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

A new transport

I have promised quite a few of you a sneak peek of the upcoming DirectStream Transport (DST).

Though not available until October, it’s perhaps not too early to tell you a few things.

DST has been in the works–skunk works actually–for quite some time. First proposed by DirectStream creator, Ted Smith, who had an idea of how we might build a transport perfect for DirectStream DAC, we partnered with Oppo. From that point forward, our chief engineer, Bob Stadtherr (inventor of the Digital Lens and Power Plants), has been working tirelessly on the new transport.

Bob’s crafted a number of groundbreaking innovations into DST, and I won’t detail them here, but perhaps one of the most outstanding features will be its ability to play SACD directly into DirectStream and DirectStream Junior DACs – something previously impossible. Once connected over I2S, pure DSD from any SACD will fill your room with sound that’s drop dead remarkable. As I have said in the past, if you haven’t had a chance to hear the SACD layer trapped by encryption on your SACDs, and frankly few have, then you really don’t have a clue what’s on them.

When you play an SACD through a DAC, you hear only the CD layer. Because of copyright laws transports aren’t legally permitted to output digital DSD streams from SACD except through an encrypted HDMI connection into a Sony designed chip. The new DST honors the original Sony copyright rules through an encrypted handshake with any DirectStream DAC, but now you’ll be able to hear the magic of DSD through a Ted Smith designed DAC. Finally! My 50 or so SACDs have found their true purpose in life.

Oh, and DST also outputs multi-channel as well as 2-channel. No, it doesn’t do video – this is designed from the ground up as a pure, no compromise, audio transport. It’s also a universal player too, so DVD discs with 192/24 or DSF files, even BluRay all play nice with the new transport. I’ll present full details in the coming months, but if you want to learn more, here’s a video we made of my presentation to the Colorado Audio Society.

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

It’s not better…

How many tweaks and improver gadgets do we buy with the claim of being better? Most of them. But do they really make things “better”? Better than what?

I buy organically grown food whenever I can. It’s more expensive, but it’s better. Better than what?

Let’s face it. Tweaks, improvers, organically grown food aren’t better, they’re less bad. And that turns out to be an important distinction. We don’t get healthier than normal by eating organic food. Instead, organics remove the threat of eating foods grown with pesticides. A very different value equation. One is benign, the other harmful.

An art restoration doesn’t make a painting look better than the day it was painted. The goal is to remove the grit and grime of centuries to restore the original luster and beauty.

A USB Regen, Jitterbug, even a Power Plant AC Regenerator aren’t better, they are less worse. Take power for example. When the AC power is fresh from the AC generator in your city, it’s about as good as it gets: low distortion, quiet, low impedance, regulated. Once it gets out in the world and used by thousands of people, it gets contaminated: higher impedance, distortion and noise, regulation goes down. A Power Plant fixes this and thus, we suggest Power Plants make everything better. But not better than original.

It’s probably more accurate to say these improvers remove that which was inflicted upon the original, restoring it to perfect.

The reason this distinction is important is because, in most cases, we don’t want to start thinking we’re building something that exceeds the original, when the truth is we’re likely restoring it back to pure.

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

Natural filters

Not more than a few months ago workers completed a renovation of our building and life got back to normal. The painters had used some form of vile chemical to prime the trim around the doors and the smell was so intense we sent staff home. At one point I had cause to talk with the lead painter and mentioned the smell as it was difficult for me to even be in the same room with it. He gave me a quizzical look and replied, “what smell?”

Our abilities to get used to smells, sights and sounds common to us makes sense. That which overloads the senses obfuscates everything else. Our senses help us navigate the world and we need to eliminate the constant barrage of common inputs in order to differentiate less noticeable newer sights, smells and sounds.

I wonder how selective filtering might affect our hearing? When you get used to a certain sound, like the way music’s presented on your reference system, you tend to ignore its failings–and its strengths–if those are always in abundance. That’s the rounding off effect we call personal break in, how we get used to something so we can focus on something else.

I have witnessed this effect in my own reference system. There had been a time where the speaker capacitors separating highs in the IRS had begun to fail and, over a long period of time, highs began diminishing. The process was so slow I had gotten used to the lack of highs. Friends would walk in fresh from the street and comment on how dull the top end sounded.

I am not sure what to do about this natural filtering we go through, though inviting friends over to enjoy the system works well.

And shouldn’t we be sharing the wonders of our music systems with friends, anyway?

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

Credibility

Morning! Issue 5 of Copper Magazine just shipped. Hope you have a chance to give it a read.

I had mentioned in yesterday’s post that a now famous test conducted by Meyer and Moran, and published in the prestigious AES Journal, offered proof there are no sonic differences between CD and high res quality. After publication there were the expected howls and cries from us Audiophiles – exclamations met with contempt from the scientific community. A few people I greatly respect applied some reasoned criticism such as this from Stereophile Editor John Atkinson.

I can easily see why these tests failed to demonstrate differences by just looking at their setup, and I am sure you can as well. But there’s a bigger issue I wanted to touch upon, credibility.

