In search of miracles

August 14, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

I am constantly on the hunt for miracles. I don’t want just improvements or brighter polish when it comes to my audio system. No, in fact, it’s miracles I am after though they do seem rather far and few between.

The most recent miracle to cross my path is the new Stellar Phono. After nearly 30 years of focusing on digital audio, this miracle piece of gear has transformed the way I think of vinyl. Now, I have to reevaluate every decision I have made over the past three decades.

The beauty of this particular miracle is that it is additive to the main music system. Instead of transforming the way I think of digital audio, it has added an entirely new dimension of music’s enjoyment that I had long ago abandoned as dead.

Now, that’s a miracle.

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22 comments on “In search of miracles”

  1. Paul, I think this is more because you are now more engaged in listening with a good phonostage, than that in all the years checking out some of the best and most expensive phono gear (which I assume you had the chance to do at least at shows, dealers, colleagues, friends), there was nothing that reached or surpassed your current setup with the Stellar?

    I understand the excitement with the new product, but not so much that you never heard something similar in the world, while being quite sure yourself with your general judgement about vinyl playback (which you here and there argumented by mentioning you heard some of the best installations available incl. Fremer‘s) 😉

    1. Steve – let us enjoy our new toys for ten minutes, OK? : )

      Pretty sure your phono rig sounds fab. I’m not going to say at how many times the cost. I think the point is that the SPP is Quite Something, especially at this price point (and even above). All of a sudden the Music is In The Room for a bunch of us (including Paul in MR2) in a way that it wasn’t before. Good stuff!

      1. You mean I shouldn’t take the Paul’s current enthusiasm in spite of a lifelong experience with worlds best gear too literally? Agreed! The own baby is and should be the prettiest 😉

        P.s.: I didn’t want to pronounce that there might be even better phonostages, indeed hasn’t to be mentioned…I even shouldn’t even have wondered about the transformation, as I predicted a few months ago myself, that with release of a new PSA phonostage, Paul will have new public likes, experiences and a vinyl related brainwash ;-))

        So let’s go and enjoy digital and analog music!

        1. Yeah – I think the Miracle here is that something penetrated his 30-year bias toward digital ; )

          And it is one thing to hear someone else’s rig, and another to hear your own stereo transformed by a new piece of gear. And the stuff he owns is good.

      2. As posted recently, I wish this design had been around when I had one made to a similar spec. Having dual inputs is uncommon and a great feature for those of us with two or more tonearms, mainly because of the joy of older mono recordings played with a mono cartridge. Also, managing to get the noise level down on a sensibly priced solid state phono amp is a real achievement. The 834P is a valve device.

    2. I would wait getting to know soon the results of Paul’s re-evaluation and the end of some of his myths. However if DSD recording still guarantees the best sound quality why make a detour via the vinyl path? Or shouldn’t better Ted’s new DAC offer a phono Input and the selection of different RIAA curves and a declicker option? If it offers additionally a XTC that would be my choice!

      1. Vinyl is not a detour. It is another valid musical format. Nowadays, more than ever. I really don’t get why so many people have to turn it into a competition. I listen happily to any format I have. It is about the Music.

    1. Not sure to what degree it qualifies as a paradigm shift when it is a technology that predates digital. Most of us here started out with vinyl, and no digital whatsoever for a good part of our lives. However, I do feel most folks have not actually heard a good vinyl rig. Usually they have to be reminded that it is not digital.

  2. Nobody can win me over to the vinyl side ever in my life again.
    Too many downsides for me.
    But I’m sure, I think, for vinyl lovers the new PSA phono thing is the new toy to go for.
    So vinyl friends, don’t hesitate, place your order now.

    1. I have to agree with @jb4, it’s genuinely good that vinyl lovers will get improved sound, but really, vinyl, I don’t get it other than nostalgia? Audio playback has simply improved massively since the early 1980s… and I don’t mean vinyl.

      I was interested ages back when a Japanese designer had a laser that could read vinyl without a lot of the drawbacks including sound quality and no wear. The one problem that killed it, not to mention the very high cost, was that dust intrinsically attracted to vinyl seriously got in the way and compromised the sound.

      Even with a parallel tracking arm producing music from both grove sides (L+R) and the grove bottom ridges (L-R) to get stereo sound is a significant set of compromises. If you look up how LPs are made you can see how this must be true. Wear, dust and other issues also degrade the sound with each playing. As folk grew up with the ‘vinyl’ sound I guess they, including me, just got used to it. It’s all we had and we made the best of it. For some folk the significant limitations are what they like to hear. When the sound is good it’s good for them, when the sound is poor or even bad folk come up with dismissive quotes, like when Paul said he “hears through the surface noise”… That’s fine but I can’t do that, I really can’t.

      The LP spins at the same speed so as the arm traverses to the centre all kinds of compromises are seen. This is due to forces on the stylus getting higher as the tracks circumference gets significantly shorter. The anti-skating bias is just another compromise it can’t help that much. Within 5 to 10 minutes of a records side the quality of the sound degrades including poorer frequency response at both high and low bands. Bass becomes problematic as the poor stylus tries not to be thrown out of the groves, stereo separation is also degraded. There’s more, like increasing distortion… This is all well known in the industry.

