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.

RCA terminated audio interconnects aren’t going anywhere, at least not for a long time.  Too many applications where they are good enough and often these cables are unshielded, so the negative conductor is not used as a shield.

Whereas I use XLR cables between my T+A DAC 8 DSD and my T+A Amp 8, as well as between the DAC 8 DSD and my Luxman Integrated amp, as well as between the DAC 8 DSD and my Rogue Audio RP-7 preamp, I do use RCA cables for my phono stage and for the plate amps for my two Daedalus BOW subwoofers. I’d prefer to use XLR cables, except I don’t have that option, as neither have balanced inputs and my Rogue Ares phono stage is definitely high end audio!

The RCA connector

I cannot imagine any reader of this blog that hasn’t heard of the RCA connector.

Designed in the 1940s by the Radio Corporation of America, its first use was to connect the internal components of console and tabletop radios manufactured by RCA. Back then consumers had never seen an RCA cable unless they dug deep into the radio’s internals. In the 1950s, as radio morphed into consumer audio equipment, RCA cables began to replace the quarter-inch jack, the standard for external interconnection of audio products. Before you knew it, the RCA cable was everywhere.

RCA cables can work in our high-end stereo systems. They are by far the most used connection scheme today. But just because something’s used a lot doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. RCAs have a number of shortcomings. When inserting the connector into its female counterpart, its extended hot tip makes contact before the ground and we hear a “blaaat” if we change cables with a live amp.  And, shielding? It’s not good on an RCA as one of the two conductors is attempting to also act as a shield. I could go on.

In “pro” applications we use the XLR balanced connector which not only solves the RCA’s shortcomings but adds another layer of improvement in its balanced configuration. And in high-end audio, an increasing number of people are moving to the superior XLR cable too. Bravo.

Some technologies have run their course and need to be replaced. The RCA cable has enjoyed an 80 year-long run. It’s probably time to join the other retirees in the setting sun.

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.

Simply so

Simple, cleaner, less cluttered. That’s the way we like our signal path, right? Less is more.

In simpler days when vinyl LP’s were all there was, a clean and straight path was typically the best for audio quality: the perfect cartridge/arm/table, feeding a great preamplifier, and then on into a power amp. This was before cables and accessories were a thing. Didn’t get much cleaner than that.

Today even analog rigs seem to require more to make them sing. Perhaps it’s an expensive set of audio cables, isolation products, tube dampers, separate phono and line stage, monoblock amps, and so forth.

I remember my first education in how simple isn’t always better. Years ago we used between the phono preamp and amplifier the very finest potentiometer available. No line stage or buffer after the pot for us, because we knew simpler had to be better. Until we tried a proper buffer after that pot and then everything changed. Gone was the wimpy bass without slam factor. Enter a new dimensionality in instrumentation separation and a much cleaner, clearer, better defined soundstage.

All because we recognized simpler isn’t always better.

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 is kind of dumb..Both count equally and generally, ones no good without the other.

The importance of setup

Setting up a stereo system takes a lot of work but it’s free. Outfitting a great audio system is easy, but it costs a lot of money.

Which has the most value?

If I had to choose, I would suggest setup trumps stereo equipment. I say this because some of the most expensive systems I have heard sounded dreadful when the setup person or the room didn’t honor the music.

A mediocre set of equipment with exquisite setup will typically be more musically satisfying than a poorly setup expensive arrangement.

Of course, when you can get both equipment and setup perfected, that’s when the magic happens.

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 don’t necessarily agree with this, but PS Audio is heavily invested in DSD, with their top of the line DAC, converting all PCM recordings to DSD. At its best and that means the recording and playback abilities of our stereo systems being able to pay back DSD, DSD does sound better than PCM.

However, almost all of what I have, and by a lot, is PCM and it sounds fantastic, as long as the recording allows.

Sweeping statements

Here’s a subject I am perhaps more guilty of than most. The practice of making a sweeping statement about how everything is one way or the other. This is wrong and this is right. This matters and that does not. This guy’s a liar, and this one always tells the truth.

The problem with this line of communication is two-fold: nothing is always one way or the other and we cannot know everything.

I find myself making sweeping statements in an effort to emphasize a point important to me. DSD always sounds better than PCM. And you know what? In the examples I have experienced, that happens to be true. Unequivocally true. Thus it must be universally true—only, it isn’t.

This is how divides happen. When all you have ever experienced suggests one conclusion, then it must be the same for everyone else—which is true only in the case where others have experienced exactly what you have.

If our goal is to effectively communicate then perhaps it’s best to include the caveat “in my experience”. That’s a hard one to get wrong.

I’ll do my best to be better at that.

 

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.

Global feedback

When we speak of global feedback we’re referring to the practice of wrapping the output signal of an audio device back to its input for comparison and correction. Because the input “knows” what’s right, a simple comparison circuit between the two serves to rectify any differences.

Of course, nothing in engineering is a free lunch. You cannot simply add global feedback in the hopes of perfection in the same way you cannot expect a broken leg to perfectly mend as if nothing happened. Both are improved, neither are perfect.

Along the same vein, it’s been suggested that it might be possible to wrap global feedback around the system rather than just individual components within the system. So, imagine a scenario where the speaker output is measured in real time and fed back to the source for comparison and correction—a brute force approach to lowering errors, to be sure, but an interesting notion too.

