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.

Uber clean

It’s been suggested live music is never sterile. But I would argue that’s somewhat dependent on the room it is played in. I recently had occasion to hear a trumpet played outdoors, pointing away from me. It couldn’t have been more sterile sounding; devoid of any richness, or harmonic overtones familiar to those that enjoy trumpets.

But I will agree that in ordinary indoor circumstances live music is richly textured, and that is its normal state. And when we attend a hi fi show, or visit a dealer’s showroom and, sometimes, hear music sounding sterile, devoid of the life and textural richness, we can take comfort in the knowledge we’re not getting all that’s there. And I think that piece of information is valuable – because many times we want to believe sterile is antiseptically clean, lacking something that should not be there, when the opposite is apparently true.

I recently tried two sets of headphones. On one, music sounded alright, a little ‘overly cleansed’. When looking at the marketing materials provided, the designer implied this was his goal – cleanliness over anything else – and specs showed extremely low distortion. The sound was neither engaging, nor irritating; perhaps the best description would be blah – but clean.

In contrast, the next set was the complete opposite. Music was rich, with warm overtones, the room resonances audible.

Everything just seemed right and I found myself tapping toes, smiling and enjoying every minute. The distortion specs were about the same as the uber-clean model.

I am not sure there’s a correlation to be made, just some observations to share.

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.

Sterile sound

Sterile means devoid of anything extra, free of unwanted life. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Distortion is extra–and we want less. Jitter is extra–and lower is better. Noise is extra–and none is best. And it’s good when bandages, scalpels, and mouthwash are stripped of extras. But when it comes to music, sterile should be avoided like the plague. We want our music infected with as much life as possible.

To those of us in high-end audio, sterile means stripped of the life that was supposed to be there vs. stripped of life that’s not.

And, what does this all mean? How do components strip the life from music? And what is that life being stripped?

Perhaps over the next few days we’ll take a look at some examples and see what we come up with.

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.

Getting ready

In a few days it’s again setup time. The Colorado Audio Society is hosting the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and we’re attending. Day one is always a challenge. The truck’s loaded and ready to roll at 7am; early enough to arrive before the main onslaught. Hundreds of fellow exhibitors have the same idea, though we’ve learned not too many show up early.

An entire set of rooms must be hauled up hotel elevators: showroom, living room, conference room, listening room. And regardless of proximity, everything is packed in boxes, shipped by truck or FedEx, unboxed, set up, the room decorated, tuned, and done by dinner–if we’re lucky.

My wife Terri’s in charge of everything but speaker placement and sound quality. This year we’re playing the YG loudspeakers–the big ones–and they are new to me. I’ve heard them at YG Audio on BHK electronics. Setting them up in a hotel room in a few hours will be interesting.  It took me several years to get Music Room One sounding right. This week I have less than a day.

We will be unveiling the BHK preamplifier. It’s first public outing, and we hope the prototype proves itself as it has in the Music Room.

Come by and say hello if you’re in town.

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.

Failure’s not an option

I waited in the nondescript lobby of the Federal Communications Commission reading every copy of Broadcast Electronics twice. The locked door finally opened and an elderly woman in a rumpled gray suit peered over half rimmed glasses. “Paul McGowan?”

I explained how I needed a broadcasting license to operate our school radio station twice; once to a clerk and then a field engineer. It was the engineer that took the time to explain obtaining a commercial broadcasting license is a big deal. A really big deal. In fact, in the crowded Orange County and Los Angeles basin, none were available even if I could afford the attorneys, engineers, and fees. It was simply not going to happen.

I’ve rarely been accused of shyness, and even less of acquiescing to failure. “So, you’re telling me no one can get a license? The FCC doesn’t issue licenses anymore? Really?” Actually, he explained, they were there more for certifications and regulation enforcement and didn’t really issue licenses, but he did offer a bone to me. “If your transmitter is less than a watt, you don’t need a license.” A light bulb went off and I asked to see a copy of the regulation permitting broadcasts of under a watt. The short, balding engineer, with small tufts of hair covering the tops of his ears, pulled a thick volume from amongst many and found the page he was looking for. His pudgy finger scrolled down lists of regulations until it stopped. There, consuming most of the page, was the answer to my problem. Anyone can broadcast with 500 mW of power or less without a license. I was elated.

