Tag Archives: Stereo

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 glass race

It’s relatively easy for our purchaser, Dan McCauley, to order the thousands of parts needed to build a PS Audio product. If you look at one of our BOMs (Bills of Materials) the list is eye-crossing long: screws, nuts, resistors, chips, insulators, feet, displays, silicon, etc., etc.

It’s hard enough to visualize all the bits and bobs that go into a stereo product, but it’s even harder to work your way back through their sourcing. Just imagine the chain of events that has to happen to make something as simple as a screw—from the mining and smelting of the ore into stainless steel to the machining and inspecting of every part, to the stocking and delivering it to us. And that’s just a screw. Imagine what it must take to produce a several million gate FPGA from the sand used to grow the silicon crystal.

It’s truly mind-boggling, though easy enough to take for granted. That complex chain has long been established and the industries that support it have been humming along for eons.

Now imagine what it must be like to be a part of the race to save our lives. The pandemic’s crush won’t fully go away until the arrival of a vaccine. And while we’re all in awe of how quickly scientists have designed one, it’s not going to do anyone any good unless it can be delivered around the world.

The supply chain.

I was fascinated by an article in the December issue of the New Yorker magazineThe race to make glass vials for the Coronavirus vaccine.

The article details one small critical step in one of the most massive undertakings in our history. Making the billions of specialized glass vials to contain the vaccine.

The vials are not off-the-shelf glass. Standard medical vials—made of borosilicate—often break as they’re filled, and just one damaged vial can ruin a batch of doses and stop a production line.

Photographer Christopher Payne details through this brilliant piece of photojournalism the rush to develop a new type of glass vial called Valor-Glass.

It’s a beautifully photographed essay and one worth your time and nerdiness to read.

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.

My wife would agree with me that our stereo/s both better than most music venues we’ve visited, but of course there is something very important missing…The performers!!!

Reproduction

We’re said to be in the business of home audio reproduction. I wonder if that’s accurate.

If we look at the definition of the word reproduction, it is to produce again. To do the same thing as we did before. Like capturing and playing back a concert as if we were there.

Here’s the funny thing about reproduction, it’s never the same. We reproduce ourselves but while similar, our progeny are hardly identical to us. We capture the sound of a concert yet we never clone the experience.

Maybe we should instead think of our challenge not as audio facsimile, but perhaps audio representation.

A recording captures only a portion of a performance. The feel, smell, emotion, temperature, and sense of being there are all missing.

We get as close as we can to being there, but let us not believe we’re in the business of reproducing exact copies of sound.

Hopefully, we can get close enough to (even for a moment) suspend disbelief.

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.

Argan oil and pumpkin

Terri’s in charge of household supplies. That’s a good thing. Were it me I’d likely just buy whatever was on sale.

As I am washing my hands I notice her latest acquisition: soap based on argan oil and pumpkin. I have no idea if these two key ingredients matter and, I suspect, neither does she. They sound pleasant enough together and it’s likely some soap engineer considered them essential.

I am reminded of our own stereo industry where catchphrase ingredients are often the driving factors in our purchasing decisions: oxygen-free copper, Teflon insulators, low ESR, thick film vs, thin film.

How many of us actually understand the relationship of buzzword features to sonic performance?

In the end, it comes down to trust. Do we trust those that spend their lives crafting our products?

Are the folks we buy from genuine?

My hands are clean, the soap’s smell is pleasant enough. Is it better than a good old bar of soap?

I haven’t seen one of those around the McGowan household in years.

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.

Quick vs. slow

Our YouTube channel has more than 120,000 subscribers and boy do they like to comment on my daily videos. Which is great because, for the most part, comments made are actually kind and encouraging. Of course, there’s the occasional commenter that gets up on the wrong side of the bed or who had the misfortune of someone farting in their breakfast cereal.

Every so often a YouTube commenter writes something far better than I am able to.

On the subject of AB testing, socksumi wrote:

“Long term listening will reveal differences that instant A-B tests miss. We don’t have perfect discernment at an instant. Especially with a signal like music that itself is changing every millisecond. Over time however differences make themselves known. We learn the sound of a component by familiarizing ourselves with it which can take awhile. It’s why an audio system can sound great in the store but after getting it home and living with it a while, colorations and distortions begin to manifest that you didn’t notice in the store.”

Not only is this correct but it belies a deeper understanding than most. It’s what I have been preaching for years.

As always, it’s tempting to make snap judgments, pointing to quick “proof” that supports your worldview.

Quick observations, like quick stereo AB testing, might be fine for a machine but not we humans.

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.

