Tag Archives: preamplifier

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 use vintage Urei 539 EQ’s, which are all analog and they sound great. So, while I get what Paul is saying, there are exceptions, like the Urei 539!

Conflating D and A

In yesterday’s post on tone controls, there were a number of comments about the use of DSP, yet few about the differences between analog and digital controls.

There is no question that if one is happy staying entirely in the digital domain, DSP EQ and correction is a near-perfect solution. We can design extensive tone controls that have zero phase shift and are sonically neutral.

The same cannot be said for analog. And therein lies the rub.

If you’re going to add tone or EQ controls to an analog preamplifier you are going to suffer added circuitry, phase shift, and sonic degradation. That’s just the cost of doing business in the analog domain.

As a manufacturer, we have to be sensitive to all our customer’s needs. We can’t, for example, produce an honest analog-based preamplifier with DSP for EQ. To do that would require the analog signal to first be converted to digital and then back into analog.

Which is why blanket statements about EQ and tone controls are difficult. We first need to set the ground rules of the playground before making blanket statements.

Just sayin’.

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

AC receptacles

For those of us with long memories here’s a flashback. Remember when preamps sported rear-mounted AC receptacles to power the rest of the stereo system?

The first memory I have of the rear-mounted AC receptacle was on my father’s McIntosh C28 preamplifier.

Note the use of switched and unswitched outlets. The idea was that unswitched outlets were for the power amp and switched outlets for tuners and tape decks.

What a grand idea. Run your entire stereo system including your power amplifier through a skinny 16-gauge 2-wire zip cord.

What was it Red Fox used to put his hands up towards the heavens and cry out?

“Elizabeth! They’re coming for me.”

Some innovations are better left in history’s dustbin.

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.

Moving forward

When Stereophile Magazine awarded Stellar Phono its coveted Analog Product of the Year award we were, of course, ecstatic. What an honor.

That award got me thinking about the near-impossible job of a phono preamplifier: to amplify without noise a tiny signal 30,000 to 50,000 times smaller than what comes out of your preamplifier.

I remember from 40 years ago my struggles to design without noise PS Audio’s first moving coil preamplifier. It felt impossible. How does one add, without additional noise, 30dB of gain in front of an already high gain moving magnet phono stage? Everything I tried came with unacceptable levels of noise. I searched, I studied, I consulted with experts. At the time, the general consensus was it couldn’t be done and we should instead do what everyone else was doing: use a step up transformer.

I own up to being a stubborn mule. Dammit! I was going to figure out an active solution and so I continued to slug it out with various schemes. Finally, after a year of constant failure, I succeeded. Low impedances and a single common base BJT amplifier were the answer.

One of the industry’s very first active moving coil amplifiers, the PS Audio MCA, was born.

That was four decades ago. Today, innovative bright young engineers like Darren Myers are blazing trails I couldn’t have imagined.

Progress. Breaking new ground. Moving forward. It’s what gets me up in the morning.

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.

The evolution of a preamp

Evolution is impossible for anyone to wrap their heads around. Like trying to visualize a billion, or a trillion of anything, our minds are simply incapable of “seeing” this level of complexity. When the numbers get too big, we lump them into groups.

I can remember trying to wrap my head around the complexity of life. It seems impossible we could have started as single-celled critters, yet we see the evidence of how it works all around us. The fact we cannot imagine something doesn’t mean it cannot be true.

Take something simpler, like a high end audio preamplifier. I have designed many so it’s easy for me to imagine starting from nothing and evolving it into a working piece. Only, I don’t start with nothing. I start with a handful of highly evolved parts: wires, resistors, semiconductors, capacitors. Dig deeper. The idea of a capacitor dates back to 1745 when Ewald Georg von Kleist found that charge could be stored by connecting a high-voltage electrostatic generator by a wire to a volume of water in a hand-held glass jar.

You see where this is going. What’s the history of electrostatic generators? Wire. Or, for that matter, glass jars? Or even as far back as the language needed to communicate the ideas. I won’t bother detailing the long thread of what it took for John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain to leverage the work of others to group together enough ideas to invent the transistor.

It is technically possible to drill down far enough to where we get to the beginnings of something but I imagine the numbers and time needed to do that are too big for us to grasp as anything but a group, lump, or concept.

Our brains are incapable of seeing or understanding complex models over a certain size. It’s one of our limitations.

Which is why we accept—have to accept—lumps of understanding in order to function in the physical world. I accept the lump conclusion that a transistor is an electrical valve where a small current manages a big current.

I accept the lump conclusion that one collection of parts sounds better than another.

The fact I cannot break it down into debatable bits does not mean the collection of bits isn’t true.

 

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.

Good article explaining phono stages. I’m writing the next one about the audio business!!

Perilous journey

Imagine the tiny signal coming out of a moving coil phono cartridge: 30,000 to 50,000 times smaller than what comes out of your preamplifier. It has come a very long way and through much amplification to become that much bigger. Like a weary long-distance traveler who struggles to stay intact along the way, its journey is a difficult one with detours, traps, pitfalls and dangers aplenty. But sometimes a designer is so adept at navigating the perilous journey that what comes out the other end shines.

The trick to making a successful phono preamplifier that honors and preserves this tiny signal is two-fold: make sure the vanishingly low output from the cartridge is perfectly preserved, then keep the progressively louder signals away from any limiting agents.