I asked the engineer to photocopy the page and then, with a flourish of brilliance, I asked if he might sign the copy and put the FCC stamp on it; explaining my school administrator’s would want to know if the document was authentic. He signed the impressive document, used a squeeze stamp imprinting the seal and logo of the FCC, then initialed the stamp. It looked very official.

Tomorrow would be a pivotal day in deciding if FJC would get a new broadcast station or not.

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.

Those darn rules

I wrote of my burning desire to claim fame and fortune as a rock and roll disc jockey, in yesterday’s post. The college I attended had a class in radio announcing run by a grumpy professor by the name of Thompson. The station he ran played only to a loudspeaker, a totally deflating proposition for me and a few of my aspiring friends. We wanted the real deal, to be live and on the air.

I spent the summer building a control board and my friend had built a 250 watt AM transmitter, based on a Fender guitar amplifier for the modulator. We even had call letters figured out; KFJC. K because all radio stations west of the Mississippi required the letter “K” (W on the other side) and FJC for the name of the college. All we needed was a place to set up the studio. And it just so happened that attached to the student center was a vacant corner room with windows facing the open quad.

The radio club, as it was now known, had grown to about 10 members all eager to be on the air. If we could make this fly, most of Mr. Thompson’s radio class would bail and work for KFJC. I was elected its head. With hat in hand I approached the school board with our proposal, and it was a simple one. We would supply all the equipment, all the labor, take all the responsibility, and give Fullerton Junior College something to be proud of, run entirely by students. They should have been thrilled. But then reality struck.

One of the deans asked a rather obnoxious question. “Don’t you need some sort of license for a radio station?” The other deans agreed and told me to come back with a license, signed and sealed by the Federal Communications Commission, more commonly known as the FCC. Being a good salesman, I asked the right question. “If I return with a license, can we build the station?” The five caucused and their answer was, “yes”. I had been given marching orders, and march I did, to Santa Ana California and the offices of the FCC.

Tomorrow we learn how to run circles around bureaucrats.

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.

Radio firsts

I have written much of my colorful youth and there are many stories to share, but I don’t think I’ve yet told you about my earliest radio career.

The year was 1967 and I wanted more than anything to be a rock and roll disc jockey with all the supposed benefits: women, fame, and fortune (and in that order). But I was instead pursuing higher education, not because I wanted one, but because it was a better option than being drafted.

California’s Fullerton Junior College had a radio announcer’s course taught by a Mr. Thompson, who had himself never been on the radio. Though not ideal, this seemed a natural foot in the door towards my lifelong goals–commensurate with the honest desires of most 18 year old males.

So I sat at attention with thirty others taking notes on diction, history, technique and everything that mattered not when it came to being a DJ. Little did I care of Emile Berliner and his invention of the microphone, or Marconi’s, or Sarnoff’s and the others, long dead. But that was the first semester. Semester two was sitting at the control board playing records and being a DJ–not on the radio, but into a loudspeaker broadcasting to the rest of the class. Lame. It was real radio, girls, adulation and riches I was after, not playing music into a speaker for 29 other 18 year old males lusting after the same things.

Another inmate–and I wish I could remember his name, perhaps we’ll call him Lance–told me he had actually built an AM transmitter and all he lacked to go on the air was an audio control board. I knew enough electronics to build one and spent the summer conspiring with Lance on a real radio station, something Mr. Thompson and his loudspeaker could never compete against.

My second year at FJC found me petitioning the school board for an audience.

More tomorrow.

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.

Stepping out on limbs

I began writing Paul’s Posts on August 1st, 2011. My goals haven’t changed in four years: to build community through stories, education, entertainment and personal engagement.

