Asheville, North Carolina ‘s Home Theater and Audio specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

“What is this music?”

I am writing today’s post as I typically do, on the morning of the day before it goes live. Terri and I are in California, visiting grandma, and I am looking out at the calm blue ocean. This is a good place to write from.

Sometimes it’s good to take a break from audio. If you will indulge me this one day, I will share something with you. I am writing a novel. Yes, in my spare time. It’s an adventure novel with purpose. Nothing more need be said about it; yet I wanted to share a short passage from the work. It is about music (the passage, not the book). It is about one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.
* * * *
“What is this music?” She whispered softly, her eyes closed, not daring to break the spell of the moment.
“Mozart. Soave sia il vento from Così fan tutte. It means may the wind be gentle.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so beautiful. I would have guessed it was written by a woman.” Her eyes still closed, they listened together.
Soave sia il vento, (May the winds be gentle)
Tranquilla sia l’onda, (May the waves be calm)
Ed ogni elemento (And may every one of the elements)
Benigno risponda (Respond warmly)
Ai vostri desir. (To your desire.)

Harry spoke just above a whisper, not wanting to intrude on the moment. “I believe Mozart was blessed with the heart and strength of a woman. His music is filled with tenderness, beauty, and harmony: it nurtures our souls, challenges our intellects, inspires us to greatness, touches our inner beauty. It can be powerful, but it is rarely aggressive.

“Kathleen, are you afraid to be a woman?”

Asheville, North Carolina ‘s Home Theater and Audio specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Yet another …

And just when I thought I’d get around to explaining some of the dielectric effects – or at least what some of that means – yet another opinion comes in. This one from someone I respect greatly, my friend Arnie Nudell. His thoughts run counter to my memory of how equipment responds to break-in, but that’s not unusual, my memory is often distorted over time.

On my morning run I thought long and hard about what he had to say and think perhaps he may be right. Maybe my quick comment, supporting Bill Low’s assertation that something burned in only temporarily sounds better: reverting back to its like-new state after resting for a while, is wrong. As I think a bit more long term about the effect it occurs to me that I too have taken a piece of gear, had it sound stiff and awkward, burned it in for a good deal of time, retired it for up to a year, resurrected the piece, warmed it up: found it was indeed as good as I remember it. First Arnie’s comments:
“Once a piece of electronic gear is “broken in” it stays mostly in that condition. Even if the piece is not used for a couple of years, activating it again usually brings it back quickly. Even cables I haven’t used in a long time do not require the 100 plus hours it took to initially break them in. Playing them for about an hour brings them back.

As we all seem to understand, there are no experts on the phenomenon of break in. There have been several theories over the years about “dielectric settling or setting” of dielectric material in cables and capacitors, however much of the break in phenomena is unknown. We do know, for sure , that breaking in of all audio equipment is essential.

Incidentally, many people notice that after using a new TV set for a while, the quality of the picture improves. Break in?”
There’s much value in these thoughts. I am reevaluating my stance of break in and longevity.

That’s what I love about these posts and the dialog with all of you.

Asheville, North Carolina ‘s Home Theater and Audio specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

The light stays on!

The subject of break in, the tendency of equipment to improve (change) over on-time, is a controversial one. Yesterday’s post suggested ‘warm up’ might be a more accurate term, since burn-in or break-in implies a one-way effect, while warm-up has a less permanent connotation. But that didn’t keep some of you from writing me to correct the term and bring us back to what we’re comfortable with, burn-in. None of these terms accurately describes what’s going on, when it comes to a piece of electronics, but hopefully we can agree the improvements of extended on-times are not permanent. The device in question returns to its original state after being off for a length of time. But that probably can be debated as well.

I wanted to share a quick story with you this morning. Years ago few paid any attention to burn-in. Stan and I tried our best to convince our customers the preamp would sound its best if people left it running. Our arguments mostly fell on deaf ears, so ingrained was the idea of turning off equipment at that time – a habit I suspect left over from the tube days.

So we decided to take the situation in our own hands. If our customers would not pay attention to our words, we’d make sure their units sounded good anyway. That brought in the era, for PS Audio, of the standby front panel power switch; common today, but for a different reason. In those days, the front panel power switches did exactly what their name implies: shut off the power. We were, to my knowledge, the first manufacturer to reverse that trend and do nothing more than simply turn off the front panel LED and mute the outputs of the preamp. Thus, our unit stayed on and warmed up. To the customer, it looked as if it was off. Everyone was happy.

Today pretty much all electronics does this, in one fashion or another, but for a very different reason: the remote control. Keeping the unit’s power on is necessary so it can read the commands of your remote control and turn ‘on’ when you press power. Back then, there were no stinking remotes!

