Tag Archives: speakers

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 had a pair of re-built, double stacked Quad 57 electrostatic loudspeakers for quite a while and they were fantastic sounding speakers, except for a couple of noise foibles, that I ended up not being able to get around. Nothing perfect, but the Daedalus Ulysses V2 I use now, in conjunction with the Daedalus BOW double 12″ subwoofers, come pretty darn close.

My first electrostat

Until 1976 the only speakers I had ever spent any time with were either dynamic or planar, and 90% of that listening was through dynamic speakers.

The sound of dynamic loudspeakers set the standard for reproduced music. The only hint I had of something different came in the form of a Heil Air Motion Transformer. This black box tweeter replaced a 1″ silk dome tweeter Stan and I were very much used to hearing. Here’s a picture of one.

So efficient was this tweeter that we had to slap a 1kΩ resistor in series with it just to bring it into line. The speed and openness of this folded ribbon was a revelation.

But then we received on loan a pair of Quad electrostatic loudspeakers.

Compared to our tall boxes of dynamic drivers, these quaint little panels looked anemic. They had no woofers nor tweeter. They plugged into the 120 wall sockets and they came with a warning from their owner: “don’t play them too loudly or they will catch fire”.

Stan plunked these odd-looking panels in front of our reference speaker enclosures and hooked them up. Careful not to turn the preamp up too loudly, I dropped the needle on track 2 of Joni Mitchell’s Court and SparkHelp Me began to play and Stan and I looked at each other with mouths agape.

This often played track sounded like Joni and the band was in the room. It was as if all along we had been listening through a window which now was opened for the first time. Never had I heard such clarity and transparency in the music.

This electrostatic marvel hadn’t any bass nor dynamics and we had to fight each other for a chance at the sweet spot, but man oh man it was unlike anything we had ever heard.

Louder and louder we played it until 30 minutes into the session there was a sick crackling sound, a flash of blue, and the acrid smell of something burning.

This was the first time I understood that our standards for accuracy were entirely based on subjective evaluation through a grossly imperfect means of reproduction.

My worldview had been forever changed.

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.

Fitting speakers to rooms

I get a lot of questions. Often, they start out with the room’s dimensions and then progress towards the meat of the subject. What speakers should I buy?

I am unconvinced there’s a legitimate relationship between the room and the choice of loudspeakers.

Yes, of course it’s probably not a good idea to put a 6.1 foot tall pair of Duntech Sovereigns in a closet, just like it’s perhaps not the best idea to hope that a pair of 2-way bookshelf speakers will fill an auditorium.

But within reason, speakers should not be chosen to match room dimensions.

Instead, speakers should be chosen to match expectations for the types of music you listen to. Some speakers are better at jazz and classical than rock music and metal. Others sound good on all music and great on none.

When you’re in the market for new speakers, jump right to the reviews that speak to you about music. How do potential speakers jive with the types of music you’re hoping to get right in your room?

Worrying about matching speakers to rooms is a little like stressing over which style of clothing works best in a particular suitcase.

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

Choose your color

We like to think of our stereo systems as neutral, perfect, clean, uncolored representatives of musical truth. Only, as long as we’re using loudspeakers that’s just not going to happen. Fact is, loudspeakers are the most imperfect elements in our system.

Have a look at the specs for your speakers. Even the most “accurate” among them vary by +/-3dB and many greater than that. It’s also instructive to remember that when we specify something as + and – they often add up.

The challenge with speakers is to find the ones with the colorations that best suit your equipment and your listening preferences. If you like a lean and tight sound, there’s a whole group of speaker designers that agree with you and have tailored their products to make you happy. Or, perhaps you prefer big, fat, and robust sound. Those too are available.

Most audiophiles I talk to profess to want a neutral character to their speakers but, to be honest, I am not sure exactly what that means. My guess is that neutral means the speaker’s colorations are evenly distributed without favor to any particular region.

If you’re interested in more discussion I posted a video on the subject you can watch here.

 

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 may work for some, but depends on type and size of the loudspeaker, as well as the listening room. The Red Norvo piece of music is great!

Tilt ‘er back

If you’re looking for a quick and easy fine-tuning technique, try tilting the speakers forward or backward relative to the listening position.

This is a time-honored tweak that not everyone’s familiar with, but it sure works great. The easiest way to do this is by using a CD jewel case under the front of your speaker for tilt back or under the rear of the speaker for tilt-forward. The half inch or so depth of a CD case is about perfect for a tilt change. You can use multiple cases to arrive at your final position.

