches”. Do this and get that instructions that work without feedback and tweaks are rare.

For example, where’s the best place to set the volume level in a digital audio system? DAC at 100%? Computer at 100%. Preamp in the mix or not?

The problem with saying one way or the other is the right way is that it depends. Yes, it depends. It depends on what kind of equipment you have. It depends on the synergy of the system.

A preamp in the chain is the right way to go but only if the preamp is of a certain quality.

How do you know if it has the right quality?

The right place to set the volume or the best cable to use is dependent on a set of variables and without identifying the proper variables it’s difficult to answer.

The best place to set the volume depends on the system.

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.

Before taking the plunge

We are all different.

When I want to learn something I jump in feet first, immerse myself, learn and do everything I can so that later it becomes easy—second-hand nature.

Others ease into the learning slowly, drip by drip until it’s easy.

My method works for me because I can quickly pivot if the path I am taking appears wrong. Others would be better served to take their time and make minor tweaks along the way.

However you learn the art of building a high-end audio system—taking the plunge or starting small and growing over time—it’s important to remember that finding a good starting point can be critical. Our lifelong opinions are shaped at the end of our learning process.

Study up before taking the plunge.

If we start off on the wrong foot, cobbling together a compromised system that misses the mark, it may take a lifetime to unravel bad habits learned.

Once formed, opinions are awfully difficult to change.

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.


One hundred years ago a tinkerer was a traveling craftsman skilled in the art of metal repair. He would be invited into homes to repair eating utensils and small metal objects.

Today, in our disposable society, there’s no need for a person to repair a mangled spoon or a fork’s broken tine. We just throw it out and replace it.

A more modern usage of the word tinkering might apply to an audio purist’s quest to build a musical system. A modern tinkerer will mix and match stereo components, tweak and tune an audio system until reaching a new level of purity.

When it comes to high-end audio I cannot think of another personal pursuit that so encourages tinkering. Most endeavors support the use of pre-approved (often brand-specific) components: Canon lenses on Canon cameras, Tesla swag on Tesla cars.

Not so much HiFi. DACs from one manufacturer connect to preamps from quite another and both interconnected from yet a third vendor.

Mixing and matching, tinkering and adjusting, tweaking and tuning.

It’s part of what makes our passion so unique and our results so 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.

Music’s soul

The Righteous Brothers, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, were unrelated. Their name came when a fan shouted, “That was righteous, brothers!”, and would often greet them with “Hey righteous brothers, how you doin’?”.

Their music had soul. It touched us at an emotional level—as did Mozart, Gershwin, John Lennon, Martens, Johnny Cash.

It’s hard to put your finger on what elements in music reach deep within us to elicit emotional or intellectual energy. We know it when it grabs us.

We don’t require a high-end audio system to touch the soul of music. A song played in the car can grab you as firmly as a live performance.

And yet the best stereo systems I know of have a magic to them that seems to enhance beyond words music’s emotion.

I think of high-end’s magic not as a requirement for connecting with music’s emotion but as an aid, a seasoning, a spice.

There are few pleasures better in life than connecting with music’s soul.

A high-end system gets us closer.

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.

Who knew? Not me!

Audiophile Day #5

Just a reminder that today, October 2nd, 2020, is Audiophile Day.

On this day of celebration for what we all love—perhaps through our comments section—we can share some of our stories and thoughts about what it means to be an audiophile.

I’ve told the story many times of my first experience with a high-end audio system. I even wrote about it in my upcoming book The Audiophile’s Guide.

“I had yet to grasp stereo sound’s true potential. That revelatory moment came in 1971, on a hot summer’s day in Santa Maria, California. I was working as a disc jockey and program director at a local FM radio station, and the station’s chief engineer, Jim Mussell, invited me to his home to hear his stereo system. He’d heard I loved music and knew I bragged about my home audio setup. Given that my rig played loud rock, impressed my friends, and had two tall loudspeakers, I felt pretty confident that I was in the upper echelon of stereo aficionados. I was soon to learn otherwise.

Jim lived in a modest three-bedroom track home on the east side of Santa Maria, near the noisy 101 freeway. His home was a hoarder’s dream, filled with stacks of papers, test equipment, and piles of boxes kissing the ceiling. From the front door we wound our way through the chaotic maze and into a surprisingly neat and orderly living room. Wedged into each of the room’s two far corners was a 4×4’ dark mahogany speaker cabinet. In their center was a two-foot-wide and three-foot-tall panel of dark wood, flanked on each side by black grille cloth. Near the very top of the center block was what looked to me like window louvers. These two cabinets, explained Jim, were his pride and joy: an original pair of JBL D30085 Hartsfield corner horn loudspeakers. On the table to the left side of the room sat a fancy looking turntable, with an unusual arm that moved straight across the album instead of the typical pivoting tonearm. And next to that was an ancient looking Audio Research preamplifier with vacuum tubes (of all things). I remember quietly snickering at the use of these ancient fire bottle vacuum tubes—my dad had used them, for Pete’s sake, but I had long since graduated to the newer transistor models. All Jim had was an ancient pair of loudspeakers coupled with old amp technology…and I was supposed to be impressed?! Harrumph. As I sat in the single overstuffed chair facing the speakers, Jim lowered the needle onto Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein. I did my best to be polite, pretending I was going to be impressed.

