For a while there passive preamps were all the rage. Today it’s hard to even find one. A passive preamp consists of an input selector switch and a volume control. It’s called a “passive” device because it does not plug into a power source. They don’t exist because, in general, they’re not very good.
I believe we were the first ones to introduce such a device into the marketplace. Ours was unique because you could switch it in or out. Your choice, active or passive. That feature existed because of an argument between myself and my original partner, Stan Warren. The compromise we reached set the course of preamplifiers for our company (and others) for years to follow. But compromise was something Stan struggled with. Stan was an absolute minimalist, purist at his very core. Compromise was a dirty word.
It was the mid 70′s and PS Audio had but one product: a phono preamplifier. We sold lots of those preamplifiers but perhaps “preamplifier” is a misleading term because while technically correct, it does conjure up visions of a box with controls. There were no controls on this product. Turntable in one end, interconnect to a full preamplifier, integrated or receiver on the other end. The product existed because many of the built in phono preamplifiers of that day were not the best sounding circuits. Certainly those built into receivers, integrateds and even a number of separate preamplifiers, like those from SAE and Dynaco were less than perfectionist oriented. Ours was better and demonstrably so. People bought our phono “box” to supplement their preamplifiers and the combo of a PS phono box and a preamp worked great.
It didn’t take long for PS owners to figure out if the phono stage in their preamp wasn’t so good, the rest probably wasn’t much better. People also knew that we didn’t compromise with our setup, so naturally they wanted to know what preamp we used. Truth was, we didn’t use a preamp. We had no need for a preamp. We listened to nothing but vinyl, so no need for an input selector switch. There was nothing to select. In fact, our system was so simple that we placed a single potentiometer (pot) between the output of the phono stage and the input to our power amplifier. The path was short, the interconnects unique and designed for the specific task. There really wasn’t a shorter, cleaner path possible.
But our customers weren’t happy. They wanted what we had and demanded we offer a full solution. They wanted our phono box and our volume control. They wanted to sell their preamps and have an all PS system. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize just how funky our setup was.
Time after time people would call or write letters (before the internet) and ask what our interconnects were, what our preamplifier and power amp was. They were unhappy with our accessory phono stage tacked onto their preamp which they figured could be bettered. They were right. But duplicating what we had wouldn’t be easy. Truth was, the interconnects were Stan’s “Air Cables”, the preamp was an Alps pot dangling between his Air Cables and the power amp was our own design we were playing with for fun. There wasn’t much we could tell people. What they wanted was for us to build another product. A preamplifier. I was fine with it, anxious to make another product. Stan hated the idea because it wasn’t pure and it certainly wasn’t minimalist to built yet another box when a gaggle of wires and parts, suspended in mid air, was perfect. Anything you did that wasn’t what we had was less than perfect.
If people wanted a PS preamp to go along with their phono stage, they’d have to make do with exactly what we had. No compromises, according to Stan. This meant Air Cables, no chassis and an open frame pot dangling between them, floating in mid air. Not much of a product in my eyes, so we went nowhere. That is until Stan started building this collection of wires for people and sending it to them. His idea was to convince me it was the way to go, so great these would sound, so strong the demand for this product he’d create.
Tomorrow, the Air Cable preamp.
Paul McGowan – PS Audio Intl.