Tag Archives: DAC’s

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.

The preamplifier

A traditional preamp (the pre – amplifier, the interface before the main power amp) had four main functions: input selection, phono stage, gain stage, volume/balance control.

Preamplifiers were the center of the HiFi system—the main unit users would interface with to choose which source to listen to and then to set the volume level. Sources back then included tape, radio, and phono.

When PS Audio entered the marketplace back in 1974, we introduced a new idea: the separate phono stage. Our standalone phono amplifier/equalizer was better than the ones built into many of the preamps of that day. Over time, preamps began shedding their phono stages and became line-level preamps.

As the digital age was ushered in during the mid-1980s, the output of CD players and DACs were connected into the preamplifier’s aux inputs. In those days, there were no such things as a digital volume control. All DACs and CD players had analog outputs.

As we left the 1900s and moved into the 2000s a few DACs started sporting digital volume controls. These weren’t very popular amongst audiophiles because they sacrificed resolution. Moving up the history ladder a decade or so and products like our own DirectStream DAC began featuring lossless digital volume controls which today, are fairly commonplace.

Today, if your sources are all digital, then most modern DACs can effectively replace the need for a traditional analog preamplifier.

If you are like many of us using both vinyl and digital sources then you still need an analog preamplifier.

Lastly, there are many of us (including me) that prefer not to use DAC’s volume control. In this scenario, we run the analog output of our DAC through a top-of-the-line analog preamp for better sound.

The preamplifier has a long history in the world of high-end home audio reproduction.

My guess is that it will continue to have the center seat in a high-end system for many years to come.

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

New DAC from PS Audio. I’d love to hear it, owning and truly enjoying the previous version, but they are now dealer direct, so not for me. Besides, ignoring the fact that fact that what I use now is roughly twice the cost of this piece, what I’m using now is a lot more functional. Adding a T+A MP2500R SACD/CD player and streamer to the mix is the best quality stereo I’ve ever had and the ability to stream Qobuz through it, is the coup de gras of musical convenience.

They’re here……

Since the beginning of the pandemic and the partsdemic: the crazy times we all seem to be accepting as “normal”, there is sometimes a light of success shining through.

Yesterday afternoon we shipped the first lot of DirectStream MKII DACs to anxious beta testers.

What a journey it has been. If memory serves correctly, designer Ted Smith performed 8 revisions of the MK2 board to accommodate the changing parts and packages.

As those keeping up with the changes know, at the last moment we found yet another problem. All hands on deck! The problem’s been resolved and the solution gave us an even better design.

But now they are shipping. And, let me tell you, this DAC is nothing short of extraordinary: quieter (the audio emerges from the black of the deepest velvet), faster, with separation of instruments unlike anything I have ever heard before.

A triumph of years of research and development.

For those beta testers awaiting theirs, the spigot’s been turned on. A trickle today, opening more tomorrow, and the flow at full blast by week’s end.

We can’t wait for you to get your hands on this beauty.

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.

The art of mastering

When done correctly mastering, recording, and mixing are more art than technique. Just ask our own Gus Skinas.

And the art is in the listening (perhaps nothing too surprising to us audiophiles).

Another master of the arts is our good friend Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast. She, like Gus, and everyone at Octave Records relies upon listening and DSD to get the results she wants.

We need more people like Gus, Cookie, Bernie Grundman (click here to hear my interview with Bernie), and Chad Kassam of Acoustic Sounds.

Recently, Cookie posted the following on our forums. I think it’s worth sharing.

“I watched a recent interview between the great mastering engineer Bernie Grundman and Chad Kassem on youtube. At one point Bernie says something like this, “There are things you can’t measure and only hear when it comes to sound.” Bernie was my mentor who I learned from. He tested gear and had modifications made until it suited his tastes in sound.

I will say that not every well known mastering engineer goes to the lengths Bernie does. Many don’t hear the difference between FLAC and WAV of the same file. Some mastering engineers won’t do a listening test for it, either. As Bernie also says, the ‘math’ isn’t as good as the ‘ears’. Which I agree with. This is a business of ‘ears’ and hearing sound.

