Heaven sent

November 24, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

I remember my first taste of a high-end USB cable, the JCAT. It made such an improvement that I thought it was a gift from heaven. I just couldn’t believe the difference that cable made.

It’s rare but sometimes we take a new piece of gear home and it exceeds our expectations and not just by a little. No, some products are so much better than what we’re used to that it feels as if it were heaven sent. A miracle. An extraordinary revelation.

Those experiences are rare, but when they happen they make a lasting impression.

The last one I recall was Ted Smith’s latest creation, Snowmass. When we loaded that new firmware into the DirectStream DAC both Darren Myers and I simultaneously turned to each other and watched our jaws drop.

Unexpected pleasures can often seem so big they feel like a gift from up on high.

Maybe it’s why I keep searching for the better—the dopamine hit of discovering a heaven sent product is unforgettable. I want more and keep searching for the latest.

We spend hundreds of hours in the listening room finding the best sound for our products, the optimized features for the design, the spark of brilliance that we know must be there.

When we find it, it’s sometimes as if heaven sent.

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41 comments on “Heaven sent”

        1. Snowmass is the current firmware for the DS DACs. There is a version for the DS Senior DAC and one (still in process) for the DS Junior DAC.

          These DACs have FPGA chips at their heart, which means the code can be continually improved over time, thanks to the genius of Ted Smith. It is like getting a new DAC for free each time the firmware is updated. Though if you don’t care for it, you can go back to any of the prior iterations.

          1. Thanks, for clearing that up for me.
            I am Sprout happy, none the less.
            Listening to Cat Stevens via USB to Sprout, sounds absolutely fantastic…and it is so convenient when I want to listen to Amazon Unlimited (Bluetooth) or my external DAC from the network via SPDIF. It is ALL GOOD.

  1. Some consumers must own the latest technology regardless of how minor an improvement it represents over their existing devices.

    Other consumers hold on to their devices until they reach technical obsolescence or can no longer be repaired.

    I fall into the later group. When I sold my 30 year old equipment last year and entered the 21st century with new equipment I felt like an Amazon tribesmen seeing his first airplane.

  2. I am intrigued that you cited a JCAT USB cable as revelatory. Of all modern audio products, this one seems to perfectly embody the current state of audiophile debate: of all topics within audio, USB cables are some of the most controversial; of all companies within audio, JCAT is one of the most controversial because of their ever-debated JPLAY product and ongoing public feud with JRiver.

    I’m just going to come right out and ask: Paul, as a guy who seems not to shy from controversy (and, to my eye, does mind courting it at times), is there any way you’d be willing to kick the powder keg that is the JPLAY debate?

    1. What does this refer to? I’m curious. I never heard of JPlay so had to Google it, then tried to find any reference to the controversy you refer to. I found nothing, just a number of reviews of both programs where most listeners could discern no playback difference between the two applications.

  3. Finally had an opportunity to sit down and listen to my DSD after loading Snowmass. Relavatory hardly describes the further improvement in soundstage and sheer warmth and dynamics of the music from my collection and especially TIDAL. Verdi operas from the fabulous DECCA 1960-70’s era are reproduced with an indescribable richness.

    Kudos to Ted and all of those who have been responsible for continuous product improvements. I can’t wait to add the DMP on order from PS Audio. HDMI at the ready for my SACDs.

    1. Let’s put a bit of logic before the unbridled emotions.

      If we admit that the audio technology (analog) of the 60s and 70s had so many failures compared to the current digital era:

      How can these reproductions, with all the limitations attributed to them (dynamic range, etc, etc), precisely today, sound “with an indescribable richness”?

      It is inferred from your statement (to make it logical) that the analog recordings of that time had an “indescribable richness” of their own, and it is only now that they can be discovered using the technology you describe.

      This is not understandable either because the reproduction can not be better than the original source, which itself has flaws.

      It will not be that the current technique to which you refer, it is only a sophisticated technique of signal manipulation (equalization, etc) and nothing else?

      If it is agreed that this is true, such recordings will sound in a DIFFERENT form, but not necessarily better than the originals, as long as these originals are impeccably reproduced.

  4. I was also struck by your example of a JCAT USB cable providing a noticeable improvement. As a dedicated objectivist I am very uncomfortable with the notion that digital cables, used within specification and with good electronics and receiver buffering, should make any difference at all. This is an attitude based on their usage in computing, where it is only the bits that matter. In audio the cables are also providing a galvanic connection, and thus have the potential to carry noise and RFI which could affect the receiver. This would not matter much for computers. I looked at the specs for the JCAT cables and they seem to stress the care they take with shielding. I guess this is a let-out clause, so I do not have to think to myself that they could not possibly be better 😉

    1. This is one of those subjects where both camps are right – the proper objectivist notes that, IF: Everything In the System Is As It Should Be In A Perfectly Engineered (fantasy) World, THEN…

      But what we’ve found with USB chains is that they are fraught with issues that are rarely if ever all as they “should be” ideally. So it is quite possible to have shocking subjective improvements. Bits are not bits when they are in the form of music traveling through a chain to speakers.

