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.

Addition or subtraction?

Is added warmth an accurate term? As in, I went out and found some of it and added it into the recipe. Or, is added warmth an illusion caused by the lack of something else? You can add warmth by putting on a coat, or turning off the air conditioner.

I have been as guilty as any audiophile for using terms without really describing their root cause. It’s lazy talk.

Yes, we can sometimes add warmth, sharpen sonic focus, or extend the highs. But more often than not these additions are really the result of removing something else getting in the way. And the problem with descriptors is they tend to define our beliefs.

As designers, we need to know what’s really going on. We need to understand whether something is an omission or a commission. Important information to get right because these are the keys to building clean designs that serve a higher musical purpose.

I will do my best to keep my vocabulary of descriptive terms in check. It’s just too easy to throw out a word that accurately details what we hear but inaccurately points out why.

It is the why that matters most.

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 music does more than help with mental health.

Music as medicine

In my upcoming book 99% True, the long talked about memoir, I refer to high-end audio as a well kept secret and I believe that to be true. After all, the vast majority of humans on this planet have never heard of an audiophile much less met one in person.

All of us participating in the connected world have heard reproduced music. Few on Earth have heard it reproduced as we do. Or, for that matter, are even aware there is another level of listening pleasure available to them.

Some of us don’t share our secret with friends and family for fear of ridicule or misunderstanding. Others don’t share it because it can be an expensive endeavor and perhaps we’re a little embarrassed. Still others shout out their passion from the highest rooftops only to have their words fall on deaf ears.

And the secretive nature is a shame because music can heal the troubled soul.

I wonder what would happen if knowledge of our world became well known. Some, I suspect, would be delighted. Others might be bothered by the invasion. I, for one, would be thrilled. Not because I’d sell more products but because I believe better sound benefits the world in the same way better food makes us healthier. I’ve watched hardened people melt in the presence of beautifully reproduced music.

What we love most may be the best medicine for mental health.

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 active room

At my core, I am an inventor. I love nothing more than to be given a challenge—a problem—that needs a solution and the freedom to invent a new way to solve that problem. One of the greatest joys I have experienced is being part of a team of engineers that can take an idea and make it a product. My only regret is not having an unlimited sized team that could work on multiple problems at once. I suppose it is the dilemma of all like-minded people.

One idea in search of the resources to make it a reality is the active room where the interior surfaces are not reflective acoustic mirrors, as they are in a normal room. Instead, each surface is acoustically active and can be controlled. We see examples of this idea in modern aircraft, especially those of Boeing.  Their engineers have built active noise cancellation into the plane’s interior walls so that they act like the microphone/headphone contraptions passengers routinely wear to keep noise out.

Interior walls are both benefits and curses. They keep unwanted sounds out while keeping undesirable reflections in. What would happen if we made them a type of loudspeaker fed by in-room microphones? I suspect it would enable us to create amazing spaces and not just for audiophiles wanting better sound. Imagine the environments and moods you could create within your home if the walls reproduced pre-recorded outdoor spaces with streams and birds. And I don’t mean just playing back the sounds of nature, but actually placing you in that acoustic space as if the room were acres big.

It is an interesting concept, one I hope to be able to tackle someday or use if someone else beats me to the punch.

I hope they do.

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.

Update changes

We are truly creatures of habit. We get into a comfortable routine and we don’t want to leave. Change comes along to yank us out of our reverie and we can take one of three paths: object, ignore, adapt.

We just launched new Bridge firmware—the very essence of change. Most people will install the new firmware and enjoy the benefits of the improvements without question or comment, while others will hold off until it’s shown itself as stable. Still others will avoid pushing the button for change because “it’s working fine”.

This is perfectly normal behavior and one reason few products come with automatic updates without asking. For me, I’d prefer auto updates without asking. Just take care of it and don’t piss me off with the new changes. Delight me. My iPhone used to work pretty much like that, though they did ask if I wanted to update. My new car works exactly like that. Software updates seem to happen as if by magic and so far they’ve only been for the better.

My inclination is to have our upcoming music management program, Octave, update automatically without bothering customers. You wake up in the morning and things are simply better. But, I know this would send both howls of protest as well as thanks our way.

Maybe a solution would be to offer the auto-update service to folks like me who don’t want to bother with updates and let others choose.

Or, maybe not.

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.

Farmer or carpenter?

I think about farming right about this time of the year. My vegetable garden is pushing its way towards the sun and the plants are large enough I can envision the possibility of fresh tomatoes, hope for the melons to grow, cross my fingers herbs will flourish.  Nothing in my garden is assured other than uncertainty. I cannot control the weather or the bugs, so farming’s a real crapshoot. The best I can do is provide a nurturing environment and deal with what comes along.

