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.

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.

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.

Defining high-end

It’s easy enough to bandy about the term high-end audio. Right? This is high-end, this is mid-fi, this is low-brow stuff. But, as easy as it might be to point and judge, what makes a product high-end?

I think it’s an often asked question and probably one more difficult to answer than most.

If I were to take a stab at it I’d start with aspirations. What does a product purport to do and whom is it intended to appeal to? An Amazon Echo or Dot make no claims of being high-end. A product like the Apple HomePod, on the other hand, does.

Just because a product aspires to high-end audiodom doesn’t qualify it as such, but at least it’s a start—an easy way to sort through the chaff.

The much more difficult challenge would be the judgment phase, a very sticky wicket indeed. One could suggest that it’s all performance-based, but I find that argument far too simplistic. For example, few would argue that a 5 Watt single tube power amplifier isn’t high-end, yet it could easily sound worse than an off-the-shelf mid-fi power amp.

Some products are so specific to the high-end they could be classified as nothing else: femto clock addons to DACS, uber pricey cables, USB re-clockers, power regenerators. Yet, while these could be nothing other than high-end I don’t think they alone embody the true meaning of high-end audio.

I would suggest that a much more telling attribute of a high-end audio product just might be its clear and obvious efforts at recreating the sound of live music in the home. Using that definition might get us closer because it can be fairly applied. For example, as good as some receivers might be, their aims are far too broad to be called high-end. These are targeting the much broader areas of what has become known as simply Home Entertainment. The Apple HomePod is not high-end, but it is a high-performance home entertainment piece.

Distinctions like this may not seem important to everyone. Personally, I want to know who/what a product was designed for so I can decide if they had me in mind.

 

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.

If it walks like a…

When we think of products in terms of functionality they’re all somewhat the same. DACs convert digital to analog, power amps drive speakers, preamps control the level. But, that’s often where the similarities end.

How a product does what it does makes all the difference in the world. The output of an R2R ladder DAC and a DSD-based DirectStream DAC may look the same, but they’re not even close in how they got there—nor in how they sound.

The same is true for power conditioners. They have AC power going into them, and with multiple AC sockets at their outputs, some modified form of AC coming out. To say or even suggest that a power conditioner or isolation transformer has anything other than form factor in common with a Power Plant would be grossly incorrect. Yet, it happens all the time.

We invented the Power Plant concept in 1997. Since that time, 23 years ago, one of our long-standing life’s missions has been to help people understand the black and white differences between an active AC regenerator and a power conditioner. The only thing the two have in common is one AC input and many AC outputs.

Because Power Plants provide instant dynamic voltage and current regulation along with rebuilding the AC sine wave itself, they are unflinching in their rock-steady delivery of AC power to equipment. A power conditioner, on the other hand, does little to justify its namesake. The condition of the power through a conditioner is, for the most part, unchanged—except to have made it slightly worse in the very areas a Power Plant makes it better. Impedance. (this too applies to isolation transformer based conditioners as well, though they are closer to their namesakes in that they do isolate)

Active voltage and current regulation are the keys to reversing what many people fear most with the addition of a power conditioner—loss of dynamics and life. Those who have figured out they’re likely better off plugging their power amps directly into the wall socket rather than cripple them with a conditioner, isolation transformer, or any passive device, have exactly the opposite reaction when listening through the lowered impedance of a Power Plant.

Just because it walks like a Power Plant, it certainly doesn’t sound like one.

 

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.

Switch quality

Here’s one of those brave posts where I air my laundry and open myself to criticism and ridicule.

Ain’t life grand?

I am often asked if network switches and routers impact audio quality while streaming. And as a secondary question on the same subject, does it matter whether streaming is transmitted via WiFi or Ethernet?

I find this particular can of worms really intriguing because it’s close to the same question of whether power matters. So, let’s start with that.

The power debate often starts with the questioner’s arms folded, his head cocked to one side, and the mouth humorously pursed as if listening to a child explaining Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. “So, let me get this straight. The power coming into my house makes my system sound different than the power going into my neighbor’s house, right? And worse, my neighbor’s power usage might affect the sound quality in my house? And, we agree there are hundreds of miles of cables connecting everything together?”

I am just as incredulous when it comes to how bits get delivered from far away servers: servers that distribute those bits not in order like ants marching to food, but in chunks taking circuitous routes before accumulating at our DACs.