We typically find opinions and conclusions more credible when someone with more knowledge or experience than we have makes them. And this willingness to believe others, even if it goes against our own experience, is built into our very cores for good reason. As we grow and learn, we have to rely upon the knowledge, experience and wisdom of others: our parents, teachers, leaders, shamans, tribal elders, etc.

What’s fascinating to me is how we select that which we allow to sway us. We’ve all seen examples of scientists misleading us, often out of just being wrong, but other times trying to sway opinions. I remember some of the more egregious examples: tobacco companies funding studies of how safe smoking is, leaded gas is not a danger to our health, and so on.

As we get older and more experienced, we need to learn to trust our own observations – or certainly questions scientific “proof” that what we know to be true isn’t.

We’re not always right, and neither are the scientists.

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

Can I be a snob?

I had mentioned in yesterday’s post I am one of the more prejudiced people I know when it comes to stereo equipment. May I add to that? I believe I am sometimes an audio snob, as well. I don’t make fun of people’s systems–not even mentally–unless they are putting that system up for critique, implying it is a reference system.

Occassionaly systems offered as reference quality may at first appear worthy of turning my nose up, but once I hear them, I sometimes change my mind. This is rare but it always pleases me when someone has the skill to make great music out of lesser bits.

While working on a presentation about our upcoming DirectStream Transport–one of the few to legally stream DSD from SACD into a real DAC–I found an interesting article in Wikipedia.

In September 2007 the Audio Engineering Society published the results of a year-long trial, in which a range of subjects including professional recording engineers were asked to discern the difference between SACD and a compact disc audio (44.1 kHz/16 bit) conversion of the same source material under double blind test conditions. Out of 554 trials, there were 276 correct answers, a 49.8% success rate corresponding almost exactly to the 50% that would have been expected by chance guessing alone. When the level of the signal was elevated by 14 dB or more, the test subjects were able to detect the higher noise floor of the CD quality loop easily. The authors commented:

Now, it is very difficult to use negative results to prove the inaudibility of any given phenomenon or process. There is always the remote possibility that a different system or more finely attuned pair of ears would reveal a difference. But we have gathered enough data, using sufficiently varied and capable systems and listeners, to state that the burden of proof has now shifted. Further claims that careful 16/44.1 encoding audibly degrades high resolution signals must be supported by properly controlled double-blind tests.

Being an audio snob, and the fact that high resolution audio sounds so deliciously better than CD, this of course piqued my interest. I wondered, what was the system used as their reference? I dug a bit, and here’s a picture.

What is it we’re looking at here? Well, first, this appears to be one of the worst speaker setups I have ever seen–if the goal was to hear differences. Two speakers, toed in, up against the wall in a bare room. Not sure I could hear much from that either.

The playback equipment in this system consisted of an Adcom GTP-450 preamp and a Carver M1.5t power amplifier. Speaker cables were 8 feet of generic 12-gauge stranded wire; the line-level connecting cables were garden-variety. Three different players were used: a Pioneer DV-563A universal player, a Sony XA777ES SACD model, and a Yamaha DVD-S1500. The loudspeakers were a pair of Snell C5s. The CD-standard A/D/A loop was an HHB CDR-850 professional CD recorder.

Good grief! There were actually 4 systems, but this was the primary. The others looked worse.

I’ll have more to say tomorrow.

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

Impressions

We’re all guilty of being impressionistic in our own ways. We form prejudices, both good and bad, as a type of filter that helps us make wholesale choices: speaker types, cable types, media types and, of course, everything else like food, mates, cars and where we live.

I was in the supermarket deciding on which type of cracker I shouldn’t buy and spied a familiar label: Back to Nature. Well, hell, I’m a healthy guy–or at least I like to think I make healthy food choices–and a cracker taking me back to nature seemed the least guilty choice on the shelf. The irony that no junk food gets us back to nature never occurred to me.

Later that night with a glass of red wine and a plate full of my natural crackers, I became suspicious. These crackers tasted identical to the un-natural crackers I am used to and so I did some reasearch. Aha! Should have known it. Back to Nature is owned by Kraft Food of Velveeta processed cheese spread, Jello-O and Nabisco fame.

Couldn’t have turned my stomach more than if it had been owned by Monsanto! And yet… was it just my prejudice against big companies selling processed food, or was it valid?

I harbor many prejudices in the audio industry and they are widespread, ranging from brands I believe don’t care about sound quality, to those passionate. I am perhaps the most prejudiced person I know.

But is that a bad thing? Seems the longer I am on this planet the more I realize we all have pretty set ideas of right and wrong, good and bad.

It’s just in our nature.

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

Best for you…

Yesterday was Earth Day. Go plant something, be kind to our mother we depend upon for everything in our lives. For me, for you, for us. Thanks.

And another reminder. If you’re interested in getting your reservation in for a hand-signed BHK preamp from the first batch–we’ve only a limited number available–go here and grab one before they’re all spoken for.  If you’re outside the US please contact your local dealer or distributor and we’ll do what we can if they’re not already gone.

