Many years ago I was treated to my first encounter with caviar. It was dinner for four at Petrosains in New York at the invite of my friend Arnie Nudell. Also at the table were Harry Pearson and Mike Kay, two dear friends who have since passed. I had never tasted caviar and a round of it was brought out as an appetizer to the meal—small toasts were included and a bottle of champagne had been opened.
My entire knowledge of caviar consisted of a single definition: fish eggs that were black instead of the red ones in a bait and tackle box. Hesitant at the idea of eating fish bait, I put a tiny amount on one of the toasts and closed my eyes. It was delicious. I wanted more. The others at the table seemed conservative, dabbing tiny dollops onto the toasts. I assumed they didn’t like it as much as I, and proceeded to hoark most of it—lathering great mounds onto bread—as the others engaged in dinner talk.
Our host, Arnie, ever the gentleman, never said a word to me until it was time to order dinner. I wanted lobster and was hesitant to order the expensive dish. I leaned over and asked if I should perhaps choose something a little more affordable. The table erupted in laughter.
“You just ate $1,200 worth of caviar, and you’re worried about a $50 entre?”
Who knew? I had just wallowed in the single most expensive dinner in my life (then and now) and from my perspective I had been eating a fish egg appetizer I thought might be out of a jar from a fishmonger.
I no longer eat fish, eggs or otherwise. But that night was something that’s stuck in my memory ever since.
Leaving the kitchen at PS Audio I was careful not to spill my tea—eyes focused on the steaming cup of liquid. I hadn’t noticed the person standing in the hall and nearly covered us both with hot green tea.
He had been in Music Room One and emerged looking for our International sales manager, Travis, but figured I’d do as well to answer a few questions. I was glad for the break in my daily running around.
What he was curious about is a topic I often have to explain. How better doesn’t make for better.
He was blown away with what he had been hearing and questioned whether it was the equipment or the speakers. Few people go into Music Room One that aren’t bowled over by just the look of the massive Infinity IRSV, let alone their sound. And the assumption is the speakers make the equipment driving them sound better—thus providing an unfair advantage when auditioning gear.
What might happen if he were to install PS products with his own speakers that weren’t so impressive?
Better speakers don’t help electronics sound better. In fact, the opposite is true.
It’s a funny thing. The speakers in Music Room One are some of the most revealing loudspeakers in the world. Tiny sonic blemishes seem magnified like pimples in the mirror.
The better your equipment the more easily you can hear both the good and the bad.
Preamp beta tester Christian Griego wrote the following here:
“This preamp is disappointingly good…Bass drum extension in Boston Symphony recording is unbelievable. Natural, and conveyed the dynamics that the bass drum player did through the recording… I have forgotten about the equipment at this point and am enjoying the elements of the music”
And that last line is what got me, though I have to admit I am intrigued by the first line about being disappointingly good.
I had written yesterday about remembering and today Christian’s post reminded me about forgetting. Forgetting you’re even listening to hifi equipment at all.
And, isn’t that what it’s all about?
I hate it. As I age my memory gets worse and it was never great in the first place. At least I don’t remember it being great.
Some things, like circuits and emotional responses, are permanently etched. Others, like day-to-day tasks, people’s names, numbers, are lost before lunch.
I am certain we’re all different, yet all the same. And I don’t mean to be confusing. I have observed that while each of us is unique, we share many similar traits, like emotional memory. I can’t remember the substance of a particular disagreement but I can remember the emotional response to it.
The same seems true for me with the stereo system. I had reason to go into Music Room One and audition a new BHK preamp, one on its way to a reviewer. There was something wrong and I knew it immediately—yet I hadn’t placed the new preamp in the system yet!
Damn! Someone had horked the LANRover prototype and reconnected the system without it. I knew instantly.
Here’s the thing. My memory’s not good enough to have suggested the sound was missing this or that specific thing. What I missed was the emotional response I had expected. With the LANRover in the system there’s a magic to the sound and it makes me smile. Without it, I do not get the same emotional charge.
I think most of us are quite like this. We more easily remember an emotional response to something than we do the specifics of what triggered the emotion.
Now, on to tracking down the criminal that made off with the LANRover.
We know that every element in the signal chain imparts a sonic fingerprint: bipolars, tubes, JEFETS, MOSFETS. And let’s not to forget film, foil, beeswax, ceramic, and electrolytic capacitors.
One piece of the puzzle has only never been eliminated. Magnetism. Most everything you listen to when reproducing music arrives to you through the lens of a magnetic field. Without magnetic fields most of us would not be able to enjoy recorded music.
Just about every loudspeaker or headphone is based on a magnetic field. In fact there are only four exceptions I can think of—two we all know, the other two I’d be surprised if more than a handful had ever heard music reproduced through them. The two we know are the original Gramophone, which worked more like a tin can and string arrangement—and didn’t sound much better—the other the classic electrostatic loudspeaker.