      1. If there are differences between USB cables then this particular objectivist really wants to know WHY they are different, because if you know why then you can build better USB cables, which I am sure we are all united in thinking would be a good thing 🙂

        1. Though I am far from the ideal candidate to answer this, I can speak to my experience/give you my current way of thinking about it.

          To begin with, as mentioned, if you want to take it from the scientific objectivist standpoint – something must be Wrong with the System or the cable. That is likely true in many/most if not all cases. So one way they can be “better” is that it is surprisingly “less bad” than what you were using, for the given system.

          Another way that I think about cables (including USB) now is that they are an EQ device, and ALL EQ devices are also phase, timing, overall FR response, etc. – mangling devices, again, some being less bad than others. And some sorts of distortion are liked by many people.

          Studio mic preamps and EQs are about as far from “straight wire with gain” as you can get, and many of these designs are still selling today because the result of running signal through them is perceived to be more (koff, koff) Musical than a straight wire.

          Now – getting back to USB, you’ll say, “But I can reassemble the Bits at the other end and they are the same”. Though how, how often and how well that is done is anyone’s guess.

          This is where we start to get into some of the unknowns, or the “known unknowns” ; ) Since while you are listening to them, those bits are not sitting on a drive for you to compare them with anything, it’s a bit like wave/particle observation, or observing something while static vs. in motion. They are different animals, and I don’t think we quite understand why that is, or have devices to quantify that. But that’s my airy-fairy Theory-in-progress, based on subjective experience : )

    2. Shielding makes data cables worse. The electrical parameters depend on a consistent ground reference and a metallic shield makes the capacitive reference far worse based on the shields proximity to the insulated wires underneath to a ground.

      So why use shields? Because if you KNOW that ingress noise is terrible, it can be worse than the DAMAGE a shield does to the digital signal.

      Sorry all, but I can far exceed ANY shielded cable in a normal environment with no shields. Keep adding FUD noise and at some point a shield will help. But, the DAMAGE is done with shields to the cables electrical parameters, it is simple physics.

      Some cables have to have a shield to work, unbalanced coaxial types. And, the perfection of the ground to the signal wire is paramount to electrical performance. The SHIELD performance is DESIGN, and the transfer impedance across the frequency range you are shieldng the signal wire from. The SHIELD performance doesn’t care about geometric proximity to anything. A single 95% braid has a 80 dB isolation regardless of the proximity to the core. The SIGNAL wires that are under a shield depend on consistent reactive L and C to see consistent impedance.

      In audio, a shield makes low capacitance much harder to achieve and can’t match unshielded cables reactive performance. The question is, does the shield really offset noise that is worse than the negatives a shield brings to the table?

  5. This “Snowmass jr.” which is ready to roll out, would this be a firmware upgrade done to Sprout100 also?

    I think I am already experiencing it with the unit which just came back from warranty repair. I know either my memories of how Sprout sounded before it went in for repair are noticeably different, my friend also said it sounded “different and Better” when he visited last week.
    And it may be just the Placebo effect.
    All I can say is that the Sprout100 sounds better with a direct USB cable feed and it’s internal DIGITAL stage than I can remember. And three days to turn it around, during their “Snowmass blizzard” was remarkable.
    PS Audio has been rewarded with a place on the List of Recommended Affordable Audiophile Components for 2019, for the current version of Sprout100 as “The Integrated Amplifier of Distinction”

      1. Well, maybe some of the tricks learned on Snowmass have trickled down to Sprout…I am just remarking upon how much better the USB to DAC stage is after it’s trip to Boulder…no insider information. So if not for Sprout, what is Snowmass Junior?

        1. The DS DACs, both Senior and Junior, use an FPGA (field programmable gate array) to manage the conversion. As the name implies, this can be programmed to alter its behavior. The Sprout100 uses an Ess Sabre 9016 chip to act as the DAC. It is a very well regarded chip, but you can only fiddle with the components around it, not re-program it.

  6. Having not heard the JCAT I can not comment on it but every time a little improvement is heard it is described as mind boggling. This is the way most reviewers describe every product of the month. Some improvement and a lot of hyperbole. This leaves the reader who also happens to be the listener confused as to what the real improvement is if any . If one totals the heaven sent improvements over a period of time it would appear that the sound of audio equipment is so much better then the sound of the real thing that the latter sucks and is of no value it is so inferior. This of course is impossible. So where does hyperbole stop and reality begin ? Now, many parrot what they read but many who are more realistic are left in a bind. Reviews need quite a lot of objectivity and a lot less of emotional outbursts to be of use. Regards.

