Emotional library

I tried explaining the organization of my music library to our chief engineer.  He has a very logical structured mind.  There is little obvious logic and structure to my library.  This was going to be a difficult task.

I’ll give you a little background as to why I manage the library perhaps differently than some.  But maybe the same as you?  Whether I am demonstrating the system to guests, using it as a reference tool for new designs, or just simply enjoying it, I choose what is being played by the emotional response that music should bring forward in the listener.  It’s very dependent on my read of the situation and changes with every one.  I’ll give you an example.

A recent visitor was very anxious to hear “the incredible system” he had been reading about on our web pages.  He knew about the system.  He had high expectations.  Of course the music I chose was intended to meet his expectations.  I started off with a Brian Bromberg cut from his great CD “Wood“, a generous gift to me from my friend Neil.  Track 1, The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers, is spectacular not because it has fireworks, but because it  sounds like Bromberg is playing in the room.  Realistic enough to drop a jaw.  That established the system’s resolving power.  I then moved to an older Reference Recording Showcase and played Sibelius: Finlandia.  This track engaged the visitor with the breadth of the orchestra.  Displayed the amazing stability the system offers of keeping each instrument exactly in its place regardless of volume.  I then finished with a cut he brought along.  Complete with fireworks.

With others I might choose something completely different.  Depends on the mood.  It is like going to a restaurant and choosing from the menu based on that very moment’s needs.  And that’s a good analogy for this is how my library is organized.  Using a tiered system of good, better, best, the music is lined up according to the mood it will engender.

Our music systems are built to evoke emotional responses based on the music we play and the level of enjoyment that music offers us.  It’s why I always mark the perfect volume level for each track.  It is why I organize my library according to the mood that piece will bring to the listener.

What works best for you?


The word passion has a number of definitions but the one I like the best comes from the Urban Dictionary: “Passion is when you put more energy into something than is required to do it. It is more than just enthusiasm or excitement, passion is ambition that is materialized into action to put as much heart, mind body and soul into something as is possible.”

We are a passionate lot.  We spend hours, weeks, even lifetimes putting our hearts, minds and souls into our music systems.

It’s what I love about being a part of the industry and working with those that are here for the same reasons.

It’s why we should all strive to be as generous as we can, sharing our passion with those who may enjoy even the smallest taste of what we love.

Have you shared your passion with someone you know recently?  A co-worker perhaps?  Even if people haven’t a clue what you’re talking about, the simple act of sharing your passion with someone is a giving act that makes both of you happy and fulfilled.

Passion’s contagious.  Share some today.

Great mysteries

There are many great mysteries in the world: how the pyramids were built, the Easter Island Moai, why whatever hair I lose on my head seems to pop up somewhere else, and I am sure there are plenty more.  There are two great mysteries in audio that are currently bugging me and, if I thought about it, there would be many more.

The two mysteries I am plagued with at the moment are upper energy loss and polarity.

I wrote about the apparent upper energy loss we’re experiencing with the new PerfectWave Amplifier prototype.  This loss can easily be identified by a lack of upper harmonics in stringed instruments, the snap of the castanet, the sheen on a cymbal.  The amp measures flat beyond human hearing.  I can add some of this energy back by removing feedback in the input circuitry of the amp.  How much energy can be added back is yet to be determined.  Most amplifiers we have tested also lack this upper energy.  We are not alone.  When you hear the few amps that have it, you’ll understand.

Polarity of individual recordings is something I have stressed over for many years.  Polarity is simple.  Sometimes  referred to as phase, you have two choices, in phase or out of phase.  Polarity is probably a more proper term but either will do.  Most products have a polarity or phase button allowing you to flip one for the other.  When I use this feature I will always do it with the PWD since flipping polarity in the digital domain is a safer bet than through a preamp.  None the less, I have gone through periods of caring and not caring about polarity on a track by track basis.  Frankly it’s a pain in the butt.  I mark the proper volume for each track I play a lot, not the polarity.  That may have to change.

