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.

Almost every piece of stereo gear I’ve gotten takes some amount of break in and it’s for real.  Most of them sound good out of the box, but then change. Some happen quickly and some, like a pair of Parasound JC-1 monoblocks I had several years ago, change slowly. The Parasound’s changed until they settled in at about a months worth of use. I swear…

The break-in myth

When we take home new audio equipment it must spend time getting comfy within our system. New out-of-the-box gear can often sound tight, restricted, harsh. Over time and usage, products loosen up and become better suited to the new system. That, at least, embodies the break-in myth. fact, or fiction?

Are we the ones breaking-in or the equipment?

At face value it seems impossible an individual product can adjust its performance to have better synergy within a given system, and yet how many of us have not experienced break-in?

From an engineering perspective, we know that capacitors and dielectrics change characteristics with use. But are those changes audible? Measurable?

Too many of us have experienced the effects of break-in to ignore it or call it a myth. But, it does vary from product type to product type. For example, our newest product, the PerfectWave SACD Transport benefits little from break-in while our latest power amplifier, the M1200, demands literally weeks to sound good. These variances between products require changes to our production methods. Transports are burned in for 12 hours in an effort to weed out any potential problems while M1200s are burned in for 72 hours just so they don’t sound dreadful upon arrival.

Break-in is not a myth, but it isn’t a concrete fact for all products either.

You’ll just have to live with some variability and trust your ears.

 

Audiophile labels

By the headline, you might think I am referring to record labels, but I am not.

If you’re reading my words you own the label audiophile. You have an interest in better sound, in music, in attaining an emotional connection with that which emanates from two loudspeakers. You sometimes sit and stare at a blank wall behind the loudspeakers just like I do. You likely turn down the lights and relish the idea of spending time with your favorite musicians. I know that certainly applies to me.

I often think of time spent in the listening room as a guilty pleasure.

Just for me.

Does that label me an audiophile? Most definitely. And that’s just fine because that term, that label—Audiophile—has meaning only amongst our kind. I cannot tell you the number of times when I have been asked what my passions are and answered “audiophile” only to be greeted by a blank stare.

It’s just a label. But that label has meaning amongst those of us reading this blog post, and I find that to be something special.

You’re an Audiophile.

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.

Uriah Heep made many great records, most notably for me,  Salisbury and Look at Yourself. Both came out in 1971 and they were certainly prolific.

Salisbury, the title song,  was with an Orchestra and for 1971, pretty far out there. Look at Yourself had a mirror on the front of the album cover and may great sounds. I haven’t listened to much of anything else of theirs, but with 25 records, maybe its time as I still love rock and subscribe to Qobuzz!!

Say what?

While emailing back and forth with several new members of PS Audio’s HiFi Family it became apparent they weren’t aware of our podcast, Ohm’s Law. In fact, turns out they had yet to ever listen to a podcast of any kind.

This is foreign to me. I listen to podcasts daily and find them a wonderful way of absorbing new information on the subjects that interest me. Here are some of my favorites:

Throughline, because I am a history buff and appreciate learning the origins of what is happening today.

Akimbo, because Seth always inspires me.

Infinite Monkey Cage, because I am at my core a science nerd.

Revisionist’s history, well, as I said, I like history and the roots of why things are the way they are today.

And for those of you unfamiliar with Ohm’s Law, which for the most part is simply an audio version of my Ask Paul videos, here are some of my favorites from back when they were separated.

Uriah Heep

Bernie Grundman

Arnie Nudell

Cat Stevens

Elton John

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.

Effortless is a virtue

One of the joys of a great stereo system is often never noticed. Effortlessness. When the music just flows without strain, without drawing attention to itself, without making a fuss.

We notice when things are wrong. Our ears perk up at the hint of compression or distortion. We wince at the bright note.

Effortlessness is never noticed, yet I cannot think of a more important virtue in an audio system.

Sometimes it’s what we don’t notice that has the greatest value.

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!!

Dips and bumps

Have you ever noticed how it’s the dips we tend to focus on rather than the bumps? That when things seem normal or even going great with our stereo systems, we take them as one in the same. But as soon as something goes wrong, bingo! Now we notice. Things are no longer normal.

I have for several years now attempted to mentally note the ups as well as the downs. What I’ve discovered is that they tend to come in semi-regular waves: swells and troughs, dips and bumps, ups and downs.

Which of course means that the in-betweens are what we think of as normal, though to my mind the pattern appears more reminiscent of a sine wave where “normal” is the zero crossing, the ups and downs everything else. Here, have a look.

Note that the majority of time (X-axis or left to right) is spent in some measure of either an up or down state. The zero-crossing point (denoted by the center line) is nearly non-existent. It is the point of normalized zero energy and nearly zero time: neither up nor down. Normal.

What this suggests to my nerd’s brain is simple: we spend nearly no time being normal. That normal is but an illusion: a bit of breathing space between the ups and downs that occupy the majority of our lives.

