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 read a review of a system put together as an exhibit at the California Audiofest Show, which recently took place in…..ummmm…..California. The MSRP of this system was $730,000 and that didn’t include the price of the audio cables, which are probably in the $20,000+ range. Nor does this sum include the ASC room treatments, which would probably add at least another $10,000. So, that would put it over the $750,000 range.  The speakers, manufactured by a company whose products I’ve not much liked in the past, were gigantic at almost 8ft tall and 900 lbs, give or take a pound.

However, if you want something close to this, the same company that showed the big stuff, also had something for those of us less financially fortunate. The stuff in this room, not including cables and room treatments was only $60,000.

Let’s all get out our checkbooks.

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.

Starting from nothing

Thank you for all the kind notes about the videos I posted over the weekend detailing the history of PS Audio. I am glad you enjoyed them and it was an honor to share them with you.

One of the few remaining videos I shot in the original Walk in the Woods With Paul series touched on the very subject of the last two posts: how to start a company when you do not have anything but good ideas.

Stan and I used a finance method more closely resembling today’s Kickstarter. In this scenario, you presell goods then use the entrusted money to purchase inventory and make good your promise. If you succeed, everyone’s happy. But if you know your PS history you’ll remember I had to do this twice: once with Stan in the very beginning, a second time after leaving Genesis.

In 1997 I repurchased PS Audio’s assets for $1.00. Yup. It was in that good of shape. The advantage I had was a clean sheet of paper. The disadvantage was no money.

If you’re interested in why I left Genesis and how we pulled off this financial miracle, I would encourage you to watch this leftover from the original video series.

My hope in presenting it is two-fold: an information piece and a guide to struggling entrepreneurs. No, you can’t use the same method I did back then, but it’ll give you some hope that where there’s a will there’s a way. I hope it inspires some to start fresh and make a go of it.

Without risk, there is no reward.

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.

Who is Paul McGowan? Here is the business part .

In the beginning

Stan Warren and I started PS Audio more than 40 years ago. Two enterprising young guys hell-bent to change the world. Stan moved on to other pastures. I’ve been at it ever since.

I think what has always driven the PS team remains the same: using technology in clever ways to move the state of the art forward without breaking the bank. The thrill of extracting more of a recording’s essence than anyone before us is intoxicating. It pushes us forward and gets us out of bed in the morning. But what of the story of our beginnings?

I’ve been asked more than a few times to share the company’s history—the stories, the funny parts, the tough parts—straight from the horse’s mouth (or ass as some might say) and I have done so in a new two-part video.

To give you a little background, here’s how this video came about. My good friend Seth Godin (as committed an audiophile as they come) nudged me to build a video channel so people could look me in the eye when I shared knowledge or stories. The mental image of a camera just staring at my mug while I chattered on was an unpleasant one in my imagination and so I concocted a plan to liven it up. The original idea was a walk in the woods with Paul. Each daily episode would find me on a different path in whatever weather Colorado had to offer. It seemed a good plan. A way to share my stories without boring people. Mechanizing it would be a different matter and in the end so difficult I would make only a handful of videos. The story of how I got there might be interesting.

I am camera shy. Speaking from the heart would be impossible if another person operated the camera, yet how does one video themselves while walking in the woods?

The engineer in me designed a solution. A gyroscopic-based steadycam mounted atop a pole resting on a belt-mounted holster. Quite a contraption. But it worked, though it was so much trouble I eventually abandoned it in favor of what eventually became Ask Paul.

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.

How good is old?

Good memories sweeten with time.

My first experience with a pair of exceptional loudspeakers was in the home of radio station engineer Jim Mussel in 1973. He and I worked for the same FM rock and roll radio station, KXFM in Santa Maria, California. We were both interested in good sound but he was farther along the path of achieving it than I was. Instead of my Kenwood integrated amplifier driving a pair of Phased Array loudspeakers, Jim’s system was high-end: JBL Corner Horns powered by Audio Research electronics.

