If you look at a musical score you see the notes dictating the melody. You also see the intonation instructions: where to slow down, speed up, get louder or softer.
Fortunately, only the notes themselves are inviolate. Conductors and performers have the freedom to interpret timing and dynamics.
How boring it would be if every musician strived to be the same.
The open interpretation of music—any music—is what keeps what we love most alive and forever fresh.
Music is fluid and every performer adds his or her voice to the mix.
Just like every stereo system sounds different, every musician colors their performance to match their world view.
The notes of a score may define the melody in the same way our equipment fixes the signal’s outcome, but it is up to the individual performer to add their touch of color to the end product.
I mostly agree with this, unless balanced is accomplished through transformers like my Rogue power amplifiers. Then, a mixed bag.
Balanced is better
In my mind, there’s no question that between components the best connection is balanced. Balanced cables offer lower noise and better sound.
I understand there are single-ended holdouts (wait, we disagree on something in audio?). Perhaps their stereo equipment doesn’t support balanced. Perhaps their cable collection doesn’t include balanced. Or maybe they don’t agree with me. Whatever the reasons, I think they are missing out on an entire level of sonic bliss enjoyed by those of us who have seen the light of balanced connections.
One nagging problem remains. I continue to get questions about using balanced to single-ended (or the opposite) adapters. The stores and “experts” advising unsuspecting customers on their use are guilty of fake news. Seems to be a popular thing these days, non-factual fake news.
The facts in this matter are simple. Balanced to single-ended adapters do not somehow “convert” or take advantage of the benefits of a balanced connection. What they do is simply ignore the two-wire balanced convention, leaving the unused signal conductor floating. Balanced to single-ended adapters should be avoided if at all possible.
If your source rig has a balanced out but what it’s feeding hasn’t a balanced in, you’re much better off using a proper single-ended cable. Exceptions might include when you haven’t a choice and need to feed a secondary component like a subwoofer.
I hope this helps those who are struggling to find the proper way to connect.
What is the truth?
I saw a survey that suggested nearly everyone believes they are an above-average driver. In fact, it turns out that most of us believe we’re not only above average, we’re significantly better than just about anyone on the road. Of course, the majority cannot be above average.
And don’t most of us believe we’re above average in our abilities to tell fact from fiction?
Others may fall for BS but rarely us.
I don’t know anyone that wanders around thinking they’re wrong despite the impact our personal biases have on facts and truth. Whether we like it or not the sun rises each morning, gravity sucks, the Earth is not flat, and a violin sounds like a violin. Our beliefs and biases change neither facts nor truth.
Which is why it’s so refreshing to be an audiophile. There’s an ultimate truth to music’s reproduction. The sound of live instruments.
It’s worth the struggle to build your stereo system to tell the truth.
Diferent: better or worse?
My friend Seth tried out new speaker cables. They were definitely different—a fact in itself that surprised him—but were they better?
Apple just unveiled its new operating system, Big Sur. Better or worse? Well, on the one hand, they have completely hosed their mail app and its ability to work with Exchange (forcing me to abandon it after all these years). On the other hand, the integration with their apps and desktop programs is better.
Different doesn’t always equate to either better or worse.
What we can say is that different often requires us to adjust our brains, routines, and lives to accommodate. After time we discover the new is better in some ways, worse in others.
Sometimes different is immediately better or worse: fully supporting our current mojo, or so far away as to be alien. This sometimes happens when evaluating equipment—clear and unequivocally one direction or another. But more often than not different is a mixed bag of improvements that challenges our abilities to adapt and forces us to question whether or not its worth the time and energy to find out.
For me, I work hard at offering different time and space enough for proper evaluation.
When we started PS Audio in the early 1970s there was no such thing as a remote controlled volume. No, we had to get off our lard butts and adjust the preamp’s volume knob—which led to very different stereo setups. Preamps were inevitably within arm’s reach.
Today, that might be pretty much unthinkable.
The changes needed to switch from a culture of knob twisters to remote control button-pushers were monumental. We went from motorized pots to electronic gain control over the span of decades and still, to this day, there’s no industry standard for the control of volume.
PS Audio went in the direction of variable gain amplifiers. Others use off-the-shelf attenuators based on CMOS ladder networks, while still others hang on with light-dependent photoresistors (and don’t get me started about early DACs losing resolution in exchange for remote-controlled volume levels).
What’s fascinating to me is that while once the industry standards were pretty simple, and the performance dictated by the quality of parts and implementation of either pots or stepped attenuators, the need for people to control the volume without leaving their seats has forever changed the circuitry and performance levels of what we listen to.