If you play the same file using Roon, Audiogate, JRiver, etc… it will not sound the same. If you change DACs, that same file won’t sound the same. If you use different analog channels to run the sound through, those analog channels won’t sound the same with the same file. Filters, components of gear, chips… you name it… all make a slight difference in sound. This certainly keeps reviewers busy. :slight_smile:

In developing the SEA process, we tested hundreds of combinations of devices and software until we arrived at our current setup. Those slight differences in playback of each component is what highlights or diminishes certain qualities of sound we are looking for in our SEA process.

The differences we are making in our SEA remastering process are very, very small and very difficult to hear unless you’re experienced with doing blindfold tests. The choices we make for playback DACs for the source music and the analog channels we choose for adjustments in gain were tested and chosen over a period of a year before we finalized our processes. Our systems don’t work on all music but on 90%, we think we can make a difference for those wanting to hear their music in DSD.

Again, mastering is an art form of small details that most people don’t care much about. Bernie is a master, but there were times that I didn’t always agree with his choices… and that’s okay. These are very very small differences. Most of the time I agree with Bernie when I worked with him. The only way to really experience these sonic choices in mastering is to attend a mastering session with a high caliber engineer.

We will be offering a DSD mastering workshop soon. We haven’t settled on the final topic, but if you’re interested to learn more, ask questions, hear the files (remotely, we’ll send out later), please fill out the form for our waiting list.

Thanks to the few that make this a wonderful and generous industry to be associated with.

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.

Thought I would take a minute to write about Paul McGowan, who owns and operates PS Audio, as well as writing a blog, that I copy, with his permission, almost every day and have for the past severral years.

Besides writing his blog every day, PS Audio also publishes a monthly magazine, only available digitally, that talks about all sorts of things related to audio. It’s called Copper magazine and is accessible here, through their website, www.psaudio.com/copper-magazine.com/

PS Audio is making very good sounding and well built electronics at several different price points, from entry level, to expensive, although in todays high end stereo market, their high end products are damn reasonable and could almost be considered bargains. Their product line  includes Power Protection and AC regeneration products, DAC’s, preamplifiers and power amplifiers. Lately and after several delays spanning several years, now loudspeaker systems.

Besides all this,  PS Audio also has a recording division, called Octave Records, where they make excellent sounding DSD digital releases. While some of the music isn’t that interesting to me, they sound great and I support them because when it comes to an audio hobbyist, Paul is the poster boy for our hobby.

A Monday treat

I had previously written about the great pipe organ project we were involved in for Octave Records.

I still tingle with goosebumps every time I hear the playback of that amazing DSD recording session at Temple Emanuel in downtown Denver.

I thought it might be fun to share with you this Sunday morning a sneak peek at the setup process for the recording and then an actual performance from that recording.

Go here on YouTube and enjoy trumpeter Gabriel Mervine’s father, Ken Mervine (a master of the instrument), at the keyboard of one of the great instruments of all time.

Just watching his feet dance on the pedals is reason enough to watch.

Have fun this Sunday morning.

(This release on Octave Records will be part of a new series we’re preparing: The Art of HiFi. The first release of the new series will be all about ‘dat bass!)

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.

Digital dilemma

Perhaps the most difficult technology to wrap one’s head around is digital.

Analog? Not so much. Consider that it’s not that hard to understand how the quality of a tape head or a phono cartridge has a direct and obvious impact on sound quality. It has to.

Digital is a whole different can of worms. 1’s and 0’s should be easy to maintain quality. It’s far more difficult to try and understand how bits on a hard drive or, for that matter, bits sent across millions of miles of space can be affected.

Inviolate performance. Perfect sound forever. That was the promise.

And yet, DACs and transports sound different. One USB cable vs. another makes the difference between good and great.

Over time we’ve been learning what makes digital audio sound different. We’ve come to recognize and own up to the fact bits are not just bits. That the timing, noise levels, and quality of those bits changes that which we hear in music.

We never perfected analog and I sincerely doubt we’ll ever perfect digital.

But, we’re moving forward in positive ways and music is getting better for it.

That’s got to be 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.

