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.

Walls and rooms of speakers

At the dawn of hi fi there were a small handful of dealers, even fewer magazines, and scarce means to compare sound differences. Most people purchased on faith and whatever they bought was better than what they had before, which typically was nothing. Hard to go wrong.

As the industry grew so too did the avenues of purchase. Console stereos were sold in furniture stores and chosen more for aesthetic than performance. It wasn’t until the late 60’s and early 70’s that dedicated hi fi stores began springing up, fueled first with hobbyists moving out of their garage, and expanding through experienced retailers seizing opportunities of emerging markets.

Most purchase decisions back then revolved around the loudspeaker – choosing electronics was something the salesman did because speakers needed to be matched to amplifiers – and John Q. Public was clueless to what an amplifier even did, let alone its impact on sound. And so, elaborate speaker switching systems were developed to aid in the purchase of the new box that made music in your living room. Speakers were placed on shelves without any care to positioning or room requirements. Choices were made with the push of a button and it was easy to tell which had better bass and highs. No care or thought was given to qualities we might assign as important today: realism, tonal balance, imaging.

I can remember trips to Asia where this wall of speaker idea blossomed into the room of speakers, twenty or thirty pairs consuming half the showroom. The room of speakers was better than the wall of speakers, but both seem so foreign to us today.
Slowly but surely the specialty retailers started popping up and their approach was very different indeed. Systems were curated for best sound, a novel methodology to what was turning into the WalMart approach at selling hi fi. Then, the pendulum swung in another direction. Sometime in the 80’s Scottish brand Linn began requiring their dealers to demonstrate in rooms without any other speakers – true dedicated rooms. This was a purist idea, but occasionally taken a bit far, since it was a major pain in the keester for both customer and dealer – yet few demo rooms have done as well since. Today, we have a blend of things: Best Buy style 30 minute shopping selections, specialty retailers with dedicated listening rooms, and in-home demo programs.

I so admire the rare dealer who expertly curates whole systems to die for, but am still in love with the slogan we coined at our founding in 1973. “There’s no showroom like your living room.”

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.

Glue

High end audio progress comes in chunks, driven by generations of designers in concert with generations of listeners.

Of course there was the Edison inspired group of mechanical designs with wax cylinders, cranks and horns. And Alan Blumlein’s stereo invention which, along with vacuum tubes, microphones, vinyl, and startups birthed in garages, ushered in the electrical age. Marantz, Fisher, Klipsch, and Villchur broke free of the cottage industries, and were eventually challenged by Morita, Yamaha, and Matsushita. Nudell, Walker, Tiefenbrun and Harmon lead the charge in the 70’s and 80’s, giving way to Rowland, Hanson, Schifter, Burmeister and my generation. And now we see the next coming of age: my son Scott, Matt Weisfeld, EJ Sarmento, and so many new faces I can’t keep track.

Each generation put forward fresh ideas and products that reflected their love of music and how it is enjoyed in the home.
And those who enjoy the fruits of their labors come and go in the same generational chunks, yet… there is one common bond we all share, the glue that holds us all together.

Music.

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.

Realities

As a designer and manufacturer I’d love to think we live in a perfect world where decisions on product launches were all about functional performance and nothing about marketplace acceptance. But that’s not true. If it were, we might be making active loudspeakers, but they don’t sell.

We might be building whole house power systems, but they too sit on the shelf. We might be designing cost no object hand-built products, but that’s not our schtick. Imagine Ferrari building a Ford Focus, or Whole Foods selling Drano.

We build products from our heart but not all of them make it to market. I was just visiting our room full of designs that never got out the door as projects. We keep them to remind us of the value of staying the course, but some of those detours we’ve taken were sure cool.

Walnut Cove, Asheville, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Clarity of vision

I wear reading glasses and over time they get scratched, blemished and scuffed. I rarely notice their defects until I replace them with new ones. Suddenly the world is crystal clear again and I notice what I had been missing.

