Silver ears?

December 23, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

Most visitors to PS Audio walk into Music Room One and freeze. Some take a step back, intimidated by the sheer size of the IRSV.

Inevitably they declare the fact their ears are not golden enough, or silver, even bronze.

I wonder why it is a room dedicated to revealing music’s innermost secrets intimidates first-time visitors? Like standing in front of a race car afraid to get behind the wheel, or hesitant to sample food in a chef’s kitchen.

They relax when music plays. They’re delighted to know their ears qualify too.

Perhaps they’re worried about being judged as unworthy when the truth is so very different. Few would bat an eye at being able to recognize live at a concert hall.

Our ears are all golden. Each of us easily recognizes better.

And a few among us step up to the plate to build better in their homes.

Audiophiles.

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36 comments on “Silver ears?”

  1. Can you quantify in percentages, Paul, which contribution to the overall sound quality comes from the design of music room one? How to quantify the contributions of the mains quality, speakers, amps, interconnects and power cables?

    1. That’s difficult. Any speaker placed in there tends to sound good, so what we did for room dimensions and treatments seems to work well. It’s not too easy to move those beasts around (at all) so I can’t tell you anything as precise as you’d like to know.

      1. The geometrical dimensions of the IRS are not small compared to the room dimensions. Thus there should be big room interaction effects and nearfield listening seems to be impossible. I wonder how the ‘sound’ of music room one might change with a small point source widebander in nearfield listening nearly avoiding any listenable room interactions. My feeling is that the contribution of music room one to the sound of the IRS must be far more than 50%. I guess some 80%.

  2. This is so true. Currently I have spent a boat load for a room in my basement (in my terms at least)!! My wife looks at me cross-eyed because ‘we don’t need the extra space’. And .. she is right. ‘We’ don’t. But my system and future speakers will. Haha. This music ‘thing’ is the greatest escape of life’s stress and to still be able to use your imagination instead of being spoon fed by video. Well. I think that makes us smarter too!! 🙂

  3. Not just audiophiles “step up to the plate to build better in their homes”.
    There are a lot of “part-time” manufacturers and tinkers who strive to bring some novel idea to sonic fruition.

    Merry Christmas!

  4. Yes, product names/designations can be a tough one, though on occasion, divine inspiration and serendipity find mutual destiny.

    When asked what’s a Sprout? It’s simple to respond and categorize Sprout as a stereo integrated amplifier. “Stellar Gain Cell DAC” sounds like it belongs in the category of digital to analog converters obfuscating it’s preamplifier functionality when in essence it’s a stereo preamplifier w/digital to analog conversion, or (stereo pre-dac) which “Stellar Control DAC” nomenclature implies to a certain extent.

    I dig the Stellar concept, S300 for (300w stereo) and M700 for (700w mono) are clear as day.
    Gain Cell terminology is more of a technology description when compared to functionality.

    Obviously, the basis of success with this new product category will be the value/performance ratio and the optimization of market penetration towards target demographic within your omni-channel marketing.

    Back in the day we would reference a great performance, recording or tape as “Stellar”.
    The following clip is simply an attempt at humor 🙁

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1A0p0F_iH8

    Happy Holiday’s Everybody!

  5. A next door neighbor came over for the first time for a listening session. I have been living next to him for years and didn’t know he was into audio. We both have dedicated home theaters/audio rooms in our basements that are about the same size (20 x 12 x 8). We walked into the room talking and he immediately said “Wow, I need to get some treatments on the wall. This sounds so different.” . I put a lot of work into getting my room to sound like it does, even in the planning stage. I treated the walls, only to find I over treated them. I put ceiling treatments in the top corners of the front ceiling to great benefit. I added more to those same corners only to find it succeed the life out of the music. Diffusers sound better than sound absorption devices depending on location. The walls have extra insulation in them. My equipment shelving is built into a side wall that has a large storage area behind it. I can go into that storage area and have full access to the back of the equipment and power. I ran separate 20 Amp circuit just for the front channel amps. It goes on and on.

