Hogwash

Have you ever noticed that if you have an opinion about something it can easily be dismissed or agreed upon as soon as you know there’s a term or explanation for it?

For example I used to reject as distasteful olive oils that were so spicy they burned the back of my throat until I learned that the best olive oils in the world should burn the back of your throat and that without this burn they are neither extra virgin nor as healthful for you. Now that there’s a label (true extra virgin olive oil) and an explanation I can then choose to either change my opinion or reject the notion as hogwash. In this case, by the way, I changed my opinion.

This subject recently came up when I was complaining to a friend of mine that many of the older operatic divas ruined the music for me with the use of too much vibrato and an over-affectation of their voice at the beginning of a phrase that sometimes reminds me of my grandmother. I can hear that this is an added affection because when they sing duets the technique goes away and they’re beautiful again.

My friend dismissed my dislike for the singing as “the style” of the day and therefore it should be appreciated for what it was.

Hogwash.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Chicago Symphony in our homes?

To my post yesterday one of my readers posted a comment that was so well written and so to the point I just had to share with the rest of you.

“If I were wealthy enough, I would hire the Chicago Symphony to be my personal musicians, and, if I could, I would bring back George Solti and Carlo Maria Giulini to conduct, and while I was at it, I would take Adolf Herseth back 20 years (I have some recordings that kind of do that!). But then to make it real I should also hire some lady with a sinus problem to sit behind me, an old guy to snore next to me, and a young couple to sit in front so that the young gentleman can try to impress the young beauty by telling her what is coming up next at every transition.

A real plus for recorded music is that we get to pick the time and material. Sometimes I am at a concert of Mahler’s 2nd, 3rd, or 8th, and I don’t have the attention span or concentration to get into the music, no matter how well performed. On the other hand, sometimes at 10:27 am on a Saturday Mahler would be well received by my nervous system, but if not, maybe some Coltrane, Dire Straits or Willie Nelson would be. If so I am only a few clicks or a vinyl prep ritual away from a “close to the real thing” event that I can control.

I won’t have the lady with the sinus problem behind me, however.”

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

I was just thinking

I was thinking about some of your comments about your systems: many of you mentioned that your systems were good enough to reproduce well recorded music as if it were live.

I am with you. I too have had moments with my system that I could believe the music was real enough to touch – but I was always aware I wan’t actually there with the music.

I have never felt that I was actually IN the room it was recorded in and that, my friends, is a huge difference between listening to something that “sounds live” to actually being in the room or the venue where it was recorded.

Without changing the room to become an active element in the chain there’s never going to be hope for that.

How cool would it be if it were possible, as I imagined in prior posts, to make the room active and a part of the presentation? How cool would it be to have the info of the recorded space attached to every recording and the active room reprogrammed to fit each time?

How cool would that be?

Paul McGowan – PS Audio Intl.

Trumpets

After writing yesterday’s post about perfection I was looking for an example to share with you and then it hit me: Al Hirt vs. Louis Prima.

When I was growing up my father, Don, and I were both trumpet players. Well, actually my father was and I sucked – or blew – whatever the case. As a young and struggling trumpet player I always admired Al Hirt and had many of his albums. Al was a master technician and could really play the horn unlike anyone I had ever heard. He was my hero and I aspired to play like Al. My father hated him.

Instead, he loved Louis Prima and for the life of me I could never figure out why. Al played faster, hit the notes perfectly and in general made Louis Prima sound like a third string trumpet player (like me).

My father tried to teach me that Louis played with soul and the mistakes he made were part of that soul and Al played perfectly from sheet music. According to my father Louis was brilliant and Al was boring and it took me years to understand what he meant – especially the part about making mistakes.

At the time my family lived in California and I remember my parents were excited to have the chance to drive all the way to Las Vegas Nevada and watch Louis Prima, Keely Smith with Sam Butera and the Witnesses play at the Sahara hotel – something they just never did. What really stunned me was that Al Hirt was also playing live in Vegas at the same time. I felt let down that they could make the trip to watch this third string player rather than watch my A player.

Years later I understand and have always regretted the lost opportunity to watch one of the best trumpet players, singers and bands ever in the history of modern music – fortunately all is not lost for me as my parents happened to have been in the audience when they recorded the event live and it’s available to listen to today.

Al was perfect and boring while Louis played and sang as if his soul was on fire.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

The thing about perfect

Perfection is an interesting concept and sometimes it serves us and sometimes it doesn’t.

For example when a musician spends their life perfecting their craft to be able to play the music perfectly with note-to-note accuracy it is mostly boring and without soul.

But then there are those musicians who treat the perfection of their instrument as merely a stepping stone to the next level where they then have the skill to play from their soul with the notes nothing more than a guideline – and then it gets magical – mistakes and all.

