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.

This is so true. I use EQ in my system and even the seemingly smallest of changes have big effects.

Circumstances

It’s been hot for the past week before last night’s rain and cold descended upon us. With morning’s first light the birds were happy; the worms, not so much. The sudden change brought an aviary feeding frenzy.

Unexpected change freaks us out. We like things to stay the way they are. Dammit! “Stop changing on me.”

Huron, the DAC upgrade we just launched, changed everything in Music Room one for the better. Everything, that is, but the bass. Without much fanfare the lowest end in the room just sort of went poof.

I hadn’t noticed it at first because I was too enamored with how much better everything else was. But then, over time, I began to miss the lowest notes, the pant flapping organ rushes.

There’s always been a bass suckout in Music Room One, and I’ve arranged the hot seat to take advantage of it. A few inches one way or the other changes bass levels rather a lot. Huron’s lowest frequency phase response is more accurate than Torry’s, and that small phase angle change moved the null about 8 inches—enough to change the delicate balance.

Took me a while to figure it out and move the woofer towers to compensate. Bingo! Bass is back. (Modern quality subwoofers have a phase adjustment to fix this).

The thing to remember is that any change you make to your system may necessitate other changes to bring sound quality back into alignment.

Don’t assume you can just slap something new into the mix and have it just work.

 

 

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.

Backing off

Several respected readers have suggested that my dogmatic stance against strict  audio measurements as the be-all-to-end-all has been aggressive. At times, disrespectful of other people’s views.

I think that’s a fair criticism and I want to work on fixing that.

When I am passionate on a point I tend to hammer it home. A character fault, to be sure. Aggression and disrespect have no place in this dialog and I’ll do my best to calm that part down. Not the passion or conviction, just the tone.

Repeating the same point with different words and examples can sometimes shine the light of understanding where once there was only darkness. That’s my hope when I bring up new meaning that might illuminate the discussion.

It’s not that one person’s right, the other wrong. It’s clear to me that we’re all after the same thing. Our worldviews just differ.

It’s like saying chocolate tastes bad and refusing to accept a contrary opinion on the matter. That’s a dead end street.

What we can continue to explore is the means of reaching a common understanding, and that is worth everything.

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.

A little audio marketing from Paul, but I’m fine with that.

Seesaw

I always imagine progress as a seesaw; as one side goes up the other travels down—often frustratingly so.

Take the original  PWT Memory Player as an example. For years, simple Red Book CDs sounded better than any streaming device I had experimented with. Then a combination of cables, USB regeneration, shaman-waving potions, elevated the Mac Mini a little beyond the PWT.

Seesaw. What was once on top of the heap has begrudgingly taken second place.

Then a new I²S cable lifted the PWT’s performance beyond the server and it was relegated to use as a convenient source of high-quality music, but not the ultimate.

Seesaw.

And then came Bridge II, then server “secret sauce”, followed now by DMP back on top of the heap.

Seesaw.

Woody, one of our local customers, visited Music Room One yesterday and compared the San Francisco Mahler rips to the discs on DMP and heard it for himself. And as thanks, he turned me on to the best recording/performance of Puccini’s Turandot I have ever heard. It’s a Red Book which I immediately ordered up. The depth, bass, performance!! are stunning. Sutherland knocks it out of the park and I only heard the opening. Can’t wait to spend time when the disc set arrives.

Seesaw.

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.

This is Paul waxing enthusiasm over listening to a CD, as opposed to  listening to a ripped copy of a piece of music he loves, on to his hard drive. I would assume that this is after the Huron update to the DirectStream DAC and if this is the case, I’d like to hear this CD, although I’m not a big opera fan. The CD he was listening to, is almost $90 on Amazon!!! As the silver discs go away, they are going to get expensive.

Rediscovering music

One of my all time favorite operas is Verdi’s Don Carlo with Plácido Domingo and the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini on an EMI Classics recording. The work is an utterly inspired 1971 recording of the five-act Italian opera. The cast is stunning, with Domingo as a brash Don Carlos, and Sherrill Milnes as a volatile and virile Rodrigo.

