What changed?

January 1, 2023
 by Paul McGowan

I was poking around in the sales area of PS Audio recently and found myself fondling the knobs and switches on one of our older preamplifiers from 40 years ago, the PS Audio 5.0.

This older preamplifier hailed from a time when preamps and power amps had no displays. In fact, they had no remote controls.

To turn the level up and down, one had to actually turn the knob. And to select a different input, well, a flick of the wrist was required.

What a different time.

Today we can design and build far better sounding audio gear than those old warhorses, yet I wonder why we found it necessary to add displays and small internal computers to run them. After all, our preamps of today really don’t do much more than those of yesteryear.

I think the key is the remote control feature we all demand. By the time we add the IR receiver, the controls for the input switching relays, and the volume control, we have stepped into the need for a microcontroller to do the work.

I don’t think I ever want to give up my remote control, but I sometimes pine for the simplicity of those older beauties.

What changed?

We did.

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41 comments on “What changed?”

  1. I wonder how an audio designer would build a radio tuner or tv “box” today with a user interface based on these old rotary knobs and push-buttons only (no micro controller based, no remote control). What a fun to select one of these thousands or tv and radio stations.

  2. “…& found myself fondling the knobs & switches…”, that’s where I lost it 😀
    Thirty plus years ago we could hear that remote controlled rotary gain
    controls sounded ‘off’ compared to ‘manual’ (get up off your arse & turn
    the knob) gain controls…so yes, in that respect, we have come a long way.

    What changed?
    The dawning of the age of convenience.

    ps. I can still remember the wire that ran right across the living-room floor from the
    remote gain control that sat on the coffee table, to the back of the TV in the 1960s.

  3. I actually still turn my potentiometer on my tube devices by hand and to be honest I don’t miss a remote control either. Sometimes when my already 66-year-old bones don’t want to move that much, you think it would be very convenient to have a remote control, but I think it’s also better for your health to get off the couch.

    1. Opa-Alli,
      Agreed, that’s just one of the reasons that I like to get up &
      change my CDs instead of stream & not move for six hours.
      I’ve got plenty of time to ‘not move’ when I’m dead 😉

      1. If you go to an opera or concert you can sit and listen for 2 or 3 hours without moving out of your seat. You don’t have to change the conductor every 45 minutes. If you want you can go to the bar if there is an interval, you can do the same at home and the drinks are cheaper.

        My suspicion is that any desire for switches and dials is for those who’s audio is boys’ toys (nothing wrong with that), rather than purely a way to listen to music. If you want exercise, you can go for a walk.

        1. Steven
          I’d be equally as willing for a dentist to be drilling than to sit through another opera for three hours.
          I sat through ‘La Boheme’ when I was fourteen years old & that cured me of ever wasting my money on sitting through an opera again.
          Madame Tonsilitis is just not for me.
          However, at a rock concert I’m on my feet for around three to four hours.

          Furthermore, it is highly recommended, if you sit at a desk all day at work, to get up off your arse & walk, or at least stand, for few minutes.
          Changing a CD every 36 – 70 minutes allows me to do this.
          Does ‘Alexa’ refill your wine glass or grab you another beer
          from the cellar or the fridge?
          “It’s never too late to urinate hoorah, hoorah.”

          Btw, I do not touch my SACD player, nor do I touch my amplifier…I do it all from one remote.
          Knobs & switches, toggles & button do nothing for me…
          & neither do VU meters.

          1. 😀

            Going by the logic so far, then higher rpm vinyl should make for the most physically fit audiophile there is.

            Maybe the phone / ear bud crowd has it right. The ability to enjoy music and be on the move.

            Or Get rid of the listening chair- raise the speakers – get the music to make you move.

          2. I’m with ya.
            I can’t do opera.
            Rap or opera.
            Ick.
            If there’s a rap opera – I AIN’T goin!
            Even if there’s free beer, hot women and a big dollar 50/50 draw.
            Uh-uh.
            Nope.

          3. my Dad (God rest his soul) apart from saying he won the war single handed invented the worlds first ever remote control!..It’s true…..I can see it now, we had a Baird black and white TV with controls on the side; dad attached one of my mums hair rollers to the volume knob and then run a loop of wool to his favorite chair 10 ft away and from the chair was able to adjust the volume up and down!….marvellous!……and opera i’m with you there young Fat Rat my daughter persuaded me and Mrs O to go and see Aida, biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever had to sit through in my life and half time couldn’t come soon enough when I went outside for a cigarette and never came back! …did Bruce Springsteen write a song about that?!

            never ever forget to “Rock and Roll”

            Baldy Bloke.

            1. Willem,

              Huh?!
              Of course I change CDs…”So you absolutely never change your CD?”…I assume that’s what you are inquiring about.
              I press a button on the remote-control device (RC), the CD draw opens, I drop the CD onto the tray & press the button again, on the RC & the CD draw closes…& then I press play, again, on the RC.
              Why do you ask, Two Dogs F…..? 😉

  4. This reverie for things past is just a part of getting older. I remember driving my grandmother through Nottingham in the late 1980s and she complained how the place had changed. Turns out she hadn’t been there for 40 years.

    For the most part, products with knobs and infra-red transmitters are called “retro”, for people who want their grandparents’ experience. That isn’t a lot of people at all. It is now 7 years since I have been obliged to use any form of remote control.

