Right tool, right job

September 13, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

You can make almost anything work. Getting things to work right is a bigger challenge.

Take for example a Power Plant AC regenerator. We'd love to use Class D amplifier technology for the output but have consistently stayed with good old Class A/B. Right tool, right job.

Class D amplifiers can be terrific for the reproduction of music and so too can Class A/B. The reason either can work for music but only one for a regenerator is because the jobs are different: powering loudspeakers isn't as extreme as powering equipment.

Speakers might demand instantaneous current approaching 10 amps for short periods of time—a workable challenge for both amp topologies. Equipment and AC power routinely demand 50 to 60 amps for a regenerator—at 5 times the voltage presented to a speaker. That's a job for an amplifier without a heavy output filter.

In the same vein, using a vacuum tube for the input rather than the output, or a DC servo instead of a blocking capacitor, is the essence of using the right tool for the right job.

Hard to know what's right and what's wrong if you're not a designer yourself. Which is why it's important to find a company or a designer you can trust.

Right tool, right job offers the best performance.

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19 comments on “Right tool, right job”

  1. Just as an engineer should have design criteria, a consumer should have their own criteria for selecting a product. They should have a reason for wanting such a product in the first place. That may not be entirely true in audio as some people seem to change things for the sake of it rather than because it brings any added value to them.
    There are red lines and variable considerations. One red line for most people is space. Another is budget. My last red line was the grief I got having a stereo in a main living space with a family who enjoy music but couldn't use it. So my red line was that it had to be idiot-proof. It is remarkable how few products like that exist. My wife isn't even prepared to select a source. The device has to auto-detect her phone app (Spotify). All she has to do is press "power" on a remote that sits on a coffee table - permanently.
    So with that red line there were 3 or 4 products that were suitable and I did some listening. At the time I have never owned any products from those companies and did not know who the designers were. One of them was long established, but had only recently established distribution in the UK.
    That said, there is apparently quite a lot of brand loyalty in audio, but as newer technologies arrive and take over, namely streaming, a lot of that goes out of the window and people would I hope tend towards making objective decisions. With streaming it is less subjective as a good product is dependent upon good front-end/networking software, and no amount of BS will remedy that. That's why Auralic, for example, have been so successful.
    The fact that audio companies selling lifestyle products have been far more successful than box-makers (B&O, Bose etc.) tells me that lifestyle issues are generally more important to most customers than how the thing works inside.

    1. B&O might not be a good example. Read the article Copper, one issue back. They had to sell off quite a lot, and their wireless ear buds are the only reason they are out of the red.

      1. I once had a client, an engineer, who had two products. One was a bespoke state of the art plating process and cost around $200,000 per unit. The other was a school teaching aid that cost about $15. Guess which one generated more total sales and more profit.
        I'm a great believer in making good products that lots of people want. I'm not sure all high-end manufacturers think that way. How many people know how their car works? As long as it is comfortable and gets them to the shops and back without breaking down.
        I think this post highlights the fact that most engineers probably want their customer to understand how their product works and why they think it is so good and they should buy it. It's a recognition/gratification thing. Seeing the $$$ roll in is not enough. My suspicion is that most customers don't really care, they have their own criteria, as indicated in my post.
        It's a bit like the car salesman spending half an hour explaining to the potential customer about the brakes, fuel injection and whatnot of the new model, for the customer to respond by asking if it is available in yellow.

  2. I think a big contribution to this trust is the communication of the technical reasons behind why it was designed in a certain way or the compromises made due to a budget limit, as Ted does extensively and you also do in many cases as far as you can. I appreatiated e.g. the info about case work cost, integrated headphone amp cost etc.

    In case e.g. of the BHK preamp I would have been interested a bit deeper in those technical backgrounds of decisions than it was possible to read so far.
    I think the main reason is, that it was announced as a cost no object design, which I had difficulties to believe as there are a few further options on hand even to a electronic design dummy like me (separation of power supply etc.).

    If designs are very good, people even buy it when it includes aspects one doesn’t need but pays (in my case it would be the headphone amp inside the BHK) while other aspects, possibly beneficial more in a common interest are not included.