      Now I know a really great master cutting engineer, in step with a great recoding mastering engineer can do ‘miracles’, to use Paul’s quote, but they have to play the vinyl game. This means putting music content at the right physical position on the record side to reduce the above poor affects on the sound. These are not subtle sound issues they are clearly audible. While it’s true the RIAA curve helps it’s another significant compromise, even into the mid 1980’s certain German record companies used their own curve. So unless you had specific phono preamps the sound was not right even if you got to like it. No wonder some early CDs had a poor sound as sometimes the wrong master tapes were used, or processed wrongly, no really.

      With classical music pieces a lot of the cutting compromises are not viable as a 20 minute piece may have the end that is compromised in sound quality if it contains high volumes, both high and low frequencies and complex waveforms. I grew up with records, starting with 78s in the early 1960s as a boy who was given an old collection. So yes, I thought the sound of the first LP 33s I heard with a basic mono box and grotty speaker was a ‘miracle’ in comparison. Then, when I ‘got out more’ and heard and then obtained stereo systems, yep yet another ‘miracle’ for LPs… Finally with separates I thought, LPs can’t get any better… While impressed with studio master tapes I could never afford to listen much and never own one. As for U.K. FM stereo radio and cassettes, yes really good in cars rather than records…

      I was really pleased with my LP setup until I heard one of the first CD Hi-Fi level players in the early 1980’s, yep another ‘miracle’. In my opinion it wasn’t the first CD players like the Sony CDP-101 I managed to obtain but the ‘mass market’ ones not built in Japan. This lasted for some years and unfortunately was also dogged by poor recordings, re-recordings and even messed up masters meant for vinyl.

      CD players and recordings became better lasted a couple of decades or so until the early SACDs, oh boy yet another ‘miracle’… one that keeps me alive with all kinds of music that I find near impossible to hear at concerts. Seeing the great Lang Lang in the Royal Albert Hall performing solo on a concert piano ruined with amplification. This Hall was designed for 10,000 people to hear a grand piano when there was no amplification. I’m all for microphones being used to help the hard of hearing pick up Theatre sound, but using loads of speakers around the auditorium, why… ! As for rock concerts even Paul says he uses earplugs 🙁 So while I still go out for the odd ‘audience experience’, for serious listening it’s my system at home. Yes I still try and improve upon this when I think it’s worth it and can afford it. I’ve also tried high resolution files and some streaming, local and the net, using high rate AAC or my preferred DSD or maybe 24bit/192KHz. Vinyl, really not for me… I hear the rumble, the surface noise and the limitations of ‘where on the LP’ the poor cutter has been asked to cut, using typical plastics or the expensive metal masters. Then there’s looking for the ‘miracle’ pressing on ‘good’ heavy weight vinyl, as apparently any LP that I don’t like ‘may’ have a better pressing… No, no, I’m not going back to vinyl…

      If still reading after all that diatribe I still appreciate that some folk, apparently young and old, prefer vinyl and I sincerely wish them well. For some it’s all about the sound, however, it’s also for the ‘touchy feely’ nature and even having to ‘get up’ put on a side and then after around 20 minutes for a good cut recording master ‘get up’ again to turn it over. I can understand that, though for me it’s high quality recording and mastering of SACD/CDs and 60 minutes before getting up. I understand that many folk buy the now expensive vinyl to collect, ‘look at’ even hang on the wall but still play the music from it using their streamers or phones… and probably not high resolution either.

      I feel lucky as after decades I have a reasonable collection of ‘music’ that enthrals me and even surprises me in a good way with repeated listening. I do like some new music and new recordings of old favourites, so I will continue to build my collection and even try to improve my audio systems performance where I can afford to. Having a ‘normal’ room I’m interested in Paul’s PS Audio new ANx speakers, probably the slightly smaller than AN3’s. His comments of ‘needing a sub’ perplex me as I don’t have one or the ideal two. I don’t feel I need one with my floor standing pair but perhaps I’m wrong. With the AN’s having built in subs that can be placed near to walls and corners maybe these are what I need, I’ll take a listen if I can.

  3. Paul, that’s great. Hopefully you’ve still got all your LP’s. Now you also get to go record shopping again or crate digging at the least.
    Isn’t half the fun in the journey anyway?

  4. I get great pleasure from vinyl, and it don’t work with a duff phono amp. In the late 70s and 80s in the UK there were some great phono integrated amps. My son uses one. They fell out of fashion when most people gave up on vinyl, and are now again a la mode. I now use a digital phono, which to many is like putting ketchup on filet steak, but I regret never having used an EAR 834P, brought out about 25 years ago when you needed an external phono amp, and still as popular as ever. Good affordable phono amps are few and far between. I suspect the Stellar will be a big success.

  5. I continue to marvel at the endless enthusiasm audiophiles have for a new piece of equipment they like better than the ones they’ve experienced before. Each one is their latest silver bullet and stays that way until it tarnishes which can unfortunately sometimes not take all that long.