Parallel vs. series

There is a fundamental difference between projects worked in parallel or in series yet both have their merits.

In the former, multiple tasks and projects are tackled at the same time while with the latter, every step follows the next.

Each of us operates at different levels with respect to how we handle projects. Some are most comfortable focusing all their efforts on a series project: dig in, push everything else aside, focus on seeing every step in the process completed to fruition. Others work effectively on multiple tasks and projects by commutating in small spurts their time and energies into many projects. Still others operate in a combo between both series and parallel.

Neither method is better or worse than the other. It’s up to each individual to figure out the most efficient path for their particular skills.

Take PS Audio as an example. At any one time, we have multiple projects being worked upon: loudspeakers, streamers, amplifiers, DACs, recording studio, Octave music, etc. Yet, within each of these parallel endeavors, we find a dedicated group of engineers working tirelessly in series: the beauty of having a team.

Me? If I don’t have ten projects percolating in my head I am bored. My greatest joy is commutating between projects and diving into each with all the zeal and passion I possess until exhausted, then moving on to the next and repeating.

What’s glorious about our differences is recognizing within each of us what works and doesn’t.

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 your passion

Passion is a feeling of intense enthusiasm for something (or someone). Finding it isn’t always easy but, when you do, it’s great to hone in on the elements that really fan the flames.

If I look at myself I quickly identify two major passions: learning how things work and building solutions.

From as far back as I can remember, I had to know how everything worked: why the sky is blue, what are rainbows, how a button and a switch work, a synthesizer, a phono stage, a vacuum tube, a traffic light. When I interact with the physical world there’s not a lot around me I don’t understand.

Faced with a problem or presented with a challenge, I am inspired to build a solution. When I was unhappy with the sound of the first CD players from Magnavox I figured out how they worked, determined what I could and could not affect, and built one of the first outboard DACs to solve the problem. When I was unhappy with my stereo’s dynamics I added side-firing drivers activated by a log amplifier to extend the system’s dynamic range.

Not everything is understandable to me. Not everything is fixable to me.

That was never the point.

The point is to identify and then follow one’s passion even if it means failure.

What’s your passion?

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.

Over the top

When it comes to having company over for dinner my family’s general rule of thumb has always been better too much than too little.

Too much at the dinner table just sets the stage for lunch leftovers. No big deal.

But when it comes to your HiFi system, too much can be…dare I say…..too much.

As audiophiles, we can fall into the trap of pushing the improvement envelope too hard: adding DSP or an equalizer when all we really needed was some time and elbow grease. An add on super tweeter or perhaps one of many aftermarket tweaks guaranteed to make everything that much better.

It’s always tempting to turn what’s great into something even better.

In my experience, those add-ons are short-lived.

If you’re looking for better, always start with the basics: loudspeakers, power amplifiers, preamps, and sources, such as turntables and DAC’s.

A lunch of leftovers is easy.

Unloading to the used market unnecessary add-ons gets painful.

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 remotes

When we started PS Audio in the early 1970s there was no such thing as a remote controlled volume. No, we had to get off our lard butts and adjust the preamp’s volume knob—which led to very different stereo setups. Preamps were inevitably within arm’s reach.

Today, that might be pretty much unthinkable.

The changes needed to switch from a culture of knob twisters to remote control button-pushers were monumental. We went from motorized pots to electronic gain control over the span of decades and still, to this day, there’s no industry standard for the control of volume.

PS Audio went in the direction of variable gain amplifiers. Others use off-the-shelf attenuators based on CMOS ladder networks, while still others hang on with light-dependent photoresistors (and don’t get me started about early DACs losing resolution in exchange for remote-controlled volume levels).

What’s fascinating to me is that while once the industry standards were pretty simple, and the performance dictated by the quality of parts and implementation of either pots or stepped attenuators, the need for people to control the volume without leaving their seats has forever changed the circuitry and performance levels of what we listen to.

Sometimes technological improvements lead to welcomed cultural shifts: dial phones to cell phones, throttles to cruise controls, radios to televisions.

Other times, welcomed cultural shifts lead to questionable industry performance improvements.

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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.