I think stereo equipment, modifications and tweaks are similar. We grow used to a certain sound or performance level that includes many expectations, like a certain fullness in the bass or sparkle in the high end. We get used to things. Suddenly a new element is introduced. It could be as simple as cleaning connectors and plugs, or as extensive as a new amp or DAC, and music is new again, like the clarity of vision new glasses bring.
It’s good to be engaged in our hobby, keeping up with all the latest kit and interesting tweaks, but it’s also great to simply ‘get used’ to what we have and enjoy it for what it is, warts and all.

When the new comes along, it’s that much more exciting.

Walnut Cove, Asheville, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Weeding

There are so many choices of equipment to purchase we must use multiple means to select which models matter; some are obvious, others less so.

If we’re choosing our next power amplifier, for example, we can likely skip the Lepai Stereo amplifier that retails for $27, without giving it a listen. We can also narrow our choices by other means, like wattage. Most loudspeakers work best with at least 50 watts and are happier with more. Still, there are many ways to prune: looks, costs, topology, compatibility. The list is long.

Most of us use reviewers, both published and word of mouth, to weed out products. But the problem with weeding is the chance of missing fruit. There are so many wonderful gems that might fit our needs better than anything else, that we need to be careful gardeners.

Of course you can always choose products renown for their musicality and skip all the unfound wealth that might work better, but in the end, you will have to rely upon your inner reviewer’s abilities to really know when the choice is right.

There are few better feelings than having made the choice, placing the new into your system, and hearing it sing.

Walnut Cove, Asheville, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Emotions and outcomes

Mood and environment are important factors to consider when evaluating equipment designed to elicits emotional responses.

You wouldn’t want to judge how something makes you feel when you’re feeling off. It skews the test. And this reminds us that we are not machines with identical responses to external stimuli.
If the environment is wrong, that too skews the test, like evaluating differences in stereo equipment on inadequate or unfamiliar equipment, tension created through rigorous testing procedures, or pressure to make a decision. These factors all play in to our ability to make judgments because we are not meters or electromechanical devices that act the same on any given moment.

When I need to make an informed decision between two pieces of gear, or two types of firmware, or compare any two variables on the stereo system, here’s what I do when decisions aren’t obvious. Making sure there are no volume differences between the two devices under test (DUT), I ask one of our staff to help me in what’s known as a single blind test (SBT). The rules are simple. The two DUT are labeled as A and B by the helper so that I do not know which is what. I then go back and forth at my leisure between A and B and choose which sounds better. Only after making my choice am I told the identity of A and B.

For what we do, SBT testing is superior to DBT for a number of reasons, chief among them is the relaxed nature of the test. If the person evaluating the gear feels in control they can take it at their own speed and make judgments without prejudice. The efficacy of this process is superior to DBT because it gets rid of all the negative crap we read about the DBT. DBT testing may be the gold standard for some trials, like drugs, but it fails when applied to tasting, listening, feeling, and those human endeavors where emotions influence outcomes.

The next time you read about, or are asked to participate in, a DBT for stereo equipment, respectfully disagree with the conclusion or decline the invitation. Instead, help those mired in scientific dogma to understand things are never so simple as to be required to discover truth. There can be mulitple paths that lead to the same correct answer.

Walnut Cove, Asheville, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

The Nocebo

If you put me on the defense I react very differently than when from I am relaxed. Take the simplest blind test. “Can you tell the difference between A or B?” And when I try I am defensive because I am being challenged to perform. Those watching are judging me and my ability to discern differences and my reaction to the pressure is a guarded one. I am fearful of making a fool of myself, or feeling inadequate and thus, defensive.

The defensive posture fundamentally changes my brain and sensory abilities. Think of times when you’ve been prepped: you’re gonna hate this, this is the best chocolate I have ever tasted, wait till your father comes home and sees this! The emotional setup is powerful and many of us are vulnerable to its effects.

In yesterday’s post I spoke of a placebo and its power. My friend Seth Godin expanded on that by connecting me with this paper. In it he speaks of the power of the placebo and its opposite, the nocebo, and here’s how that relates to double blind listening tests.

The minute a listener is challenged to hear differences in a stereo system using the double blind method, his defenses are put on high alert – fundamentally changing his abilities to hear differences, thus negating the results. This explains one of the first objections I have to double blind testing as the final arbiter in the great debate of what we do and don’t hear. There are many more.