The music played through Jim’s system was unlike anything I had ever heard: dynamic, involving, true to the instruments played. Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein took on a whole new meaning when first Winter’s soaring synth riffs cut through the air with a verve I had never experienced. But the icing on the cake was Chuck Ruff’s drum solo. On my system, both had sounded dull and mashed together like potatoes through a grinder. On Jim’s system, they were as clear as a bell.

If I were to listen to that same system today, 40 something years later, it would still bring pleasure but only if they had been maintained.

What can go wrong with vintage electro-mechanical devices like loudspeakers? Aging of the elastic elements and degradation of capacitors. Like people, components age. Woofer surrounds crumble, capacitors dry out.

There are plenty of services for reconing loudspeaker drivers. A quick Google search brought up at least a dozen reputable vendors. Replacing capacitors in aging crossovers is a bit more of a challenge requiring a soldering iron and shoe leather, but there’s a silver lining to it—a chance to upgrade with better components. Head to the Parts Express or my personal favorite, the Parts Connection where you can upgrade to your heart’s content. Just be careful not to change the original values found in the crossover, and you’ll be fine.

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.

Arnie Nudell of Infinity speaker fame. RIP.

Arnie Nudell

It is with a heavy heart I report to you that my dear friend, mentor, inspiration, and partner, Arnie Nudell, passed away last week from complications of pneumonia. He slipped away at peace and wasn’t in any pain.

In 1968 nuclear physicist Nudell, engineer John Ulrick, and cabinet maker Carrie Christie formed one of the most famous loudspeaker companies in the world, Infinity. I first met Arnie at the insistence of my friend (and another mentor) Harry Pearson. HP was concerned for me. The fact I was listening to speakers he did not approve of was too much for Harry and he made arrangements for Stan and me to meet Arnie Nudell of Infinity Loudspeaker fame. It proved to be a fateful moment that changed my life and that of my family. I will forever be in Arnie Nudell’s debt.

Arnie loved music but I suspect he loved the art of reproducing it most. He was obsessed with high-performance audio. Even in his last few days of life, he could not shake it. When PS engineer Darren Meyers visited Arnie in the hospital—and he had just come out of sedation—the only thing Arnie wanted to talk about was HiFi, his deteriorating physical condition seemed a distant second of conversation.

He wanted nothing more than to finish the work he had started with Darren, Bascom and I, to build his next generation of loudspeakers—a project we had been working on with him for more than the last year—a request we shall carry forward with in his memory.

Arnie’s passing was the end of an era that became audio’s golden age, where musical truth and the absolute sound was its guiding light.

Arnie Nudell will be missed.

Arnie’s son, David, has reserved the website domain www.arnienudell.com. There’s nothing there to see now, but over time we will help the family build a website where his friends and fans can post their thoughts about Arnie, Infinity, and what he brought to the world of music and its reproduction. We will endeavor to list all the speakers he had designed and perhaps form a small community of like-minded people who share updates, mods, schematics, ideas, and all things relevant to this man’s enormous body of work.

We all know we’re not going to make it out this world alive, yet deep down inside none of us actually believe it. I certainly never thought Arnie would slip away from us. He was the toughest son of a bitch I ever met. And the most generous too.

See you, man.

If you want to know more about Arnie from his own lips I had the good fortune of interviewing him a few months ago for a new podcast series I was planning on launching someday, called Ohm’s Law. While I haven’t had the time to put the series together yet I can certainly make available the interview which has never been made public.

You can hear the entire interview (about 20 minutes) by clicking the link.

 

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 is asking if the reproduction of dynamics is important in a high end stereo system and the obvious answer is oh yeah… I can write a lot on this, but its one of the main reasons I use a horn based  speaker system.

How important are dynamics?