One of my readers is known as the Polarity Pundit.  George Louis is all about proper polarity and marking each track on every medium for proper polarity.  At a recent event we hosted, one of the tracks played didn’t sound quite right and a CAS member asked me to switch the polarity.  I did, it got better.  A lot better.  There wasn’t anyone in the room that didn’t hear it.  We went back and forth several times.  On the older system in Music Room One the differences were noticeable but not clear which was better.  They were just different.  On the new system they are painfully obvious and carry increased importance because one is without question better than the other.  One is right, the other wrong.  How can I not mark each with the same importance as the perfect volume level?

Changing polarity makes no sense to me whatsoever.  I have heard most of the theories and from an engineering standpoint they do not hold any water.

Neither of these mysteries are easily explained.  Neither are the pyramids, the Moai or my changing hair locations.  But they are real, staring us right in the face.


Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.


Depth is an interesting subject when it comes to audio systems.  Properly setup your loudspeakers should be able to disappear and provide good front to back depth, meaning the sound should go from the front plane of the speakers to the back of the room behind the speakers.

The amount of depth depends on the program material.  The closer the performer is to the microphone the closer to the front the sound will appear and when it’s really closely mic’d it’ll sound like she’s right in the speaker.

Because depth is relative, the loudspeakers usually act as the reference for how far the actual sound goes back.  Of course this is all an illusion, but none the less, I have noticed that some recordings use what I would refer to as fixed markers to establish and extend the image depth.  Those markers are performers and when placed properly, the illusion of depth can be uncanny.

A good example of this can be found by dusting off a copy of an old Reference Recording: Red Norvo the Forward Look.  This is a great three track recording made in 1957 by the (then) unknown Keith Johnson on all vacuum tube electronics.  On most systems this sounds like a fairly distant recording, where the image is pushed way to the back of the stage, but on several tracks (track 2 is a good example) the depth seems to actually increase when a foreground instrument starts playing.  This appears to allow you to hear deeper into the stage, which, of course, isn’t correct since nothing in the recording is actually changing but your perspective.

I think this is similar to a technique used in photography to help dramatize depth in a two-dimensional image: a foreground anchor.  Most people have a really tough time with their cameras showing depth.  You’ve probably run into this problem yourself with a camera.  Before lies a great scene that to your eye stretches off into the distance and you try and capture that magnificent depth.  When you view the photograph later you realize the depth you experienced live is gone forever.

The technique of capturing depth is actually rather easy: the photograph simply needs a point of reference.  Take a look at this photograph from Gary Luhm, an excellent nature photographer, and note the terrific depth it achieves.

With Depth

Note how the rock with the leaf on it is the foreground anchor.  This gives the eye a reference to gauge the depth of the surrounding scene – which is what you actually use in real life to gauge depth – but most people don’t get in their photographs.  It’s an easy technique if you can remember it.

Here’s a simple cropped version of the same picture without the foreground anchor to show you the difference.

Without Depth

Note how little depth this has relative to the first.

This is a good example of how we benefit by being aware of the required elements needed to make a convincing three dimensional illusion from a two dimensional medium.

Photography, as well as stereo, are both two dimensional mediums trying to mimic three dimensional events.

Getting the depth to sound real is an art in both disciplines.



When you eliminate the impossible

Saturday afternoon we had about 40 visitors from CAS listening to Music Room One.  Chuck Zellig, whom you might remember co-wrote a couple of articles in TAS called Computer Audio Sound Quality, was at the event and pulled me out of the crowd to make a comment about what he heard.

“The system sounds incredible but I think the speakers have a lack of upper energy.  I hear it when the contrabass is bowed.  It’s as if the bow had not enough rosin – upper energy that should be coming off the bow.  It’s missing.”  This was a really insightful observation, one no one else seemed to notice or bring it to my attention if they did.  Chuck nailed it perfectly.  Good observation, wrong conclusion.  That happens a lot and it’s one of the issues we all face tracking down a problem in our systems.  It is typically NOT the obvious that is the problem.

