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.

PS Audio has been working on a new speaker system that Arnie Nudell was helping Paul design.  Unfortunately, Arnie recently passed away, so Paul is now on his own, although he has an excellent team to support his efforts, so the future of the project seems bright. Here is what he is thinking.

Live music

Before Infinity Speaker founder Arnie Nudell’s unfortunate passing, he and I were working on a new concept in loudspeakers, one based on the idea that it just might be possible to get closer to live orchestral sound levels than we have in the past.

A full orchestra can hit peak levels as high as 120dB. That exceeds the point of hearing damage, which of course was never our intent. And it is not hearing damage we get when in row one of an orchestra because peaks of this magnitude are both brief and rare. Arnie and I had become convinced this was the one quality still missing in speakers.

A few horn-type speakers can manage these extremes but none I know of without colorations (maybe the giant Magicos with their multiple horns? and extremely high price). Might it be possible to achieve these peak extremes without distortion, coloration, mega-amplifiers and bankruptcy court?

That is our challenge. Before his passing, he had made some good progress in a prototype he referred to as the IRS Killer. And it was. What we lacked to complete the design was a midrange driver of a very special kind. And that is now being worked on. It may yet be possible to complete the dream.

If you want to see what Arnie’s last prototype speaker system looks like, you can watch this video here. The midrange driver in this amazing reference design is a Bohlender Graebener creation no longer available, but that’s ok because it was the prototype’s’ one shortcoming.

 

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.

Can modern music be high-end?

If our definition of high-end audio is lifted from The Absolute Sound Magazine’s tenet: “the sound of unamplified instruments and/or voices as heard in a natural, acoustic performance space” then does it make sense that modern electronic or multitracked music can ever be considered high-end?

I believe it can, but not before broadening our definition. Perhaps it makes more sense to say “the natural, lossless, uncolored, reproduction of recorded music.” Probably too wordy and in need of editing, but I think this quick stab at defining that which we strive to achieve might make more sense than the flag waived by TAS founder, HP.

I remember asking Harry this very question and found his answer illuminating. Though I do not recall his exact words I do remember their essence. He suggested that any system capable of “the sound of unamplified instruments and/or voices as heard in a natural, acoustic performance space” would accurately render any recording without loss or coloration, even recordings that did not fit the definition of live. It was HP, after all, that played for me on his reference system Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, a track most definitely not live, certainly not unamplified, and most definitely not heard in a natural, acoustic space.

So yes, I believe modern music can be considered high-end. I’ve put together a short video on the subject if you’re interested. You can watch it here (as well as watch me get the crap scared out when I fire up the Tesla coil).

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.

Filtering

Our brains edit what we see and hear like a film director’s viewfinder. You’re probably familiar with this concept every time you take a picture of a distant mountain, seascape, or harvest moon and are disappointed with the outcome. What your vision records is entirely different than what the camera sees. Our brains edit out everything not of interest in the same way a telephoto lens removes extraneous clutter.

The same is true for listening to music. We often focus on a single aspect of audio music to the exclusion of everything else. We’re so enamored with one aspect or another, like stunning dynamics, that we ignore evidence the channels are reversed.

Another way we use filtering is by suggestion. If I am sharing the listening room my fellow listener might ask if I am hearing this or that. “Did you notice the extended highs?” In fact, I did not, but now that they’ve been pointed out to me I can focus on them. I may or may not agree with the observation, but I can hone in like a microscope coming into focus.

Some would suggest this selective filtering is at the root of the dreaded Placebo Effect where we are said to hear that which is not real. I would propose it is often this filtering aspect of our ear/eye/brain mechanism at work instead.

Just because someone points out something you hadn’t heard before, and then you do, does not mean it wasn’t there in the first place.

“Check that out!” helps focus our filters and demonstrates we are more than just mere machines.

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 agree totally with this. I have a pir of great Sennheiser headphones and a Woo Audio tube headphone amp, not to mention the excellent tube headphone amp in my Rogue Audio RP-7, but my speaker system gives me more enjoyment. Headphones are best when you either don’t want to bother others, or just want privacy.

That missing element

Life is often a series of trade-offs. We gain here, lose there, creating tough choices because gains and losses are rarely black and white.

