Tag Archives: digital 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.

Great one from Paul.

Engine timing!! I set the timing on my car too, but like Paul, 40 years ago. Now, other than doing routine maintenance on our cars, I’d have no idea how to fix anything under their hoods.

Crossing the chasm

My father’s father, Claude, would probably find our modern technological wonders magic. Or unbelievable.

Imagine getting in a time machine and over coffee explaining to him that we can talk with anyone anywhere in the world. That within a matter of hours we can be transported in luxury anywhere in the world. That the entire knowledge base of humanity is available at the touch of a button. And let’s not forget our ability to watch any movie or listen to any music by just asking a robot.

He would likely just smile and think me a nutjob.

But, here’s the thing. I could probably manage to help him understand many of the basics including a turntable-based stereo  system. It’s not that far-fetched to show the principles behind the technology. A string and two cans would be a great help.

Now imagine explaining how digital audio works. Try to make sense of an optical disc and a pulsating laser to a person who just saw their first automobile.

Between the electro-mechanical era where inventors like Edison and Tesla could convert physical objects like horns, wires, wax, and needles into miracles, and the age of digital electronics spans a chasm so deep and wide as to be either magic or witchcraft.

In fact, do you think you could explain to someone with zero knowledge of electronics or science how music is stored and retrieved from an optical disc or a solid-state memory?

I would wager to say that when we crossed the deep divide between the electro-mechanical age and were thrust headfirst into manipulating electrons that we lost our grip on the ability to manipulate our own world. It wasn’t that many years ago I could set the timing on my car. Now my car has no timing to set.

It feels a bit humbling to have crossed the greatest chasm of humankind.

I am happy to be here. What a ride!

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

Putting the crutches away

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of requiring crutches you’ll know they can be addictive. Once you rely upon a crutch it’s a bit of an ordeal to put them away and trust again your freestanding abilities.

I remember the first time I read about musician Mark Knopfler’s first foray into digital audio. So “digital” sounding was Brothers in Arms that he ran and reran the output of the recording studio DAC through analog processors until the digititis was expunged.

That was a pretty big crutch.

Today, recording engineers have settled into the use of crutches never contemplated back in the days of analog recording. Practices like ultra-warm microphones, digital sweeteners, warming compressors, and spot EQ (to remove harshness), are used as a standard operating procedure to make up for digital’s “sound”.

Which means, of course, that an entire generation or two of recording engineers and musicians have gotten used to the idea that this is just the way you do it. They don’t know why or the history of how this developed.

It’s just the way you do it.

One of the challenges we at Octave Records face is the unwinding of all these built-in biases. With the rare technology of 4X DSD as our recording medium, we don’t have limitations imposed upon us. The recording process is finally free of a “sound”.

It’s not analog. It’s certainly not digital.

Now we can focus on choosing microphones, preamps, cables, and monitors based solely on their sonic merits.

We can now put the crutches away and learn how to walk again.

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 have stories, but in the world of high end audio, there are lots of them and probably more interesting than mine.

Magnetic symmetry

There was a time before digital audio came onto the field where we had magnetic symmetry.

Our sources—both vinyl and tape—were magnetically coupled, while our playback too was driven by the power of magnetic motors in our speakers.

Magnets in and magnets out.

No physical connections between ins and outs.

All coupled through magnetism.

Today, of course, we’ve managed to eliminate the magnetic isolation (many would call distortion) of our sources.

All that is left is our magnetically coupled motors that move the air so we can hear sound (and even electrostats eliminated that).

On the source side, one could have argued that bits are magnetically stored first on floppy discs and later on hard drives but, alas, it’s almost all solid-state now.

I am pretty certain none of this actually matters. Not at the level of technical excellence most of us have arrived at.

I did find the idea of how everything we listened to was magnetically coupled intriguing (if not totally nerdy).

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.

Paul’s confused.

One way street

If you freeze bread and then toast it, the results are marvelous. Crunchy on the outside and soft and pliable on the inside. Try reversing the process and the results are more than disappointing.

I wish I understood more about one-way streets. Why some things work best in one direction but not in another.

Make a side-by-side recording using a digital recorder and a vinyl LP cutting lathe.  It doesn’t take a pair of golden ears to hear the digital audio capture sounds nothing like the vinyl.

Yet, we can make near-perfect digital captures of vinyl records.