Sometimes technological improvements lead to welcomed cultural shifts: dial phones to cell phones, throttles to cruise controls, radios to televisions.
Other times, welcomed cultural shifts lead to questionable industry performance improvements.
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Following a recent 10-day road trip from our home in Boulder out to California and back, I gained five pounds while snacking in the car and tolerating restaurant food. Now, back home, it’s time to shed those pounds and get back to my healthy number on the scale. That’s not hard. I just follow the book I wrote and, within a few weeks, I am back to where I need to be.
The hard part is the realization that I cannot cheat. That even if no one else is looking I cannot take a shortcut: a nibble, “just a little” of this, or that.
A reminder to me that nothing’s free.
When I get lazy around my stereo system—impatiently listening before the system warms up, or not using a dose of CleanWave before a critical listen—I have to be alright with the results.
The system doesn’t care what my mood or level of commitment is. It does what it does regardless of me.
Cause and effect. Nothing’s free.
Argan oil and pumpkin
Terri’s in charge of household supplies. That’s a good thing. Were it me I’d likely just buy whatever was on sale.
As I am washing my hands I notice her latest acquisition: soap based on argan oil and pumpkin. I have no idea if these two key ingredients matter and, I suspect, neither does she. They sound pleasant enough together and it’s likely some soap engineer considered them essential.
I am reminded of our own stereo industry where catchphrase ingredients are often the driving factors in our purchasing decisions: oxygen-free copper, Teflon insulators, low ESR, thick film vs, thin film.
How many of us actually understand the relationship of buzzword features to sonic performance?
In the end, it comes down to trust. Do we trust those that spend their lives crafting our products?
Are the folks we buy from genuine?
My hands are clean, the soap’s smell is pleasant enough. Is it better than a good old bar of soap?
I haven’t seen one of those around the McGowan household in years.
When Stereophile Magazine awarded Stellar Phono its coveted Analog Product of the Year award we were, of course, ecstatic. What an honor.
That award got me thinking about the near-impossible job of a phono preamplifier: to amplify without noise a tiny signal 30,000 to 50,000 times smaller than what comes out of your preamplifier.
I remember from 40 years ago my struggles to design without noise PS Audio’s first moving coil preamplifier. It felt impossible. How does one add, without additional noise, 30dB of gain in front of an already high gain moving magnet phono stage? Everything I tried came with unacceptable levels of noise. I searched, I studied, I consulted with experts. At the time, the general consensus was it couldn’t be done and we should instead do what everyone else was doing: use a step up transformer.
I own up to being a stubborn mule. Dammit! I was going to figure out an active solution and so I continued to slug it out with various schemes. Finally, after a year of constant failure, I succeeded. Low impedances and a single common base BJT amplifier were the answer.
One of the industry’s very first active moving coil amplifiers, the PS Audio MCA, was born.
That was four decades ago. Today, innovative bright young engineers like Darren Myers are blazing trails I couldn’t have imagined.
Progress. Breaking new ground. Moving forward. It’s what gets me up in the morning.
Even as a kid I never bought the premise behind Hans Christian Anderson’s story, The Princess, and the Pea. Just a bit too far fetched for my young engineering brain to believe that anyone could feel a pea under multiple mattresses.
Fairy tales aside, it is a fact that we are all different when it comes to our audio sensitivities. I might be more sensitive than many to sound staging while someone else really focuses on tonality.
We make choices in equipment and set up based on those differing sensitivities: cables that bring out more details, vacuum tubes that warm and soften, subwoofers that build a solid foundation.
Our systems are all different, just like our tastes and sensitivities.
Few of us could likely tell if there were a pea under the cushion of our listening chair, but if our stereo system’s sound is even slightly amiss we know it instantly.
Working up or down
We’re all different yet so similar.
Take the way I assemble a stereo system. When I first start a project, whether building a stereo rig or adding a new source, I study, research, and amass every possible configuration and head-scratching perturbation I can imagine and then start building. Over time and use, I begin to better understand the montage and begin eliminating the unneeded—paring the configuration down to its essential elements.
Others do exactly the opposite. Instead of heaping everything possible together and shaking out the collection before reducing it to essentials, the more cautious assemblers start small and over time and usage build up their creations as needed.
We both seem to end up in the same place.
It is only the path taken that differs.
Whether you’re building up a system or paring it down to perfection, it’s the end results that matter.