A little over a year ago we launched Sprout, an affordable all in one integrated we hoped would serve the same purpose as Paul’s Posts, but to a different crowd. Sprout was well received with our core group, but didn’t do as well with younger aspiring Audiophiles – and they are the ones we had hoped to entice.
Sprout taught us much of how to engage the 28 to 40 year olds interested in hearing something better. Perhaps the biggest lesson was price. There seems a barrier of $500 they’re uncomfortable exceeding, and Sprout was $800 – a fair price based on traditional retailing models. But Sprout is anything but traditional.

We stepped out on a limb to create Sprout. Now we’re moving farther out on the branches by permanently lowering its price to $499. And while this price is currently available only in the United States, that’s not going to be forever. Plans are afoot to carry lowered pricing to other countries as well.

If you know of aspiring music lovers on a budget, we might just have something for them.

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.

Middle of the road

I often get asked to tone down my rhetoric and head closer to the centerline of acceptance; requests that generate pangs of guilt. I doubt any of us want to stick out too far, poke the box too hard, rattle cages too loudly. Yet, how interesting is middle ground?

I cannot imagine making products targeted to the masses, deciding which features to add or subtract based on surveys and customer comments. I suppose that’s what some do and I’ll bet they’re successful as hell. It’s not for us.

Staying near the fringes is exhilarating. Straying from the middle is where we learn, where innovation comes from, where our hearts lie.

I have always been a little happier, and certainly more energized, when I poke the box hard enough that it jumps back and surprises us all.

HT to my friend Seth for the box analogy.

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.

Listening through oatmeal

I know, I know. Why am I writing about a product not available for another six months? It’s like asking myself why I am excited about a vacation next year. It’s just on my mind and I am struggling to figure out what is so different about the prototype BHK preamplifier.

This bewitching box is so revealing, rich and full of life that anything else I have tried sounds wrong. Arnie and Bascom had warned me, but I thought perhaps they were exaggerating.  When I play a track like Le Temps Passe, by Jonasz Michel, the sound just explodes onto the IRSV, the thunderous pluck of bass, the live audience is really, really live. And when I return to the reference preamp, it’s good – as good and expressive as it’s ever been – but it seems not on the same planet. But why? What specifically are the differences and how do I express them?

Last night I discovered something extraordinary that helps me get closer to the answer. On any given week I am asked to listen to new production to make sure we’re still building equipment that lives up to our standards. I had been given a NuWave DSD, fresh off the production floor. My comparison is to Directstream. Of course we don’t expect our entry level DAC to sound as good, but in the past the two are at least in respectable company; the differences obvious, but not embarrassingly so. Yesterday this was no longer true. I panicked. The chasm between the NuWave DSD and Directstream was suddenly the size of the Grand Canyon. This had never happened and I ran for the reference – in case production would have to be recalled – for surely there was something wrong. The reference sounded no different.

I don’t fully understand this preamplifier, but I am getting closer. It’s as if I once listened through oatmeal, and now the haze has lifted, and I can see the distant horizon. Life shall never be the same.

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 BHK Chronicles

Bascom H. King (BHK) has been designing high end audio equipment longer than some of our customers have been alive.

He’s crafted products for most major high-end companies and his most recent gig, before PS Audio, was designing the fabulous Constellation Audio power amps. But designing for others isn’t the same as putting your name on the product; that takes courage.  We asked Bascom to design no-compromise audio products he was proud enough to bear his name, his heart, his soul, and his forty plus years of experience. Then our team makes them available to the world at high-value, sensible prices.

The first products we launched were the BHK Signature stereo and monoblock power amplifiers and they’ve been met with the highest praise from everyone that’s been able to hear them.

BHK’s next product will be an all out assault on the state of the art in preamplification, due out as a cost-no-object masterpiece in the second quarter of 2016. In the meantime, Bascom has volunteered to chronicle his design journey in a surprisingly open manner – warts and all – and it makes for some wonderful reading. It isn’t often a designer of his chops writes an ongoing diary of the design process he goes through.

I encourage people to go here and read the two entries he’s posted already, and bookmark the page to keep up with it (you can also receive an email notification when anyone posts on that forum).

This ought to be fun and certainly illuminating.