Those playback exceptions aside, when we listen to music on home reproduction systems it is mostly through opposing magnetic fields, one fixed, the other variable (either recorded with a magnetic based microphone or reproduced through a magnetic based speaker). And magnets are not linear, nor is the motion of drivers pumping air into our ears or the microphones that pick up the music we record.
There are non-magnetic based microphones that are similar to electrostatic loudspeakers. And thus in a modern system with electrostatic loudspeakers and hand-selected recordings using condenser microphones, one could avoid magnetic fields, but it’s rare.
Microphones, phono cartridges, tape heads, the laser reading mechanism on a CD transport, hard drives, all depend on magnetic fields for their movement, conversion of motion into electrical impulses or storage and retrieval.
The original switch from the Edison Gramophone to the microphone/loudspeaker combination still in use today came about because of the magnet. And it’s been with us ever since.
One way or the other, if you listen to recorded music, it’s likely colored with a magnetic lens.
I had asked my readers for help saving an institution. Jazz 24, KPLU Seattle, was struggling for its life. Their sponsor was selling the station for seven million dollars and the new owners would have eliminated this great programming forever. A community based fundraising organization rose to the challenge and succeeded. One of the best radio stations in the world is saved.
The community to save Jazz 24 managed to raise seven million dollars in 4 months, setting a new record for the most money ever raised to keep a community radio station alive. Well done.
If you like jazz, it’s one of the best. Evenings and weekends they play the kind of jazz I love and rarely repeat any of it. A brilliantly programmed station. It is available worldwide through Tunein or Jazz 24’s own website.
Here’s something unexpected. Terri and I now feel ownership of this station. It’s weird and I don’t understand why. We donate regularly to NPR but feel no ownership. Donating and campaigning for Jazz 24 just felt different and now I feel like an owner. Odd.
My message today is simply one of thanks. Thanks for the support and thanks for the music.
I love a good story. Always have. And few things bring me more pleasure than sharing stories, especially ones that are personal, or funny; exciting.
When I am lucky enough to be invited to speak in front of a group of music lovers it’s stories that I tell, ones I hope will resonate. There’s no prepared speech, no points to be made, just the sharing of stories relating to the group.
When I share a new product with you it’s typically done so in the form of a story—one that’s often filled with my personal excitement.
Often, my over-the-top excitement can get me in trouble. A reviewer recently scolded me for too much “hype” and not enough calm and deliberate words to describe the BHK amplifiers. His criticism has merit—I rarely speak or write with calm.
The very best communicators share their emotional reactions in ways that place readers in writer’s shoes. And that’s a goal I strive for—though rarely achieve.
But skills or not, I think it’s more important to share emotions when felt than it is to douse excitable flames in the interest of calm communication.
Products that bring music to our home should evoke emotions.
What’s it really like to design a new piece of electronics? Of course it’s different for every engineer, but mostly we start with an idea, sketch it out until it looks feasible, then built it to see the results.
I can remember back to when I was designing the Gain Cell. The sketch took a day, the work on the bench three months. And when the bench work was done, you have something to measure and listen to, but not much else. Once approved a new phase of work begins with circuit board designs, chassis, measurements, certifications, more listening, etc. It’s a long process. But it all starts on the bench.
Bascom King has been hard at work on the next project, a phono preamplifier.
The timing might seem odd given the fact we just shipped the BHK preamp to beta testers last month, but once Bascom turns his designs over to us he’s ready to start work on the next project as our engineering team crafts his finished circuitry into a real product.
I posted a picture and a short description of BHK at work on the phono preamp here. If you’ve ever wondered what a prototype looks like, I think you’ll find this interesting.
My friend Rick sent me an article in Digital Trends Magazine detailing how Korean giant Samsung is preparing an all out assault on high-end audio. They’ve amassed a star studded team of engineers to do battle:
When you think of Samsung, lots of things come to mind: televisions, phones, appliances… but one thing that probably doesn’t spring to mind is high-end audio, a category Samsung wishes to become number one in.
…the team is helmed by a fiery Canadian with a passion for X/Y graphs and sound wave diffraction… poached from one of the biggest names in audio, Harman (owner of Harman/Kardon, Infinity, and JBL). Along with him came 10 of Harman’s best, while other staffers jumped ship from the likes of Bang & Olufsen, Gibson, and Beats by Dre, among others.
Seriously? I nearly spilled my cup of coffee this morning.
This announcement would have passed me by with a yawn were it not for the words high-end audio. I am sure this is a fine team of measurementists who will likely make some good products aimed at what I would call the consumer audio industry. But saying they are targeting the high-end audio field is a little akin to suggesting a new product from McDonalds is designed to overtake the culinary arts.
It’s easy to bandy terms like high-end audio when what we mean is the upper reaches of consumer audio.
Not that it matters much, and maybe I am being overly protective of our niche, but I certainly don’t feel comfortable soiling the term by which we refer to our art by the likes of these guys.