    Friends can be frank with each other without being offending. And this is why I’m going to post a link to one of your most profound Ask Paul’s Videos you made just a few days ago. This video IMO showed some real insight…. as far as it went but it was a significant step in the right direction IMO as one engineer to another.

    The video is significant because it recognizes that we don’t listen to individual components, we listen to sound systems. In fact we listen to the sound field that reaches our ears. One thing it omits is the variables of the recording process which are never the same. That also affects the results. So one worthy goal although not the ultimate goal is to understand how and why these variables change the end result and what if anything can be done to reduce the differences in that result so that you can arrive at consistent predictable results eliminating or at least reducing the effect of these variables. This requires both scientific insight into the whys and engineering skill to arrive at a workable fix. Where to begin? IMO study sound fields and what each variable does to it to affect the end result. That’s what I did.

    This is not a criticism of Paul McGowan or PS audio. It’s a criticism of an entire industry. In fact Paul McGowan is to be praised for recognizing and admitting what to me sounds like the obvious. Praising a product to the skies based on this insight suddenly carries much less weight. Another area to explore is why do you like the results of one system better than you like another especially when only one thing changed, in this case the Stellar phono preamplifier. What exactly does it do differently to achieve more desirable results. Can the same thing be done more cheaply, more reliably? Understanding problems, setting specific goals, and devising and building designs to solve them is the essence of engineering.

  6. Playing an LP record is sort of a ritualistic experience, so perhaps the term “miracle” is appropriate.

    In any case, I’m sure it’s a fabulous product, and I eagerly await the likely equally miraculous Octave server.

    1. I suppose a lot of people approach it ritualistically, but I don’t get that personally. I’ve been doing it all my life since I was a kid playing Beatles albums on my Close-n-Play ; ). It is second nature to me, and I don’t have to think about it, obsess over it or worry about it. Just another way of playing music.

  7. Life is full of surprises many a times when one least expects them. People have used phono preamps for years and many feel that the best way to go is by using transformers. but that is another topic. Thirty years were wasted because the obvious was ignored. When attention was payed along came a product which changed everything. How much more beneficial it would have been for everyone if equal attention was paid to both technologies. Yet it is quite understandable. It is very easy to fall for sales hype. Remember perfect sound forever ? For a manufacturer it is even more difficult. One starts with the premise that what one is working with is the best and continues to try to maximize it’s potential. It is very difficult to have one’s hand in other technologies. It is a matter of finances apart from one’s obsession with the technology. Be that as it may congratulations on making an outstanding product. I am hoping to hear it someday. In the meantime keep an open mind. The genuine stuff is always better than the artificial one. After all everything including the universe is analogue. Digital is a man made artificial technology and a compromised one at that at in audio at least. I wonder how many miracles were missed ? Regards.

  8. I still write everything with my small collection of fountain pens, so I fully understand vinyl lovers. Look at what I have to put up with with fountain pens:

    -transfer the special ink from it’s original bottle with a syringe to a convenient fill bottle
    -refill frequently from the bottle
    -flush all my pens monthly to prevent clogging
    -refinish the nibs as they wear
    -replace the converters when they jam or wear

    But I wouldn’t have it any other way.The filling ritual and the feel of a superbly made pen in the hand is worth it all. So go for it vinyl lovers.

    1. I love a good fountain pen myself. All the youngsters at my office refer to them as “calligraphy pens”. I got tired of the ritual though and started buying disposable Pilot Varsity fountain pens instead. Much more convenient (and when somebody says “hey that looks cool”, since each pen is $2.00 apiece, I can just hand it to them and say “here have one”). Kind of like my all-in-one audio kit which replaced all my separates.

  9. Part of the allure of vinyl is less processing in the production. Sure, there was analog processing in most of the same flavors – shelving, sloping and parametric equalization; limiting, compression, gating; mixing and panning; splicing and overdubbing. That recommends going back to acoustic phonographs – but a near coincident pair, zero knob recording to half track master tape and transferred to lacquer was the standard to beat up until DSD.

    Further, digital reverb is almost always of the statistical variety, which does not conform to the rules of acoustics or any brain circuiting and programming besides other fake reverb recordings – and they are everything but consistent and coherent. Analog reverb was flattened into one dimension (spring), two dimensions (plate) or in many cases derived from physical rooms with exaggerated reverb like Phil Spector’s work, Motown, Stax, etc. In all of these cases, the reverb statistics are physically REAL, and therefore concordant with a million years of evolution to decode Natural reverb.

    Brains develop mirror circuits to decode delay variables, with the timing of neural loops corresponding to physical delays. When the delay and attenuation profiles become mathematically arbitrary instead of fixed by physical geometry, it ceases to make sense as there are no recursive loops that correspond to the variable equations of statistical reverb.

    The beauty of SACD production is that it is mathematically impossible to process a one bit signal – so you can have fake SACDs or SACDs with no processing, but not both. Major labels like Sony Classical and DGG make fake SACDs because they can no longer imagine let alone produce an unprocessed recording.

    For those who prefer vinyl to SACD, I suggest they are either listening to the wrong SACDs, it is accentuating other flaws in their systems or they are so acclimated to audio that getting their system closer to acoustic events sounds strange.

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