I had been listening to my favorite sections, acts 1-4, on my headphones for some time now and it sounded like a rich and full-bodied recording—so I was eager to play it in Music Room One. The only version I had was a direct copy from a friend’s 3-disc set stored on my Mac Mini server. The richness and warmth I heard through headphones was all there, but the rest left me sad. Where the moving strains of low strings should have lifted voices off the stage and the tympani’s power almost frightening, I was left with a sense of emptiness I hadn’t anticipated. Bummer, I thought, must have been a poor recording. It was, after all, 46 years old and on analog tape.

By chance, a friend brought the actual CD set by and we slipped the disc into the DirectStream Memory Player just to hear the difference. I nearly fell out of my listening seat. The power, glory, and richness of this CD was overwhelming. Neither of us could stop listening to Giulini presiding over the company of Covent Garden. It breathed, it came to life, its power unmistakable. How could this be so different from the same CD copied onto my hard drive?

I made another copy and we tried it again on the server. Flat, dull, and the same as before. So much so I deleted the files from the drive and spent the $89 for a copy of this rare CD on Amazon. Fingers crossed it arrives soon enough.

If you have yet to hear what CDs truly sound like, now’s your chance. Check out the deal we have going on the DMP and DS combo. If you’re not in the States, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do to help.

Rediscovering what’s on these silver discs is the most fun I’ve had in some time. Too bad most of my great music is trapped on the hard drive.

Gotta fix that.

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.

Continuing the story of the PS Audio  BHK preamplifier volume control.

Nothing is best

I’m not sure how this thread morphed into a How I built this about volume controls but things have a tendency to just drift in a certain direction. But, I ramble on.

In yesterday’s post, I told the story of boiling the innards of a volume control down to nothing more than a single high-quality resistor. It was the best we’d heard but it still had a signature that wasn’t appreciated. How could it get better than a single, simple, component? By eliminating even that one device.

Preamplifiers are impractical designs. They consist of three things: input switches, volume control, output amplifier. With the volume control turned on high so no attenuation happens, preamps put out far more signal than needed to clip an amplifier. Which means volume control always attenuate—reduce signal level—to match the gain of the output amplifier. Seems rather counter-intuitive. We are forced to throw away signal to compensate for the amplifier’s gain.

Then, a light bulb went off in my head. Why suffer the added distortion of a volume control when it could be eliminated entirely by changing the output stage gain. Thus, a variable gain preamplifier is reduced from the tradition of three parts to two: input switching, variable gain output stage.

The first iteration of this technology we called the Gain Cell, which appeared nearly a decade ago in the GC Series. Today, it’s what is also inside the Stellar Gain Cell DAC/Preamp. But, we didn’t stop there. Bascom H. King (BHK) realized the same thing. Volume controls are the Achille’s heel of preamplifiers and, using entirely different techniques, he too varies the vacuum tube gain of the BHK Signature preamplifier in place of a traditional volume control.

Both preamp offerings of the company are based upon the perfect volume control. No volume control.

And that is how you make a better volume control.

Nothing is best.

 

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.

This is the journey Paul has taken toward the remote  volume control PS Audio is using in their BHK preamp, which is a great sounding preamp.  Te

Peak images

Creatives climb aspirational mountain peaks by building mental images: authors through words, composers through music, designers through styling, engineers through schematics.

The peak I aspired to climb as far back as the early 90s was solving the age old problem of volume controls. Every scheme to date was a compromise: the sliding dissimilarities of pots, multiple contacts of stepped attenuators, irregularities of light dependent resistors, loss of sonics with electronic pots. None were perfect. All were flawed.

At that point in time, I had narrowed my design thoughts to a scheme with fewer compromises. Using nothing more than a single high-quality resistor for the sound to pass through, it would be possible to build a volume control that eliminated the contacts, distortion, moving parts, and sonic loss of prior art. After all, I reasoned, music passes through a number of resistors on its journey to the power amplifier. Why not one more?

