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 pretty good at set up, but the guys that Paul mention in this post are really really good!

Setup vs. equipment

Equipment in skilled hands performs differently than it does for a first time user. One of the best examples of this can be found in a video on YouTube. NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon plays the role of an inexperienced bumpkin taking a fast car for a test drive. Watching the video you have to feel sorry for the salesman taken by surprise, but at the same time, impressed with Gordon’s driving skills.

Without Gordon’s level of skill, it’s just a fast car. With it, the experience is transformed.

The same can be said for our stereo systems. Even the very best equipment can be transformed by skilled setup hands.

I am pretty good at setup, though there are plenty better than I. Jim Smith of Get Better Sound, Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio, and John Hunter of REL Acoustics come to mind.

The problem with sharing our skills is scarcity and distance. While any one of us might help you get better sound, there are far more of you than us and you likely don’t live close by. Which is why one of my long-term goals has been to put together a step-by-step setup package that is based around specific recorded materials and instructions of what to do with them and what to expect when they’re right.

Not to say I’ve actually made such a package. Just to suggest it’s an idea rattling around in my head and one day I’ll do it.

Unless someone else comes along first.

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.

My home made, but great sounding, speakers have two holes in their cabinets, but not to extend bass response. They use a large 15″ midrange/bass driver and don’t need help from the cabinet to make bass. They are there more to let the driver do what it was designed to do, without interference from the cabinet and have the added benefit of lessening  pressure on the side walls of the speaker, making for a quieter cabinet.

Boxes with holes

Woofers are in boxes so the front wave doesn’t get canceled by the out of phase back wave. So, why do some speaker boxes have holes that let out that threatening back wave?

Those holes are called ports and to understand what’s going on let’s start with the problem of putting a woofer in a box. Pressure. The pressure resisting the movement of the woofer is greater when it is mounted in a box. The smaller the box, the greater the resistance to movement.

One way to relieve some of that pressure is by punching a hole in the box. That’s the port. But, it cannot be any sized or shaped hole. As with most things engineering the hole has specific qualities to tune what comes out of the hole and what sound the speaker produces. If done properly, the pressure exhausting the port both adds to the bass as well as enables the woofer to breathe a bit easier. The net result is lower bass with fewer watts than from a sealed box.

Many designers, including myself and my speaker mentor, Arnie Nudell, are not fans of ports. Asked why Arnie used to roll his eyes and encourage the questioner to place their ear near a port for the “farting” it produced. In all the many years of speaker designs, Arnie rarely tolerated ports. One series Infinity had them in, the SM line (officially Studio Monitors but around Infinity’s hallowed halls more properly Sado Masochist), made plenty of bass. They were most often demonstrated at shows reproducing the sound of a 747 landing and rarely music.

There are certainly well behaved ported loudspeakers on the market. Some, like Bud Fried’s famous IMF line, used a type of front port called a transmission line. The idea of the transmission line was a long, folded acoustic path for bass frequencies that delayed the port’s output by 180˚ so it was in phase. Though Arnie and Bud were lifelong friends, the two never agreed on the use of the port. Other ported schemes include the passive radiator you often see in older Polk Audios, Definitive Technology and modern Golden Ear products.


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.

Volume controls

Of all the things we take for granted in our lives, volume controls would have to be high on the list. Whether by remote or the turn of a knob, the volume up and down is perhaps the most familiar control in the repertoire.

Familiarity doesn’t mean unimportant. Despite the fact that every audio preamp, integrated, receiver, television, and most DACs have them, volume controls should not be taken lightly. Their impact on sound quality cannot be overstated. In fact, I cannot think of anything more important to sound quality within a preamplifier than the volume control.

While we have taken our years of experience with these important functions and eliminated the traditional means of implementing them in our two preamps, the Stellar Gain Cell DAC and the BHK Signature, most other companies still cling to the standard potentiometer or fancier versions of the same.

Ever wonder how these controls work and why they make such a difference? I have put together a simple video in which I take apart a pot and show you what’s inside. Here it is.

There’s no magic inside, as you’ll see. But what can be said are two things: volume controls are like the brakes of a car, not the gas pedal, and their importance to sound quality cannot be understated.

Have fun.

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.