    I consider myself fortunate to have been able to start from scratch and dedicate a room. I didn’t have that opportunity in our prior home, and always felt like I had to make things “fit”. It was an unsolvable limitation. Having said that, I was limited in space in my basement buildout. I wish I had a wider room with taller ceilings. A friend has a bigger, taller room like that. After listening to his system, I always feel like there is a bit of a “tunneling” effect to my room that you wouldn’t know was there until you compared. The listening room itself is such an underrated aspect.

  6. “Perhaps they’re worried about being judged as unworthy when the truth is so very different. Few would bat an eye at being able to recognize live at a concert hall.” This is always the bottom line in high end audio, the attempt to reproduce the sound of live unamplified music. As someone who goes to a fair number of live concerts (almost exclusively opera and symphony), I am glad my stereo does not precisely mimic the live performances I attend. My home stereo system in most cases provides me with greater emotional pleasure and impact of a well recorded concert. There is greater clarity of individual instruments, imaging seems better, little details of the recording pop out with greater impact than when I am at a live concert. Some of this superior sound in my mind comes from the extraordinary quality of some modern recordings, some is due to the fact that the highest quality performances get recorded by the best musicians in the world and some is from the fact that I can listen in the dark. I am sure many of you have long ago discovered this. The live concert still provides the best micro-dynamics and timber accuracy, but on the whole, I prefer my home stereo concert experience, as heretical as that sounds.

    1. Hi Forteatwo and everyone else,
      I think that a lot of others here are on the same wavelength or page as you.
      The live and recorded music experiences are different, and each has its own merits. I pity the person who excludes one for the other.
      Life is just too short to place limits on things so valuable to the human experience.
      Regards and Happy Holidays,
      -John

  7. 2017 will usher in a single box solution, ordered yesterday. All that will remain from my existing system will be the speakers, turntable and P3 regenerator. No more tinkering for me.
    Season’s greetings.

    1. I have been where you are.. My problem wasn’t with my system, it was me not being ever being content with where I was. It’s a slippery slope. As soon as you make an improvement to your system, it’s instantly not good enough, or you already start browsing again for the next change. I did the exact same thing you did. Sold everything In between my sources and speakers. Picked up a Cronos Magnum tube integrated amp and learned to enjoy music again. I’m now back to separates, but my pace of change is now reasonable. I have had the same preamp, amps and CD player for about 3 years.

      1. I’m happy with my system, just not with the number of boxes and my wife complaining she doesn’t know how it works.
        Been an audiophile for 5 years, tried valves (now out of my system), and digital has reached a sort of end game. MQA type things are of no interest to me, difficult to beat well mastered 16/44. As have realised speakers are 80% of the system quality, an upgradable digital box that has huge power and accommodates my dual arm turntable will keep me humming along for a while yet.

  8. It never fails to surprise me, though I should be used to it by now, how people react to a good system.

    At first they say “my ears aren’t good enough” or “I would never be able to tell the difference,” yet when they sit and listen you see their eyes grow wide and they say things like “That sounds like… music! Not like a stereo but like you’re really THERE.”

    That’s the whole point. I have been to enough concerts to know there’s still a huge gulf between even the best systems and reality, but it’s all about getting incrementally closer.

      1. Yes why not.
        I like the Devialet amps, the Phantom not so much.
        But hey, I’m not the one buying this single box solution.
        You should ask the real protagonist here, aka stevensegal

        1. I was thrift store browsing today, came across a mid-70s Panasonic all-in-one cassette, turntable, amp, etc. Talk about the ultimate old school single box solution. It was similar to my very first system but was so beat up I saw no rescuing of it even for nostalgic purposes. Ho Ho Ho everyone!