Such is the case with headphones for me. On the one hand, they are wonderfully focused sonic microscopes. They offer privacy and intimacy, and their output seamlessly covers the entire range of audio frequencies few loudspeakers can match.

And yet, I prefer loudspeakers.

Loudspeakers offer one thing headphones cannot. Their sound is palpable. Just like live music.

I notice increasing numbers of young music lovers enraptured by headphones. And I do not mean Earbuds. Master and Dynamics, Audeze decorate heads still with hair. The good stuff. But not for me.

Maybe it’s because I grew up with the sound of loudspeakers and live music, or maybe feeling music’s air pressure on my skin adds another dimension missing with cans covering my ears.

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 talking big here, as in huge for a power supply for an entire high end audio system. It’s huge!!

One of my readers sent me the following note:

“I was just at a friend of the families winery. They produce some of the best Cabernets in California and have been doing it for quite some time. During a private tour with the 81 year old founder, he said an interesting thing. He described how they went about making the perfect wine. They took the best fruit, picked at the most appropriate time, made sure that no seeds or stems were present, and expected perfection. What did they get? An unremarkable wine, why? Because it turns out the slight imperfections in wine—the stems and seeds during the crush—gave it the flair of a truly extraordinary vintage. So sometimes the imperfections are what make things unique. A perfect diamond would have no color, a perfect wine no character.”

His note resonated with me on any number of levels but in particular how something remarkable, extraordinary, isn’t a product of perfection but rather a skillful blend of rough edges and unwavering purpose.

Our upcoming P20 Power Plant might be a great example.
In Music Room One a single P10 Power Plant handles both BHK 300 Monoblock amplifiers without batting an eye. The IRSV are 91dB efficient and volume levels raising the roof bother neither amp nor Power Plant. The idea of replacing this perfect Power Plant with a more powerful version makes no sense.

Unless you’re interested in moving from excellent to remarkable.
The P20 is huge. Cumbersome. Intrusive. Stately.

The P10 may be perfect—just the right size—but add the rough edges of huge, cumbersome, intrusive, and stately and we get remarkable.

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 very picky about how my stereo system sounds, but like Paul, I don’t fret over an occasional tick, or pop, or even a not so great recording.

However, if things don’t sound great to me, for whatever reason, like relative humidity, power delivery to my system, breaking in a component or part, I just turn the system off and look forward to trying again the next day.

If I ever quit screwing with my system, it would probably sound great every day, but such is being an Asheville audiophile. Always looking for a little better and willing to try new things, although at this point, the big things are set in stone, like Rogue Audio and Aragon power amplifiers, Rogue RP-7 preamps, Well Tempered Labs turntable, PS Audio DSD DAC, etc.

Finding irregularities

We love smooth and perfect and shy away from irregularities. When I find a smooth surface, like a kitchen countertop, I feel compelled to rub my hand on its face to appreciate its perfection. Bumps and blits underhand are noticed immediately and I want to get a wet rag and scrub them clean.

It’s almost as if we expect perfection to be the norm, rather than the extraordinary, and we work at eliminating all that does not qualify. Yet, when you think about it, most of what we see, hear, taste, feel, and smell is unremarkable; normal, as in having its fair share of irregularities.

On a good day, I am a tolerant listener ignoring the occasional bloated bass peak or tick and pop heard in Music Room One. On other days it’s all I can do to not to cringe when I hear them.

I have come to a sort of peace with the matter by developing an internal switch I can mostly toggle at will. On days when all I want to do is kick back and enjoy the music, I turn off my irregularity microscope. On days where I need the laser focus required for voicing equipment, back on it goes.

Indeed, our internal measurement systems are far more variable than the machines that attempt to emulate us. Learning that my sensor’s tolerance levels are adjustable through training has been a big help to me in my quest to both build better equipment and enjoy it too.

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.

Technical stuff, but important to note when using older stereo gear, electrical mismatches can occur and affect audio sound quality.

Mix and match impedance

Popular audiophile lore has it that a mismatch in impedance between the preamp and amplifier will result in bass loss. Yup. If the amp’s input impedance is too low weaker bass will be the result. That’s true in the same way it’s important to pump the car’s accelerator before starting it.