The problem with resistors and sound quality concerns resistance levels. The greater the series resistance the signal passes through the worse music sounds. I won’t get into the particulars that any engineer reading this post would pick up upon—like the load the resistor is working into—but take my word for it. Passing music through a 100kΩ series resistor sounds much worse than through a 100Ω part. Sound quality losses are immediately apparent.

In order to make a volume control with a single series element, you need to keep that element’s resistance relatively high so the corresponding shunt elements that funnel unwanted volume away can be effective. That resistance wound up requiring 30kΩ in order to give the product a reasonable attenuation range using electronic switches for the shunt elements. 30k is a very high series resistance and we’d need something special to make that work.

The experiments to find the perfect part began as Arnie Nudell and I auditioned numerous brands and types of resistors, finally settling on one. It was a handcrafted Vishay that, at the time, cost us $30 each (when even the best were about a dime) and we would need two.

The single element scheme and the Vishay worked. The volume control sounded far better than any pot we had heard, including the much talked about Penny and Giles. The bad news was it still had a sound to it. Even without any shunt elements, the single 30kΩ $30 Vishay placed its sonic thumbprint on the music. But, it was the best we had at the time, and better than any other technology available to us. We used that volume control in a product we called the Stealth Amplifier, a massive 200 Watt per channel Class A integrated Genesis produced. But I wasn’t satisfied.

The hunt continued, the peak yet climbed. What could be simpler and cleaner sounding for a volume control than just a single resistor?

chnical, but I’m posting it, just in case anybody is interested.

 

 

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.

Ruffling feathers

Sipping my morning cup of java I stared aimlessly out the kitchen window. My reverie was suddenly interrupted by the loudest cacophony of angry, chattering, magpies I have ever heard—an easy dozen of the white trimmed black birds all with feathers ruffled. Below them, next to my neighbor’s fence, was a small bobcat who clearly was unhappy for all the attention, and they chased the poor critter off the property. Man! That was an exciting morning.

I think yesterday’s post probably ruffled just as many feathers as that bobcat. I had suggested that up until recently our cherished remote controls corrupted sound quality, a claim I stand by with some explanation.

Remote control wands are harmless devices. Neither their infrared or RF signals are bothersome to sound. It is what those wands control that causes me to make such claims. Before all the remote control fuss, preamps were simple collections of switches and pots. For example, a good friend of mine, Jim McCullough still builds high-end handcrafted non-remote control products under the Cello brand. Here’s a picture of its insides.

A beautifully built piece of kit. You can see the care and attention paid to the switches, wires, and pots. Are these the perfect solution for sound quality? No. Nothing is perfect and everything comes with its baggage, though I’ll refrain from delving deep into particulars after receiving this note from the designer.

“No snarky comments tomorrow about how metal to metal contacts in the input selector and palladium wipers in the volume control matter less than not having to drag yourself across the room to change the volume.”

If we hop on our way back machine to the earliest days of replacing the manual volume control with a remote, the very first schemes were simple motors replacing your hand. Klunky, but effective, these earlier motorized pots struggled with fine volume adjustments but worked. The degrading compromises I spoke of had yet to enter the scene.

The plot thickens when motorized pots were replaced by electronic volume controls. Depending on design types sound quality took a big hit with their introduction. The myriad of schemes were all over the map: relays and resistors, CMOS and resistors, op amps, and so on.

The advent of electronic volume controls is where the problems for sonics really kicked in. We’ll delve a bit deeper tomorrow.

See! No snarky comments about wipers.

 

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.

Paul on remote controls…I’m an audio purist, but  won’t do without a remote control to set volume and my customers wouldn’t ever consider not having a remote. .

It’s not that I’m lazy, but each piece of music I listen to, seems to have a sweet spot and the remote helps me find this from where I sit and listen. I likey.

Here’s Paul on this.