      2. There are single box solutions these days, everything built into the speaker unit, such as Grimm LS1 (originally a pro monitor system), Devialet Phantom, Linn Exakt and Kii.
        Personally, I have speakers I like from Harbeth. The Devialet dealer (the main hi-end dealer in Central London) is a Harbeth dealer and my two pairs of speakers are their best selling products. Also makes a demo very easy. I won’t discuss the audio quality, unfair on another manufacturer’s site. The only electronics I’m retaining is my PSA P3 as Devialet many users find them beneficial. I am tempted to replace it with a very well known UK-made balanced power transformer unit used widely in pro and consumer audio that costs $500, but will probably stick with the P3.
        Devialet are no different for many other audio companies in claiming to have reinvented audio. Their units are basically A/D hybrids. Nothing new there. All in one box – As Larry says, the Japanese were doing that in the 1970s. The programmable inputs suit me. I require 2 x phono (MC stereo and MM mono), usb (streaming – but soon to come onboard), coax (spinner) and optical (TV satellite box).
        As far as design is concerned, Bang & Olufsen crossed that border in the 1980s, including audio you can hang on the wall and call Art.
        I’ll talk economics. Firstly, I have a personal rule of no net spend on audio. This purchase should be self-funding after selling the 5 units it replaces, a total of 7 boxes, plus cables. I stream from online or a usb drive. I have a server at home, not for music. I fired up minimserve yesterday and streamed DSD no trouble at all. So for digital the only cables involved will be a power lead to the Devialet and speaker cables (recently purchased DNM).
        Briefly, Devialet did some clear thinking and created a unit that ticks boxes on all fronts: audio quality, design, functionality, upgradability, marketing. With a good product, they then got the financial backing of the wealthiest man in Europe. (I heard they just got another $100m for product development.) I think they started with national distributors, but no everything, in Europe at least, is done from Devialet to retailer direct.
        I am buying the previous ex-demo version and having it upgraded to the current model, which is a major upgrade. Devialet are doing this at cost ($4,500 – you register and pay online and they collect and deliver). A UnPnP/DNLA board is coming in 2017 and is free for 2016 purchasers/upgraders. My suspicion is that they wanted this in the current upgrade, but they couldn’t perfect the software in time. It is the same streaming platform as already implemented in the Phantom speakers.

        1. I like to add a personal experience. Having incidentally heard the first Devialet amp with a floor standing speaker from Magico in a dealer’s show room the sound was most remarkable already when entering the store. Without any further listening I asked for a listening test at home. This beast surpassed all my amps. I didn’t buy the amp because there remained some open questions about future high res formats and my thick power cables didn’t fit. 🙂
          Later I heard the Phantoms and the sound was even more remarkable – even unbelievable if you compare these tiny speakers to the most bulky classical approach with my separates. But something was wrong. When I had these speakers at home I found the reason: these speakers need stands avoiding nearfield reflecting surfaces. I bought a pair for my TV room and I must confess that having heard details that never were revealed by my classical system that had required a budget of 40 Phantom speakers I nearly stopped listening to my non-integrated system. And adding a crosstalk cancellation the result is overwhelming. I guess these speaker show interspeaker differences that are near zero. No passive solution could give such a channel balance.

            1. I guess 99.9 % of all audiophile would not accept these speakers. Not only because these beast reveal every mistake made during the recording and mixing! That’s the inherent disadvantage of point-source widebander designs! It’s more convenient to filter the music from the sound chaos created by conventional speakers with multiple drivers being out of phase using the cocktail party effect and the individual expectations. Most people tend to hear what they want to hear.

              1. I don’t even think the Phantom unit is marketed as an audiophile product. It is an all-in-one unit designed to receive a wireless stream and make a lot of noise. Some people (probably lots of people) will enjoy it as a design-orientated product that is enormously practical. For what it does, it is also pretty cheap.
                The “Expert” units are very serious hifi. Just come back from a side-by-side test of the “old” and updated versions at the dealer. They are not cheap either, you could build a system around a BHK stereo amp for not a huge amount more. It’s a lot about taste. Valve users need not apply.

                1. For me these Phantoms represent a real ingenious speaker design. No cabinet resonances. No phase shifts. Flat frequency response. Near ideal point source. No sound degradation by a speaker cable. No mismatch with a third party amp. Software-upgradeability. Fullrange from a near non-cabinet speaker. Easy positioning.

                  1. They were playing in the store, but didn’t give them much of a look. They are smaller than I thought. I don’t think they expect them to be hooked up to a separate system – they don’t need it. They would be handy when multi-channel surround audio is perfected. The dealer’s favourite speaker brand is Focal.
                    I listened through my speakers, in a sensible size listening room, two units about 20-25 minutes each. About a minute of a range of instruments (Reich and Xenakis: Clapping hands, wood, metal, skins, marimba, Vivaldi bassoon, piano, oud (Marcel Khalife); trumpet (Maalouf); vocals: Gregory Porter and 9Bach (includes cymbals). To my ears only the bassoon and clapping hands were better on my existing system.