    1. In a system of whatever type (I’ll stop short of saying “highly resolving” for fear of sounding…whatever) where you insert a cable (read: EQ device, if it makes it easier to digest) and it makes a difference on a par with a change of component, usually for a fraction of the price of a component in that system, that can be pretty mind-boggling. Unexpected level of improvement. Especially when you are starting from a position of “this can’t possibly make any difference”.

      Once you know it can and does make a difference, it is easier to take, and is somewhat less boggling. Mind-boggling usually infers that your thinking has been changed, and so there may be subjective mental coloration due to learning something new. Then you can go into figuring out why that is, and objectivists may follow a different path to that end than subjectivists, who may simply be happy about it ; )

  7. I can’t understand why a usb cable should make any difference at all. The digital processor should deal with any noise or jitter. For example, the PWD Mk II that I had is specified as follows:
    “The Digital Lens, called NativeX, is selectable from the front panel or the remote. Engaging NativeX will reduce incoming jitter levels jitter on any input of the PWD to below 1 pico second, regardless of how jittered the incoming signals are.” (https://www.psaudio.com/perfectwave-dac/)

    I’ve had a basic problem for years, a very bouncy floor, and it can easily be measured with an iOS app called “Seismometer”. You just stamp your foot and it looks like an earthquake hit in your back garden. I’ve tried decoupling pads, foam, spikes, sorbothane. I finally went for the spring-loaded option, quite expensive, but you can easily measure it, as the foot stamp measures as barely a ripple, and the difference can very easily be heard. It’s not rocket science, damping springs have been around forever, it just needed someone to apply basic engineering in a sensible audio product.

    It’s very nice to get a product that uses engineering even an idiot like me can understand, that I can measure with an iPad and that I can clearly hear. I have never had such an experience with cables of any sort.

    1. But even when you said you tried everything from spikes to decouples, etc.. that sounded like it was based on some engineering concept, that ultimately did not play out the way you hoped. So while things made sense at a high level, something did not translate from the detail.

      And I think that’s where cables are – there’s probably some detail that’s too nuanced to summarize for the “bits are bits” crowd. Ultimately, spending a few minutes plugging in and unplugging a pair of cables into your system is probably a lot faster than spending hours on end trying to understand deeper level engineering that we may not fully understand at all?

      1. I used, for example, acoustic foam, very cheap from the pro store, used widely in studios. Doesn’t pass the stamp test. Different floors and surfaces need different levels of decoupling. I need extreme. The point is that is can be measured.

        I had a relatively expensive usb cable. Swapped it with a many times cheaper one. Couldn’t hear the difference, so sold the expensive one and used the cheaper one. Now use wifi.

    2. You’re not alone in not understanding or accepting this – be happy. Plus with your pizza box, you can just accept that they have done the best they can with it. You’re “off the merry-go round” as some might put it. But try to resist the temptation to dismiss the experience of others based on your not having experienced it or understanding how it could be. There has been discussion on the Fora here for a few years.

      One of my introductions to this was adding galvanic isolation between devices. Yes – in Ideal Engineering Land, everything should always be galvanically isolated….but it ain’t. So there’s one example. See my reply to Chris above.

    3. Cables…the nemesis of civil discussion in audio forums.

      Okay, everyone who doesn’t believe that a cable can make a difference, line up on this side of the gym…
      and for those who swear by or swear at cables…to the other wall.

      Here are 12 volleyballs and the winner is the one who never gets hit by the ball…

      1. When I used cables I tried a few and was indifferent. I ended up with Mogami balanced throughout. If people think a lead or interconnect makes a big difference then fine. It’s a free world (I think).

        I’ve just bought a pair of as-new rebuilt ESL63 for a bit of fun and the Quad instruction manual actually specifies the resistance and induction required for the speaker cables. I emailed the manufacturer of my cables and got the measurements. All OK. As they say, if all else fails, read the manual.

        1. There’s another good point. I would hazard that few manufacturers make such a specification for the cables used for their products. So in this case, it would be very easy to use the “wrong” sort of cable.

          And as you know, the maker of our Harbeths is something of a cable agnostic. Though they are Tolerant of many cables due to their neutrality, I will assure you that they are nonetheless highly revealing of cable (and lots of other) differences.