The first challenge is often the most difficult. Interfacing with and amplifying without adding noise can often be more art than textbook solvable. For example, most phono preamplifiers use bipolar transistors to interface with the cartridge because they are low noise and easy to work with. Unfortunately, bipolars and their non-linear diode inputs are not the best at working with tiny signals like those coming from moving coil cartridges. A pure voltage device, like a FET or a tube, is a better choice, yet getting these devices to be low noise can be a challenge. In the new Stellar Phono, engineer Darren Myers solved this problem by lining up multiple FETs in parallel. Each added device reduces noise. The greater the number, the lower the noise.

If one manages to get the tiny signal through the input it’s off to the races, though not without challenge. As the signal grows exponentially larger, it begins to approach the power supply limitations of the circuit. When this happens, linearity suffers—which is why Darren uses high voltage throughout Stellar.

It’s often tempting to just meet spec and call it a day, but then you probably won’t get Stereophile’s Michael Fremer to write: “The midrange on this phono preamp is as open, uncongested, transparent, and revealing as that of any phono preamp I’ve heard at any price.”

It’s a rare treat when a designer maps with care the perilous journey of a signal, then clears a free path for it to arrive at the other end unscathed.

 

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.

Feels wrong

I remember how proud I was upon learning the trick of screwing a stubborn lid onto a jar. Though it feels wrong, my father counseled, you first unscrew the lid until the threads are aligned, then turn the opposite direction and tighten ‘er down.

There’s plenty we do that’s seemingly incorrect to get things right: increasing the length of the audio chain with a preamplifier to improve sound quality. Or adding another speaker cable in parallel with an existing one to get tonality in line. Or powering small speakers with big amplifiers so as not to limit dynamics.

Doing what feels wrong to get things right is the inflection point where experience trumps intuition.

When we know enough to pull ourselves out of the rigors of standard practices and leap into the chaotic, we can confidently say we’ve arrived. And that’s a great feeling in whatever endeavor we hope to succeed at.

The circle of experience and knowledge is actually a spiral that is never in the same place at the same time, yet repeats itself in slightly different form as we each share what knowledge and wisdom we’ve accumulated over the years.

It made me feel good when years later I was able to return my father’s lesson. As I watched his face scrunch up as he tried in vain to open a stuck jar lid, I shared my own experience. I turned the jar upside down and demonstrated how a stuck lid needs only a couple of sharp bangs on the countertop to free itself for the turning.

As audiophiles, we have knowledge about music and its reproduction that not many others do. If we can share that wisdom and experience, we lift up those around us.

Just as music was always intended to be shared, so it is with our knowledge. It might feel wrong to speak up in the presence of bad sound, but I’d lean in the opposite direction.

There are few gifts better shared than properly reproduced music and the knowledge required to achieve it in our homes.

 

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.

Full size

There was a time in PS Audio’s history where we only made little boxes.

Our first product, the phono preamplifier, was about half the size of a pack of English muffins. We followed that with something closer to the traditional 19″ rack mount stereo equipment of yore, only ours were half sized.

Our very first full size 19″ rack mount product was a preamplifier called the PS IV. It heralded a major departure from small and cute boxes. It was an immediate best seller and before we knew it, we’d built our first 1,000 of them (a new landmark for the company at that time).

On the day we rolled out the first of the PS IVs, sometime in 1979, we decided to celebrate with a pizza party for the crew.

As lovers of new we didn’t want just any pizza, but only the latest in pies. That meant Chuck E. Cheese.

The pizza chain Chuck E. Cheese was started in 1977 by video game company Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell. Atari was famous for Pong, among others, and Bushnell was an innovator. For all I know he might have been an audiophile.

We greased a few palms and guess who showed up at our door to launch the PS IV preamplifier.

 

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.

Withdrawals

I swear music is addictive. If I go more than a few days without my dose I am unhappy. Jittery. Argumentative.

And music in the car, or what passes as background music in my home, soothes the withdrawal symptoms but does not give me the fix I need.

My true drug of choice is found in Music Room Two and the IRSV. I press the standby button on the BHK preamplifier. Ten seconds later there’s the satisfying click of the BHK Monoblock amplifiers turning on at the behest of the trigger voltage. Another 10 seconds later and my spirits rise as the IRS servo woofers thump into life. And then all is right. The air in the room feels different. Perhaps it’s the slight rush of noise from the servo woofers. Hard to say. Easy to feel.

I am listening to Gus Skinnas’ latest mix of Jessica Carson’s masterpieces. There’s that opening sound of the room just before she plays the first notes on the piano. Maybe its the air conditioning system in the studio, or the slight shuffling of her feet finding the piano pedals. I am transported into the music and we are one.

I don’t need more for a day or two before withdrawals set in and the pattern repeats.

My drug of choice.

 

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.

Shiver me timbers

Perhaps the greatest compliment a piece of audio equipment can get is a shiver down a spine—exactly what Calord experienced on his first listen to the new Steller Phono Preamplifier.

Read all his comments here.

You’d think designers would get most excited when the magazines launch a great review, or when an official set of measurements shows off the kit’s prowess, or when industry-recognized pundits proclaim it a hit. And, designers do. But not like when a first time user gets shivers down their spine.

I cannot think of a greater compliment than to have a piece of gear reach deep into a person’s soul and connect them with their music.

What a truly magical moment.