Pushing the limits

May 25, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

We're a cutting edge company. We like to think we're continually pushing the limits of technology. But in a sober moment, I wonder what are the limits?

If you had asked me that question when we first launched the PerfectWave Transport, or the DAC, I would have told you we had reached the limits of the possible. In hindsight and with the launch of DirectStream and its associated products, I recognize that imaginary limit fell quickly by the wayside.

And if you ask me the same question today, I'd reply with the same answer. DirectStream bumps up against the limits of the possible, certainly the practical. DACs and transports today can deliver dynamics covering the pressure differential of a single molecule against the eardrum, to standing next to a 747 engine at full throttle. What more could we possibly hope to achieve?

And yet we manage to achieve more: greater levels of musicality and realism on a near daily basis.

Limitations are self imposed, they do not actually exist.

Perhaps it's our horizons that need to be expanded instead.

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12 comments on “Pushing the limits”

  1. Hello Paul. I trust in the knowledge of today's physics being able to design an amplifier circuit which works as intended. No rocket science here. Thus I wonder about which limits you are talking about when it comes to a DAC's design. Maybe this vast knowledge about effects in physics motivates modern sellers of snake-oil to argue with dark matter, dark energy and neutrino-effect explaining the physics behind their tweaks. 🙂
    I too often have the impression that designers of audio circuit focus too much on details (or sometimes on cosmetics) for gaining tiniest improvements and forget the hole picture. What is lacking is a valid sound quality meter. There should be means otherwise architects of modern concert halls wouldn't get any order when it comes to simulation and implementation of room acoustic tools. I remember when some 30 years ago a new parliament hall was opened for the delegates it was impossible to understand the speaker behind the microphone. The hall was cluttered with active (!) loudspeakers and of course a multi-national company had simulated room acoustics before! 🙂 However within a year the company managed to get the sound intended. Thus the hole picture means that room acoustics have to be appropriate and the loudspeakers should radiate and be positioned in a way that the interaction between the room and the drivers of the speaker is tuned for best sound. The promise of digital audio was to push the level of noise and distortion below any audible threshold. However the first CD-players sounded awful. I guess this wasn't the problem of physics but of a non-professional implementation of digital technology. Let me give you an astonishing example revealing the real problem to be attacked: I am able to hear (!) - eyes closed - walking a person through the sound field generated by my speakers. Of course there is no sound from the steps of the person walking around. I guess the sound pressures generated by the person walking around are negligible! But the person dynamically changes the shape of the speakers sound waves reaching my pinnae! The second most crucial problem is the recording technique of course!

    1. Of course the CD sounded awful at first. It was invented by inventors, not by experts. Only over the course of time have experts in digital technology emerged. And often times (if not close to always) it is not the inventor, but the tweaker, or refiner of technology that emerges as the professional. It is the accumulation of knowledge, experience and intuition that usually leads to technical improvements. As with PS Audio and other great mature companies in the high end, the urge to create "ultimate" or "statement" products with their accumulated intellectual wealth is very enticing. Fortunately, their statement product technology often trickles down to products more people can afford.

      Regarding snake oil phenomenon, once in a while somebody actually does discover a phenomenon or a fresh approach that has an application in changing, if not improving, the experience of reproduced music. Ted Smith seems to have done it with his DAC; Ted Denny of Synergistic Research seems to have done it time and again with a variety of products. Whether or not an item is considered "snake oil" seems to depend on how closely it can be related to accepted technology or on how much proprietary information the inventor wished to divulge.

      We're grateful for the Wright Bros, but does anybody remember their second or third plane after the first one to take flight? It seems a miracle that the airplane could have emerged from a bicycle shop. Obviously, it's development required a multi-disciplinary approach. Progress in high-end audio typically comes from refinements within the industry, from people who are looking forward, thinking outside the box, and not afraid of getting a little snake oil on their fingers. I'm certainly grateful for their efforts. The results are far beyond my wildest dreams when I was a child listening to an AM tube radio.

      1. Not to take away from your point, only to shamelessly plug the city where I work, Dayton, Ohio... There's not a lot to come to Dayton for unless you like aircraft and the Bro's planes are here. Most are replicas, and only one flies but boy does it fly! For ten years I lived next to Dayton General South/Wright Brothers Field. Before 911 I could walk out onto the flight line and inspect any of the planes that came there and the place attracted many vintage aircraft. The Wright B flyer is based here and I have seen it aloft many times. Although it is a replica and has many key modernizations (like ailerons!) the aircraft was duplicated from the "B" at the Museum of the USAF at Wright Patterson AFB and has a hand made replica Wright engine. The sight is just stupefying for a plane buff. It hangs nose up in the air, cruising at 60 mph and it's huge props make a distinctive sound turning at a rather low RPM. Between the AF museum, Wright Field, Huffman Prairie, Carrilon Park and Wright State University there are about 7 or 8 of them that you can see, if this is your thing. The AF museum is worth the trip here alone. If you like aircraft, it takes several days to get in a good visit. On a sad note, this is a mecca for those that replicate these devices and many have either perished or been severely injured in the pursuit while flying from Huffman Prairie or other local sites.

  2. Fully agree to the 'pushing the limits' post!

    Regarding the digital/vinyl debate it's interesting to observe, that over the decades, since the CD was invented, digital was told to have reached the cutting edge to better vinyl. In the meantime digital has overcome previous cutting edges multiple times and still the debate goes on, while vinyl didn't change that much since then.

    This being said not to start the debate again here, as the reason could be, that it's apples/oranges, the one or the other is better or different or a matter of taste generally etc.

    Just meant as a strange and funny observation regarding 'pushing the limits' and where people claim to have overcome it over and over again.

  3. In answer to your question as to what the limit is it is obvious that the limit has been reached when the sound is so good that there is no difference between the reproduced sound and the real thing. Till then all things achieved are an exercise in technical advancements commendable as they may be. Regards.

  4. One of the limits is that the sound from an audio replay setup is always convincing, always fools one. And obviously most rigs are miles from this, they scream "fake!!" from any distance. What the current obsession with achieving minute advances in technical performance mostly misses is that human hearing doesn't work like instrumentation would like it to - an analogy is that computers are fabulous at things that humans hate doing, but hopeless at subtle feats of understanding that a small child finds to be, well, child's play ...

    So technical advancement is not the answer, rather it's understanding what human hearing is excellent at doing - and one of those accomplishments is easily discerning 'fake' sound - there's interesting research going on at the moment which is examining the cleverness of human hearing, what the latter actually looks for in the sound waves to work out what's going on. Of course, knowing this will help to focus audio design on making sure the audio system feeds the brain with material that's relevant, rather than that which produces gee whiz numbers in some test.

  5. Some of my friends describe themselves as "audiophiles", others consider themselves to be "music lovers", while I am a bit of both.

    That's where the fantastic quality of my DirectStream DAC is important to me, as most of the music I love to hear is only available as 44.1/16 (streaming or CD). Yes, I do agree that some of my SACD disks and my 192/24 AIFF files do sound a tad bit better than the CD quality of the same albums, but so little of the music I love is available in a format better than CD quality.

    The other night I just stopped myself and thought, this system sounds really awesome! I am not a fan of vinyl, to me the record noise really gets in the way of my musical enjoyment, especially with classical music...not to mention the limits of dynamics, bass, etc.

    The "audiophile" side of me will continue to keep an eye on technological improvements in audio, I'm interested to see how MQA shakes out, but what I have now sounds pretty darn good!

    Thank you Paul & Ted!

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