Fact is there was no way for Chuck to know where the missing upper energy in the system was being lost.  It could have easily been at any point along the way and I agree the most obvious would be the loudspeakers.  What I know, that Chuck didn’t, is the energy never makes it out of the PerfectWave Power Amp (PWA) we used to drive the system.  That amp, as many of you know, is under review to figure how to get that energy back with a major design change.

The point of this article has nothing really to do with the amp, the observation or the erroneous conclusion.  It is a cautionary note about assuming the “obvious”.

I get requests all the time asking for advice on hum, poor SQ, missing energy bands, or whatever ailment people have and typically they have just guessed at the culprit choosing the most obvious first.  They are rarely correct and surprised when we discover the culprit is something one might never consider, as is often the case.

Sherlock Holmes said it well “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

More on preamps

A friend of mine brought over a schematic of an Audio Research tube preamplifier yesterday.  This is but one of several I have been studying as of late.  One of the characteristics I find as an interesting pattern is that none I have studied are direct coupled; meaning at a minimum the output of the preamplifier are all capacitor coupled.

This is interesting because the vast majority of solid state designs are all sans capacitors in the signal path.  Direct coupled.  In fact, we work hard at removing these sonic changers from the musical path.

Capacitors, in general, soften the sound of music passing through them.  I don’t want to say blurred, because the best capacitors certainly do no such thing, but soften is the best I can come up.  And soften isn’t a very good word.  Soften would indicate a reduction of transient information, a slowing of the signal.  Modern tube preamplifiers are extremely fast and transient accurate.  And cap coupled.  I wish I had a better description of what they do.  I don’t.

One other pattern observation is their simplicity.  The tube designs I’ve investigated are one, perhaps two devices long for the signal path.  Most solid state designs have far more parts.

It is fascinating to me that tube preamps do all the wrong things as far as we solid state designers might think: add capacitors in the signal path and use crude, low tech amplification designs.

If it’s not obvious to you, I am rethinking all that I know and take for granted in preamp design.

As Albert Einstein once said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.

I’ll keep you up to date as things become apparent.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Getting the midbass right

Morning!  AGB’s latest column has been uploaded and for those of you interested to see what the Audio Hitman has to say about EQ’ing your system and frequency response in general, go here to read the article.  For the faint of heart, I recommend abstaining.

As I worked through the setup of the IRS system, the single biggest setup challenge I have ever experienced, I ran into some pretty major stumbling blocks.

This is one complex system with so many variables to deal with that it is a bit daunting.  Add to that the fact that regardless of how well or poorly you set them up, they always seem to impress and it’s hard to be too critical.  Yet they, like any system, can get the music terribly wrong.  And I was making a classic mistake in my setup procedure, one that my friend Arnie helped me through (it’s good to have friends).

What I was doing wrong was trying to set them up according to the mental picture I had in my head of the last system.  Tracks that worked well on the older system were my reference and I figured my first task setting up the IRS was to at least get those same tracks to sound as good or better than they did.  My memory of those tracks included such attributes as: the performer sounded “live”, there was a great bass drum whack at a certain point, the depth was amazing, the tuba sounded big and brassy, the huge chorus was right in an acoustic space I could believe.  In fact, I had a catalog of such acoustic memories at my ready and I used them as references for the new setup.  As AGB so accurately points out in the follow up to his latest article, we tend to want to setup our new system to achieve the best of our old system and then go beyond those barriers – that we call progress.

In my conversations with Arnie on setup he made a great point to me: “Don’t worry about what you had or even getting it to sound a certain way.  Do nothing but work on getting the instruments to sound right and everything else will fall into place.  Start with the midbass.  Get the midbass correct on every instrument in the orchestra and then fine tune everything else.”

Focusing on nothing but the sound of the instruments and voices, getting their timbre, tonal balance and realistic sound right seems so obvious – I’ve preached it many times – but making this THE main focus and letting everything else fall into place has been a very rewarding and valuable lesson for me.