What you’re doing is aiming the tweeter slightly above or below your ear—off-axis. Tilt back and above your ear will open the soundstage and offer a more airy presentation. Tilt forward and the opposite happens.

For this exercise, I like to start a well recorded multi-instrument piece like Reference Recording’s Red Norvo How’s your mother in law. As I tilt back the speaker the image gets deeper, wider, and more open, but it also loses a bit of upper harmonic energy. Heading in the opposite direction I increase the HF energy (depending on how your tweeters are now aimed) and gain more life.

Once that recording is dialed in I put on one of my favorite setup discs, Buddy Holly’s True Love’s Ways. Here I am listening for the immediacy of the voice and make my final tweaks to get it just right.

Nice to have an easy tweak we can try at home.

 

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 don’t necessarily agree, or disagree with this, but I sure don’t want to rearrange my stereo system to find out!!

Setting an example

Whenever we do an audio trade show (remember those?) we always place the stack of electronics squarely between the two speakers—perhaps the worst place when good sound is at stake.

I often feel badly about this practice. On the one hand, as a responsible manufacturer, we should be setting a proper example of how to get the most out of our high-performance audio systems. On the other hand, as someone paying the bills to get the most out of a tradeshow, we want to show off our equipment in the best light.

So take this post in the spirit it is offered. For best audio performance, you should avoid at all costs placing equipment between the speakers. Instead, place it to the side of the room like you’ve see us do in Music Room 2.

Trade shows, should they ever happen again, are one thing. Getting the best performance out of your stereo is quite another.

 

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.

On a carousel

Remember the old Hollie’s hit, On a Carousel? They were one of my favorite groups and, when Graham Nash left the Hollies to join Steven Stills and David Crosby, I was at first bummed but later fell in love with CS&N.

Being on a carousel, or as we Yanks might call it, a merry-go-round, can be frustrating. It sometimes takes a lot of energy to get off the rut we find ourselves in and make a change, but change is typically better than going round and round without forward motion.

I remember well when I was first hooked on electrostatic speakers. Man, I was on an electrostatic merry-go-round and for years no one could get me off of it. It had all started with my first listen to a pair of Quads. Holy crap! The transparency and window-like qualities of those speakers were magical. The fact they were extremely directional, had no bass, no volume, nor dynamics didn’t phase me in the least. I was hooked. If they didn’t have what I wanted, I could just go bigger.

Jim Stricker’s Acoustat electrostatic loudspeakers were my next acquisition and they solved the loudness problem because of their enormous size. Still, they had the head-in-a-vice directionality problem, no bass nor dynamics—but volume, clarity, and transparency were abundant. I even tried to add a subwoofer to these tall panels but back then, the subs were awful: slow, sluggish, and did not blend.

For me, the electrostatic merry-go-round was slowing down but it hadn’t yet stopped. After meeting Martin Logan founder, Gayle Sanders, I had to give it one more spin. Gayle’s electrostats were big, curved, and augmented with a built-in dynamic woofer. Nirvana! They could play loud, they had a bigger sweet spot, and by God, they had bass from that subwoofer. Still no dynamics. Still had to hold my head in a vice when listening, but….

Then the merry-go-round stopped and I stepped off into the magic of planars and lightning-fast dynamic woofers compliments of both Magnepan and Infinity.

I haven’t gotten back on the electrostatic carousel since. But, this isn’t a post about electrostats. It’s a post about being stuck on carousels.

If you’re stuck on a merry-go-round and everything you try doesn’t get you where you’d hope to be, consider hitting the emergency stop button and regaining your balance.

It’s better to go forward than in circles.

 

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.

Rethinking what’s normal

For all of my life, I have never thought of restaurants as anything but places you go to get served and have someone else cook your meal and wash the dishes. Simple. Normal.

Only, now I think of them very differently because I have come to realize their focus is on gathering crowds. My focus is on food and service.

With the pandemic lingering on for possibly another year or two, it’s unlikely I will consider eating in a closed space with a bunch of strangers.

What changed for me was the realization that the word “restaurant” was so ingrained in my psyche to mean one thing—food and service—that as soon as it dawned on me their model is fostering public gatherings, everything changed. It’s the food and service I am after. It’s the masses of people they want.

