Tag Archives: vacuum tubes

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.

Our son played trumpet for much of his pre-teen and early teenager years and we had two dogs that used to howl when he played. However, when they would hear recorded versions of the same material, played back on my wife’s cellphone, they would also howl. So, our experience is different than Ed’s.

The dog gets it

When HiFi Family member Ed Spilka sent me the following note I just had to smile. How many times have I heard a similar story? Too many times to count.

And here’s the thing. It’s not just about vinyl. I have heard the same stories about DSD, vacuum tubes, and even good vs. bad cables.

I am sure the measurement folks will have a field day with this one.

“I wanted to share an interesting audio experience that happened the other day.  We were visiting a friend of my wife’s in San Antonio. She was showing us around their new house when we walked into “his” room which held Wilson Alexandria speakers, D’agostino amps, Berkeley DAC’s etc. You get the idea.

When he came home he invited us into his inner sanctum and we began to play. At one point we were A/B’ing between his vinyl collection and streaming on tidal/Qobuz with Sonny Rollin’s Way Out West. On one cut it is just the drummer and Sonny. When Sonny started blowing on the vinyl version, their dog began singing along—howling like crazy. As soon as we switched to the streaming version, the dog was silent, uninterested.

My wife pointed it out to us since we were too engrossed in “listening” to notice the obvious! It happened every time we switched back and forth between vinyl and streaming. Have you experienced that before?”

As I said, this has happened to me with animal reactions more times than I can count.

We might argue like crazy, but the dogs get it.

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.


We’re all familiar with the terms amplifiers and valves. We use electronic valves like vacuum tubes and transistors to amplify audio signals. Yet, even writing those words makes me a bit nervous because I can see how they might be misunderstood.

When we talk of amplifying the input signal it sounds like we are taking a small signal and somehow boosting it. Maybe a good analogy can be found in an airport and its moving sidewalk. You’re walking along at your pace and then step onto the moving conveyor belt, boosting your speed. That’s amplifying your walking.

That’s not what’s happening in an amplifier.

In fact, the input signal never reaches the output. It does its work and then is discarded, never to be seen or heard again.

We don’t amplify the input signal in the same way a moving sidewalk amplifies our forward motion. Instead, the input signal turns a virtual valve up or down to release more or less voltage and current from the power supply. What gets passed on to our loudspeakers and headphones is not the input signal, but voltage and current straight from the power supply.

It’s more than semantics.

Our input signals are but instigators.

Once they do their work they are gone forever.

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.

Walking backwards

The many forms of protection like limiters, fuses, clamps, compressors, and crowbars all have something in common. They don’t make things better. They make sure things don’t get worse.

Very different than a technology that moves the progress bar forward.

Which is why it can be confusing when we read about the amazing improvements wrought by protection devices like a multi-hundred dollar beeswax and honeyed fuse. Confusing because we’re tempted to believe the object is moving the progress bar forward when in reality, it’s just doing less damage.


Perhaps. This line of reasoning is a slippery slope. The difference between sonic improvements achieved through removing obstacles is dangerously close to what we think of as pure forward motion. String together enough removed obstacles and at the end of the chain something new emerges.

The difference I suspect has to do with time. The larger the gap between discovery, solution, innovation, and progress the more it feels like forward motion than tweaks to the stereo system.

Big leaps in progress seem obvious: vacuum tubes vs. transistors, gyrators vs. RCLs, mono vs. stereo, etc. These seem less like examples of removing barriers than pushing forward the envelope of technology.

So where does one draw the line between forward progress and removing layers of cruft?

Hard to say.

It is clear to me protective devices like fuses don’t move us forward any more than the pandemic’s emblematic icon, facial masks do. They protect but don’t improve.

Yet, it’s equally clear to me that we move forward faster when we don’t walk backwards.

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.

Cross breeding

Purity is appreciated when it comes to purpose, water, and immorality. It’s not so great when it comes to a power amplifier’s architecture, where hybrids rule.

For many years, amplifier manufacturers were determined to keep their designs pure: 100% solid-state, all vacuum tubes, nothing but FETs, class D from input to output. Over time we’ve come to grips with why this commitment to design purity is not such a great idea.

Power amplifiers are misnamed and therein lies the problem.

On the surface, they seem simple enough: little signal in, big and powerful signal out.

What’s missing is the recognition that inside a power amplifier we have two completely distinct systems each with very different amplification duties: voltage and power.

The input voltage gain stage takes a small voltage and amplifies it into a big voltage. From beginning to end there is only voltage and no power. If you were to take the output of a power amplifier’s first stage and attempt to drive a loudspeaker you’d be met with silence.

To produce watts we need the second system, the actual power amplifier (where it got its name).

The fact that each of these two stereo systems has such very different functions should be clue enough to understand why a purebred power amplifier’s a bad idea.

The smart designer recognizes the difference between the two systems and applies the best technologies for the job: vacuum tubes and FETs are much better at delivering voltage while bipolars, power MOSFETS, and Class D stages are best at delivering power.

Purity benefits us most when we apply it to where it matters.

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.