Perfecting your craft so you can duplicate perfectly what’s been done before isn’t all that interesting.

Perfecting your craft so you’re good enough to transcend the work and create something brilliant is something beyond perfection.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio Intl.

Bring water to horses

Yesterday I modeled what would happen if you moved a perfect reproduction of a live venue to your home. It wouldn’t sound live because of the change of venue. We are quite capable of acoustically defining the space we’re in and it’s hard to fool us.

I remember once I visited an anechoic chamber and it was an eery experience to say the least. When the door to the chamber closed it felt as if all the life had been sucked out of the room. When I closed my eyes, not only could I not tell what size the room was but all I could hear was the blood pumping in my ears. For all I knew the room could have been the size of a football field. This is about the worst situation you could have for a live group or a stereo system because there are no reflections and we depend on those reflections as audible cues. Yet, this chamber changes the apparent size of the room we’re in and is a key to solving our puzzle.

And so with that in mind, the answer to yesterday’s thought problem is to change the room – with technology.

Imagine if we could simulate the room the original combo was playing in. How would that feel? I am quite convinced it would feel like you were there. But to be convincing you’d have to be able to sit in your listening position and close your eyes and believe you are in a a different sized room and hear the space around you. If you coughed or shuffled in your seat, all that you hear would have to be convincing enough to fool you.

Haven’t we heard of “concert hall” sound and tricks that fool you into believing the music’s playing in a larger venue than it is? Sure we have. Many of you are probably familiar with prior attempts at adding room characteristics into the stereo system – some Yamaha receivers did this and it was moronic. Really, you can’t add the room into the music, you have to add the room into the room. In other words, you have to create the room environment in the room and independently of the stereo system.

How would one do that? With another loudspeaker system surrounding the listener and a microphone or two placed appropriately in the room. Imagine 4 loudspeakers, one in the middle of each of the rooms 4 walls – and a microphone setup either near the loudspeakers or near the listener. Through tricky electronics and known DSP techniques, this setup could manage the reflections from the walls and provide a convincing room to anyone in it – and of course the room dimensions could be adjusted electronically as well.

Easy to do? Practical? No, but it is another view of how to overcome this age old problem.

Like they say, if you can’t bring a horse to the water, bring the water to the horse.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Inc.

A different approach

Yesterday I promised you an interesting thought challenge that has to do with getting music to sound live in your room – something we mostly all agree our industry and our equipment falls quite short of being able to do.

First, imagine yourself sitting in the center row of an auditorium. There on the stage is a small combo playing live. The music’s good, the sound is great, you’re into it. You close your eyes and you can feel the room around you, the space you’re in, the music that plays to you. With your eyes still closed, in our imaginary scenario, the combo stops playing and before you can even open your eyes a pair of good loudspeakers replaces the combo and continues their music at the same volume level – only this time from a recording of them.

Chances are pretty good you’d still think they were playing live if you didn’t know any better. The room is still there, you can still sense the space you’re in, the size of the hall, etc. The recording of the combo was made with relatively closely placed microphones that don’t capture much of the space the musicians are in – but that’s ok because it’s being played back in the exact same space.

With me so far?

Now, take that same recording and loudspeaker pair, place them in your living room, close your eyes and listen and you find that which once sounded live now sounds recorded and canned. What happened? The room changed, of course.

You know – even sitting quietly in the room with nothing playing – the approximate size of the room and the space you’re in. The group that sounded natural and live in the auditorium now sounds wrong and out of place. Why? Well, for one thing if that combo was really in your living room everything would be different for you from an acoustic standpoint. There would be that number of actual people in your living room as well as their instruments and the reflections and ambient noise levels would all be different.

Bottom line: we can sense, especially in a small confined space, if something is real or not real because of that space and our ability to sense that space.

So how do we fix this? I’ll tell you tomorrow.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Shouldn’t we be getting close to perfection?

We’ve got 60 years of experience designing vinyl reproducing equipment, 30 years for CD’s and approaching 10 for computer based audio. Wouldn’t you think with all that experience we’d be getting close to perfect by now?

And the answer is no, not even close. I know it surprises people when I ask them to close their eyes and imagine they are somewhere else than their living room when they listen to music – but when they do it over a period of time it becomes quite evident they haven’t been musically transported to a live venue – they are still at home.

Sure there are many instances where we are blissfully carried away by the music – so much so that we lose all cares about where we are and how we’re experiencing it – and sometimes it feels like we’re right there. It’s a tease – but a good one.

Tomorrow I am going to give you another thought puzzle about the way we hear music in our rooms. I hope you find it stimulating.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio Intl.

Albert got it right

Albert got it right

“Everything that can be counted doesn’t necessarily count. Everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Albert Einstein must have had high-end audio and measuring in mind when he spoke those words oh so many years ago – but probably not since high-end audio didn’t exist. 🙂

However, it sure does apply today when we think about how our systems sound and how we can try and measure and categorize those findings into neat little boxes and then maneuver them around to suit or listening fancies – sometimes to no avail.