                    1. A perfect choice of music-sample for evaluating a system! The crosstalk cancellation I can activate additionally tames the bass and “opens” the space revealing subtle nuances as a side-effect.

                    2. They are an ingenious design and they have good (surprising) low bass. Though in every case I’ve disliked how they sounded. Harsh, digital, tinny. I could not live with these in my home or office for very long.

                      Other than the sound I like the rest of them a lot. Good engineering. Just wish they sounded more like music to me. Even on known good recordings, their midrange is hard, glaring and bright.

  9. It’s not about the ears, it’s the brain; and the brain is plastic. Recent advances in brain imaging have revealed rules of neuroplasticity* and shown that brains grow cells and wire them patterned on sensory stimulus over development times that extend for years and “break-in” of thousands of hours’ focus on particular sounds, sights, tastes, smells, tactile sensations and actions.

    A longitudinal study demonstrated that children given musical instruments and lessons grow 10% larger brains than a control group. This explains a phenomenon that I have been documenting with inferential anecdotal data for 50 years: people who listen to recordings train their hearing to universal temporal and spatial flaws of microphones and speakers, which are further scrambled in time and space by recording engineers to present lesser extractable information content. 99+% of the population never learns to hear the depth and nuance of music, which requires they spend as much or more time actively listening to live acoustic music (or unpolluted pre-industrial sounds of Nature) as they spend listening to reproduction.

    As such, I dispute the claims of reviewers, audio engineers, recording engineers and mastering engineers to “Golden Ear” status. I admit audio is a highly refined pursuit, which I indulged for decades. After ear training to the best recordings and systems (including an unequaled mobile recording studio), I could hear the subtle differences between topologies, speaker cables and even power cords, but focusing on gear took me away from music.

    When I got interested in audio again, I met four exceptional speaker designers who were raised on Classical music and listened to acoustic music regularly: John Dunlavy, Alex Khenkhin, Andrew Lipinsky and Siegfried Linkwitz. All of them pushed the limits of time accuracy, the first three with first order crossovers and low diffraction cabinets, the latter making speakers that are flat at all angles which makes listening room echoes phase coherent to the direct sound. Also notable in this direction are Richard Modaferri, Richard Sequerra and Peter Thiel. (Not a coincidence that four on my short list were RF engineers!)

    I have now retrained my ears to the acoustic sounds of my youth, a whole world of music that can’t be captured and reproduced. Recordings are like animals in cages – the behavior and demeanor is quite different than the Natural habitat. I listen to relatively inexpensive gear and wire because optimizing live recording reveals more musical truth than unlimited playback system budget – and I am talking comparison to eight figure experimental environments like Rennsalaer’s EMPAC, McGill, IRCAM and Technical University of Delft with 500 speaker arrays and 100 gigaflops of DSP.

    Stereo and surround are cheap parlor tricks – and I have the most expensive parlor, a custom designed room housing a $150K piano that was selected by the ear of a top piano technician. It is also outfitted with a new type of amplification system with nine speakers designed to principles of traditional luthiery and tested using the ears of conservatory trained musicians.

    My ears are kept Golden by concerts in the best halls of New York, including two a week in “the best room in New York to listen to piano”:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/27/arts/music/piano-by-jacob-greenberg-and-reinier-van-houdt-at-spectrum.html

    * physically generated fractal stimuli, vigorous exercise and proper diet (a lot of vegetables, a little fruit, fish and flesh) help grow brains; chemical, visual and noise pollution (including modern interior design, audio and video); sitting in chairs and motorized transportation; and processed food, sugar and starches inhibit brain growth, or shrink them!

  10. Whilst the Phantom speaker will not sate an Audiophile’s appetite, and my brief hearing agreed with Paul’s comment, every industry needs innovators. Moreover, most brands need to innovate, as it is clear PSA is currently doing with more budget products. The Phantom is clearly innovative. It was launched at Harrods, which isn’t even an audio store, presumably to project an up-market lifestyle product not aimed at audiophiles. They’ve eliminated the national distributor from the food chain, instead they have a U.K. Sales Manager. PSA is lucky to have a fabulous UK distributor, but some distributors just don’t seem to put in the effort.

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