My Leatherman multi-tool is indispensable. Although I bought it as a knife for opening boxes, I soon discovered I couldn't go a week without the pliers and screwdrivers. The wire cutters and serrated edge come in handy every so often, and while I don't usually require a saw, it's there for cutting dried branches off the Christmas tree. While my Parks Audio Puffin phono preamp's primary function is to amplify a phono signal, it's also a mini-equalizer, noise filter, and diagnostic system. It works with any cartridge, and you can save four presets for use with multiple turntables, cartridges and tonearms. In addition, the Puffin has a setting for playing mono records and specialized EQs to maximize the sonics of old records by label (e.g., Teldec, London, Columbia). There are even filters to improve the sound of 78 rpm shellac discs.
How can one piece of equipment do all that? The Puffin ($489 suggested retail) is a DSP (digital signal processor) that converts an analog signal into a digital one, then allows user adjustments before reconverting the signal to analog.
I already know what some of you are thinking. "I didn't spend $50,000 so I can make my priceless records sound like CDs!" Vinyl purists go apoplectic when computers infiltrate their signal stream, and it's completely understandable. Let's say you have an acoustically-treated room filled with classic McIntosh tube equipment driving a pair of very natural-sounding BBC-standard loudspeakers. Chances are you would hate to alter the sound beyond what most McIntosh preamps allow you to make already. Factor in costly turntables, tonearms, and cartridges, and that gear should deliver music the way the musicians heard it. Get yourself double-45 rpm LPs, Analogue Productions' UHQRs (ultra-high-quality recordings) and Mobile Fidelity MoFi Super Vinyl Ultradiscs transferred from the original master tapes, and you should be transported to the recording sessions of your favorite albums. But here's the bad news: unless stated otherwise, most records made since the 1980s are the products of digital masters rather than analog tapes. Here's the worse news: even $100 high-end LPs can have flaws.
Only a small percentage of my vinyl is recorded from the original master tapes. Most of my LPs are second-hand vintage, and the rest are unremarkable discs that never made it onto 200-gram audiophile records. Add room flaws and system variables to the mix, and I have issues that make for a less-than-perfect listening experience. Enter the problem-solver Shannon Parks, engineer, coder, and one-person manufacturer of the Parks Audio Puffin phono preamp.
Tom Methans: Hello, Shannon! Thank you for granting Copper an interview. Can you tell us a little about your background?
Shannon Parks: My folks relocated from the Midwest to California, and my dad was part of the early computer industry in the Bay Area during the 1960s. When people visited from back east, the older people went to Haight-Ashbury for the counterculture they only saw on the evening news with Walter Cronkite; the younger ones went to the Fillmore West to see live acts like Iron Butterfly. I was born a few years later, in 1972. As the hippie scene started to slow down, another scene was starting up. Just a few weeks after I was born, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak broke down a couple of miles from my house, and they used their "blue box" [telephone hacking device] for the first time to bypass Ma Bell and make a free call to a fellow telephone hacker [or phone phreakers as they were known – Ed.] Captain Crunch at Berkeley for a ride home. I like to think that Apple started right then, and Woz says as much.
With all our relatives living in the Midwest, and my folks wanting a little farm for homesteading, we moved to rural Ohio. That's where I really grew up. Records were a big part of my life then, and looking back, it makes sense that I'm doing what I do now. As a kid, I spent many hours listening to my dad's LPs as well as fooling around with a stack of scratched-up 78s on a crank Victrola. Then when I was around seven years old, I remember hearing the double-A-side 45 of Ritchie Valens’ "Donna" and "La Bamba." I immediately realized this was something very special. A few years later, I remember a similar moment after hearing a copy of Rubber Soul that I found in someone's attic.
I pursued a liberal arts degree in college, but in 2001 I changed career paths to become a radio frequency lab technician. All my electronics education and training came from running a lab that did design qualification and production tests for a small engineering company. At that time, I also started building tube amps and selling my printed circuit board kits to other manufacturers of tube amps.
TM: I'm sure people will be surprised that you started Parks Audio with an analog tube phono preamp called the Budgie. Used models show up very rarely because people refuse to part with Budgies – and you still service them. However, you seem to enjoy the possibilities of DSP (digital signal processing). You're always adding more features to the Puffin software, and end users can download the software for free. Do you foresee someday monetizing the updates and new features or expanding the line of phono preamps?
SP: I like giving Puffin users continued value for free. I think it builds goodwill and helps promote the Puffin in a way that I just couldn't do otherwise. When I released the Magic [click and pop reduction software] update last year, grateful e-mails from past customers really boosted my spirits. One e-mail said they were finally happy after years of system tweaks and could now just sit back and enjoy their records. I have so many updates planned that I'll never finish all of them.
Puffin hardware may slowly evolve, but my main focus is on doing new, innovative things in software. I have no plans on expanding the product line.
TM: In one of your YouTube videos, you mention Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark as a reference album you use in tuning the Puffin. What are some of your other favorite albums, bands, or genres? What stereo equipment do you have at home?
SP: My collection has a little of everything: ’60s rock, ’70s prog, ’80s new wave, jazz from the German label ECM, reggae, Chick Corea and associated musicians, European-pressed classical, and vintage mono long plays. When designing or coding, I need instrumental music for the least distraction, so I play Pat Metheny or Andreas Vollenweider. When soldering together Puffins during production, I've probably played Thick as a Brick far too many times, but being a prog fan keeps me humble, as I realize meaningful music to one person may seem silly to someone else.
