Ruffling feathers

June 16, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

Sipping my morning cup of java I stared aimlessly out the kitchen window. My reverie was suddenly interrupted by the loudest cacophony of angry, chattering, magpies I have ever heard—an easy dozen of the white trimmed black birds all with feathers ruffled. Below them, next to my neighbor’s fence, was a small bobcat who clearly was unhappy for all the attention, and they chased the poor critter off the property. Man! That was an exciting morning.

I think yesterday’s post probably ruffled just as many feathers as that bobcat. I had suggested that up until recently our cherished remote controls corrupted sound quality, a claim I stand by with some explanation.

Remote control wands are harmless devices. Neither their infrared or RF signals are bothersome to sound. It is what those wands control that causes me to make such claims. Before all the remote control fuss, preamps were simple collections of switches and pots. For example, a good friend of mine, Jim McCullough still builds high-end handcrafted non-remote control products under the Cello brand. Here’s a picture of its insides.

A beautifully built piece of kit. You can see the care and attention paid to the switches, wires, and pots. Are these the perfect solution for sound quality? No. Nothing is perfect and everything comes with its baggage, though I’ll refrain from delving deep into particulars after receiving this note from the designer.

“No snarky comments tomorrow about how metal to metal contacts in the input selector and palladium wipers in the volume control matter less than not having to drag yourself across the room to change the volume.”

If we hop on our way back machine to the earliest days of replacing the manual volume control with a remote, the very first schemes were simple motors replacing your hand. Klunky, but effective, these earlier motorized pots struggled with fine volume adjustments but worked. The degrading compromises I spoke of had yet to enter the scene.

The plot thickens when motorized pots were replaced by electronic volume controls. Depending on design types sound quality took a big hit with their introduction. The myriad of schemes were all over the map: relays and resistors, CMOS and resistors, op amps, and so on.

The advent of electronic volume controls is where the problems for sonics really kicked in. We’ll delve a bit deeper tomorrow.

See! No snarky comments about wipers.

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25 comments on “Ruffling feathers”

  1. I really wonder how an effective quality control could be made seeing all these manually applied soldering points, Paul. On one side permanently improvements by better and more expensive components with extremely low tolerances on the other side a human being with hourly changing performance trying to get the critical contacts work. Funny.

    1. Yeah, I think part of the appeal and selling point of this product is the handwork and attention to detail. They build them one at a time and only a few are sold each month. Rather expensive, too.

      1. It’s analogous to what Singer does with vintage air-cooled Porsches. There always seems to be a market, although limited, for beautiful hand-crafted products.

    2. In another two weeks we will have completed 16 years of building Cello products without a single service issue. We don’t make a lot, but every one works.

  2. Here at Chaos Cottage we find the garden magpies a very reliable way of telling us when the cat is out in the garden. Electronic volume controls came after my time, and I have never really considered them before. The first reaction was that it should be possible to do something with an FET and a bit of ingenuity. The second was that this might not work too well for high-end systems. The third was that the sensible thing was to wait for tomorrow’s post and, hopefully, enlightenment.

  3. Good story Paul, crows are obnoxious noisemakers and scavengers. That early morning caw will drive any sensitive human crazy.

    Interesting that a group of crows is called a murder, when one crow dies, the murder will surround the deceased to find out what killed their member. A murder of crows will band together and chase the predator. Was the Bobcat encroaching on their roadkill perhaps?

    Unfortunately they’ve inhabited the planet 10 times longer than our ancestors.

    1. Fascinating and I did not know that. There are crows here but they are outnumbered by the magpies and kept away. I notice the magpies gather together to oust any crows that venture near. Roadkill is handled by a band of enormous turkey vultures that roost within view of our deck. The particular tree where they live is the only place in this area of Colorado they stay during summer months, migrating south to Costa Rica in the winter.

      I am not sure what the bobcat was up to, but I was surprised by his fear of them. He could clearly kick their scrawny little butts but he didn’t think so and skulked off.

    2. I have tried the vast majority and I have the latest made in Poland from Khozmo
      It uses matched pairs of Takman 1% resistors Shunt type attenuator only using 2 resistors on the output which are .5% or less Vishay naked type. My friend built a very good isolation transformer and 6v power supply from one of the Lundahl transformers ,and chokes supply
      It is also relay controlled on the remote , all Cnc machined and ball bearing if using it manually.
      It may not be the best ever but pretty dam good by even Audiophile standards.

