I remember my first taste of a high-end USB cable, the JCAT. It made such an improvement that I thought it was a gift from heaven. I just couldn’t believe the difference that cable made.
It’s rare but sometimes we take a new piece of gear home and it exceeds our expectations and not just by a little. No, some stereo products are so much better than what we’re used to that it feels as if it were heaven sent. A miracle. An extraordinary revelation.
Those experiences are rare, but when they happen they make a lasting impression.
The last one I recall was Ted Smith’s latest creation, Snowmass. When we loaded that new firmware into the DirectStream DAC both Darren Myers and I simultaneously turned to each other and watched our jaws drop.
Unexpected pleasures can often seem so big they feel like a gift from up on high.
Maybe it’s why I keep searching for the better—the dopamine hit of discovering a heaven sent product is unforgettable. I want more and keep searching for the latest.
We spend hundreds of hours in the listening room finding the best sound for our products, the optimized features for the design, the spark of brilliance that we know must be there.
When we find it, it’s sometimes as if heaven sent.
Stepping out on the ledge
It’s awful scary out on that ledge. You’ve decided to give it your best shot but you’re not certain it’s going to work. Now, you’re committed and what if it doesn’t work? What if that new audio DAC doesn’t sound the way you thought it would? The new cable didn’t have the synergy you expected. The room you just built doesn’t sound good?
Taking risks based on a leap of faith is something frightening we all deal with and handle differently. Some spend hundreds of hours researching the subject to death before stepping out on that ledge, while others just jump with a shrug of the shoulder. Still others wait for the new to become the old and accepted before taking the plunge.
How you handle those decisions doesn’t really ameliorate the risks. Early adopters, those that wait for the new to become mainstream, even the few who won’t take the leap until the new becomes the old all assume the same level of risk. We simply do what we’ve learned has the greatest chance for success and we’re all a bit different.
Here’s the thing. Whenever you’re ready to make a change and step out on that ledge you risk failure—and that sounds like something to avoid. But, I would argue it is failure that helps us grow and it is learning and growth that we seek. If everything worked you’d never learn nothing.
So the next time you’re nervously contemplating changing your stereo system, your mouse finger is trembling before making that purchase, just remember that the best thing that can happen might just be failure.
Sure, we all want the easy win and are delighted when we get it. But if failure weren’t an option, we’d never enjoy the thrill of stepping out on the ledge.
Giving yourself permission
We’re a funny lot. If we’ve set some sort of goal or restriction we work hard to stick to it regardless of the outcome. Like promising yourself not to eat French fries, or never play music from Tony Orlando.
But then something changes and you’re faced with a new set of temptations. You don’t want to break your promise to yourself but heck, circumstances have changed. Right? So we give ourselves permission to violate the agreement just this once. Those fries were hand-cut and not the frozen kind, and Tony’s new single did get rave reviews.
Life’s full of guilty pleasures and giving yourself permission to enjoy a few is alright.
You’re convinced digital is king and that analog is antiquated. Or Tidal sounds better than Qobuz, XLR tromps RCA, you should purchase only from a dealer, horn speakers are old fashioned.
When change is in the air, give yourself permission to open up just a smidgen.
That small opening of acceptability can often lead to discovery of the new and exciting.
I am often asked for a recommendation on a piece of digital audio equipment that a person could simply drop in and hear how it is better than vinyl. A simple, easy, demonstration of one format’s superiority over another.
Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do that. Sure, we can all agree on digital’s technical superiority in terms of noise, dynamics, frequency response, transient attack, distortion, etc. Yet, replacing one piece into an analog ecosystem won’t demonstrate anything other than how alien it is.
Think of it as making as much sense as dropping a piece of modern furniture into a living room decorated in a completely different style. You’re unlikely to get a good feel of how that single piece would play out in a surrounding more acclimated to its style.
When we set up a system we’re doing so in a way that honors and accentuates the virtues of one format at the expense of another.