Simple is often best

Building simple, easy to use, functionally perfect products is often hard but usually better than the complex.

As is often the case my first example of this interesting dichotomy happened with food. I was on the road in Chicago and struggling with food choices. It’s something that often happens to vegetarians in heavy meat cultures. The weather was cold and I didn’t want to go outside, so I braved up and sat at the hotel’s steakhouse. Even the salads had meat on them, but a kind (and somewhat bewildered) server accommodated my needs. When it came time for the entre there wasn’t much to choose from but I noticed a plethora of side vegetables choices steak lovers could decorate their meals with. Broccoli was among those choices and I asked the waiter for a plate full. When it arrived I was stunned. Instead of the often limp, pale green I was expecting there was an amazing temple of bright green firm flesh. Fresh, brilliant in color, tasty as could be. I was so impressed I asked for the chef who told me the secret was in its simplicity.

“You parboil the broccoli,” he said. “Take boiling salted water. Immerse the vegetable for less than 30 seconds. As soon as it turns bright green, it’s done. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper, parmesan if you wish (I wished), and voila!” His secret was simplicity.

The next time you use a “simple” intuitive product, like a stereo system that just works exactly as you expect, consider that one of the most difficult tasks an engineer faces is making it easy.

Simple is hard but often 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.

Complex trade-offs

Life and audio engineering are quite the same when it comes to trade-offs. We make our best choices from among the imperfect and execute to the extent of our abilities.

Take for example separates vs. integrated amplifiers. The list of positive attributes for separate audio components is impressive: individual power supplies, isolated chassis, high current output drives, gobs of attention lavished upon one function.

Different yet no less impressive accolades apply to integrateds: no connecting cables, subsystem performance optimized for known components, the same designer’s skills applied across the board.

We could even go so far as to suggest a scrum of separates integrated together might be the best of both worlds. But even this would be a series of trade-offs including big and clunky.

Everything encompasses some form of compromise. Our job as music lovers is to identify which are the least objectionable and bring the greatest degree of pleasure.

Perfection’s not possible. Ecstasy is.

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.

Another non audio post from Paul and interesting to me as I’ve had conversations with a long time friend of mine about being perfect. I never have been and never will be, but I do strive to be the best husband, parent and person that I can.  That’s all we can do…

The great cover up

PS Audio has warts and blemishes that no amount of makeup can cover. It’s a fact we don’t want to hide. How could we? The people we might hide from are family.

It’s fascinating to me how many companies try and cover up their mistakes as if they felt obligated to present a picture-perfect cover girl image, airbrushed and all.

Why? To what end?

Who among us is perfect?

When dealing with family it seems to me warts and blemishes, mistakes and missteps are just part and parcel of what makes us who we are. Isn’t family the one place we can be ourselves without shame or judgment? I sure hope so.

We’re all family here.

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 post from Paul isnt really about audio, but why we believe the way we do, especially in these polarizing times. I especially like the last paragraph of this post from Paul.

Contradictory evidence

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, contradictory evidence only serves to strengthens the position of the believer—especially if that evidence is shouted. If your experience suggests passive components in audio equipment sound different, as I do, every loud attempt at dissuading those beliefs only tends to strengthen your resolve. Highly charged opposing evidence is seen as conspiratorial and missing evidence is dismissed as part of the coverup.

In 2006, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler at The University of Michigan and Georgia State University created fake newspaper articles about polarizing political issues. The articles were written in a way which would confirm a widespread misconception about certain ideas in American politics. As soon as a person read a fake article, researchers then handed over a true article which corrected the first. For instance, one article suggested the United States found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The next said the U.S. never found them, which was the truth. Those opposed to the war or who had strong liberal leanings tended to disagree with the original article and accept the second. Those who supported the war and leaned more toward the conservative camp tended to agree with the first article and strongly disagree with the second.

It seems to me this human tendency to defend and protect our core beliefs is at the center of why people on both sides of the aisle feel threatened. We are protective of our beliefs because we are afraid the other party is trying to take advantage of us. No one wants to be taken advantage of like a certain US senator from Louisiana did in 1943.