Falling off the tracks

Televisions and home theaters need remotes, our hi-fi systems do not.

For those ancient enough to remember when equipment did not have remotes, we solved the problem of volume adjustment in the same way we made it easy to play a record. The preamp and turntable were next to us. No system worth its salt was set up away from us. We kept it simple. A table to the side of the couch or in front of us had the turntable and preamplifier at the handy. It was a perfect setup.

Televisions changed everything because they couldn’t be positioned within arm’s reach. So remotes were invented, first using ultrasound with clickers, later with infrared as most are today. Then, a marketing nerd decided what’s good for TV ought to be good for our stereos, despite the fact it was not only unnecessary but injurious to their design and performance.

Frankly, I never got over it. Our electronic equipment is now far from us for one reason. The remote control feature permits it—almost demands it. Because we can, we do.

Where our kit once had clean sounding mechanical switches and decent pots, we had to resort to worse sounding relays and electronic volume controls—or complex motorized pots—to mimic that which made sense on televisions. The whole world has gone remote control and what manufacturer doesn’t feel obligated to include it?

After all, we’ve now permanently rearranged our equipment and living spaces to accommodate the convenience of a remote, rather than the other way around. Ahh well.

So, what does adding remote control mean to a piece of equipment? We’ll get technical 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.

From Paul, about the changes in high end audio gear. and there have been a bunch.

Back when it was simple

One of the first cars I ever owned was a ’55 Chevy with a 265-cubic-inch 8 cylinder engine, carburetor for gas and air, and distributor for the spark. It was a simple design, one even I could work on with a minimal number of tools. I look under the hood of my car today and other than where I put in the washer fluid, everything is a mystery.

One of the first things I did to that car was loosen the distributor and turn it so the spark was advanced. This had the impact of ‘hot rodding’ the vehicle and, if advanced far enough, caused the car to ‘lope’ as if it had a much more powerful motor than it did.

I think of that car in the same way I think of the first high-end preamp I owned, an Audio Research SP3, purchased in 1975 for $400. Inside this analog beauty where two circuit boards, discrete resistors and capacitors, eight vacuum tubes, Alan Bradley pots, CTS switches, connectors and whatnot. Easy to work on, hot rod, whatever you wished to do. Much like that old Chevy of mine.

Open the modern-day BHK preamp we make and there’s the same sort of components: vacuum tubes, PC boards, discrete resistors and capacitors. But that’s where the similarity ends. What’s missing are all the analog pots and switches, which went away when we introduced remote controls.

Tomorrow, the shift towards remote control.

 

 

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.

Has anybody noticed how fast the world is changing, at least in terms of gadgets?

CD’s….Perfect Sound Forever…..Well not perfect sound and apparently, not forever, either……came out in the 1980’s and already they are almost extinct. Digital streaming is taking their place and they are going to become like LP’s, meaning rare and probably expensive, down the road.

Already there are expensive CD players making it to the Audiophile market, as many believe it is easier to get great sound quality from  a CD, than streaming.

I’ve not jumped into the world of streaming as I have over 2000 CD’s ripped and the sound is truly excellent, but this will probably happen in the next  12 months, or so.

From Paul….

Seismic shift

A seismic shift is one that literally means moving the Earth. That’s a big change.

When I got started in 1974 there were no computers, cell phones, digital circuitry. It was all analog. We learned the art of analog design because that was the only way to build a high-end audio product. Analog in, analog out.

Front panels were controlled by knobs and switches rather than what we take for granted today, the remote control—itself enjoying a rich history including the Blab-off in 1952 to quiet TV commercials, the Space Commander channel tuner in 1956 using an ultrasonic “clicker”, and Apple founder Steve Wozniac’s CL 9 wireless universal remote in 1987.

Contrast those early days of analog with today’s amalgam of digital and analog and we can see the Earth has indeed moved. Few products today aren’t hybrids of digital and analog, if even just to control the front panel LED.

Over the next few days, we’ll take a look at some of these major shifts.