Over the hundreds upon hundreds of systems I have listened to over many decades one thing has stood out for me. Each system had been optimized for one source of music playback and, in every case, that source sounded best: tape, vinyl, digital, live (like in a studio).

The only consistent observation was that only one source sounded best and the second source inevitably sounded worse. Put in simpler terms, every vinyl-centric system outshone the digital second source. Every digital-centric system outshone the vinyl source. And in every case, the one source dominating the other had been the primary set up source.

It occurs to me this observation may explain one of the reasons we have such wildly varying opinions on the subject of which medium is best. Turns out, at least in my mind, the best medium is the one you set the system up with. If vinyl, then that will always sound best, digital worse. And the opposite is true.

In all my years of listening I have never heard any system where both mediums sound best – or even comparable. Granted I haven’t heard all systems, but I’ve heard a fair share.

Let’s put to rest the debate till another time and agree that each of us has irrefutable proof our sources sound best–and we wouldn’t be wrong.

But – and here’s where we’re likely to disagree – because our primary source–the source we set up the system with–digital or vinyl–sounds best does not mean it is the best.

Those of you waving one flag or another, me included, take a deep breath and realize it works best for you – and understand why.

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

Setting up

I want to share something I believe you’ll resonate with: the ritual of system setup.

Let’s briefly walk through the process.

  • Place the speaker pair away from the rear wall
  • Separate left and right channels a comfortable distance
  • Toe them in slightly towards the listener
  • Connect all cables

You fire up the system playing your favorite music and give a listen. Perhaps the center image isn’t as defined as you would want, so you effect a little more toe in–perhaps separate them less–and dial that in. You make many adjustments including replacing this cable with that, a USB optimizer or not, a different phono cartridge or slightly greater tracking force–maybe VTA adjust–small room changes like adding a diffuser or an absorber, level adjust on the subwoofer, till finally, it all sounds pretty good.

What have you accomplished? Have you optimized speaker placement for the room? The equipment? Both?

And what of headphones where the room does not matter? You choose headphone models, amplifiers, cables, the same decisions of phono cartridge and setup, USB this or that, and associated equipment to suit your tastes.

And here’s the thing. Each decision you made is based on your source gear and amplification chain. If vinyl, with its relatively poor high frequency response and channel separation, you adjust peripherals to compensate. If digital, different choices are made. And those differences in setup are all based on the chain itself. Change any element in the chain, your choices must all be reevaluated.

Are you with me? Let’s pick the thread up again tomorrow.

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

Optimization

One of my readers reminded me of this great cartoon in the New Yorker, which I include here. I just couldn’t resist.

Let me share with you an observation I have made, concerning optimization.

My system is, and always has been, optimized for digital audio reproduction. And it sounds startlingly good. Vinyl in my system, does not compare to digital – and this despite the excellent Clear Audio Turntable, $4,000 phono cartridge etc.

When I visited Michael Fremer’s home his vinyl optimized system sounds better than digital in every single case. And his digital system is no slouch either.

How can it be that on my system digital just blows the doors off vinyl and on others, the opposite is true?

Is there no truth to notions of superiority of format? And not just vinyl/digital. DSD/PCM, this cable or that cable.

Let’s spend a few days taking a look at how setup of our systems has such a significant impact on performance. In fact, we might have to suggest setup has more impact than just about any other factor.

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

Have we learn’t anything?

Certainly the question of why vinyl is so appealing to some, unappealing to others, has gotten a clearer answer than ever before, at least in my head.

We understand that some of the vinyl’s magic can be explained by its generation of an artificial three dimensional sound bed from which the music is anchored in. The sound bed, consisting of surface noise and record ticks and pops, stand apart from the music because the needle sees them as separate–surface noise and music embedded in the record grooves ARE separate. To make matters even more interesting, vertical displacement of the needle often puts channel-to-channel stereo surface noise out of phase, which further adds to the illusion of dimensionality, from which the music can be anchored in. Further, and this is one part I find fascinating, every vinyl disc has a unique noise signature depending on numerous factors: how it was cut, the type of plastic it was made from, how clean it is, the condition of the surface. In other words, this satisfying bed of noise we seem to treasure is never the same, making each album a customized experience, and each cartridge more or less spatially interesting depending on how it tracks the surface.

We also understand vinyl’s stereo separation is nearly gone as the frequencies go up – so that upper harmonics, and high frequency spatial cues are somewhat mono as they tend to be in a live environment; a great example of poor performance enhancing the live feel of music. In digital, channels are separated exactly as they were recorded, which may not be what we want if we’re hoping to duplicate vinyl’s allure. A masterful recording engineer might add realism with an ambience microphone to take the place of vinyl’s limited channel separation in the upper registers.

And yet another mystery has been solved too. It is now clear why a digital copy of a needle drop is nearly indistinguishable from the actual playback through an analog setup. It’s likely because of the artificially induced three dimensional noise bed which is captured in the digital recording.

Further, we can also deduce this is may be part of the same reason an original digital recording sounds “better” when captured on vinyl, vs. playback through a DAC.

There are more pieces to this fascinating puzzle falling into place, and we’ll report on them as we move forward.