  4. Always curious about the business angle, the fact that I’ve not heard of a brand (and I have a good memory) I put down to ignorance, not being interested in audio for long enough, being out of my price bracket, it not being very good or the company did not have a proper business plan. When I read a classified saying “a rare example of an [whatever] component …” I assume it was too expensive or just no good and no one bought it.
    It seems the previous owner of the Cello brand sold out at a time when lots of people were selling out and the whole thing went pear-shaped very quickly. In steps Paul’s mate and apparently takes a good brand name and makes very high quality units, probably bespoke to order, exclusively for the well heeled. I was amused to see that their “integrated” amplifier is a stack of three units, a power amp and pre connected to the same power supply. Integrated? For that money, who cares.
    The point being, there is probably a lot to be said for small privately owned companies run by blokes with soldering irons serving the discerning customer, IRRESPECTIVE of market trends, indeed possibly counter-trending.
    There are some notable successes, my favourite being Sowter Transformers (used in all three valve units I’ve owned), started in 1935 and still only second generation, and Music First, mentioned yesterday, basically a second generation part of Stevens & Billington Transformers, started in 1963. On a slightly larger scale, Linn is second generation (the son fortunately being a graduate in both electronics and business and saving his father’s hide by redesigning the business), as is PMC, Pete Thomas’ son Alex already chalking up some notable successes.
    Do these small bespoke businesses produce better products? I’m not sure that’s even the point.

    1. Steven, Cello is Mark Levinson’s old company that he formed after being squeezed out by his investor and the company he founded, MLAS.

      Btw, thought you might find this film interesting, The Accountant.

      Storyline goes something like this, a functioning autistically challenged youth is disciplined by his overbearing military trained father to overcome his disorder. An adult math savant, he works as a forensic accountant tracking insider financial deceptions for numerous criminal enterprises.

      Operating out of a modest accounting office, ZZZ Acounting in Plainfield, Illinois, his clients are brokered to him via phone by an unidentified woman’s voice, accepting payment’s both in cash and in various non-cash forms such as rare comics, gold bricks and paintings by famous artists. As Treasury agents close in on him, having retained the skills taught by his father, he sets out to even the score with a corrupt client, protecting himself while attempting to outsmart his pursuers.

      The foundation of many Hollywood movie’s today are the three *B’s, bullet’s, blood and boob’s. This is a little heavy at moments on the first two, polite on the third. No more violent than Spectre or Skyfall.

      Btw, Naim audio is cool, have a couple friends who just like Linnie’s swear by their system methodology, but a Naim Nait 2 @ $6,000 with an $8,000 external power supply upgrade here in the States is not what one would necessarily consider to be a good value.

      * a slightly different metric than the 3D’s – doom, destruction and death.

      1. That film is a bit too close to home, even with J K Simmons I’ll have to skip it. It’s gratuitous bookkeeping I can’t stand.

        Naim was perhaps the first UK company to make a really good and affordable integrated solid state amplifier, the Nait 1 (Quad do not do integrated). The brand has been bread and butter sales for many dealers ever since, perhaps declining in the last 4 to 5 years. They were one of the first to get streaming right. I was put off by all those boxes and it makes if far too expensive for what it is. Sold out to Focal some years ago. There is a current trend of “de-Naimification”. The only unit I had was the UnitiQute2 all-in-one, was really very good.

  5. Houston, we have a problem. Stepping back and looking at the big picture, seeing the forest and the trees, a wireless remote control is obviously an adjustment, a control. Some controls are manual, some are programmed by humans, and some are self adjusting by various means including as a response to sensors or programming. Almost all machines of any complexity today use not only various types of controls not directly adjusted by humans directly but also use servo systems, that is negative feedback. These include some of the most delicate and critical adjustments to achieve their goals. An antiballistic missile hitting another missile with a direct hit, that is a bullet hitting a bullet, the Hubble space telescope staying focused on galaxies billions of lightyears away (one exposure lasted 11 days), a rover on Mars avoiding a ditch, Staying precisely aimed at Pluto to get a sharp image of a faint object even though it is travelling tens of thousands of miles and hour, practically every modern assembly line especially automobiles, you car itself including your anti lock brakes, dropping a JDAM through a vent shaft on a roof to destroy only one part of a building, and I could go on and on and on because the examples are endless.

