Tag Archives: audiophiles

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 price of scarcity

When something desirable is scarce its value increases.

It’s the old supply and demand theory we learned about in school. If more people want something than there is an available supply, the price adjusts upward.

Think of a vinyl album where only so many copies were pressed. Or, consider that only 58 pairs of IRSV speakers were ever made.

Scarcity can even apply to simpler things. Terri and I were skinning a bushel of our homegrown tomatoes last night. We turned those beauties into a delicious tomato sauce we’re going to freeze and sparingly consume over the winter months. No one else on the planet has the same tomato sauce as do we.

Thankfully, much of what we as audiophiles value with respect to new equipment isn’t scarce. You can grab a copy of a production DAC, integrated amplifier, or preamplifier without much worry about bickering over price. That’s not quite as true with vintage equipment.

What we can say about scarcity is that for most of us, the collection of hand-picked equipment, cables, room treatment, and careful placement is unique in all the world. Your stereo system in your room sounds different than mine because of the environment and the choices made to create that system.

What kind of price would you assign to your hand-built creation?

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.

Very different vs. right or wrong

Octave Recording artist and trumpeter extraordinaire, Gabriel Mervine, notes near the end of this video that “vinyl sounds different. Very different.”

In fact, identical master recordings sound very different depending on the recorded medium.

Which one is right?

One could easily suggest that because the recording was captured on DSD that playback would be right only when reproduced using the same technology.

Yet to many, the music sounds more “real” and “right” through the lens of LP’s.

As audiophiles, we’re always in search of sonic truth.

Though truth, as I mentioned in an earlier post, isn’t always the same for everyone.

Very different can be just as right as very right.

It’s all in your perception.

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.

Where have all the experts gone?

As our audio industry morphs from its heyday of local experts to a more globally connected version, we see a shift that affects us all.

I remember well the differing areas of influence exerted over localities. Big, influential high-end audio dealers in one area would have their favorite go-to stereo systems peppered throughout their spheres of influence. Thus, audiophiles in New York might have systems very different than their west coast brethren.

Now that we are increasingly connected together by the internet, there’s a homogenization of systems around the world.

I think this is a good thing because it allows us to share together information and ideas we might never have had access to.

There are no fewer HiFi experts than there were before.

You just have to look for them online.

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.

Changing tubes

In my many videos and blog posts about changing tired vacuum tubes, I am continually surprised at the variety of answers.

They range from heck yeah to hell no; from whenever the stereo system starts to get a bit lifeless to never more than 10 years; and everything in between.

I suppose I should never be surprised when audiophiles have and express opinions. It’s what makes us family.

One thing to keep in mind is that there are no universal rules. Every design of vacuum tube audio product has a different setup affecting tube life. I remember a few Sonic Frontier amps that benefitted from changing output tubes every few months. Contrast that with the vintage classic from decades ago that still sings with the best of them.

One thing I can tell you for sure is that all vacuum tubes sound slightly different. Take four or five matched set of new tubes and swap them out between listening sessions. The changes may be subtle, but they are there.

What I have found in all the tube preamplifiers I have owned, from Audio Research to PS Audio, changing tubes at least once a year (and maybe twice) brings a remarkable improvement in music’s liveliness.

Before you reject what I am writing, take the time to actually try the experiment.

You might be surprised.

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.

Cultures and communities

Most of us are born into a culture. Over time, we embrace other cultures and join the communities that support them.

Take our group’s choice of the culture known as high-end audio. It’s unlikely any of us were born into it (though to be fair my father might have qualified as an audiophile). And I would speculate most of us chose to embrace this culture and join its community.

We speak the lingo, we understand the concepts, on occasion we finger-wag our firm beliefs, we often preach the gospel, we sometimes shame outside thoughts that run counter to the culture that defines our community.

I know plenty of my fellow audiophiles that bristle at the suggestion ours is a culture. They would prefer the term community.

I would suggest one doesn’t work without the other. They are forever intertwined.

Cultures tend to be more long-term while communities are more transient.

The culture of high-end audio has been evolving for more than 100 years. Our community that supports, feeds, and helps shape our culture comes and goes.

Culture and community are dance partners.

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.

Amateur Audiophiles

One of the reasons I wrote The Audiophile’s Guide was to help fix the biggest problem in high-end audio systems. The one most of us take for granted, yet never master.

Setup.

Sure, we all know the basics: approximately where to place the loudspeakers, how to connect the kit, how to tame a lousy room.

But basics are not mastery in the same way learning how to boil water doesn’t make you a culinary expert.

With over 10,000 copies in circulation, I am happy to report that more systems sound better than ever before.

But, the Guide doesn’t work for everyone because not everyone gets the same benefits from simply reading a book.

That’s where someone like David Snyder can help. David, who refers to himself as an amateur audiophile (aren’t most of us?), has taken apart every aspect of The Audiophile’s Guide and methodically laid it out in much easier to understand language than I was able to.

He’s published this work in a 5-part series called Unlocking Great Sound and to be honest, he’s done a far better job than I.

If you’re interested, you can go here and begin with part 1.

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.

Working together

I am pretty certain few rooms support perfect bass. It’s not that rooms are particularly biased against low frequencies, the problem is those pesky long wavelengths.

Consider that a 20Hz wave is 51 feet in length. A 30Hz note is 38 feet long and even a 60Hz note is just under 10 feet in length.

These long wavelengths mean they don’t fit into most rooms, so, with nowhere to go they bunch up like the bellows of an accordion. This squeezing of sound creates hot spots and dead spots within the room.

What to do?