My very first pair of high-performance loudspeakers were Magneplanars but the marriage didn’t last long. I soon found myself enamored with a different kind of panel speaker, an electrostat which was so much more revealing than the planar that I made the switch. This added window-like clarity was a result of a lighter membrane able to move quicker in response to transients. Instead of dragging the planar’s heavy copper-laden sheets of plastic back and forth with powerful magnets—struggling to keep up with the demands of musical transients—the ultra-thin electrostatic membrane snapped back and forth to the push and pull of electrostatic forces with the speed of Hermes. But while both were fast and clear, they weren’t perfect.

Neither the Magnepans nor the electrostats (first the Acoustat brand and later Martin Logans) had adequate bass and even fewer dynamics, though the Maggies certainly outdid the Acoustats on both accounts. The lack of bass was ameliorated on the Maggies with a subwoofer, the MLs had their own hybrid woofer. Their lack of dynamics was simply unsolvable—a trade-off I was apparently willing to make until one fateful meeting with my dear friend, Harry Pearson, founder of the magazine, TAS.

“What do you have against dynamics?” he would ask me in his deepest, most authoritative voice. “What had they ever done to you to ignore them so?”

His needlings were constant and it didn’t take more than a few outings to live symphonic concerts with my ears attuned to the investigation of dynamic contrasts to convince me HP was right. I sold my panel speakers and moved to Infinity products that had plenty of all I had been missing.

Harry was a man that wanted it all: speed, clarity, transparency, tonal correctness, and dynamics. If I had to guess which of these qualities of reproduced sound he might forego in exchange for the others, dynamics would be the last to go.

And over all these many years I too have come to rearrange the order of importance for my own tastes—and effortless dynamics are highest on my list (though not high enough to sacrifice the tonal imbalance of horns).

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 is writing about audio cables and if they are BS, or if there are real advantages to some and disadvantages to others.  Lots of profit in them, if you can get someone to believe. There is all sorts of snake oil with cables and for most, a well designed cable with low capacitance for interconnects and low inductance for speaker cables will do well enough. The cable I’m using to get the signal from my record player to my Rogue Audio Ares phono stage cost me $40. I use it because of its low capacitance, which will keep high frequencies from rolling off prematurely.

I didn’t pay this, but the retail price for the cable I use between my  PS Audio DAC and Rogue Audio RP-7 preamp is $1250 and they can get  a lot more expensive than that. I also use cable we made here that cost around $50 a pair and they are just about as good as the $1250 ones. Not as good, but close and if a system is not revealing enough, most people won’t hear the difference.

Are cables BS?

There must not be enough worms crawling around so I figure I’ll just go ahead and open a fresh can. Keeps it fun that way.

Why is it we’re convinced we can hear changes in polarity, or MQA vs. non MQA, or the difference between CD and vinyl—but find it hard to accept that cables matter?

We don’t question the Earth is circular (well, most of us anyway), stars are suns, and gravity sucks—despite the fact these are all based on someone else’s word. You don’t actually know those little points of light in the night sky are suns like our own. Do you?

Sometimes we have to take a leap of faith from people we trust in order to learn, but it’s often difficult when others make fun of our beliefs or willingness to be open minded. People like James Randi or other official-sounding experts (Randi’s expert credentials are that he was once a magician) at the ready to make a name for themselves by shouting down the observations of others.

And here’s what’s really weird. When an expert in the field takes the time and personal challenge to provide engineering evidence that what we hear in cables is real, he is often shouted down as a heretic. My friend Galen Gareis, Principal Product Engineer at one of the world’s biggest cable manufacturing companies, Belden Cables, writes reams of papers and publishes scads of graphs and evidence showing the science behind what audiophiles have been saying for years. He’s made it his mission to refute all the naysayers.

And no one wants to listen.

It takes guts and energy to change minds. Most of us prefer to stay in our comfort zones instead of stretching just a little bit to grow our intellects.

Copper Magazine’s editor, Bill Leebens and I, are committed to helping Galen shine a small light into the darkened wilderness. But it’s difficult. Galen’s a quintessential nerd engineer and most of his writings are lengthy and indecipherable by average humans. We’re working on simplifying and summarizing his finding in future Copper Magazine issues and articles.