I have long suspected that this one-way effect is due to digital audio’s greater resolution and dynamic range capabilities than those of vinyl. It’s easy enough to put a pint of water into a gallon bucket, but the opposite doesn’t work.

What’s troubling to me is that as we move Octave Record releases into the realm of vinyl, we find that the one-way street argument falls a bit short. Direct vinyl masters from the DSD masters seem to sound more dynamic and musical than the original DSD files.

This has me scratching my head.

The sound of vinyl may remain an unsolved mystery that in my lifetime never gets resolved.

It’s a one way street to confusion.

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.

Grails, holy and hopeful

One of the more famous literary motifs is the idea of the Holy Grail, a metaphorical vessel with miraculous powers providing happiness, eternal youth or sustenance in infinite abundance.

Grails, both holy and hopeful, can apply to any number of aspirational audio goals. For me, that grail is to be found in digital audio.

We’ve long known that digits are digits and thus can be endlessly replicated without loss. That said, we’ve also known that digital delivery and processing are prone to differences that are most audible.

The Grail would, for me, be to design a series of digital audio devices that are agnostic to the storage, transmission, and processing of bits. That no matter how one gets those bits delivered and processed, the audible results would be the same.

We are a long way away from drinking from that grail vessel, though with PS Audio’s recent innovations of galvanically isolating inputs and CPUs from the digital outputs we’re more than one step closer.

Grails, both holy and hopeful are what keep most of us in research and development going.

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

Nyquist

Swedish electronic engineer Harry Nyquist figured something interesting out. If you want to capture sound using digital audio conversion, you need to sample at twice the frequency you hope to preserve.

Thus, if your goal is to capture without loss frequencies as high as 20kHz, you need to build a stereo system that gathers twice that frequency—40kHz. Add to that requirement the fact such a system gets wigged out if you feed it frequencies higher than the maximum sample rate, one is required to make sure a steep filter is applied before conversion from analog to digital.

Which is how we wound up with CD’s sampling rate of 44.1kHz. We need the 40kHz part to keep Harry Nyquist happy, and the extra 4kHz bit to keep engineers tasked with building a brick wall filter from jumping out of windows.

But here’s the thing. If Nyquist was correct (and he was) that we can capture with perfection half the frequency of our sample rate, why do we need higher sample rates?

After all, we can’t hear anything above 20kHz (and most of us can’t hear that high).

The answer lies not with Mr. Nyquist, but instead with the challenge of steep low pass filters. As my friend Robb Hendrickson puts it: “Whether you’re recording at 44.1 or 48kHz, you are LITERALLY applying a low-pass filter to NATURE!!!”

Indeed, it’s not the lack of 20kHz (because there is no lack of it), but the effects of filtering we hear.

If we need to apply a low pass filter to nature, it had best be really, really, high. Like 100kHz to 200kHz.

Harry gave us only half an answer. The other half is figured out by our ears.

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 technical, but I can tell you that if you pay proper attention to galvanic isolation in D/A digital to analog circuits, you will have less noise, better resolution and a better sounding stereo.

PS Audio is seemingly just discoverint this, but my T+A DAC 8 DSD is galvanically isolated and sounds incredible!!

Galvanic isolation

As we talk more of the virtues of galvanic isolation in digital audio, perhaps it’s of value to take a moment out of our busy day to understand just what that means.

The term galvanic refers to a galvanic cell, named after its inventor, Luigi Galvani. The Galvanic Cell is technically described with a mumbo jumbo of words: “an electrochemical cell that derives electrical energy from spontaneous redox reactions taking place within the cell.”

More simply stated, it’s a battery.

This can be confusing because when we refer to galvanic isolation we’re not talking of batteries, but rather we’re referring to electrical isolation. A battery operated flashlight can be said to be electrically isolated, but so too could we suggest a battery operated DAC is electrically isolated, yet we’d be incorrect unless that DAC’s inputs and outputs are connected via optical cables.

And it is to this last point that we get to the heart of the matter.

To be galvanically isolated there can be neither physical connection nor direct electrical current involved. Even our old friend ground must not touch. In this way, whatever happens on one side theoretically shouldn’t be mirrored on the other side of the circuit.

The methods of achieving such isolation are to connect via non-physical means such as magnetic fields or light—hence the use of isolation transformers and optocouplers.

None of this is easy to digest, but at least we can try and gain a little understanding.

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 morning, I learned that my favorite Hi-Fi writer ever, from Stereophile Magazine, Art Dudley, passed away on April 14th of this year.