In the same way that plopping in the world’s best turntable into my digital optimized kit won’t tell us much of anything—other than it’s out of place—dropping a state of the art DAC into an all analog setup is doomed to failure too.
I wish I had an easy solution to help people experience the benefits of one vs. the other, but alas, drop-ins just don’t work.
They are about as welcome as uninvited guests at the family Thanksgiving dinner.
Becoming a good listener
When Stan and I first started PS Audio in 1974 he was a good listener and I was not. I struggled to hear differences between subtly nuanced sonic changes. Stan patiently pointed those changes out to me until I began to hear them too. It wasn’t a quick process for me, as it isn’t for others, but over time I finally got it through my thick skull.
Listening, whether it be to conversation or music, is a learned skill. Some, like me, take a longer time than others to attain those skills. The appreciation of art isn’t a whole lot different. I can remember my time at New York’s MOMA trying to fathom what others see in modern art. To me, the pieces on the wall were about as good as some of the works my children brought home. But then, slowly, I got coached by those very same children.
And let’s not forgot one-on-one conversations. The art of listening to others is again a very difficult process for me. As soon as I feel I have grasped what the other is saying I want to jump in and speed up the interchange. But that’s wrong and both parties lose because of my impatience. I’ve gotten better as a listener, though I have a long way to go.
I think the takeaway to today’s missive is not to take listening for granted. It is a learned skill, especially when it comes to high-performance audio.
The next time someone suggests to you they cannot hear the differences in cables, fuses, or other more subtle tweaks—changes that seem huge to you—cut them a little slack.
Perhaps they’re not as skilled as yourself.
The trouble with convention
I remember my excitement when Mark Levinson’s company broke with the pack and started building products with Lemo Connectors. Wow. Those were wicked cool looking and they had an even cooler story behind them too. Alas, this trend never caught on because nothing else matched and who wants to use adapters?
Then, Arnie and I chose to use Neutrik Speakons for our Genesis I system’s subwoofer connecting cables. These cool multiwire connectors were vetted in the pro-industry and accepted as not only easy to use but made certain our woofers, with their built-in accelerometers, could never be connected in error. Brilliant, yet, today there’s nary a product I am aware of in high-end land using them. (Turns out that after using them over the years they’re pretty cheaply made and not all that robust).
And, I remember when Wisconsin based Wadia, then the hot ticket in digital audio, built their products around ATT glass fiber that could easily handle gigahertz and was the be all to end all (it was then and still is now). That connector was eclipsed with the very much worse plastic POS released from Toshiba called TOS/LINK (Toshiba Link). It’s a rare day when that can get close to high-resolution audio.
And so today none of these attempts at bettering performance through advanced tech remain because convention has sucked the life out of them—mashed by the steamroller of mediocrity, leaving those of us wishing better to come up with hacks, like our use of HDMI for I2S.
Indeed, our penchant for conformity leaves those of us desirous of great performance heights out in the cold.
The good news of convention is it plays nice with everything.
The bad news is it plays nice with everything.
Paradigms are models of accepted norms: templates of how we arrive at a product or result using standard practices. The paradigm of a room full of neatly ordered books on shelves is called a library. The paradigm of hardwired circuits specific to the conversion of digital bits into analog representations is called a DAC.
When one paradigm is shattered and a new one emerges it is called a paradigm shift.
When digital audio guru Ted Smith moved from a hardwired IC-based DAC to an upgradable palette that can be reconfigured with little more than a stroke of genius and a few keystrokes of the computer, the high-end audio world got treated to a paradigm shift in the DirectStream DAC.
Explaining difficult engineering concepts to non-engineering people is not easy. I watch eyes glaze over when I attempt to educate hungry minds on the inner workings at the heart of the PS Audio DirectStream, the Field Programmable Gate Array—better known as an FPGA. Perhaps the easiest explanation is to imagine a computer—the very device you’re reading this post on. Whether phone, tablet, or desktop device, the very instrument that allows you to share these written words is like a chameleon capable of changing its identity in the blink of an eye. By the simple act of loading software, your computing device can assume just about any role: music player, word processor, post reader.