What would happen if we came to recognize that most of our time is spent negotiating life’s ups and downs in an effort to get back to a normal that pretty much doesn’t exist?

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.

Recording power

The art of great recordings comes more from the engineer than their audio equipment and the same is true for just about any artist: A painter’s skill vs. her oils and brushes, a photographer’s eye vs. his camera, an author’s words vs. her keyboard.

Imagine a recording session where there’s not enough presence to the cymbals or too little intimacy between the bow and string. The recording engineer need only move or change microphones until just the right mix is heard.

Yet another reason why recording monitors are critical. Recordings are emotional affairs crafted solely by ear. No measurements need apply. It either sounds right or it doesn’t.

The power found in the recording is more than just faithfully capturing the notes and sounds without distortion.

There are magic and emotions to be captured and shared.

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.

Blind squirrels

There’s an old saying that even a blind squirrel on occasion finds a nut. A humorous aphorism about stumbling into success.

The more we get involved in the recording industry the more convinced I become that the paucity of great recordings comes from the same set of circumstances dictating the quality of the average home stereo. Most people wouldn’t know what we audiophiles consider truly great sound if their lives depended on it. Run-of-the-mill recording engineers included. The majority of their work is by audiophile standards mediocre. Once in a while, they stumble upon a great recording.

At Octave Records, we record exclusively in DSD because it sounds better than PCM and analog tape. But it’s a pain in the butt to edit which is why few engineers take the time and effort to use it. And, if what you’re working with sounds great to you, why would you bother?

Audiophiles know what remarkable sound is.

We’re a rare breed of sighted squirrels.

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 of what we listen to is PCM and with a great DAC, like the T+A DACS’s, PCM can sound fantastic.

Vinyl best

In my earlier post, Audio Pedigree I waxed on about how nice it would be to know the true origins of our music’s recordings. Remastered vinyl “improved” by digital enhancement from the original analog tape is rarely as good as the original and often worse.

This prompted a few juicy questions about our own Octave Records process as we move into vinyl. While we’re completely transparent as to the recording methods and source materials, it would seem to some that vinyl mastered from DSD falls into a similar category as the aforementioned digital remasters I do not like.

Not so.

The ultimate quality of vinyl is achieved by what we used to call Direct-to-Disc recording. Where the long-ago norm was to first record on magnetic tape then transfer to vinyl, a few labels skipped the tape recorder altogether. Artists would play live while vinyl cutting engineers went direct to the lathe. These direct-to-disc recordings were amazing but not because of any superior cutting techniques.

What made direct-to-disc recordings sound so great was the elimination of the magnetic tape recorder. That was it. Tape recorders have limited dynamic range—less than what’s possible on a vinyl disc.

So the problem is in the recorder, which is why it seemed to make sense to record digitally. Digital recorders have dynamic range capabilities that far exceed the limitations of vinyl. Thus, with digital, it should be possible to obtain the same performance as we got with direct-to-disc. And while that is true when it comes to dynamics, it isn’t true when it comes to sounding like the live event.

This is where we draw the line between PCM and DSD. PCM can often sound artificial while DSD in the right hands sounds analog-live.

A new era is upon us. It is now possible to create direct-to-disc quality vinyl without requiring the musicians to play live.

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 seating position isn’t compromised, as my room was purposefully built for listening to music, but for almost all of us, what Paul is saying, is true.

The perfect spot

Your seating position is compromised.

If you’ve done your system setup homework your chair sits at a comfortable distance from the loudspeakers. With the precision of a ruler, you’ve tweaked and adjusted the speaker’s position for best imaging.

Though we call it the sweet spot, it’s certainly not the perfect spot.

Within the boundaries of most rooms, the perfect spot cannot be attained because of our old nemesis, bass.

If we could see sound we’d be rather shocked at how low frequencies bunch together like an angry sea of waves and throughs. Not far from your sweet spot bass notes boom. Move in the opposite direction and we hardly hear any low-frequency energy.

The perfect spot is where compromise negotiates a truce with boundary limitations.

Which is why we call our listening position sweet rather than perfect.

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 just got in a T+A MP2500 Multi-Player, which is a combination SACD/CD player, streamer and DAC. It also has a tuner in it and bluetooth and it is just an incredible sounding player. So, while my system is mature, as described by PauI, T+A’s two DACS’s that I’ve owned, have made a really good sounding system, now sound great.

The asymptote

When energy is first applied to the building of a high-end audio system big improvements come quickly. Over time changes get increasingly smaller despite the same energy applied.

We refer to this as an asymptote (diminishing returns). Rapid progress slows as the system coalesces into its final form. Thus, the new and exciting DAC everyone’s talking about rarely has as big an impact on the mature system as it might when replacing a mediocre product.

This is natural and to be expected.

What’s remarkable is when you read of a new product that even on the most mature systems leaps forward in performance.

It’s one thing to best a meh product and quite another to stand out in a crowded field of exceptional gear.

You’ll know it’s worth your time when those of us nearing the asymptote find a new product worth shouting about.