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.

Building systems

We cobble together multiple components to form a stereo system. Speakers, cables, equipment, are all necessary elements to produce music in our homes.

The skills needed to assemble a proper stereo are not taught in school and with the single exception of Jim Smith’s excellent work, I’ve yet to see a book explaining it well enough to use. In fact, most of us learn by the seat of our pants (or with the help of a friend).

There was a fabled time, long ago and in a galaxy far from here, where neighborhood dealers filled the role of system gurus. Some were genius at the task, like Jonas Miller of Los Angeles, and Mike Kay of New York City. Sadly, those days seem to have faded into the past (for the most part). The new paradigm of every man for himself would likely put a smile on the ghost of Ayn Rand.

One of my long-held dreams is to fill the role of system builder for our customers. The idea of personally curating entire audio systems (everything from the AC wall socket to your ears) and then figuring out a way to ensure they sound just right might be the stuff of dreams, but I believe it to be a worthwhile goal—one we intend to pursue with all we have available to us.

In the meantime, as we work with the legendary speaker designer Arnie Nudell (of Infinity fame) to complete the audio chain, a few manufacturers of speakers would like to recommend the types of speaker cables you use.

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.

Speakers with plugs

The secret to selecting the perfect amplifier chassis, location, topology, and wattage rating can be found inside the loudspeaker—not in the form of a hidden note—but rather in the demands of the speaker itself.

But that’s not the way it all shakes out when it comes to selecting amps and speakers (where we typically follow one of several patterns): matching the speaker to the amp or choosing an amp big enough to work with anything we throw at it.

In the first example, if we have a small amplifier (perhaps a lower power SET), we don’t want to connect to a power hungry loudspeaker. Instead, we’d choose an efficient horn or cone design. Failure to get this right results in clipping and bad sound.

The purchasing pattern most familiar to us is amps big enough to handle just about anything. Several hundred watts will do, even one hundred’s probably stout enough to drive most loudspeakers to respectable volume levels. Is it a perfect match? Who knows.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph we’d be much better off if all speakers came amplified. Designers could match amps to speakers and customers would be the beneficiaries of perfect matching. If the speaker had nasty impedance dips, or lofty resonances needing taming, no worries. Just match amp technology to speaker requirements and voila! Perhaps the best performance might be a small and sweet tube amplifier driving the tweeter while the bass might benefit from a brute class D beast. Together, sweet music might be the result.

Only, this rarely happens. Why? I am not entirely certain but for the longest time, I suspected two things: speaker designers rarely have expertise in amp designs and people were uncomfortable with the AC cord required for both left and right channels. I am quite certain of the first observation, less of the second since increasing numbers of speakers have plug-in subwoofer amps.

 

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.

Removing the blinders

I can’t tell you the number of times I have been so focused on the one thing I miss what’s right in front of my face. It’s the classic forest through the trees syndrome.

Such can be the case with digital audio and a long-held fear that differences we hear might just be imaginary. Why? Because the seemingly ridiculous lengths we often go to for sonic improvements are made fun of by those who do not take the time to experience them. It’s always easy to be a critic.

One of the best explanations I’ve yet encountered for helping understand how seemingly minute changes can have such sweeping impacts was penned by Bit Perfect cofounder, Richard Murison who writes:

“Bits are only Bits so long as they are used to store a representation of the music. As soon as you send them to the DAC (or as soon as the DAC’s internal circuitry sends them to the actual digital-to-analog conversion stage) they become an analog waveform that tries its best to represent the digital bitstream. Compounding the problem, this analog waveform is no longer confined to the audio frequency bandwidth, where the chaff can usually be readily removed from the wheat, but is now way up in the RF frequency band where every problem you solve seems to cause another one to pop up elsewhere.

That harmless phrase “an analog waveform that tries its best to represent the digital bitstream” hides a plethora of technical limitations that typically require enormous expense to implement effective solutions. Think of “femto clocks”, for example. It is misleading to think of these simply as ridiculously fast timing signals. What they really are are ways of getting the noise in that “analog representation” out of the frequencies where it does the most harm.”

Well stated, my friend!

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.

Timing and nuance

Musical scores are precise instructions detailing how the composer wished the music to be played: notes and tempo are fixed, accents and volume levels accounted for. Two performers tickling identical ivories should, therefore, render carbon copies of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

But that never happens.

The differences are timing and nuance—an observation that might also shed light on a tired argument: “If bits are bits, how can two different methods of serving those same bits sound different?”