The senator’s product was called Hadacol and in those days it was easy to find on American shelves. It was sold through what has become known as the Traveling Show. The Hadacol Caravan, sponsored by Louisiana State Senator Dudley J. LeBlanc—who Time magazine once described as “a stem-winding salesman who knows every razzle-dazzle switch in the pitchman’s trade”—and his LeBlanc Corporation sold bottles of Hadacol, a vitamin tonic famous for both its alleged curative powers and its pleasing sensation. Hadacol contained 12 percent alcohol (listed on the tonic bottle’s label as a “preservative”), which made it quite popular in the dry counties of the southern United States. Its actual curative powers were a matter of great debate.

But, not everyone is out to take advantage of people. In fact, quite the opposite. We each want to help share our findings and personal beliefs and the best way I have found to do that is by offering information and personal experience as honestly and openly as possible. And most important, free of emotion and agenda.

We might all benefit from a greater dose of kindness and generosity of spirit. Especially as the holidays approach and we get set for the new year.


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.

Uncharted waters

As I venture deeper into the uncharted waters of YouTube with my daily video blogs I am exposing thousands of new people to the world of high-performance audio (11,000 subscribers and counting). And when I do that, the amount of pushback to the core ideals of what we take for granted is fascinating. A little exhausting too.

Most of the people I routinely connect with are ensconced in what we do. That fact has an insulating nature to it. I forget that the ideas of trusting our hearing to measure change we haven’t machines to corroborate findings is mostly vilified outside our circles. I wonder why. It’s almost as if the very mention of trusting one’s ears is so repugnant they lash out in anger. Do they feel threatened? Outraged? Offended? Wounded? Inadequate? Confused? In denial?

When I ask them why, they tell me they are comfortable trusting most of our faculties like touch, smell, taste, memory, and vision. Just not our ears. That fact alone has my wheels turning and question marks dancing like sugar plums.

Maybe it’s the engineer in me that wants to figure out why something works. Or doesn’t. Whatever.

I am delighted traveling through these uncharted waters and glad I took the leap of commitment of producing a daily blog. Uncharted waters are the only way I know to find new lands, fresh ideas, and greater insight.

Thanks to those who are helping freshen up this old brain.

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.

My audio system is balanced and it will stay that way for the foreseeable future.  I’ve compared and know my PS Audio DSD DAC sounds better balanced and as that’s my main source of music, my system will stay this way.  Besides, it makes interconnect cable decisions easier than single ended, as balanced is a non compromised solution to a good stereo system.

Here’s Paul’s take on it.

Clean cables

I don’t remember when balanced cables came onto the high-end audio scene but I do remember when no one but recording studios and radio stations had even heard of them.

In the 70s, 80s, even into the 90s, single ended cables were the norm for audio systems. My many years in broadcasting and recording studios had made me familiar with the traditionally recognized benefits of balanced cables like lower distortion and noise but not the sonic benefits we recognize today: increased clarity, openness, and harmonic richness.

How could we have known back then? Very few products had balanced inputs and outputs and the few that did seemed there more as a selling feature than practical benefit; often incorrectly engineered.

Good news sometimes spreads slowly (with apologies to the old chestnut). By the late 90s and into the new century, balanced ins and outs took hold of our industry. Those of us understanding balanced audio’s potential for lowered noise and distortion were delighted to discover her other remarkable traits.

Time and again I attempt to sway disbelievers from the tenuous connection of single-ended RCA to the wonders of balanced audio whenever possible.

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.

Layer by layer

It’s always exciting to get a new product. Who doesn’t like the thrill of opening the new box, pulling out the new toy?

We hope each acquisition will move our lives forward. Make progress. Better what we have.

And, while it is less exciting, I would propose that the thrill of the new product is maximized when we have taken the time to build a strong foundation that it will enhance.

When someone new to high-performance audio asks me where to start the journey my first question is always “what do you hope to achieve?” If the answer is “a world-class system” then I counsel to go slow, start with the basic like AC power, build upon a firm foundation, layer by layer, culminating in the greatest challenge of all, the loudspeaker.

Should their reply be “a just want to put together a good sound music system” then a more casual “start with the best pair of speakers you can afford and let us help you fill in the rest” is more likely to be my answer.

Layer-by-layer building over time has great value, but it requires patience. The rewards are long term. The benefits are great.

Where are you in the layering process?