    The most silly and absolutely needless design aspect in an audio piece I ever bought (because it sounds exceptional) is an integrated flawless diamond...unbelievable.

  3. This communique is probably one of the most difficult to tackle. It encompasses engineering, the process to create an object to manage a task and the psychological needs of humans to feel that they are whole. This brings to mind a psych professor at college who on the first day of class put two graphs on the board. One showed the statistical distribution of how we function at a task and the other showed a graph of what is expected by society to be WNL. The two graphs did not intersect!

    I recall two years ago when I set out to get new cars- a horrific experience ! I usually go to the show rooms early in the morning so as to avoid any sales pressure! So I sat in many autos and was psychologically driven to get one because of the emblem on the hood; this car was big, had horrible visibility and the seat was uncomfortable, but I was driven by the emblem on the hood. I did not get these autos.

    Here I am again close to the time when I need to re-visit the auto showrooms and again I am driven to enact the same scheme as last time. I know I'm not going to go for that emblem, but I'll go through the same process!

    I assume that the aforementioned behavior will duplicate itself when I go to purchase audio gear, shirts, shoes, etc etc etc. We are all driven by items that are placed before us that the society has identified as being supreme and if we obtain those items we will be viewed as being "special", get to feel unique, but has nothing to do with function !

    I recall last year looking for two camera lenses and again was going to purchase the "top of the line" item when I realized that the graphs depicting the performance of the expensive lens was grossly inferior to two lenses that were 1/10 the price from the same manufacturer, which I did buy. Am I please with the lenses from a performance POV, yes, but it still irritates me that I did not buy the more expensive items.

    So the how do we resolve this problem?

    I leave that question to my fellow readers.

    Good Luck!


    1. Buy the cars that have the best specs, performance, and comfort. Order the good ornament, and have it installed on the cars you do buy. If seeing the ornament makes you happy, install it. The dealer probably won't install it, but a body shop will. Another option will be to find a similar emblem, or get something custom made.
      Take the money saved and send it to me. We will both be happy, as I would like to move up the Coda line to a pair TMs, or a model 40 or top of the line pair of 60s. The joy you would bring would be priceless.
      You asked;-)

  4. Thanks Larry O Tool.
    Didn't know we had a problem until you blatantly exposed my ignoranance. Gotta stop reading the life skill blogs. Lol
    Thanks again folks for the sunshine in my window.

  5. Trust is the key word today. I wonder how you can learn to trust a company.
    Not by what they say or write, that's for sure.
    Every company claims their products are "the best', the most reliable etc. etc.
    Over the years, by experience, you learn what companies you can rely on.
    But even then. In the foreseeable (?) future PSA comes with a new product, a server.
    As Paul McG. stated a while ago he is not satisfied with the sound of servers that are available right now on the market.
    Given their amps/regenerators, do I trust PSA (enough) and assume they have the expertise to build a much more software driven product that can compete with or even defeat the likes of Aurender, Auralic, INNUOS, dCS.
    IMHO companies with much more experience with software. I'm not sure. Time will tell.
    When it comes to buying a product, trust only takes me so far.
    I like to try before buy.
    And I agree with Steven, that most customers not really care about the inside of the device (e.g.amp), as long as it works and sounds fine. For the techies among us it's probably candy.

    1. I think if PS Audio think they can make a streamer better than anyone else they should stop now. First they need to make a DAC better than anyone else. In my view the dCS Vivaldi 4-box DAC system is peerless. Nothing touches it. It is a view shared by many and is often used as a reference system. The first time I heard it I was simply blown away by its transparency. Paul need not be ashamed. It costs 10 times the price of the Directstream DAC and dCS have been at it a lot longer - their ring DAC technology is some 25 years old. So while the DAC costs $115,000 (cheaper in the UK!), their streamer only costs $4,250. It's a fantastic bit of kit, there is nothing to better it and they sell like hot cakes, but like all streamers it mostly down to the software. OK, it's over-engineered, but it is dCS. So, because streamers are cheap, they really have to be mass-market to be worthwhile to develop. And if the software isn't great, and there is great out there already, then forget it.