Holy shit. Suddenly, the musicians were in the room! No sound came from those two ancient speakers—instead, standing before me were Edgar Winter, Ronnie Montrose, Dan Hartman, and Chuck Ruff. Winter’s synthesizer was alive and in three dimensions, while Ruff’s drumbeats smacked me in the stomach and dropped my jaw to my chest. It was as if neither the room nor the speakers even existed. I was there, on a holographic soundstage. I could “see” where each musician stood on that stage and I could picture Winter’s fingers gliding over the ARP keyboard he slung across his chest and played like a guitar. Hartman’s bass notes went lower than I ever imagined possible, at least outside of a live performance.

When the final synth note died away in the reverb chamber, I turned to look at my friend. Jim seemed unfazed by what we had just experienced—as if it were just an everyday occurrence—and launched into some engineering techno-babble we two nerds had previously been chatting about. I cannot remember a word he’d said, though, because I was still digesting the life-changing experience.

I had gone from flat monotony to three-dimensional color in the four minutes and forty-four seconds it took Edgar and his group to play that song. The idea that two speakers could disappear from the room and in their place live musicians might appear to play music was so mind-bendingly new that I struggled to wrap my head around it. What made this magic? Was it those speakers? That odd turntable? The vacuum tubes? His room? All of it? I had to know. 46 years later, after a lifetime of designing, building, and helping audiophiles around the world achieve what I experienced on that hot summer’s day, I feel pretty confident I can help you achieve that same sense of wonder and amazement that forever changed my life.”

What’s your story?

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.

This is kind of dumb..Both count equally and generally, ones no good without the other.

The importance of setup

Setting up a stereo system takes a lot of work but it’s free. Outfitting a great audio system is easy, but it costs a lot of money.

Which has the most value?

If I had to choose, I would suggest setup trumps stereo equipment. I say this because some of the most expensive systems I have heard sounded dreadful when the setup person or the room didn’t honor the music.

A mediocre set of equipment with exquisite setup will typically be more musically satisfying than a poorly setup expensive arrangement.

Of course, when you can get both equipment and setup perfected, that’s when the magic happens.

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.

As we age, we have hearing problems. I do, although not all the time and most of the times can correct it, with some effort. Still, if we cannot hear well, what good is a high end audio system? Plenty good, if you ask me.

Ear focus

As engineers, we focus our efforts on what we can quantify by measuring, evaluating, and finding some form of commonality we can all agree upon. Perhaps the easiest is the ear.

We know what the average ear is supposed to do and we’ve got reams of research on the subject. We know its frequency capabilities as well as its maximum dynamic range and loudness levels. There’s probably not too much we don’t know about that appendage on the side of our head, and so it’s easy to give facts and figures on spec sheets as to how well our equipment’s going to interface with our ears.

Only, our ears are little more than sensors. What they interface with is our brains, and here we have far less knowledge of what we can and cannot perceive. For example, we have a general idea of how much and what type of distortion the average person can tolerate before they notice something’s amiss—but that’s not a firm number. It depends on the kind of music, the listener’s tolerance levels, and (maddeningly to engineers) people’s moods.

Our ears as microphones are an interesting concept but hardly how it works.


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.

Tweaking vs. tuning

There comes a point in our stereo journey where we have to decide whether it’s best to tweak or tune. By that I mean we can embellish upon what we have or we can rethink that which isn’t working for us.

Much, I suppose, is dependent on whether or not we’re happy with the status quo. If we love what we have built, then perhaps it makes more sense to tweak in the hopes we can get something a skosh better. If, on the other hand, we’re struggling with sonic problems, maybe it’s better to rethink the setup.

For example, if we have a turntable high-end audio system and, for the most part, records sound great then we’re probably best advised to tweak the various tonearm/cartridge settings to compensate for minor problems. But, if we’re not getting the promise vinyl has to offer, then it’s time to rethink the system components—to tune by either equipment swapping or a radical rearrangement.

All too often I have run into systems tweaked to within an inch of their life with gadgets, process, bells and whistles, when what was needed instead was a radical tuning or equipment swap.

I think it’s part of human nature to want to make smaller course corrections than wipe a slate clean, but it’s also human nature to suffer through a situation because we’re hesitant to make the big change.

Tweaking, polishing, refining are small changes we can leverage to make what’s working better.

Tuning, replacing, rearranging are big changes we often need to make but more often than not shy away from.

To get to where you want to go, do you tweak or tune?