So yes, we believed then, as we do now, in the benefits of burn-in.

Asheville, North Carolina ‘s Home Theater and Audio specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Warming up

In response to yesterday’s post on break-in, my friend Bill Low, founder and chief Mucky Muck of Audioquest sent me the following note:

“The improvement in audio system performance as a result of keeping the system energized is not the result of anything permanent. The 2 dominant phenomena are the forming of dielectric and thermal stability … both of which affect the particular part under consideration, and in an active circuit, the behavior of inter-related parts.

Take away the power source, and after 2 weeks the equipment will essentially be back in it’s “new” pre-burned-in pre-broken-in state.
I prefer the misnomer “warm-up” over all the other misnomers because implicit in the term warm-up is the term cool-down.

“Warm-up” is the least dangerous term both because actually warming-up is sometimes accurate, and when not accurate, as with a cable or a speaker crossover, at least is not as misleading a one-way phenomena.”

There’s not much to argue about here. Bill’s correct and I do think the term “warming-up” more accurately describes this process of burn in we’ve been discussing over the last few days; in particular because, as he points out, it is not a one-way change. It reverts back to its former state over time. I will not, however, change my ‘misnomer’ use of the term ‘break-in’ because, while Bill is correct that ‘break-in’ more appropriately refers to a car; or a one-way event, we have to stick with terms that communicate the meaning we wish to address. So, apologies for what I will continue to refer to it as.

Having written that, he’s also correct that in electronics, perhaps the two biggest areas of change with on-time are the dielectric and the thermal properties of equipment.
Tomorrow we’ll jump into some of that and what it means.

Asheville, North Carolina ‘s Home Theater and Audio specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Easy stuff first

Thank you for all the great dialog on Break In started yesterday in this post. There’s lots I am sifting through, probably resulting in a couple of guest posts; so many people having so much to say on the subject.

Perhaps the best place to start is by picking off the low hanging fruit: mechanical break in.

Loudspeakers, headphones and phono cartridges would be the most obvious pieces in our system that supported the idea of break in.
Materials like woofer surrounds are the easiest to understand. Here we have reasonably pliable materials manufacturers use that need to stretch and find their optimum flexibilities before they are truly broken in. When new, most surround materials are purposefully stiff and need to be flexed. Another area you might not be aware of on a loudspeaker is called the ‘spider’, the rear suspension system of a driver. Picture a woofer cone. The front that you see moving is obviously held in place by the outer rubber surround that attaches the cone to the driver’s metal frame. The spider is an accordion-like material holding the rear of the cone in place. Take a look at this photo I scrounged off the internet.

The yellow part is the spider, the top folds around the perimeter the surround.

When a speaker is new, the surround and spider are stiff and need to be flexed to get them loosened up. This process can take anywhere from several hours to several hundred hours depending on the design. This is one reason a new pair of speakers sounds stiff and ‘tight assed’. Also, should your loudspeakers sit for any good length of time, the surround and spider can get stiff again.

A flat panel planar style speaker such as a Magnaplanar or an electrostatic, even a ribbon or an AMT style, has a similar issue, although does not have a surround or spider to deal with.
Another area of obvious break in is the venerable phono cartridge; the cantilever is typically held in place with an elastomer that needs to be broken in as well. Here’s a picture:

This Sure cartridge is simplified, but you get the idea. We’ll look at the harder stuff tomorrow.

Keep the thoughts and comments rolling in.

Asheville, North Carolina ‘s Home Theater and Audio specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Burn in

I have long wanted to tackle this subject of burn-in. I am not prepared to suggest I have a lot to offer. Perhaps a dialog will open that might shed light on the subject so we can all learn.

Let’s define terms first. By ‘burn in’ I am referring, specifically, to the process we Audiophiles use to improve the sound of our kit by leaving it on for hours, days, months. ‘Warming Up’ might be another term; yet this doesn’t satisfy as it implies a short period of on-time, while ‘burn in’ suggests a much longer, more serious, dedicated effort to manipulate the sound by means of actual use. After all, nothing sounds better sitting in the closet collecting dust.

One point of discussion might center around the various external aids to help us accomplish our goals while burning in: test discs, cable stress amps, even a combination dummy load and computer operated input for power amplifiers.

Another point of discussion might include methodology: burn in with or without music? Under load, no load? Do the same rules apply to tubes as solid state? What of mechanical devices like CD players?

What works best with loudspeakers?

And, of course, the classic questions we all ask: does it really do anything? Is it the listener or the equipment being affected? Technically, what’s going on? Are we sacrificing the longevity of the equipment for our short term performance gains? Should you leave the equipment on 24/7? And once shut off, how long – if at all – do the effects of burn stay with the product?