  6. In solving an engineering problem the first tool you need is knowledge. This goes far beyond memorization of facts which can always be looked up in a book or on the internet if you forget the details. It goes to a basic understanding of scientific principles and how to apply them to solving problems. Engineering presents a systematic way to go about defining a problem in specific terms and a method for arriving at various solutions, then filtering out all but the best one or two. It also requires a way to measure to what degree and by what nature the ultimate results meet or fails to meet the goals of the design in addressing the problem.

    These last few months I have been following the investigation of the FIU bridge collapse on several web sites but mostly one with a live chat run by a structural engineer and participation of many other structural engineers. My first inclination of how and why the bridge collapsed has only been reinforced by subsequent information and seeing the drawings of the design and photos of the conditions just prior to the failure. The dashcam video of the actual collapse was also very helpful. This design is near the top of my list of the absolute worst engineering design failures I have ever seen during my career as an engineer. The question that keeps repeating itself to me is how could it not have collapsed? This design is right up there with the failed and absurd design of the Soviet Union's N-1 rocket that was supposed to take Cosmonauts to the moon. It was tested 5 times and failed within the first few seconds in every test. The FIU bridge collapse had so many fatal design flaws that experts continue to argue over the failure mode. I also took a shot at guessing he failure mode of the bridge in Genoa Italy discussed on the same site. I think I got that one right too. I've had a lot of experience with concrete and steel in my life.

  7. “Right tool, right job offers the best performance”

    The other thing a lot of us consumers have to add to the above statement is value. Both in terms of price and our perception of the change in sound when talking audio.

  8. Back in the day I was involved in commissioning & sea trials of VLCC's (Supertankers). Part of the entertainment system was a VHS player & colour TV each provided for the officers & crew. Cases of various programmes cassettes were provided by a company called Walport. We soon found that because of the frequency instability of the alternators onboard the TV colour would periodically drift to monochrome and back to colour again. This didn't occur when the vessel was on shore power, i.e. drydock. The answer was of course a mains regenerator for each of the entertainment systems. A large and combersome unit at the time but it did the trick. Maybe we were an early adopter of mains regeneration for entertainment?

  9. It is true that there is always a best option for a specific job but there can be alternatives which too can do a good job. Take for example audio amplifiers. Pure class A easily sounds the best but it's limitations are obvious when it comes to power output, a lot of heat produced etc. Amplifiers employing all tubes sound better than hybrids but fall short on wattage unless a lot of tubes are used and this can be very expensive and involved. On the other hand hybrids though not as good sounding as an all tube design can still sound so good that one can get away with buying one of those and not know the difference till an equally well made all tube design is heard side by side. These are very expensive and this is why there are not many of them. Choices,choices both for the maker and the consumer. Regards.

  10. Good post Oliver. Even more expensive comes the OTL power amplifiers using a multitude of tubes. Once heard with the right speakers its a relevation but the cost of ongoing maintenance would definately be a deciding factor.

  11. Right tool implies an item purchased for performance, for doing a job; and yet purchase decisions are more driven by other factors, mostly related to status: how it looks, how much it costs, who else chose it (cult), and marketing, which is cult development.

    Let's look at the most successful marketing in history: diamonds
    (already mentioned as a topic on this post).

    Diamonds are by far the most common gemstone and therefore should be the cheapest, but the accessible supply tends to be in deep vertical veins so historically they were rare, and large ones are uncommon. This started the myth of high value, but even in feudal times gems with color were valued more. When the South African mines were discovered, the wily Dutch traders already knew how to control markets and set about it by stockpiling the gems and releasing enough to keep the price steadily inflating while stimulating the demand. They managed to start a tradition of using diamonds for wedding rings, which included the marketing slogan "diamonds are forever". This is a lie, as these Carbon crystals combust into CO2 in a fire.