If you’re interested in what I am referring to, I am including just a taste of what Galen’s writings are like here in this post. It’s long, it’s technical, but it just might wet your whistle.

“It is truly sad that audiophiles seem to be 100% lost on shielding. And I mean LOST. First big thing, audio signals both speaker and interconnect are LOW FREQUENCY mostly MAGNETIC property signals. Not ELECTRIC fields. Sure, ALL electromagnetic waves are “both” B and E fields but the vector magnitudes of the two fields differ, and substantially. And, this ALTERS how they interact/cancel.

Our best friend at audio is to know that B-field magnetic waves decay at a ratio of 1/x^3. So MOVE your cables apart, and especially cables with large CURRENTS (speaker cables) that will have magnetic properties extending well outside the cable. The interconnect have the SAME FREQUENCIES but far less CURRENT so the fields are far, far smaller…but they are STILL magnetic in nature!

What about all the FOILS and BRAIDS on interconnect cables? These are for ELECTRIC fields such as EMI and RFI well above 1 MHz. YES, ONE MEGAHERTZ. Audio cables better have near ZERO EMI/RFI to be shielded from EGRESS (inside the cable to outside) and ONLY need ingress (outside the cable in) for terrestrial EMI/RFI. Better yet, the input needs a low pass filter to ground above 1 MHz.

Digital cables CAN spew EMI / RFI so shields are needed. But were talking AUDIO for right now.

Speaker cable aren’t shielded because they are a “different” kind of signals. They are the same 20-20KHz magnetic field vectors as interconnect cable. The speaker cable signal is just far, far stronger GAUSS density relative to any terrestrial EMI/RFI NOISE.  Low impedance speaker cables swamp out the interconnects radiated magnetic fields and ignore EMI/RFI pathetic B-fields for the same reason. The magnetic in nature signal is too big to be bothered by them.

DISTANCE or low permeability metals (stuff a magnetic sticks to) is needed for B-fields. A faraday cage is an example where it routes magnetic fields AROUND what is INSIDE as the cage is a lower permeable path to magnetic flux lines than the air is.  We could stick cables into magnetic conduit, too. This will route the flux lines around what is inside the conduit. It has to be stuff magnets stick too, not what is called electricals conduit that is more a fire block or E-fields short to ground.

Going up and up in frequency, we now need to TRANSITION to a material that is a low permeability to ELECTRIC fields, or is CONDUCTIVE to “E”lectricity. This is braids and foils, typically. And yes, the metallic conduit we use, too.”

There will be more to come. If you aren’t yet dying of boredom here’s a video I put together on the subject – and it’s a lot less technical.

 

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.

Solid state vacuum tubes

Most of us like the sound of vacuum tubes on an amplifier’s input: sweet, rich, full-bodied, musical. An equal number aren’t too happy about their downsides: heat, microphonics, size, and the 300-pound gorilla—their ephemeral lifespan. Which is why most customers rejoiced when we began to leverage a solid state equivalent, the FET.

Vacuum tubes are voltage controlled devices while bipolar transistors rely upon current. The two are very different sounding technologies.

FETs, on the other hand, are very much like tubes in the way they require almost no current from the incoming signal. Not surprisingly, FETs—in particular, JFETs (and MOSFETS)—sound much closer to tubes than the more conventional bipolar transistors.

One of my first experiences with JFETs happened more than 30 years ago. In the mid-1980s designer Bob Odell had joined PS Audio’s design team. He had brought with him a new power amplifier design that would become the famous 200C—but not before we made some major changes to its input stage. The original design relied upon a traditional bipolar differential pair at the amp’s input. This worked well but the amp still had a slightly cold and transistory tinge to its musical character, one we wanted to eliminate before releasing it as our premier offering for power amplifiers. We decided to replace the bipolars with JFETs to see if this might help. Of course, rarely is it a drop in replacement (that’d be too easy). The JFETs of those days were limited in voltage requiring us to add a cascode circuit on the top of the new diff pair. It worked.