In the days of carburetors, a cold engine started easier when you primed the pump with a few squirts of gas. I remember a manual choke on cars that had to be pulled when they were first started. But no modern car has a carburetor just like no modern amp has impedance so low it would impact a preamp. But it was once true.

Preamps of old, especially tube preamplifiers, were capacitor coupled (many still are). On preamplifiers where sound and performance mattered high-quality film capacitors were used at their output, which meant values were small. And, small capacitors result in rolled off bass in the presence of low impedances. This is because the preamp’s output capacitor and amplifier’s input resistor form a high pass filter (reducing low bass).

But today we need not worry about such matters. Most power amplifiers have input impedances of at least 20kΩ and higher. Our own power amps, for example, have 30kΩ input impedance, high enough to never reduce bass levels of capacitor coupled preamplifiers, even if they are the vintage kind.

So yes, matching impedances used to be a thing to worry about. Modern designs have obviated the need for hand-wringing.

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.

Most high end audio electronics these days are pretty good, especially Marantz, Sony ES and Yamaha Aventage AVR’s.

Stereo speakers, however, are still all over the place in terms of size, expense and sound quality.

My one of a kind main loudspeakers are pretty big and mostly stay put because of this. My back up pair, which may not sound quite as good are a good deal smaller, easier to handle and beautiful to look at. This is important when I do audio demonstrations here, as I like things to be as perfectly set up as possible.  My secondary pair of Daedalus Audio speakers will be updated soon and I suspect they will sound a lot better when I eventually get them back.  Maybe good enough to become my primary speakers, once again.

Speakers are, without a doubt, the most important  audio component in a high end stereo system.

 

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 think this is correct. I mostly listen to my music pretty loudly, as I find this closer to having the illusion of live musicians in my music room/ However, sometimes lower volume levels suit the musical material better, so I crank it down a notch or two, on occasion. Solo acoustic guitar music  is an example of this for me.

Paul’s comment about Mahler’s 3rd is right one, along with many other classical music pieces, Too low and you can hear and too loud and it’s….uh….. too loud.

The perfect level

Every musical track, speaker system, and room has a perfect volume level. It isn’t based on the time of day or the listener’s mood. It’s based solely on what works. And that is something rare.

The Mahler 3d really only works at one level. Too little and the quietest passages are missed. Too loud and the blaring horns are too big. But just at the right volume, everything works. For that recording. In that room. With those speakers. In those circumstances. On that day.

Everything else is wrong.

When we go to trade shows (and by the way, we have signed up to be at Axpona in April) we train our system operators what the correct volume level is for each track. But that level varies depending on the number of people in the room. So, this idea that the perfect level is a simple number is only correct for a given set of circumstances.

It takes a well-trained ear to know what to set it at.

And no, you cannot achieve this with a simple amplitude meter, something I understand will panic those who can’t stand the idea of trusting their own hearing, but it’s a fact. Once you’re aware of this fact, it’s not hard to train yourself to get it right.

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.

Good advice from Paul, but if you have a good audio dealer, they can help, as well.  However, if your dealer can’t make great sound as a demo, look elsewhere, as they probably won’t help you achieve the best sound quality, for your money.

Enjoying the journey

Some of us are in an awfully big hurry to get where we’re going. And while that may be an expedient means of achieving goals I wonder how much is missed along the way.

Sometimes the journey’s worth more than the destination. Take building a high-performance audio system for example. We can throw lots of money at the problem and just get ‘the best’ equipment there is and assume that what we’ve achieved must be the best. After all, it was built from the best components. Therefore…

But, more often than not, skipping the work of learning leaves us shortchanged both in personal development and the quality of where we wind up.

We’ve all known people who believe the ends justify the means. That whatever it takes to get somewhere is acceptable regardless of the waste and rubble left behind. I relate more with those that believe the journey is more important than the destination. After all, it’s life’s journey that defines our lives, not the places we’ve gotten to.

My advice, when it comes to building a magnificent stereo system, is to take your time and enjoy the trials, tribulations, failures, and successes getting there.

If you’re like me, once you’ve arrived, you’re ready to move on to the next.

Enjoy the ride.