The article by Seth is fascinating on many levels. I encourage you to read and absorb its many meanings so we are all on the same page tomorrow.

Walnut Cove, Asheville, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Double blind

Glutton for punishment seems appropriate to opening this hornet’s nest, yet there are fresh things to say, so why not?

Double blind testing simply refers to the notion that neither the subject nor the tester knows which they are reviewing. The idea is easy enough. If neither knows whether A or B is being chosen, then any possibility of bias can be removed. A safe test that makes logical sense. Yet, while this methodology may be valid for some things, I would propose it is not for others.

In medicine a placebo is often used and sometimes found to be as effective as the drug under trial. When this happens, researchers typically negate the drug’s efficacy; if it is only as effective as a sugar pill, it must not be effective at all. Sound reasoning, but not entirely valid. Why? It ignores our complexity. Doctors, as well as audio engineers, tend to fall into traps set by our belief in hard boundaries of understanding. We put up fences of If/THEN statements without regard to peripheral realities. For example, we know there are people who can raise and lower their personal blood pressure levels mentally; like the click of a switch, or the swallow of a pill. But most of us can’t and we need drugs that work without our mental assistance or belief that they do work; they work even if we aren’t aware they are in our bloodstream. And so we label those as effective – placebos, even those that work are labeled s not valid. That is a narrow point of view.

What if doctors perfected a blood pressure placebo strong enough to work on most people; those with strong enough minds and beliefs to have it work? Would that not simply suggest there is more going on in our physical machinery than the tests that labeled it a placebo allowed for?

I am not suggesting magic, nor am I suggesting what we as Audiophiles hear, that others refuse to recognize, is a placebo or artifact of imagination. Quite the opposite. I am suggesting that test methods, even cleverly devised ones, rarely cover a large enough scope to be accurate and double blinds, of the type Audiophiles correctly label as wrong headed, are just that.

Tomorrow we dig deeper.

Walnut Cove, Asheville, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Another experiment

In our continuing series on power cables I had mentioned in an earlier post an easy experiment that brought instant benefits. I received many letters of thanks for this tip. Today, I would like to propose another experiment, only this time the results will be opposite, the unit will sound worse.

Why tell you how to make your system sound worse? I think it might be instructive for those among you that do not acknowledge power cables make a difference, plus we will all learn something. I know this is tough because we all have our beliefs in place, firmly entrenched in our world views. Perhaps even better, there is a great deal of controversy associated with this experiment. What I propose you try will take $5 out of your pocket and cause you to wait a few days for the results. Not many will try this, but for the few that do, I believe we all would benefit from your thoughts.

What I want you to do is clean up some of the high frequencies traveling down your power cable by adding an inductor.

Inductors are magnetic devices that restrict high frequencies by absorbing their energy and converting to heat. To try this experiment, no surgery is necessary. Go here and order the clamp-on ferrite inductor. Make sure the diameter of your power cable will fit inside the device. Once wrapped around your power cable, high frequency noises will be lowered but something else happens as well. The sound will change. For some of you, the increase in cleanliness will be appreciated. For others, like me, the cleaner sound comes at a price: decreased life and upper energy to the sound, like throwing a wet blanket.

And the controversy? It is thought by many that the cable and quality of AC power has no bearing on sound. This should easily dispel that notion.

The differences are not night and day, but noticeable on any power cord I have tried it on.

Walnut Cove, Asheville, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolinas Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

We are all critics

In response to yesterday’s post Tough Work reader doraldj quoted one of my favorite movies, Ratatouille; the story of a rat chef (yes, a rodent) that takes over a declining restaurant, turning its fortunes around. In it there is a critic, Anton Ego, whose closing speech is the payoff for the movie:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.

We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement.

They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist *can* come from *anywhere*.”

What a well written piece of literature and from a cartoon no less. I bring this to your attention because we are all critics at heart and, I think, all desirous of discovering the new, the thing that turns our music into miracles. And that is what drives many of us.

Tomorrow I will jump in feet first to the often debated, yet never tired subject of the double blind.

Hell, why not?