    Diamond wedding rings were a "brilliant" idea, because most diamonds are small, and a ring you wear daily should not be to clunky to interfere with wifely tasks (incidentally, "wife" is a job title and one should think about her suitability to the tasks!). Note that rings for husbands typically do not have a stone. This synthetic tradition was so well honed that only two generations after entering the Japanese market post-WWII there was widespread belief diamond wedding rings were an ancestral Japanese tradition.

    Their next slogan also got a boost from Hollywood - "Diamonds are a girl's best friend", immortalized in song by Marilyn Monroe. This was followed by "three months salary" coupled with "investment in your marriage". Chumps who fall for this rhetoric leave De Beers laughing all the way to bank of Monte Carlo - or Bermuda, Isle of Wight, Grand Caymans, etc.

    Don't be fooled by features that don't contribute to sound, cover up blemishes in recordings, create an artificial sense of aural space ("soundstaging" and "imaging"). Further, "lifestyle" design means small, which means costs less to make and compromises sounds quality; and less flexibility as I/O and switching functions are cut, which is sold as a competitive advantage! Yes, miniaturization while maintaining performance has higher manufacturing cost, but smaller speakers simply don't perform as well as larger speakers and produce more profits.

    Besides, convenience is bad for your health. You need to get up off your sofa and stretch your legs frequently, so remote controls in essence shorten your life more than the few seconds they save - wrong tool.

    In concerts there are pauses between pieces. This is good and proper because music should rise from silence and the reverberations fade back into quietude, like a cleansing of the palate between courses. This changed with radio, which needed a constant sound to catch people tuning cross the dial and hold attention. The ritual of cleaning LPs, flipping them and the lead-ins between tracks are part of the experience and the meaning.

  12. The Internet is the wrong tool to listen to music. It is rife with MP3, AAC, and proprietary streaming compression algorithms that cause neurological hearing damage. This is worse for children developing their hearing. Raising them on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, Bluetooth and other portable music apps will leave them permanently disabled from hearing the nuances of REAL music.

    This is a level of cognition that can't be measured with headphones, tones, noise or mixed music (multi-mics, processing and panning), so the last 85 years of audiological research and audio product development needs to be done over. It has only been shown recently by brain imaging showing that professional musicians have far more grey matter (and white matter) devoted to hearing music and acoustic space, and the difference comes from daily exposure to live music.

    This development explains the great divergence in my 40 years of collecting anecdotal information about the difference in hearing between musicians and non-musicians, and urban and ex-urban childhoods. It further explains all the audiophile arguments between analog and digital, tubes and solid state, vented and sealed, hard diaphragms and soft, etc. From the time you start listening to audio, your brain gets hard-wired to the sound of the system(s) you hear daily, your media exposure and the background noise of your listening environment.

    This is compounded by the audio ecology because engineers and producers evolved recording techniques to sound good on a wide range of flawed distribution media and systems. For example, digital and analog produce different distortions on transient signals. Now there is a practice of "mixing for iTunes" - and all too often that is the only "mix" available.

    This is a vicious circle, and it leaves people lacking a vital human experience and always wanting more, i.e. consumerist junkies. When I walk out of a great concert, I don't need or want to hear more music until the next day, maybe the day after. Have you EVER experienced that level of satisfaction from reproduction?

    There is another experience that illustrates the deficiencies of audio. When I lived in Colorado I went to Pow Wows. The Plains and Pueblo Indians still gather and beat the drums, sing and dance all day. The big Pow Wows like Denver last for three days. I could sit and immerse in the hypnotic rhythm and unison modes of the singers. There were no contrasting dynamics like Romantic symphonies, no syncopations, no triple time. There was still passage of time as no two beats are the same, coming from five to eight drummers hitting the same skin, but there was no rush and no end, only phases in the cycles. It gave access to a hidden wordless level of reality, the inner workings of Nature as the dancers mimicked animal totems and the singers projected universal feelings in forgotten languages.

    Group drumming is a religious and tribal practice around the world. This is a sound that speakers can't reproduce and a feeling that can be triggered from memory, but not felt if you have never been there. This is my goal for audio: healing, generating and regenerating, uniting.

    There is no "sweet spot" in drum circle.

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