It really works.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl,


When I travel to visit a dealer or audio club I am often asked to evaluate their system the moment I walk into the room.  At that very moment I am still in the travel, rush, rush mode and two things happen: I am disengaged just enough to offer a very pragmatic evaluation of the overall sound, but not engaged enough to give any real quality assessment of the details.

I can only imagine this scenario isn’t much different for any of you walking around from room to room at an audio show; or a reviewer.  How do they do it?

When I am working in one of our two Music Rooms I am, of course, not only engaged but immersed and this can have the opposite two effects: I am engaged to the point where I hear only the details of the presentation, but not disengaged enough to give any real quality assessment of the overall sound.  I’ve managed to miss a channel swap when so immersed, which is anything but nuanced.

In the first scenario I miss nuances and in the second I miss the big issues.

The only cure for this conundrum for me is to put on an entire CD I haven’t heard in a long, long time and sit quietly with my eyes closed and listen.  Having no expectations seems to do the trick of helping me hear both the nuanced details and the overall presentation.

Of course if I do this around 2 in the afternoon, I also tend to nap off.

Which isn’t all the unpleasant in the middle of the day.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Peeling the onion

In the process of answering the many comments I receive (which are much appreciated) one was made that really struck home.  Here is the comment from frequent contributor Mark Fisher that was made after I wrote “it’s amazing what it has done for the system.”

“This seems to happen every time there’s a change. When the IRS replaced the Maggies, When the cables were replaced. When you installed your new amplifier, and now again with this preamp. And there might be a few other times I forgot about. If this keeps up soon there will be nothing left to do except sit back and enjoy it. Happy listening icon smile Peeling the onion

How many times have I written that “the system is completely transformed”?  ”I have just heard something that blew me away”.  How many times can one actually make changes so big that you get all fired up and wax enthusiastically about them?

I think the answer is simple because the quest for better performance in our audio and music systems is an ongoing one that is similar to peeling an onion.  An onion has many, many layers and every time you peel back one of those layers you see a fresh new onion unlike the onion you just looked at.  I don’t get excited about onions, but I do continue to get excited and amazed with layer I peel back in the system.

This Saturday the Colorado Audio Society is coming to visit us and hear the new system.  I have been working non-stop to get Music Room One sounding as best I can so their trip will be a good and memorable one.  Will it be the best they’ve ever heard?  Unlikely.  I do my best at setup but the truth is I am not the best setup person around.  There are many much better than I.  I am also not the greatest golden eared person.  There are many much better than I and most likely some in the group would qualify.  But that’s ok, I am delighted folks want to come and hear the system.  It’s fun to share – and how often does one get to hear a classic loudspeaker like the Infinity IRS V?  There were, after all, only 58 pair ever built.

So after we play around with the system and enjoy each others company on Saturday afternoon, I’ll have tons of new opinions and suggestions to work with after they leave.

That feedback will allow me to peel yet another layer of the onion and get even closer to musical enjoyment than I have now.  I’ll probably be excited all over again.

Ain’t it fun?

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

The Audio Hitman

In the early days of the magazine TAS (The Absolute Sound) there were, as there are today, many great writers.  One of the most outspoken and, coincidently, one of my favorites was AGB.  Go back and look through your copies of the 80′s and 90′s editions and you’ll see many a great article by AGB.  I believe he was the first writer in TAS to proclaim “Digital Sucks” and this at a time when digital indeed sucked.

AGB is Andy Benjamin, a musician, a friend and now an occasional writing contributor we’ve nicknamed The Audio Hitman.  I have been egging Andy to get back into writing about audio and adding his strong opinions, distaste for BS and original thinking on the subject to enhance our community of like minded people.

AGB’s first article, which is somewhat of an introduction, can be read here.  AGB doesn’t have weak opinions and he calls ‘em like he sees ‘em and can offend many, but is always an eye opener.

I love his writing and am happy to support it.


Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.