Fact is when it comes to quantifying what it is you listen for in music and how that presents itself in your system through various cables and pieces of kit, listening is the only valid measurement tool we have. Sure we can come close to figuring out what makes some aspects sound the way they do, but not all – and I imagine we may never get it all measured and cataloged.

The end goal is to enjoy your music in remarkable fashion every time you sit and listen.

Measuring those areas that make it remarkable are an interesting exercise for many but for the majority of us, just listening and enjoying our systems is pleasure and satisfaction enough.

I wonder what kind of system Albert, a consummate music lover, might have enjoyed?
email Albert got it right.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Op ams and power supplies

In yesterday’s post we covered the problems with IC op amps concerning their huge amount of gain. Problem is, you simply cannot control how much gain they have and therefore are left to take what you get and simply deal with it for better and (mostly) worse.

The second biggest problem IC op amps have is their power supply voltage which is typically 30 volts across the whole op amp. Why is this limiting? For a couple of reasons: headroom and linearity being the two biggest.

We first ran into the headroom issues when we starting building phono preamplifiers back in the early 1970′s. At that time we used a pair of IC op amps as I’ve mentioned before. The two op amps were used to form a passive RIAA equalized phono preamplifier. This layout is fairly simple: the first op amp is connected directly to the phono cartridge and sends the amplified signal through an equalization network of a couple of capacitors and resistors. The second op amp then amplifies the equalized signal to the proper level. The problem with a passive phono preamp is that the high frequencies coming off the phono cartridge are “hot” by a factor of 10 – meaning they are really loud and we ran into headroom problems almost immediately.

So here’s the headroom issue: any amplifier I’ve ever worked with starts sounding somewhat worse the louder the signal that goes into it. You’ve probably heard this yourself on a good system. The orchestra or group plays really loudly and the sound that used to be open and dynamic starts to close down and sound a little less open and dynamic. That’s just the nature of amplifiers in general – the closer the signal gets to their maximum output the more compressed they sound. To fix this designers only have a couple of choices: they can lower the gain of the stage so the output doesn’t get so high or they can raise the power supply voltage, thus moving the maximum loudness level of the stage up. This is known as increasing the headroom.

In our second generation phono preamplifier we moved from an IC op amp that was limited to 30 volts power supply to a discrete version we designed that could handle twice the power supply voltage: 60 volts. The difference in sound quality was amazing and we spent a number of hours comparing the discrete version at 30 volts vs. 60 volts and became instant devotees of higher voltage as a means of opening up the sound.

The next big problem with running lower power supply voltages is one of linearity. Every amplification device has a range of operation where it is more linear to a signal – meaning that it is more faithful to the original – step outside those bounds and it becomes more non-linear where the output isn’t the same as the input. This area of linearity is controlled by the amount of voltage across the device. Yep, power supply voltage.

So if you put 15 or 20 volts across a transistor the linear region will be a percentage of the total voltage – double the voltage and the percentage stays the same, but of course the area of linear operation doubles. Pretty simple. If you want to read more about this we ran a series a while back you can brush up on here.

To this day all PS audio designs from the lowest cost to the highest cost, as well as a few other noteworthy brands in the high end, use discrete high-voltage op amps as opposed to low voltage IC op amps in the signal path. We do this because we can run significantly higher voltages which improves headroom and linearity, we can control the open loop feedback so we don’t get any harsh sound, choose which combination of transistors gives us the best sound – like FET’s in the input and bipolars in the output – and have complete control over how open, musical and alive the sound is. If we need to voice the circuit a little differently it’s easy with a discrete op amp and basically impossible with an IC op amp.

Where are these op amps used in high-end audio? Pretty much every DAC ever made has at least two: one to convert the output of the DAC to a voltage and the other to amplify that voltage, preamps, integrateds, power amplifiers, phono stages etc. As a rule of thumb, most tube circuits are NOT op amp blocks (although they could be) and most power amplifiers don’t use IC op amps because there’s too much voltage required.

So, to end this discussion I think it’s important to reflect on what we’ve learned – that if an audio designer wants to be able to manage every aspect of his/her sound, the functional block called an op amp is a perfect format – but we as music lovers would all be better off if designers spent the time to design their own instead of choosing an off the shelf solution that was easy – yet limited.

When you’re thinking about making the purchase of a DAC, a preamp or any type of source equipment, remember that in 99% of the solid state designs a functional op amp will be used in the signal path. Now you want to ask what type is it.

There may be many good reasons designers choose an IC and some may sound extremely good. I just believe they can sound better if the designer takes the time and care to go the extra mile and be discrete baby!

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.