The easiest is to find where in the room you can sit that has the smoothest response for the greatest number of frequencies. That, coupled with moving your loudspeakers without mucking everything else up (like imaging and tonal balance), is the best way to make the most out of a tough situation.

Indeed, there are other means like adding digital correction and, if your bass is generated out of a subwoofer or separate woofer enclosure that can both be moved as well as digitally manipulated, then that’s a positive step forward.

What I don’t advise is to digitally manipulate anything other than bass frequencies—something requiring a separation of the woofer from the rest of the speaker.

As I cover in The Audiophile’s Guide, finding the best spot in the room for bass is a bit of a compromise, but it’s better to work together with the problems than wage war upon them.

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.

Getting started

We all want better quality high end audio but where do you start if you’re not getting all you hope for?

If the imaging or tonal balance are off, do you work with the loudspeakers or the electronics? If your speakers aren’t disappearing or the music is presented in your lap rather than on a proper soundstage, do you tweak setup or change cables?

It is difficult to know where in any complex system to start.

My advice has always been simple (though often not very satisfying).

At the beginning.

It may seem obvious to some, but if you don’t have the basics of setup, AC power, and room tweaks in place then every effort at improvement is more a Band-Aid than a fix.

I have helped countless audiophiles get a handle on their systems by pulling their attention away from the tweaks and back to the basics.

Getting the fundamentals right—especially the initial speaker and listening position—is critical to every system.

Getting started on fixing weakness when you haven’t first addressed the basics is like trying to shore up a teetering house with chewing gum and baling wire.

Fundamentals first.

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.

Linearity

The term linearity as it applies to amplification suggests a ruler-flat straight line. That is, for a given input voltage we expect a mathematical relationship with the output voltage that can be graphically expressed as a straight line.

So, for example, with an amplifier designed with a gain of 10, for 1 volt in, we expect exactly 10 volts out at every frequency. Easy peasy. Only, that isn’t what happens with amplifying elements.

Neither transistors nor vacuum tubes are natively linear with voltage or frequency, yet we expect them to perform as if they were.

Here’s a simple graph of input vs. output voltage of an amplifying element. Note how only part of its response is a straight line.

And this graph only covers voltage. A similar graph displaying input vs. output frequency is even worse.

What to do.

There are numerous ways designers have of overcoming a stereo device limitation. For instance, a transistor’s input vs. output is very non-linear at input levels below half a volt. So, imagine you’re trying to amplify the tiny output voltage of a phono cartridge—maybe 0.005 volts. Yikes! That’s so low the amplifying device wouldn’t even recognize it!

The answer to that problem is simple and straightforward. We pre-apply to the transistor a steady, small, “turn-on” voltage. Now, when we next add the tiny voltage from the phono cartridge, the transistor will add that voltage to the steady voltage and we get a linear output response we can count on. At the device output, we remove the steady “turn-on” voltage and, what’s leftover, is a perfect bigger version of the tiny phono cartridge output.

Bingo!

That process I just described is known in engineering circles as adding bias. And yes, you guessed it, the amount of that bias is categorized in familiar classes of operation like B, AB, and A. Remember? Class A or Class AB are well-known terms to audiophiles. They describe how much a device is constantly turned on with that steady turn-on voltage we will eventually throw away when we extract what we really want, the amplified output signal.

And, since today’s Saturday and we can write a longer post, how do we throw away that steady voltage? Well, in vacuum tube amplifiers and simple transistor amplifiers, we place a blocking capacitor. What it blocks is that unwanted turn-on voltage (DC) and what it lets pass is the desired amplified audio signal. The quality and construction of that blocking capacitor has an enormous impact on how the eventual sound we hear is. (Of course, there are other means of doing this, I use this simple example only for means of explanation).

But that covers only one aspect of what we must do to make a non-linear device like a vacuum tube or transistor perform the way we wish. Other tools in the belt include feedback, both local and global, and many tricks of the trade all in service of getting a non-linear device closer to the ideal of linear.

And yes, all that we do impacts sound quality.

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 use a bit of an unorthodox approach to loudspeaker placement here for my Daedalus Ulysses and it works wonderfully. I think it probably looks different to many audiophiles, however there are good reasons for how they are placed and it sure does work.

However, this does not mean this positioning will work for all loudspeakers in this room, as my GPA Altec 604E based speakers do not sound best set up the same way as the Daedalus speakers.

Auditioning speakers

If you go to a big box store, or even a medium-sized store, you’re likely to encounter a switch box approach to speaker selling. Multiple pairs of speakers are lined up as if in a forest and the salesperson can play any of the many speaker models at the push of a button.

This same switch box method is also used in the smallest of shops where there’s not enough space for a proper listening room.

The advantage of a switch box audition is its rapidity. While playing the same track of music, one can toggle through speaker models quickly.

The downside, of course, is that none of the speakers are properly set up to maximize their potential. In fact, none are set up at all. Plunked down upon a shelf, typically standing side-by-side like soldiers at attention, one can make accurate gross judgments about tonal balance preferences but not much else.

Contrast that demonstration mode with what used to be called the single speaker audition favored by some high-end audio shops. In this demonstration model (pioneered by UK brand Linn) only one pair of speakers were allowed in the room at a time.

The advantage of this approach is the potential for proper setup without any distractions. The downside is comparisons are more difficult for the inexperienced listener. Those not spending a lot of time auditioning and comparing audio products haven’t yet built the skills necessary to hold in one’s memory what one system sounds like when comparing to another.

Auditioning any products is a challenge.

Speakers are the greatest of them all.