Carpentry is a different discipline. With plans, tools, measurements, and a dose of skill, I can accurately predict what comes out of my efforts. Carpentry is less tolerant of variation. It works well if my planning successfully eliminates variables: the type of materials, the tolerances allowed, the acceptable finishes. As long as everything remains in predictable order, the outcome can be assured.

Farming is the art of building a strong enough foundation to deal with the unknown, while carpentry and its needs for planning and precision work wonders within tighter bounds. Both have their value depending on the situation.

I have always been more of a farmer than a carpenter. I am far more comfortable building a thriving infrastructure that is equipped to deal with change. Others I know are the opposite. They require structure, clearly defined boundaries, planning, and predictable outcomes.

If you’re having surgery you probably want a carpenter mentality to work on you. If your goal is to innovate, you would be better off with a farmer.

If you’re building a high-performance audio system from scratch and have the luxury of designing every aspect from the ground up, including the room, you would likely be best served by the carpenter’s approach. But if you’re like the majority of us, building one in an existing space with a collection of gear cobbled together over a lifetime, you’d likely be better off as a farmer comfortable with unpredictability.

Which are you? Farmer or carpenter?

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.

Music’s what it’s all about

A high-performance audio system doesn’t matter much without music to play on it. Sure, we have scads of music in our library but if you’re like me, new music is always of interest. Especially new well recorded music.

It’s no secret that the musicians of today are struggling in the post Napster economy. Heck, they were struggling before Napster too. Pouring your heart out for the cause of music is an often thankless task, yet musicians do it time and again because they want to share what is in those hearts. They express it best through notes, harmonies, and melodies.

My son Sean has been a musician for most of his life. And a gifted one at that. And his heart is as big as the moon, filled with a generous spirit to help others. He and his friend, Russell, are doing what they can for aspiring musicians: collecting instruments, audio equipment, sheet music, and educational supplies which they then place in the hands of struggling musicians in an effort to better their lives and enrich the art. More than that, they teach classes, give of themselves, and do their best to scratch out a living while helping others. What a great cause.

Is there a chance you might have something of value to donate? An old violin the kids no longer practice on, some speakers hanging out in the garage, a drum kit, trumpet, sheet music. Anything and everything helps. Including money. If you can contribute, here’s their address for donations:

Audiophile Societies Donations
1841-B Slack St.
San Luis Obispo, CA 93405
USA

Sean’s website for donations can be accessed by clicking on the link in the address I just posted. If you want to help with a monthly donation, like I did, you can go here to see their bigger plans.

Without music and a new generation of musicians to write and play it our hobby loses meaning. Thanks for doing what you can.

It all matters.

 

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.

Choosing inputs

We started a little mini-series on how amplifiers work. I know that some of you gloss over these details because you’ve heard them before or you don’t care. Others have large appetites for learning and it is to those hungry readers I continue.

If we look at the block diagram of a power amplifier in this post,  we note two main sections: input and output. The job of the input stage is to take a small signal from the preamp and make it 30 times bigger. Let’s talk about that stage today.

The input stage of a power amplifier is a big preamp. It is also the one stage that makes nearly all the sonic difference in an analog amplifier. This is the most critical stage to get right. Just like a preamp’s architecture has everything to do with its sound, the amplifier’s input stage is where all the magic happens.

If we look at an amplifier like the BHK, we’ve used a vacuum tube to provide the gain. In most solid state amplifiers—those that are not hybrids like the BHK—this task of amplifying the small input signal is handled by any number of clever schemes. I have engineered simple op-amp style architecture with a single diff pair feeding a gain stage, to more complex versions known as full complimentary where there are multiple diff pairs and gain stages. The means to build a high voltage preamplifier are as many as there are amplifiers. Every engineer has their take on what sounds best in this all critical stage.

One technique we pioneered many years ago, though I am sure we weren’t the first, was the use of a separate power supply for this input voltage gain stage. It’s what we’ve done in almost every amplifier we’ve ever built and the improvements are clear to hear. In this scenario, there are two power transformers (or at least two separate windings on the main transformer) inside the amp: a small and a large one. The small transformer and its associated power supply feed the input stage, while the behemoth transformer is kept separated for the output stage. Here’s where we can get tricky. We can easily regulate this input stage, we can make sure it is never impacted by demands for power on the output stage. Thus our internal preamp is pure and undisturbed by our subject of tomorrow’s post, the less important but certainly not unimportant, current amplifier.