Give some thought to some of these questions. Perhaps add some of your own. The comments section of the site works great and all discussions and suggestions appreciated.
I’ll dive into some of the more obvious on my own.

Should prove to be interesting, certainly controversial if nothing else.

Asheville, North Carolina ‘s Home Theater and Audio specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Be careful what you ask for

In a comment posted in response to my post Dogma of some days ago, Lawrence Schenbeck, a professor of music and our resident classical music expert asked an intriguing follow up question.

“What if the “theoretically perfect transducer” re-creates an acoustic, or an instrument, that just sounds terrible? How many audiophiles would line up to buy that?

Every time I find myself in the Woodruff Arts Center’s Symphony Hall in Atlanta, I thank god for his big sister that my system cannot possibly re-create that horrid acoustic. It’s the last thing in the world that I would want to experience at home.

Pleasure vs. Accuracy. Choose your poison.”

Indeed, great question, great conclusion. The answer, of course, is “if the recording’s bad then it should sound bad on the system” in a perfect world. But is that perfection? There are systems we know of that make everything sound acceptable, even good, despite the recording quality. They sacrifice being great for never being bad.
Since few among us are interested in being scientists when it comes to our stereo systems, which do we choose?

If perfection in a sound system means I have to run from the room when a poor recording is played, count me out. Even if that means it’s technically more accurate.

I do require my system to let me hear differences in halls: if they’re bad, as Lawrence suggests, I want to hear the sound that way; but only to a point. If it excites the room or me in such away as to drive me from that room, it isn’t working.

Like anything that stimulates our senses, food, music, hi fi, reading, it has to be just right to satisfy; the perfect blend of right and wrong.

Asheville, North Carolina ‘s Home Theater and Audio specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Live vs. hifi

The basis for the magazine’s name: The Absolute Sound, was coined by its founder, Harry Pearson. It refers to his personal standard of evaluating hi fi equipment: to reproduce sound compared to the “absolute sound”; defined as the sound of live, unamplified music. Indeed, that’s a good absolute reference.

But what of the Audiophile sound? Sometimes characterized by big, overblown systems with too much of everything: over-etched details, depth not found in real-life recordings; out of proportion, compared to the aforementioned absolute sound. The “real deal”.
Should we ignore or embrace the two examples? After all, watching a sporting event live is not the same as watching it amplified by a television with closeup views and commentary, never experienced live.

Which one is better? Can we honestly suggest one should be avoided while the other coveted and sought after?

Asheville, North Carolina ‘s Home Theater and Audio specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Dogma

It’s an interesting term. It means ‘a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true’. Religions have a lot of them. So too does high end audio.

I had written several days ago that a point source loudspeaker is the theoretically perfect transducer: infinitely small, infinitely loud. It is also currently beyond anyone’s ability to build such a loudspeaker.
One of my readers asked me an interesting question: “are you just repeating a dogmatic claim? Do you actually know that to be the ultimate sound source?”

Truth is, yes I am just repeating a long-held truth and no, I don’t have any reason to think it’s true, anymore than I have any reason to think it false. I suppose one could suggest that because you cannot actually build such a device, you can neither prove nor disprove the claim.

We know that the opposite, an infinitely large sound source. can begin to approach our ideal. That’s somewhat the idea behind the Infinity Reference Standards in Music Room One: a floor to ceiling line source. But, of course, it’s not ‘infinitely’ big so it too fails.
An actual perfect transducer is the original source of the sound: perhaps my voice, a violin, a guitar, a trumpet. Perfect because we’re using that as our reference, our model. It is neither infinitely small or large. It is just perfect, nothing more, nothing less.

I should tread lightly when it comes to dogma and will try and do so in the future.

Thanks for the coaching.

Asheville, North Carolina ‘s Home Theater and Audio specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Fine wine and tubes

Open a bottle of a fine red wine and the taste can sometimes be a bit harsh. A little too upfront; astringent, lacking body and air. We are then told to let it ‘open up’ to sit and ‘break in’ if you will, until that mellowness you’re looking for gets unmasked from the slightly forward taste.

Sure sounds a lot like high end audio equipment. Turn it on and it’s a bit forward, perhaps brash. Let it break in and it mellows out. In fact, one of the terms we use to describe this behavior is ‘opening up’.
And if the wine is still too forward, lacking body and roundness after it ‘breathes’, we can decant it getting even more oxygen to settle it.
And if your high end audio source sounds a bit too forward, lacking body and roundness after it breaks in, we can run it through a tube preamp or amplifier, opening the sound up, rounding out the instruments.

Now here’s my recommendation. Grab a glass of fine wine, turn the lights low and crank up your high end audio system. It’s a double whammy!