Tomorrow, let’s take a look at the question in more detail.

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.

Valuing value

How do we place value on things? One simple method is to compare costs to benefits. I paid this in exchange for that.

When we look deeper into the subject the exchange dynamics get more complicated. Two DACs retailing for the same dollars are very different value equations. One may be feature-laden and performance-shy, while the opposite might apply to another. Then still, a high-value product might be a combination of both.

I would wager to say every company has their own set of valuations. We all know companies that place their highest value on aesthetics and casework just as we know companies that put performance above all else.

When we started our company in 1974 casework was the least of our worries. Our first product lived in a Roi Tan cigar box for much of its life. It wasn’t until orders started coming in that we began figuring out what the chassis would even look like—a look more dictated by what we were capable of manufacturing than obeying an aesthetic vision.

We all make value judgments when it comes time to making a purchase decision.

What are your value criteria for audio products?

 

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.

Personal speakers

Speakers are far more personal than electronics because they are far more flawed. Where amps, preamps, and DACs stretch the limits of measurement equipment, speakers challenge the credibility of accurate reproduction.

Whenever someone asks me to make a speaker recommendation the first questions I have to ask are what their goals are. What kinds of music do they listen to? What do they hope to achieve? Without that information, I cannot give a valid suggestion of brand and type.

It probably bears repeating that I believe the process of building a high-end music system starts with the loudspeaker and works its way back through the chain. If your end goal is to perfectly reproduce small chamber ensembles at the expense of massive symphonic splendor you’re likely not going to want an electronic chain that focuses on brute force.

Most of us find ourselves in the position of already having an audio system and trying to do what we can to maximize its performance. But, sometimes it’s best to think long and hard about our speakers and the choices we’ve made. Are they the right ones for what you hope to achieve? Would it be worth rethinking your choice?

Tough questions to ask and even tougher ones to answer.

Speakers are 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.

The little things

We just officially launched the new Power Plants P20, P15, and P12. These are the culmination of seven years of learning and polishing and the hard work of engineers Bob Stadtherr, Daren Myers, and Tyera Eulberg.

After fielding the inevitable barrage of questions two little things come to my attention because they both have huge implications.

First, specs. There’s really only one that changed significantly: the impedance is half that of any Power Plant ever made. That may seem inconsequential, something easy to ignore. Yet, that would be a mistake. What that spec doesn’t explain—because specs never do—is what that took to achieve and what it means. Lowering impedance in an amplifier of this caliber required us to redesign it from scratch. That’s a big deal where I come from, not because of the work involved, but because a new topology is a new amplifier and innovation floats my boat.

Boiling an entirely new design down to a single spec doesn’t tell the story. Imagine what a powerful story that is, like the efforts engineers go through doubling a car’s gas mileage, or halving the travel time in an airplane. The seemingly inconsequential number on the spec sheet does not share the grandeur of the task nor the benefits of its completion. And that’s the problem with specs and why I hate to even present them. Half the impedance is A BIG DEAL.

Second, use cases. While we understand low impedance is significant for demanding amplifiers, what about those easy-going digital products or laid back source equipment? How might they benefit? And the answer is, even more than the brutes we call amplifiers.

When we first discovered the benefits of overkill power transformers in audio equipment it was with wimpy source equipment and preamplifiers where the differences were biggest. And the same is now true with the improvements in these new Power Plants. You’ll notice improvements most with DACs, preamps, and sources than with the big amps, though obviously big amps benefit.

It’s sometimes the little things in life that matter most.

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

Adding voice to audio equipment

It’s hard to imagine cooking a fine meal without ever tasting the food, or designing a loudspeaker without listening to the final product. That sort of arms-length-design is more a crapshoot than a surefire success.

Yet, when we talk about PS Audio’s design process for electronics that spends more time on voicing than measurement, eyes roll.

I can’t think another engineered product category other than audio that makes people so nuts when it comes to design by use. We wouldn’t expect a car company to deliver a vehicle they didn’t test drive or a drug that wasn’t tried on real people. Why the guffaws and snark smiles when it comes to voicing amplifiers, CD players, and DACs?

Do we honestly believe measurements say it all? That in this one tiny piece of the universe all is known and no tasting, listening, experiencing, is necessary?

It hardly seems to make sense.