I had no clue Art was sick and this came as a shock to me, as well as just plain sad. He wasn’t that old, in his early to mid 60’s,  and always looked healthy and robust in the pictures and videos of him, I was able to see. Truly, life is fragile and this has hit home for me.

Art loved Single Ended Triode amps and tube preamplifiers, which I’ve owned many of in the past and one of his favorite pair of loudspeakers is an old high efficiency Altec design from 1966, called the Flamenco, similar to one of the speakers I own and use now. I say “similar to”, because the driver I use, the Altec 604, has been brought back to life by Great Plains Audio, so while mine is a copy and my cabinet is a one of a kind thing I designed and had someone build, the driver does use original Altec tooling, so an Altec driver. Art would probably disagree and I wish I could have had that conversation with him.

He used old vintage Garrard and Thorens turntables that he re-conditioned himself and digital audio was pretty much an afterthought for him. I don’t think he thought digital was listenable enough for him to enjoy. He also didn’t sweat room acoustics and audio tweaks. Probably better off that way. He was also an accomplished guitar player.

I was hoping to go to the 2020 Axpona show, where he would have been and meet and talk to him for a couple of minutes. Maybe have a discussion about that Altec driver. I’m truly sorry I won’t ever be able to now.

Anyway,  Art was an opinionated writer, but could put sound into words, like no other writer I’ve ever read.  I can tell from things he wrote about and things I read about him that he was a good husband, father, animal owner and human being. I just watched a video of him from 2017 describing his system in great detail, his thoughts on stereo equipment and at the end, he is driving somewhere and sees a turtle in the road. He pulled his car over, took out his floor mat and pushed the turtle to the other side of the road. Only a good person would do this and I will miss him.

Our thoughts go out to his wife and daughter and all his friends and co-workers  that were able to interact with him often. I regret never meeting him in person, although I felt I knew much about him from his writings. He will be missed by many.

 

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.

Becoming a statistic

We’re all a statistic somewhere: a number, one of many that someone, somewhere, keeps track of. Maybe you’re one of X thousand digital audio subscribers, or perhaps you’re among the few that only purchase vinyl, but somewhere you’re showing up as a statistic.

Most of us wish to belong to a group, family, or collection of like minded people. There’s strength in numbers and our decisions to move in one direction or another are validated by the others.

What’s interesting to me is the conflict between how I feel inside vs. my needs to be part of a group. Inside, I am an individual—a separate entity unto myself. No one knows what’s inside my head nor how I am thinking. I believe I am unique in the universe. Yet, on more than a few levels, I qualify as a measurable statistic. A predictable entity. Regardless of the clutter of seemingly unique motivations in my head, someone, somewhere can pretty accurately guess what my next moves are going to be.

Even if I decide I don’t want to identify as part of a group I remain a predictable statistic: I am part of a group that doesn’t want to be part of a group.

I know. All this keeping track of people seems kind of creepy, right?

If belonging to a family or group of likeminded people—our tribe—is what makes us stronger and more resourceful than what we alone can achieve, then what’s creepy about keeping track of the members? It’s how we know there is more than just one in the tribe.

I for one am fine with being counted amongst my fellow audiophiles and music lovers, even if it means someone else can predict what the future might look like.

 

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.

Even guys like Paul can be audio flakes. How many times do we get gobsmacked by something in our audio system, like a tweak, to forgetting about it the next day, or figure out that it’s even not as good as before? Has happened to us all, plus he has a phono stage to sell and I don’t begrudge him for that.

The problem with exuberance

As I waxed enthusiastically about my vinyl LP experience shared in yesterday’s post, it never occurred to me I might have been divisive. That readers not included in the event might feel slighted or worried I was now suggesting a major shift in my long held views on DSD and digital audio, that vinyl’s superior to digital (I am not).

And that’s the problem with exuberance. The energy and excitement of the moment are at the exclusion of the bigger picture.

I suppose there will always be a downside to emotional reporting, which is likely why people like the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board speak in such muted tones using carefully groomed words. One hint of excitement or disappointment in any one direction could send financial markets soaring or plunging.

Ours is an emotion-packed field. We work hard at coaxing out buried nuance and exposing our souls to the joys of home reproduction in the hopes of eliciting excitement—even exuberance.

Putting a damper on the excitement meter is not in the cards for me.

Now, where’s that grain of salt?