This brings me to the idea behind the post. In days of yore—the 70s and 80s—the norm was for people to have stereo systems. Few among us had televisions, but almost no one was without a vinyl-based stereo rig, ie. a turntable, or record player.  I mean, it was almost unthinkable, and yet not that many years later, those of us still enjoying our stereos are somehow in the minority. Weird, right?

The good news for me is that remembering back to those long-ago days when my speakers were powered with a cheesy Kenwood integrated and sourced from a rickety old AR table with a MM cartridge, I can only imagine how bad that must have sounded compared to what floats my boat today.

“Normal” is such a transitory state. It doesn’t mean that it’s right, it just means that it’s what passes for working at any given snapshot in time.

Our normal today will be odd tomorrow.

Now, let me get off the computer and go enjoy some tunes!

 

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.

Friend and foe

It’s a beautiful sunny day outside, a good day for those of us sequestered at home for an experiment. Take a small pair of bookshelf speakers and plop them down on the backyard lawn—not literally, of course, because you’re going to want to elevate them to a seated ear height. A bench, a chair, a pile of bricks will do nicely. Cables aren’t going to matter much, just run a length of zip cord or drag out that old audio receiver you loaned your kid or relegated to the closet.

The whole point of this exercise is two fold: get you out into the sun and show you just how important your room is. Outside, without benefit of the walls we so often curse, your little system is going to not only sound threadbare, but uninteresting to a fault. Our old nemesis, the room, is missing and gosh don’t we want it back.

Rooms are part of the stereo equation as much as the components that make them work. Without the walls, ceilings and floors to bounce sound and muddle up what we hear, we’d have no chance at forming a three-dimensional stereophonic image. Sure, we’d have a center channel but beyond the obvious, we’d lose depth, space, width, and the sense of being in the room with the musicians.

And that is because to feel like you are in the room with musicians you have to be in a room.

Rooms are both friend and foe, true double-edged swords we find it difficult to live with and impossible to live without.

The next time you curse a standing wave or lambast a frequency suckout, just remember our rooms are both friend and foe—a partner in our reproduction of music.

 

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.

When we visited PS Audio a few years ago, they had their Infinity IRS’s set up in a very small room. It somehow managed to image pretty well on a couple of tracks in terms of width, but not depth and otherwise didn’t sound like they probably could. I really don’t know how the IRS’s could sound, as I never hear a pair properly set up, in the right room, but this room was definitely too small for them.

I’ve owned three single family homes and each has had a dedicated music room, The first one was 12’x16′ and I used small Proac Response 2 speakers and a pair of HSU cylindrical subwoofers there. The next room was larger and I used an assortment of larger speakers and two subwoofers in that room and the current one is the largest yet, at 18’x23.5′.  Yep, beside either my own home built speakers, or my aperiodically loaded Daedalus Ulysses speakers, I use two Daedalus BOW subs there, each cabinet having two 12″ drivers, also in an aperiodically loaded cabinet, powered by a big Bryston amplifier.

Let’s get real

How many among us have true dedicated listening rooms? I’ll bet fewer than 1% of a fairly big audience. No, I think most people have their home audio systems in their shared living space. Part of the home decor, to be enjoyed by all who live in the house.

In all the many decades I’ve been building audio systems I’ve had only one dedicated listening room in my home, and frankly speaking, I would have been better off with that setup in the living room or going for a smaller system. The large bedroom I commandeered for myself wasn’t really big enough to handle the 4-piece Infinity RS1 that came into my possession after Absolute Sound Magazine’s HP first hooked me up with Arnie Nudell of Infinity. Arnie demanded I “get real” and lose the Magneplanars I had at the time for some “real” speakers. Wanting to play with the big dogs, I jumped at the chance for a pair of RS1s even though I hadn’t anywhere to put them.

The ones pictured here are just a pair I grabbed off the internet, but mine were very much the same.

Too big for a bedroom, I would have been so much happier had Terri let me take over the family’s living room. That was not to be as our fourth child was ready to enter the world and the house was barely big enough for all of us—so my first dedicated room was somewhat of a letdown for a system of this size.

The point of this post is not to whine but to suggest we’re often best served by outfitting our homes with systems that integrate well into the family living space.

Unless you’re lucky enough to have a proper dedicated listening room, you’re better off adjusting the main system to the home’s living space and enjoying music with the family.

Once I learned that lesson, life and my home music got a lot better.

 

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.