By replacing the input bipolars with a new type of transistor, the JFET, we were able to help the 200C amplifier get closer to the sound of vacuum tubes and honor the music. Nearly all PS amplifiers following the venerable 200C have enjoyed the benefits of either FETs or vacuum tubes at their input. And now you know why.

Vacuum tubes still outperform FETs on the input circuit of an amplifier, but FETs are a close second and without the PITA characteristics of tubes.

 

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.

Our two ears

Before the 1900s people rarely gave a second thought about our two ears, the appendages necessary to experience the world in three dimensions. That all changed when Clément Ader demonstrated the first two-channel audio system in Paris.

On that day in 1881, Ader setup a pair of telephones on the Paris Opera stage and connected them to another set in a suite of rooms at the Paris Electrical Exhibition, where listeners could hear a live transmission of performances through receivers for each ear. Scientific American reported:

“Every one who has been fortunate enough to hear the telephones at the Palais de l’Industrie has remarked that, in listening with both ears at the two telephones, the sound takes a special character of relief and localization which a single receiver cannot produce…. This phenomenon is very curious, it approximates to the theory of binauricular audition, and has never been applied, we believe, before to produce this remarkable illusion to which may almost be given the name of auditive perspective.”

No one had experienced stereo playback before and it would take another 53 years before Allen Blumlein would change all that. The year was 1931 and Blumlein was unhappy with talking motion pictures. The voices of actors walking across the big screen did not move with them. Instead, all the audio came from the center of the screen through a single monaural loudspeaker. Within 4 years Blumlein had not only solved the problem with what we would eventually call stereo, he also figured out how to place stereo microphones and how to cut stereo tracks into monaural records.

Because of Blumlein’s invention, and the work of others like Ader and Bell Laboratory’s Harvey Fletcher, our world more closely resembles the three dimensions we’ve lived with because of our two ears since the dawn of mankind.

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 is absolutely spot on about this.  The actual chip that converts digital bits to analog waveforms are perhaps the least important part of a DAC. As an example, there is the analog stage, which could be tubes or solid state, or a combination of both and the digital filtering, which could be electronic, or passive as it is in the PS Audio DSD DAC. PS Audio’s filtering in the DSD DAC are via transformers, which are also a big part of the the analog output stage of the DAC. Transformers  are analog, not solid state, “natural “filters and an old fashioned way of doing things, but they work beautifully in this application.

DAC priorities

All DACs are not equal yet many of today’s most popular digital to analog converters are based on the same off-the-shelf chipset like those from ESS, Cirrus Logic, or Analog Devices. Yet those DACs using identical chips often sound as if cut from very different cloth. What makes them different?

We might get a clearer answer by first asking the same question of something simpler. Ice cream. If ice cream is always made from its namesake why do they all taste different? Simple. Everything else that’s added to the cream.

The same is true for DACs.

Like any complex electronic product, it’s the details that make the difference: power supply, analog output stage, input conversion of data, to name a few. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that two very different sounding DACs would maintain their sonic character if all the designer changed was the DAC chip itself. This observation is not intended to diminish the role of the instrument’s heart but rather to point out the importance of the infrastructure that allows it to operate.

Consider another example. Two identical V8 engines can be the heart of two very different automobiles (like a Corvette and a truck). The engine’s the same, everything else is different.

My aim is to bring to light the elements one should consider when choosing a DAC. The actual technology contained within the instrument’s core is only part of the equation.

  • Look carefully at how a DAC is built and who built it.
  • Discover what attention was paid to the power supply.
  • Find out if the unit voiced by someone you trust or placed on an engineering pedestal for its incredible specs?
  • Question the designer on the importance of the output analog stage and how they made it better.

DAC decisions are tough because the technology is often beyond the understanding of people. It’s a lot easier to grasp the workings of an amp or preamp, perhaps a cable, but let’s not allow difficulty to get in the way of a thorough investigation.