Discrimination

All stereo distortions are not created equally despite the fact we’re told we should strive to have none. For example, harmonic is less objectionable than intermodulation, but if one simply weighs overall distortion numbers without qualifications, or listing all types of distortion, knowledge of the sonic outcome can never be reached simply by these numbers.

The problem for potential high end audio purchasers relying upon distortion numbers, charts, and graphs to make their decisions is the relevance of each purity contortion and the limited numbers of listed distortion types.

And to make matters more complicated, it matters greatly how low levels of distortions are arrived at. If a designer adds enough of the right feedback to achieve astonishingly low distortion levels, how they got their matters. For example, to bring measured distortion down into the -130dB areas often requires an open-loop bandwidth so low as to severely roll of frequencies within the audible range—an act that will in itself form its own type of distortion we do pay attention to nor measure and publish (FM, SID, TIM, amplitude, phase, group delay, linear, nonlinear, etc.).

What might be helpful is for those companies interested in publishing detailed specs of their product to explain the relevance to sound quality for each type of distortion. This might help not only consumers but potentially improve designs (because it would require careful listening tests to create these published details).

All distortions are not created equally nor are very many of them paid attention to, let alone published.

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.

Almost every piece of stereo gear I’ve gotten takes some amount of break in and it’s for real.  Most of them sound good out of the box, but then change. Some happen quickly and some, like a pair of Parasound JC-1 monoblocks I had several years ago, change slowly. The Parasound’s changed until they settled in at about a months worth of use. I swear…

The break-in myth

When we take home new audio equipment it must spend time getting comfy within our system. New out-of-the-box gear can often sound tight, restricted, harsh. Over time and usage, products loosen up and become better suited to the new system. That, at least, embodies the break-in myth. fact, or fiction?

Are we the ones breaking-in or the equipment?

At face value it seems impossible an individual product can adjust its performance to have better synergy within a given system, and yet how many of us have not experienced break-in?

From an engineering perspective, we know that capacitors and dielectrics change characteristics with use. But are those changes audible? Measurable?

Too many of us have experienced the effects of break-in to ignore it or call it a myth. But, it does vary from product type to product type. For example, our newest product, the PerfectWave SACD Transport benefits little from break-in while our latest power amplifier, the M1200, demands literally weeks to sound good. These variances between products require changes to our production methods. Transports are burned in for 12 hours in an effort to weed out any potential problems while M1200s are burned in for 72 hours just so they don’t sound dreadful upon arrival.

Break-in is not a myth, but it isn’t a concrete fact for all products either.

You’ll just have to live with some variability and trust your 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.

I don’t ever forget to breathe while listening to music through my stereo , but I do know what he’s saying….

Take our breath away

It doesn’t happen often but when it does it makes everything worthwhile.

Losing your breath.

Sometimes my connection to the music is so intimate, personal, emotional, that I stop breathing for fear I might break the spell.

“It took my breath away” is more than just a saying.

When the lights are low, the family’s gone to bed, the music starts to play, we can enter the zone.

Few pleasures in life are possible with the simple touch of a button on a remote.

Hitting the sweet spot. Being in the zone. The music’s alive.

It can take your breath away.

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.

Artificial sweeteners

Coffee. I never drink it black. A practice some baristas frown upon. Like putting ketchup on a steak.

“What, you don’t like the taste of coffee?” scolded a local coffee aficionado.

Here’s the thing. I do like the taste of coffee but only when sweetened.

How’s that related to stereo? Simple. I love music and enjoy listening to it on a great system when it sounds sweet.

To suggest I don’t like music when its reproduction grates on my nerves misses the point.

We like what we like in the way it suits our personal tastes. If yours leans towards over-etched and detailed while mine borders on softer and sweeter, it doesn’t necessarily mean we like our tunes artificially anything.

Instead, I would suggest it means we’re both comfortable enough in our own shoes to know what we like and go for it.

There’s a big difference between the two.

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 purity myth

Purity is defined as freedom from adulteration or contamination. In other words, nothing from the original is changed, added, or lost.

With respect to the stereo reproduction chain, we know that to be impossible. Everything from the microphones to the loudspeakers to some degree adulterates and contaminates.

So the goal of a pure audio signal is but a myth—one with questionable value.

Try a glass of distilled water. Tasteless. Which is why most folks prefer fresh spring water or filtered tap water. It’s the small impurities that give it flavor.

Recognizing the lack of purity is inevitable. Perhaps it’s better to accept the idea that we’re leaps and bounds ahead of the problem if we instead manage it to our advantage.

The asymptotic goal of achieving sonic purity can sometimes take away more than it adds.

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?