  8. EEAS was heaven sent for me. It succeeded beyond my fondest hopes. I hoped for a noticeable improvement. What I got was a whole new world to explore. Space, envelopment, and so much more. None of my expectations of failure were met. The Haas effect never happened. Field uniformity turned out to be excellent. There will be no changes. I arrived where I wanted to be. Could I build a better one? I don’t know and I don’t care. On paper yes. Would it be audibly better? I don’t know. If it is it wouldn’t be worth the trouble and it probably wouldn’t be by much. I’m more than satisfied with this second prototype. Worth all of the time and effort. No changes desired. Nothing left to do with it but listen to it and enjoy it.

  9. Am I the only person here who is completely satisfied with what he already has and wouldn’t swap for anything at any price from anyone? How sad to never be happy for very long with what you have waited for in such anticipation and now shop or scheme to replace. Maybe we should have another holiday for audiophiles, “Unthanksgiving.” Something must be very wrong, don’t you think? Maybe the hobby isn’t about equipment or music at all, it’s about shopping for something better or trying to design it in Paul’s case. Looks like not only does Paul want better than sound room one but suddenly the mastering studio is better and likely better than what will be superior to Sound Room 1’s replacement in kind. What a dilemma. Now a new sound room will have to be built to accommodate a 5 channel equivalent to sound room X or whatever the new best speakers will be installed in is called.

    1. Back in the early 1980’s our computation center had a dilemma: computers were improving; getting faster; more storage; more competent and fancier operating systems; etc. All this improvement continually required more funding from the University. To justify more funding, before improvements were actually needed by the computing community, we were bombarded by reasons to use more of the center’s facilities; and as we did so the Comp Center would petition the University for yet more funding to keep pace with facility usage. For the computer usage community this also required constant upgrading of our hardware and software; quite a vicious circle. There was no such option as being satisfied with what you already had.

      By the way, I am not completely satisfied with my hi-fI system as is; must be something wrong with it.

    2. Mark, re: your first sentence – you really have to stop playing this tune. You’re so far from preaching to the choir, or making any converts, it ain’t funny, independent of how many times/ways you state it.

      Why aren’t YOU happy being happy with your system, but rather feel the need to preach about it to us, despite the fact there’s only one, only one or two other people on Earth have ever heard it, it is not reproducible/manufacturable in any practical way, and each time you want to listen to different music, it requires a week of tweaking (by your own admission)?

      Seems like there are other things you could contribute aside from continually inferring we’re deluded as a group, and have more money than sense – or indeed, independent of income, are continually throwing good money after bad in pursuit of a fruitless goal.

      It demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what most of us are about.

      1. I am happy with what I have and not just audio equipment. Yes it does require a lot of tweaking for each recording but it’s worth the effort. I have contributed many other things here. I know what you are about because once upon a time a long time ago I was one of you. But life took me in an entirely different direction.

        Every time I hear the incredible accolades about some new piece of hardware or software and how great it is, so much better than what that person had before I am reminded that I’ve heard this same thing thousands of times already over the years. It never ends. I never hear any rational explanation of why it is so much better and I know that it won’t be long before I hear the same person say the same thing about its newest and latest replacement. Tell me which software release Paul issued that did not get the same reaction of how much better it was than the previous one got when it was released. How many times can you tell the same story and be credible? Just observing. However I do admire and admit to jealousy about the enthusiasm audiophiles show with their new toys. I have boxes of brand new toys that have sat around unopened for years for lack of interest. Why did I buy them? I don’t really know. I just bought a beautiful new laptop computer several weeks ago. I turned it on, loaded my favorite anti malware, virus protection software, etc, got it hooked up to my wi fi network and haven’t looked at it again? I guess I just wanted it as another backup. It has everything I wanted except Windows 10 doesn’t come with Chess Titans. My computer geek friends have removed windows 10 and replaced it with windows 7. They don’t like windows 10. I’ve used windows 10 about a year ago and liked it. But then I also liked Vista everyone else seemed to hate. Go figure. Thank you for at least being civil.

  10. I usually don’t get excited or entranced by audio gear. Most of the time this comes from a new piece of music, a new singer or ensemble, like Sandrine Piau, Vivica Genaux, L’Arpeggiata or Il Pomo D’Oro in concert.

    One I remember as striking was the first time I heard an SACD. This was an epiphany, the best reproduction I had heard by far. It was excellent circumstances, the Sony EX9000, Thiel speakers and a meticulously custom treated room with a ceiling cloud and foam placed by experiment using the Stereophile test record speech track (J. Atkinson walking around a stage). Other instances include the AR LST in the Cambridge listening room, the Dahlquist DQ10 and my prototype backwave absorber woofer.

    All of these are not so much advances in frequency response or distortion, instead they offer upgrades in parameters beyond audio specifications: temporal response and spatial response.

  11. I’m late to the party on this subject, but the following quote came to mind as I read some of the posts:

    “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” Melodie Beattie

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