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.

For those interested, here is how an audio power amplifier works.

Peeking under the covers

It seems I may be alone in my enthusiasm to read about high dynamic range loudspeakers and systems in these blog posts so we’ll move on. That’s fine, it’s just that I am currently immersed in the subject because of our work on the new line of Arnie Nudell speakers. We’ve had some excellent work finished by our driver manufacturer including a new midrange ribbon that has me swooning!

That said, I’ll keep on getting excited about high efficiency, high dynamic range solutions, but meanwhile, we’ll switch gears on these posts.

One question I get asked a lot is how a power amplifier works. Generally, the question comes up because power amplifiers seem somewhat of a mystery. Big, heavy boxes, with collections of strange components inside.

To start off the discussion let’s imagine the use case for a power amp—one we’re all familiar with: an input to connect the output of the preamp or DAC, and an output that connects to loudspeakers. What happens in between? We know a preamp is incapable of driving a speaker because it doesn’t have an essential element. Wattage. So, what happens? How does the power amp take the weak output signal from the preamp and give it wattage, muscle, power?

Let’s start with a simple diagram of a power amplifier.

Note there are 3 blocks. An input amplifier (U1) an output amplifier (U2) and a power supply. These are the three critical elements within any analog power amplifier. The 3 elements are:

  1. Voltage gain stage
  2. Current gain stage
  3. Power supply

Tomorrow we’ll start with the voltage gain stage.

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.

We went to see Andy McKee last night and talk about dynamics!!

Unlocking dynamics

Dynamic range describes the difference between soft and loud. What’s not defined is how soft or how loud—only the magnitude between the two—which is a problem if the softest sounds fall below the threshold of audibility. When that happens the range of dynamics is truncated, a fact not apparent when quoting dynamic range figures.

I’ll give you an example. The threshold for hearing is defined as the minimum amplitude the average person can detect sound. This level happens to be around 15dB for a middle-aged male. If we want to be able to listen to the full range of a CD, which is 96dB, we have to adjust the system’s loudest peaks to be 111dB (15dB + 96dB). That’s pretty loud and beyond the capability of most speakers to comfortably hit those levels. Which means we aren’t going to get the full dynamic range possible out of a CD.

But, wait a minute. A CD is 16 bits limited in dynamics (96dB). Higher bit depth, like 24 bits, can theoretically go as high as 144dB, though noise and other factors set the practical limit at about 123dB. How then can this greater dynamic range from greater bit depth matter, if we’re already losing dynamic range to the threshold of audibility?

It can’t, at least not by much.

And vinyl? Heck, we’re lucky to get 70dB from well-pressed vinyl, forcing the mastering engineer to compress the presentation into that smaller space. That said, vinyl’s the only medium that actually scales pretty easily. You get it all at most volume levels, though the price is the compression.

So, the bottom line in this ramble is simple. Even though a CD is limited to 96dB of dynamic range, by making sure to turn the level up so the softest passages can just pass the threshold of audibility, we can get close to the dynamics of live music. Deeper bit depth makes it easier, but not by a lot.

 

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.

High efficiency loudspeakers

Not many stereo systems can come close to reproducing the peak levels of live music. In fact, I’ll step out onto the ledge and say you’ve never heard a speaker that can even come close to live levels. I know that I haven’t. And, yet, we believe our audio systems get close to the sound of live music.

Often, what we want to be true just simply isn’t. I know, it’s as painful as when I tell people their loudspeakers need a subwoofer. They don’t like to be told that because the story they bought into from the speaker manufacturer was that it’s “full range”, dipping its toe into the 20Hz region. No, it probably isn’t. Just like no, your speaker isn’t hitting 120dB peaks like instruments can.

For example, did you know a piano can hit peaks of 110dB? Electric keyboards 118dB, a piccolo 120dB, a trumpet 113dB, and a symphonic orchestra peaks of 120dB to 137dB are common.

I have been convinced for quite some time, as was our codesigner in the upcoming PS Audio loudspeaker line, the late Arnie Nudell, that a speaker’s inability to hit these peaks without distortion or compression is a key factor in getting us closer to the sound we all crave, live unamplified music.

To be clear, I am not talking about playing music at loud levels. Quite the contrary. As my readers know I believe every track of music has a perfect volume setting within a room. Too loud or too quiet beyond the perfect and we lose the magic inside the music. But once you listen at the proper levels, is your system—both electronic and speaker—capable of hitting the same loud peaks a musician does?

The answer is no. And if you think that’s incorrect, have another thought.

Over the next few days, we will spend some time looking and learning together on the subject.