Every time we launch a new program for DirectStream DAC owners they receive a new DAC just as fresh and exciting as if they’d unboxed new hardware.
Our latest model of DAC is called Snowmass and we’ve upgraded our thousands of DirectStream owners around the world for free.
Want to join them? We’ve made a small number of DirectStreams available for purchase at a greatly reduced price.
The sound of microphones
It’s rare that I can hear a recorded voice and be unable to distinguish it from the live version. So rare, in fact, that I think the only times I have been fooled is when that voice is distantly recorded and I am not focused on it.
I place the blame on the device that captures those voices, the microphone. Recording technology has gotten good enough that a direct injected signal from an instrument is indistinguishable from its live performance. It’s really only microphones that are so antiquated as to be instantly identifiable. With only a small amount of practice, you’ll find it easy to classify the types of colorations microphones add to the human voice.
It’s curious to me that so little innovation has gone into the development of new microphones. But then, I suppose, it’s a very difficult problem. To capture sound waves you pretty much have to move some amount of mass and then measure that movement. The types of mass being moved: plastic, metal, ceramic, or granular materials contributes to sound’s colorations.
I once daydreamed about building a stereo servo system around a microphone where a difference approach could be used to correct for the colorations imparted by various materials and microphone patterns. It was an interesting idea but quickly abandoned because, of course, there was no way of capturing what it should sound like without using another transducer.
No, the problem of microphones will be with us for a long, long time.
Prove it to me
How often do we go into a decision making process pre-convinced of the outcome? And, when we do that, how is the outcome affected? It cannot be nothing.
As soon as I hear the catchphrase “prove it to me” I smile. The person has already decided the outcome and now the task of the educator is a magnitude more difficult.
While I am good at offering advice I am as guilty as the next for uttering those very words. So…I have decided to do my best to change my initial reaction from “oh yeah? Prove it to me” to “ok, tell me more”.
It may not be much but sometimes a simple change in mindset can make all the difference in the world.
“Oh yeah? Prove it to me.”
“Tell me more!”
Vibration isolation products are snake oil
We’ve saved perhaps the best for last. “Best” because this is a subject that genuinely gets the hairs on the back of some necks to stand at stiff attention, yet there’s ample proof that it works.
Some weeks ago I published this video of a vibration control product demonstration I saw while at RMAF. Nearly 30,000 people have viewed this video and the number of commenters is one of the highest of all my many videos. Passions run high and I think I know why. The idea that reducing vibrations has an audible impact runs so counter to what we consider normal as to inflame emotions often to the burning point. “It just doesn’t make any sense!” is a rallying cry to get the tar heated up and the feathers collected. Yet, the differences are easy to hear.
Few knowledgeable people would dispute that quieting vibration prone equipment matters: turntables, vacuum tubes would come to mind right away. Perhaps less obvious are capacitors that proliferate within equipment, but these are generally accepted by even the propellerhead measurementists. No, what really freaks people out is speakers.
Speakers make the noise we hear in our rooms and systems. They generate sound pressure and should be immune to their own vibrations, dammit!
Ahh, but sadly, the boxes that hold our speakers add to the melee of sound in the room. At the same time they radiate sound waves those same boxes add time audible vibrations through the floor. As well, some would claim those same floor vibrations are reflected back up into the box to muddle the music even more. If you have the time to closely look at the graphs Dave Morrison shows at the end of the video you’ll gain a better understanding of how isolation products—legit isolation products, that is—actually contribute to good sound.
Is there snake oil in accessories? Oh my, yes. Claims and counterclaims that match Carter and his little pills abound with abandon. Yet, I would encourage the person interested in good sound to wade through the bullcrap to find the truth.
As in any of these Fact or Fiction questions, there’s truth to be found if you’re interested in finding it.