Audio sensitivities

Even as a kid I never bought the premise behind Hans Christian Anderson’s story, The Princess, and the Pea. Just a bit too far fetched for my young engineering brain to believe that anyone could feel a pea under multiple mattresses.

Fairy tales aside, it is a fact that we are all different when it comes to our audio sensitivities. I might be more sensitive than many to sound staging while someone else really focuses on tonality.

We make choices in equipment and set up based on those differing sensitivities: cables that bring out more details, vacuum tubes that warm and soften, subwoofers that build a solid foundation.

Our systems are all different, just like our tastes and sensitivities.

Few of us could likely tell if there were a pea under the cushion of our listening chair, but if our stereo system’s sound is even slightly amiss we know it instantly.

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.


One of the most important secret weapons available to the high-performance stereo equipment designer is the Field Effect Transistor, better known as the FET.

Originally envisioned by Austrian physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld in 1925 and then again by Oskar Heil in 1934—yes THAT Oscar Heil, the inventor of what is still to this day one of the best tweeters ever made, the Heil Air Motion Transformer—it was little more than a pipe dream because they couldn’t get it to work. It wouldn’t be until another decade later when, in the course of trying to understand their failure to build a working FET, Bell Lab’s scientists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley would instead build a point-contact transistor in 1947, followed by the bipolar junction transistor (BJT) in 1948. It would take another decade of work to produce the first practical FETs, and another decade after that to enter the general marketplace.

The fundamental difference between a BJT and a FET is that BJTs are at their inputs excited into operation by current while FETs rely upon voltage. This fundamental difference—current vs. voltage—is what has such a profound effect on sound quality differences between the two structures. A FET is more closely related to another voltage amplifying device, the vacuum tube.

So it should be no surprise to find that FETs sound remarkably closer to vacuum tubes than do BJTs.

Great food, like great power amplifiers, depend on the quality and nature of their ingredients.

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 Feeding Lens

Not many people knowingly continue down the wrong path. Whatever path we’re on, whatever our current mindset might be, we believe it’s the right one.

As we move down the road we seek out positive affirmations of how correct our path is. We shield ourselves from distractions that cause us to veer off course. If it’s working…..

I think of this tendency to selectively feed ourselves a continual diet of positive reinforcement supporting our internal narrative as a Feeding Lens. In some cases, we get so stuffed with the proof-positive that our narrative—the story we tell ourselves—is right that we close the door on fresh thoughts and new information (unless it’s focused through this Feeding Lens).

One extreme example of this behavior is the Sea Squirt or Trunicate: little funnel-shaped organisms living in shallow ocean tide pools that feed off plankton. After birth, they hook themselves onto a rock or plant life and then do not move again—straining water through their body all day to feed off any microorganisms that happen to pass through. Here’s the thing with Sea Squirts. Once they’ve hooked on to where they will spend the rest of their life, they eat their brains to eliminate their ability to move.

Sea Squirts are an extreme example of the Feeding Lens but serve to make an interesting point. No matter how convinced you or I might be that we’re right regarding our stereos, it behooves us to be open to other thoughts and ideas. Audio cables matter. Cables don’t matter. Vacuum tubes vs. solid state. Science vs. subjectivism.

The more we can open the door for other thoughts the greater our knowledge and the richer our lives.

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.

Turned up noses

Audiophiles. We’re nothing if not opinionated. And that’s great because opinions equate to passionate and it’s passion that floats my boat.

Where I draw the line is when we’re scornful of others—when we turn our noses up at those that value audio sound quality over musical performance, hardware lust vs. musical yearning, vacuum tubes vs. solid-state, or digital vs. vinyl.

It takes all kinds to make our community and I would just like to celebrate our diversity and differences rather than wag my finger in the faces of those who disagree.

In fact, the worst thing ever would be for folks to agree with us on all counts.

If we want to turn up our noses, let’s reserve that for those with low levels of tolerance and kindness for others.


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.


Serendipity means the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. I love this word because for those open to change, grabbing hold of chance encounters is often the key to success.

I remember back to the earliest days of PS Audio as Stan and I labored to build a phono stage as good as the Audio Research SP3. The obvious first step would be to dissect what they had done, figure out what made their design better, then apply that knowledge to our own version. Which is exactly what we did, only we couldn’t get passed third base. Determined as we were not to use vacuum tubes, we ran into hurdle after hurdle duplicating their design of a feedback-based RIAA curve that didn’t overload on the high output phono cartridges of the day. When finally we realized it was the vacuum tube’s high voltage that made their design possible, we were faced with a decision: abandon our path, do what they did, or chart an entirely new course.

With our meager funds nearly exhausted, we chose to stick to our guns and figured out a plan B—one born of necessity on the chance that there must be another way. Turns out there was—a passive approach to the RIAA using two gain stages—a novel, better sounding approach we would never have thought of without the serendipitous problems we couldn’t overcome.

Had we doggedly stuck to our original goal of doing what they do only differently, we would never have gotten our fledgling company off the ground, and would not have helped popularize the passive RIAA curve so many designers rely upon.

Chance favors those open to change.