    So here is the problem Paul. What are all these people doing wrong that you are doing right?

      1. Hubble’s precious time was used to take an 11 day exposure (while orbiting the earth) into a region of space that appeared to be entirely empty. In its field of view, it found 10,000 galaxies that had never been seen because they were so faint. Keeping the telescope fixed on one spot in the sky to gather enough photons to reveal them required extreme precision of control. It is now believed that there is no region of space no matter how empty it seems that is not filled with galaxies. Paul, have you ever taken an 11 day time lapse photograph? I think even on the steadiest tripod there’d be some shakiness resulting in blur.

        1. I appreciate that. I studied cosmology in college. One of my professors concurrently built a radio telescope very much like Frank Drake’s, but Drake managed to become famous for it first.

          I had a poster of the “10,000 Galaxies” on my wall back when it came out.

          My reply was supposed to be a joke about the fact that the existence of highly precise remote-controllable devices has nothing to do with Paul’s argument as I read it.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of remotes and electronic volume controls. Personally I’m using a 1997 vintage Mac C22 Pre-amp for this reason amongst others. I don’t mind getting out of my chair to walk across the room to change volume (my room not being suited to having the pre-amp adjacent to my seat) just as much as I don’t mind having to get up to flip the record of one of the many 45rpm re-issued albums I have. I do cheat though when using the DS DAC and make slight adjustments to volume with the remote. The question being though would PSA build a BHK Pre-amp for me with a mechanical/rotary volume switch and all the buttons needed to select sources? And if you could included a good headphone amp in the box in place of these other electronics I would be in hog heaven. Otherwise I’ll be sticking with my Mac amplification (including a pair of vintage M75 mono-blocks) for the foreseeable.
    By the way “The Accountant” is a pretty good movie.

    1. “The question being though would PSA build a BHK Pre-amp for me with a mechanical/rotary volume switch and all the buttons needed to select sources? And if you could included a good headphone amp in the box in place of these other electronics I would be in hog heaven.”

      Well, the BHK Preamplifier does utilize a very sophisticated rotary volume control, features an input selector button on the left side of the front panel display and a Bascom King designed state of the art headphone amplifier.
      The included remote also provides control of those two primary features.

      Not sure which amplifier and speakers you listen through, but dropping the BHK in your system would be analogous to lifting a blanket off your speakers when compared to the decades old design of the C-22.

  7. My current preamp uses sealed relays with gold contacts to change sources. My last preamp had a 5 or 6 position selector, with an identical record[as in taping] selector, which I never used. With that main selector I had to shut off all other sources, particularly the tuner, as it would be audible even when the selector was on another input. I’m sure it was a cheap part and better selectors were, and are available. I always wanted to replace it with a Dact. I had the manufacturer replace the cheap volume pot with a stepped one from Dact. The only problem was the steps were too big, so fine adjustments were not possible. It did improve the sound, and the manufacturer said when he tested it, that it’s matching of the two channels were the best he had ever tested.
    When just about every high end company has come up with a transparent volume control, I don’t see it as a problem. I’d consider it mature technology. I’m sure in the early days of experimenting with remotes there were some really bad choices, but aren’t we past that?

    1. Some are, most aren’t. The solutions we’ve come up with finally solve the problems and a few others have as well, but the vast majority stick with tried and true old technology that really degrades performance.

  8. Stepping back to get an even more distant view, having to get out of your chair to make an adjustment to your system causes your heart rate to take an up-tick that will help prolong your life. Seems like every month I see a health article proclaiming the dangers of sitting for long periods of time. Obviously, you can’t enjoy the music if you’re not breathing. Sorry if this was brought up earlier. I just dropped in briefly.

      1. When you sit that close to the rig, you don’t have to worry about first reflections.
        Nowadays, he’d be wearing headphones!
        Make that a whiskey, please–once every couple months.

  9. My Blue Circle preamp features dual-mono Shalco brand stepped resister volume controls. Designer Gilbert Yeung builds each (resistor ladder) by hand. Indeed, as Paul observes, the handiwork is part of the appeal and the end product is expensive. The part that got me onboard was realizing that the whole audio signal goes through the volume control. Absence of remote is inconvenient but I tell myself that it reduces how sedentary I am when engaged with this hobby.

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