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.

Tinkering

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?

 

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.

Unique sounds

I am continually in awe of how personal is the world. Look into the sky with the knowledge that only you—not any other human in history—has ever witnessed that combination of blue and clouds. That no one has ever stood on that spot, at that moment, to enjoy that sky, smelled that air, felt that breeze. Each waking moment is absolutely personal to us.

Your home HiFi system has never been replicated, and the music you so love never reproduced just as you hear it. Even if your audio system or Home Theater equipment is duplicated down to the last screw and foot, the rooms are not the same, nor the day, nor your mood, nor the copy of music being played.

We’re blessed to have created in our homes, unique temples of sound. Our sound and video systems are as distinct as our days.

As you wake this morning, it might put a smile on your face to know that today will be special—different from any other day, moment, or time in your existence.

And as you listen to music, it’s good to remember you’re hearing it in ways unlike anyone else on the planet.

A true one-of-a-kind experience to be enjoyed, shared, made better, polished, perfected, reveled in.

 

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 thought I’d follow up on my cable testing and after giving all but one of the XLR audio cables a re-try, I’ve found three important things.

One is that none of them make my system sound bad. One is definitely rolled off at the top a bit, but still not bad sounding. They all sound good, to excellent.

Secondly, they all sound more alike than different and the magnitude of differences aren’t nearly as great as the difference between the USB cables I’ve used over the years. Given a resolving enough system, USB cables make a components worth of difference in audio quality in my audio system.

Obviously, I know my system well and if it was interesting enough for me, I could do a blind test, with someone’s help, to see if I could tell the difference between my least and most favorite XLR audio cables. With quarantining, this would not be easy to do, nor do I have that much interest in doing this, so not going to happen.

So, after swapping almost all of them in and out one more time, nothing’s changed and the one XLR cable I liked best, is still my favorite. On my test discs, the biggest differences are in imaging and top end response.

It has better soundstaging, in that separation of the musical instruments in a soundfield are more distinct and more accurate. Drums are placed well back , where they belong and every instrument has its own place of the stage. The others all sort of congeal the imaging. They aren’t bad this way, just not as good.

Secondly, the top end transients are better with the cable I like best. So, when I listen to a well recorded piano piece, say by Ellis Marsalis on the album he did with son, Branford, the strike of the piano notes sounds much more real than all of the other cables and after all the piano is a percussion instrument  and you should be able to hear this. If it was mostly top end transients, I wouldn’t listen to this cable, but this cable follows the top end with the tone and fullness of the entire piano. All of the other cables, to one degree, or another, are a bit lacking this way.

So, this cable is the second most expensive in the test, but far less than the most expensive. At $120 for a meter pair, a bargain in high end audio.

 

 

 

 

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.

Although I just use my eyes and ears to set up customers audio and video systems, I use the XLO/Sheffield Labs disc to test my reference system. I know how things are supposed to sound, better than I know the back of my hand, so this disc is very helpful. The Stereophile one is a good one too.

An easy better

One of the pitfalls of audio system testing is loudness between devices under test. One must be scrupulously careful to gain match anything you’re comparing to. If a new amplifier even a dB or so difference in gain can make a noticeable performance change. And, you certainly don’t want to choose one piece of kit over another when a simple twist of the volume control can make this right again.

When we test various designs or wish to listen to the works of others it’s pretty easy to gain-match since we have access to a lot of fancy audio test equipment. You, dear reader, probably do not have that same access and so it can be a little more difficult.

You can often go to a manufacturer’s website and get their specs. There, you can see at a fixed frequency how much gain an amplifier has. If it’s off by dBs, then your next challenge would be how to compensate. With many preamps, such as our own, we specify our volume in predefined steps: 0.5dB for most of the range.

You can also gain match with a test disc and microphone setup. On my iPhone, I have several dB meter apps. Decibel X is one that’s worked well for me, but truth is, you can use just about anything and it’s fine. The key to gain matching is making sure the microphone is in exactly the same spot each time and the tone played is the same too. I still use the Stereophile test disc as my reference standard.

However you manage to gain match equipment, just make sure you do when evaluating for sound quality.

It matters.

 

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.

A little advertising.

My system’s temperament

Fortunately, my music system isn’t temperamental, but it certainly has a personality all unto its own. A temperament.

Now that I have to wait until the evening hours to sneak down to PS Audio and get a dose of Music Room Two just to keep my stereo sanity intact, I am reminded of how different it is than my home system. Where at home we get good imaging, reasonably dynamics, and pleasing sound, Music Room Two is just from another planet: big, intense, yet delicate and subtle when the music demands.

Describing an audio system’s personality is akin to the challenge wine tasters must have describing a particular vintage. There’s a flavor to reproduced sound that’s unique to every system I have ever had the privilege to listen to. Like wines, some I love, others not so much.

One of the benefits of populating your stereo system with gear from a particular company is knowing their tastes and having confidence that if they like it, so too will you. Same with an AV system.

Like an honest vintner willing to put their name and reputation on the bottle, products designed and voiced by the people you know and trust is a good and safe bet.