From a technical standpoint, running such a long global loop is fraught with problems: timing, latency, phase differences, amplitude changes from the level control that cannot be known to the system are certainly starting hurdles. But while it’s an innovative idea that might have a chance at implementation in the lower frequency ranges, what it suggests to me is something more interesting—just how far off the eventual output signal is from its starting point.

Ss we build upon the chain each component adds just a little bit of its flavor until the end result is reasonably far from its beginning.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our stereo systems are amazing at what they do.

I just find stuff like this ever-fascinating.

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.

Keeping perspective

A few days ago, in California’s appropriately named Furnace Creek, the Earth’s highest officially recorded temperature was reached—a blistering 130˚ Fahrenheit. A record temperature, to be sure, but Death Valley’s Furnace Creek routinely logs days in the upper 120˚ degree range. So, what’s an extra 5˚ of heat when it’s already hotter than blazes?

An extraordinary fact is always startling, but less so when put into perspective. For example, when CDs were first introduced their stunning 30 to 40 dB increase in dynamic range over vinyl records seemed to be all we’d ever need until one actually looks at music. Most symphonic orchestras can produce upwards of 120dB—we’d simply wait a few years and for the 144dB range of 24 bit. Or, take for another example my first introduction to subwoofers via a friend’s 18″ Cerwin Vegas that could extend flat down to 30Hz! Amazing until I experienced the Infinity IRS ton of woofer towers producing 16Hz, only later to be outdone by the Rotary Sub’s 1Hz.

It’s always about perspective.

No matter how great your stereo system might be, I think it’s healthy to maintain a bit of perspective. After all, you wouldn’t want to limit your expectations. You just never know what new miracles are right around the corner.

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.

Liner notes

As we move forward with a limited edition vinyl release of Octave Record’s first recording, Don Grusin’s Out of Thin Air, I got to thinking about liner notes.

A rush of memories flooded back.

I don’t know about you, but I distinctly remember grabbing an unknown album from my collection (I had a lot of unknowns because of my years in the music/radio business), dropping the needle on track one and reading the album’s liner notes. If the first few paragraphs and notes both spoke to me, I delved deeper into both liner and musical notes so that by the end of side one I felt in tune with the artist and her music.

Today I can do the same thing with a digital platform but somehow it just doesn’t feel right. Reading from an iPad loses the feel of the cardboard cover, the smell of new vinyl, the permanence of the printed word, the myopic read without the possibility of a click for more info. You got what the artist wanted to share with you. No more, no less.

Which is why I am excited we’re doing a classic vinyl release with lots of liner notes and pictures. The double-disc set will be on heavy virgin vinyl and playback at 45 rpm. I’ll let you know when they’re available.

Sometimes more isn’t always better.

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.

Stuck with stereo

Are we stuck with stereo? Wouldn’t multi-channel audio be a step up when it comes to immersing ourselves in music?

There are certainly advantages to 4-channel or 5-channel music recordings though rarely is realism one of their benefits. It certainly could be. In the few instances where the rear 2-channels of a 4-channel music recording have been used to capture the ambience behind the listener, the degree of realism is many times magnified.

Yet, the vast majority of surround sound recordings place everything but ambience on those two channels. We find other instruments, voices, whatevers, seemingly coming out of natural space as if we’re in the middle of the group rather than a listener in the audience.

Perhaps if recording engineers had paid more attention to creating the illusion of being present during the recording we’d not have wound up with only two channels to reproduce realism.

I guess the temptation to use the rear channels for “something meaningful” outweighed the chance to merely bring realism to home audio—and that was perhaps a wise decision. Can you imagine asking the average person to buy two more channels of audio just so it can sound more real?

It would have been a Godsend for us audiophiles, but a disaster for the average buyer of home audio equipment.

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’re the same

It’s well known that our audio products are designed both by measurement and by ear.

How close is the designer’s hearing to that of the end user? For if the two don’t match then how can we know if we’re in synch?

This is a great question because it focuses on the common misconception that we hear with our ears. In fact, we hear with our ears and our brains.

It is true our ears as microphones are all very different, but it’s our ear/brain mechanism that sorts everything out. I can tell the difference between a violin and a cello because of my learned experience and so too can you. And the better our experience the more accurate our results.

We cannot train a measurement device to be a better measurer, but we can train ourselves to be better listeners.

So if a designer’s goal is to build a product that more closely reproduces the sound of real instruments in acoustic space, it is the ear/brain tool we rely upon to help us achieve our goal.

With few exceptions, we can all agree upon that which we hear.

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 mostly agree with this and certainly the amount of power an audio amplifier produces doesn’t alway correlate with sound quality, but parts used and poor build quality, can have an effect beyond the designer.

I once imported a high end audio line from Australia and the products were  very well designed and the parts quality was good, but the build quality and packaging were horrible and ended that experiment for me!

More power equalled worse sound

One of my readers, Daniel, was surprised to find that a smaller power amplifier sounded better than a bigger, more powerful version. He wondered how that could be given how many times I have waxed enthusiastically about the benefits of headroom and power.

Of course, the answer lies not in the power differences but the skills of the designer.

It is often tempting to focus on one area of performance as the key indicator of how a piece of equipment will sound in our systems. Unfortunately, it’s never quite that easy. The number of variables determining sound quality is so many as to make one’s head spin like Regan MacNeil.

Which is why we listen.