Timing and nuance.

Or, take a recipe as another example: exacting lists of ingredients, portions, temperatures—even technique—rarely come out the same.

Timing and nuance.

Is it responsible to argue that bits are bits while ignoring all the other factors at play? (And isn’t such a black and white argument of a complex technology a little lopsided?)

Seems to me there must be a reasonable middle ground somewhere—I just can’t seem to find it.

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.

Sweetening sound

We’re all looking for audio truth—getting as close to the live event as technically possible. So, why is it we tend to install equipment and systems that offer an artificially sweetened sound? Do we believe all recordings should be lush, romantic, and easy on our ears? Surely that wouldn’t be honest sound. (We’ve all cringed at a live event).

Yet time and again I read about a cable that removes digital hash, a DAC that sounds sweet, or a cartridge with added bloom.

Several companies—most notably British—have offered vacuum tube sweeteners to be inserted in the signal path of an otherwise cold and overly honest system. They are not alone. Our own BHK products have vacuum tubes in their front ends, though not for artificial reasons.

In the case of our signature products, we weren’t looking to sweeten sound, but rather eliminate added grunge and glare that covers up the audio truth yearning for freedom.

Still, manufacturers tend to add audio sweeteners in the same way sugar might cover up the sins of a bitterly roasted bean.

It is terribly difficult for music lovers to discern if components have been employed to sweeten or cover up harshness, as opposed to uncovering what often gets colored or maimed in the process of amplification.

Sweetening sound is not something that furthers our quest for the audio truth, but it’s an easy fix for a difficult problem.

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.

Oh, the lengths we go to

I have seen some crazy stuff in the 40 plus years I have been around audiophiles and high-end systems. Exotic room conditioning, trinkets aplenty, cables the size of my leg, claims of subatomic effects, components that sound different depending on their earthly orientation, low-frequency waves said to resonate with the Earth. In fact, I could spend hours relating some of the great tricks and techniques applied in service of better sound.

What’s interesting to me is the large number of these ‘tricks of the trade’ that actually work. In fact, more often than not fellow audiophiles have taught me great things that I routinely incorporate in my own system and recommend to others.

One of those suggestions I often hear about is separating cables from each other. You’ve no doubt seen the multitude of after-market cones, lifts, and strategies for elevating cables off the floor and separating them from the pack. While I don’t currently use these add-ons to isolate and improve performance, I do pay close attention to what sits next to each other.

In my experience, higher level cables radiate more than those of lower level. For example, speaker and power cables radiate more than low-level signal cables—yet low-level signal cables are far more susceptible to radiated interference the either of these higher level cable examples. Much depends on levels of shielding and the types of signals being transferred over those cables.

My rule of thumb is simple. Do what you can to keep speaker cables off the floor and away from any other cables. (the MG Audio cables I use are easy to simply stand on edge). Power cables are ok on the floor but should be dressed in a way that keeps them from interconnects. And above all, use balanced interconnects at every opportunity. Not only do they consistently sound better, but they can reject stray EMI that does get in.

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.

I’m a big believer in the audio listening room being the most important component in a stereo system and this article tells the first tale and most important tale.

Delayed audio

Here’s an interesting fact. If we play our stereo system outdoors we’d have no room problems, yet not much would sound right.

Rooms are somewhat of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, their hard boundaries enable our speakers to fill the room with sound. (Imagine your stereo system trying to fill Yankee Stadium). On the other hand, those very walls get in the way of good audio.

The most difficult of problems in rooms are the floors and ceilings (though if you’re blessed with a tall ceiling, you need only stress about the floor). A good carpet can work miracles in most rooms.

The next set of problems are typically counted in the fours. We call them walls. Sound pressure waves from our speakers travel straight to our ears, and soon after, we get another blast—slightly out of time from the first. The amount of delay is dependent on the closest side wall. The delayed audio is known as a first reflection.

If you visited our room at RMAF you would have noticed two diffusers, one on each side wall (you can watch the video here). These wooden contraptions were strategically placed right at the point where the speaker’s sound waves first hit the wall. The diffuser scatters sound and makes it harder for the ear to pinpoint its location and that’s a good thing.

If you’ve not addressed the first reflection of your room, you might want to

 

 

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.

I built the speakers I am currently using, but had some help. The manufacturer of the driver, Great Plains Audio, also designed the crossover, although we replaced many of the parts inside. I designed the cabinet and the matching external crossover boxes and had a local guy build them, which was a interesting experience.