My main turntable is an FM broadcast combo from an Atlantic City station back in the 1980s. It's a Technics SP15 with an Audio Technica ATP-12T tonearm. My favorite cartridges are typically Ortofon moving coils, but over the last year, I've been testing the currently installed Audio-Technica AT-VM95ML. I like to have an inexpensive recommendation for those looking for an upgrade from a starter cartridge, and the AT-VM95ML with a micro-linear stylus for under $200 is hard to beat. My Puffin is connected to a Parasound HCA-1000A amplifier driving a pair of Emotiva T2 loudspeakers. It's a bare bones setup.
TM: I bought The Ultimate Analogue Test LP test record you recommended, after my last turntable system update. I had the best intentions of using the new features to measure my anti-skating, turntable RPM, and fine-tune the balance in my cartridge's left and right channels. Unfortunately, I'm lazy and impatient, and too many numbers scare me. What could you possibly add to the Puffin? What about an option for tape playback? Apparently, cassette decks are making a comeback.
SP: No worries! I won't run out of ideas and am quite busy already with the 2022 update. The test measurement additions in the last update are just the beginning. I have some ideas that will really amaze folks. As far as tape, I have looked at some of the noise reduction schemes (e.g., Dolby types and dbx), but the processing required outstrips what I can do with the current Puffin processor unless I made it a dedicated noise reduction unit. I have done some custom tape equalization code for a few Puffin customers, but this is a limited number of people. I'd instead point those folks to my neighbor Dan Schmalle at Bottlehead – he's the guru for tape reproduction.
TM: When I bought your unit, I had a starter Audio-Technica turntable with a $36 cart going into a very mediocre amp and speakers that needed a lot of correction for the room. I could have purchased a $60 tube phono preamp, but I knew I would be upgrading to a much better turntable and amplifier. $489 seems a perfectly reasonable price for everything the Puffin does. Do you have any idea what type of gear Puffin users have?
SP: Puffin users have every combination out there, and I always love to hear what folks are using. Some just have a basic entry-level setup, while at the other end of the spectrum, customers have some of the world's most amazing turntables with $5K cartridges. It seems to run the gamut and is evenly distributed – and I like that.
TM: You're essentially a one-man operation, and your customer support is exemplary. Do you ever dream of retreating to the back office and hiring people for the other stuff? If business continues to grow, I suppose you can even outsource the work from your facility in Poulsbo, Washington.
SP: I enjoy interacting with my customers and ensuring a certain level of service for them, so I'd hate to give that up. I do have a dedicated building for Parks Audio and can expand in the future. But I've tried to keep my work as efficient as possible to maintain the status quo. I'm just unsure that I would be a good manager. A big change from the Budgie to the Puffin was shifting the circuit boards built by me and my wife, Kat, to contracting with a US manufacturer. That gave me more time for e-mails, assembly, test, fulfillment, and R&D. My biggest neglect is probably not doing enough YouTube videos. They are just ideal for sharing information.
TM: I happily maintain a variety of prejudices when it comes to wireless speakers, home theater, and streaming unless it's for background music, but the Puffin is so useful that I forget about the analog to digital, DSP and digital to analog processes involved, which are the opposite of a pure-analog approach. What do you say to people who can't get past the “computer” aspect of your phono preamp?
SP: I'm getting my foot in the door with some very demanding audiophiles, and I'm quite happy with that. Several customers have recently purchased the Puffin just for its test features such as Grade, which letter-grades your records from A+ through F, and cartridge balancing functions such as Azimuth, while not necessarily using the Puffin for record playback. Ultimately, someone might even listen to a record with the Magic function turned on and get hooked, or end up using the Puffin in a secondary system. The Puffin can also be used as a line input device with one's existing phono preamp for Magic's pop and click attenuation or the Cart Log feature for logging cartridge hours.
TM: Besides bass and treble adjustments, my go-to features are DeRumble for reducing the effects of warping, resonance, and vibration, Magic to minimize clicks and pops, and Warmth to brighten or darken recordings. Is there a point where I'm tweaking beyond the integrity of the music – beyond what the producer, engineer, and musicians intended?
SP: I worry about these things, too. A key design philosophy that I have is not to overdo things and try to be true to the music in the grooves. Hopefully, it's in a way that the artist and engineer would both approve of, and I always tell folks to trust their ears, too.
I've designed the Puffin to be somewhat restrained, and I think that restraint helps make it feel like analog gear. For example, the bass EQ settings have a +/- 6dB range, where many equalizers have maybe 12dB of adjustment or higher. Many traditional DSP features, like cheesy reverb and “cinematic” effects, are missing, too. The goal isn't to add some 3-D sparkle effect that initially wows but eventually irritates or bores, but some slight EQ adjustment to make things sound balanced and with the lowest noise and defects. The goal is to make that favorite record sound the way you remember it.
At first, playing records through a digital phono preamp seemed antithetical, but the Puffin has become an essential part of my system. It has so much to offer, especially tone controls, which I haven't had since my 1975 Pioneer receiver. Only you can decide if the Puffin is right for your system, whether as a phono preamp, diagnostic tool, or both.
For more information, visit the Parks Audio website, friend him on Facebook at Parks Audio LLC, subscribe to Shannon's YouTube channel, or check out another interview with Shannon on The Amp Hour podcast. And, you can always email him at [email protected].
Header image: Puffin phono preamps awaiting assembly.