After some angst, the project ended up turning out beautifully and I’m very happy with the audio system, although I will be adding Rogue Audio’s new RP-7 tube preamp this week to continue to support my vendors, where it makes sense. What little high end audio I sell here, is Rogue Audio gear, so I am happy to support them. Great products, great people and everything is made in the USA.

I imagine it will sound at least as good as what I am using now, if not even better. I know ergonomically, it will work better and it has a tube headphone inside, too.

DIY speakers

How hard can it be to build your own speakers? Heck, the speaker drivers themselves are easy enough to get—Parts Express has just about every cool driver, crossover, and enclosure you might want. Many are identical to what’s found in the most expensive products in the world.

Pick the best you can afford, solder them up, and kick back to great sound. Right? Maybe, but more than likely not.

While we understand drivers, crossovers, and enclosures are about all that’s in the speakers we really love, the true skill in building world-class speakers isn’t exclusive to the parts. Without benefit of a capable designer, you often wind up disappointed.

If I had two bags of parts in my hand, one with all the necessary components for a speaker, the other to build a DAC, you’d likely have a better chance with the first than the second. Still, getting great sounding music out of a wooden box with speaker drivers, coils, capacitors, and binding posts is nothing too trivial. Many designers invest a lifetime of experience into making loudspeakers that honor the 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.

Battling our preconceptions

Do you fall into the trap of judging things based on a preconception? Do you buy into stereotypes? I do. All the time.

I think it’s in our nature as humans to categorize life’s complexities based on our experiences: cables make a difference/cables can’t make a difference. Electrostatic speakers are transparent sounding/electrostats require your head in a vice. Tubes are sweet/tubes are distorted. Subwoofers have too much bass/systems without subwoofers are anemic. Ribbon drivers are quick/ribbon drivers haven’t the dynamics of cones.

Think you’re immune to these preconceived notions? WATCH THIS VIDEO of a TED talk from Sarah Jones. Really. Sarah portrays 11 different people and as she moves through each of her characters I swear I start assigning qualities I associate with that type of person to each of them. It’s uncanny and more than that, it’s unnerving. Sarah isn’t 11 different people, yet you would be hard-pressed not to assign 11 different judgments of her character—each dramatically different than the last.

Challenging our preconceived notions can be rewarding because they are often wrong. Not everyone or everything responds the same way. But, change is hard.

One of our best-known preconceptions concerns an oddity in our industry we refer to as snake oil. Right? Just the name itself immediately assigns doubt to any product, process, or system unlucky enough to garner the moniker.

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 best way to connect a sub

We touched briefly on subwoofers and speaker setup in yesterday’s post. What I didn’t cover is how best to connect a subwoofer if you choose to go the extra mile and complete your system.

Years ago, there were mostly passive subs, but over time this changed. Modern subwoofers are internally amplified. So it might seem intuitive to connect them as you would any power amplifier, with an interconnect to the preamp or DAC. This works, but would not be my first choice.

The problem with cables and subwoofers is two-fold: double-long interconnects and a missed opportunity and synergy.

Preamplifiers aren’t especially appreciative of the cables that connect them to amplifiers. Shorter is better if you can manage. Worse is when you double up the cables: one to the loudspeaker amplifier, the other to the subwoofer amp. A much cleaner, better sounding way of doing this is with the use of a Y connector at the amp. In this scenario, you have one cable between the preamp and amplifier (with a Y connector at the amp’s input). A short interconnect from the Y connector to the subwoofer completes the circuit. This relaxes the load on the preamp relative to running two parallel interconnect feeds.

My favorite method is to tap the output of the loudspeaker power amplifier instead. Some subwoofers have a high-level input that can accept the main power amp’s speaker outputs. (Check to make sure this feature is available before purchasing a subwoofer) In this configuration, the amp’s power is not being used by the subwoofer, just its signal. Internal to the subwoofer are high-value resistors that neck-down the amp’s big output to something usable to the sub’s internal amplifier.

The advantage of using the second method is maintaining the sound quality of the power amplifier. As we know, each power amplifier has its own sonic signature. If you use the amp’s output to feed the sub amp, you maintain sonic consistency and improve system synergy.

Remember, the goal of a subwoofer is to extend the low-frequency response of the main loudspeakers. We don’t want to hear the subwoofer. We only want to make believe our main speakers have low-frequency extension (which most do not).