    All modern products have a visual display. It’s called an app.

  5. Physical controls are cool. It’s probably why records are making a come back for the general public. And the only real complaint of the new Golf GTI is no physical controls. I like getting up to use the small number of controls on my system. It’s similar to why American drivers of fun cars like manual transmissions.

    1. My only ever preamp, from Khozmo / Hattor in Poland, had two 48 step resistor pots, fully passive with no power on the signal path. There was a 5v supply to power a volume display and the switching motors attached to the pots.

      I think that was the last time I bought an IR remote, about 2014.

  6. Yes things changed, but that change was probably brought about by consumer / market demand.

    Apparently the industry wasn’t able to throughly convince the ‘audio gear connoisseur’ to place the preamp with an easy arms length of the listening position – or was that because of the RCA connection length?

    Doesn’t matter it’s all remote now.

    How many miss getting off their arse to change television stations or rotate the antenna?

  7. What happened is we got old.

    For years i had a Conrad Johnson PV-10a with phono stage and a heavily modified Hafler dh-220, that setup had a great phono stage and a nice open sound. Remotes crept in with cd players, now you could skip ahead to another track or repeat a track.

    About five years ago I decided to get new gear, I had been retired for 7 years and getting a little creaky so I wanted a remote control. I also decided it was time to replace my VDac II which I bought after reading Sam Tellig’s review. So I cracked open the wallet and Bought a Rogue RP5 and a PS Audio DirectStream DAC. Now i could sit in my chair and choose any of the thousands of tracks i had on disk in the Mac Mini I’d put beside my chair. My eyesight is bad and I had a nice big monitor on a swing arm that made it very comfortable to sit and cruise through my collection.

    I’ve acquired a new PS Audio Transport, a pair of monoblocks and speakers and am happy with the sound but that itch didn’t stay away long. A month ago I bought a Lumin streamer and connected that to my PS Audio DAC with a 75 ohm coax, the sound was very good but the Lumin App less so. After listening for several weeks I decided the sound wasn’t really any better that the USB link to my computer so that’s going back because the sound quality just wasn’t worth the price. The Lumin’s sound might have been a tiny bit better than the USB connection I had but the difference wasn’t worth a few grand.

    I built my own Roon Nucleus from a MiniForum “NUC” so I moved the music database over to it’s larger drive and use the Mac mini to control it through Roon which also links to Qobuz. For now I’m happy but if I were younger I’d think about a new house with a bigger listening room . . .

  8. One of my favorite-sounding integrated amplifiers is a Croft. Not only does it not have a remote control; it even has separate left and right channel volume controls. Talk about inconvenience! But the simplicity of its design brings out the beauty in music so I love it. Sadly, Glenn Croft died recently after a motorcycle accident. May he rest in peace.

  9. Life is serious but I try not to take it too seriously, I like to see the lighter side, but I may be turning darker because consider this. I find it difficult to understand how a group of audio enthusiasts who have a most analytical and logical approach to the topic would consider that a change of date on the calendar would make any difference.

    And on that cheerless note may I wish you all a Very Happy New Year and hope that all your audio dreams come true in 2023…..

    Because if not now, when? (Doom laden crescendo begins)

    1. Throw the calendar away and the sense or reality of time. None of us get any older. We don’t get any younger either.

      Since it’s the Gregorian calendar New Year I’m just going to settle in for some time great tunes and acceptable audio presentation. The date may have changed but my enjoyment for music and audio equipment hasn’t waned.

      Still 30 in the head – the body says nope – the ears say just enjoy.

      1. Mike, of course in your head you are still 30. I’m still 30 in my head. Scientist think that if medicine could keep the rest of out body from falling apart our brains are good for about 150 years! Our brains do not age at the same rate as other parts of out body age.

  10. Not everything piece of modern audio gear comes with a remote. Some very expensive TT’s and tonearms have no automatic arm lifts or things like that. Also there are some very expensive power amps that have to be manually switched from standby to on and back to stand by.

    1. Tony, I’ll even wager that the world has gone downhill ever since someone learned how to program the iPhone to be a remote control. Ever since, it become the remote of choice for most everything, even cooking appliances. However, it established a whole new area of creativity for industrial designers and that keeps my nephew employed.

  11. I for one am grateful for the remote. And as Jack pointed out, iOS has really changed our remote possibilities. Vol down/up. Repeat. Skip song. Skip albums, genres our sources. It’s amazingly nice. I get exercise during the day and week. And now thanks to Alexa
    Or Siri ….. relaxing remote operation is even better. Spock woulda said fascinating.

    This new years morning has been remotely entertaining. Lovely weather. Wonderful bubbly. Baroque lute music followed, water music which followed Eric Bibb. The iPad allowed me to adjust everything as I surfed the ‘net reading PS audio & I see I have the latest Cooper magazine.

    Today Logic six has recreated the wonderful “hall/venue soundscape”.

    Nope I like this modern multi medium musical experience… thank you very much.

  12. I don’t skip around when playing music. I put it on and sit. The only time I usually use a remote is when my wife says turn it down. But I love my Cary preamp. The volume control just feels nice. When it was in the rig I liked to get up and alter the volume and not use the remote. Remotes became big w tv and that makes sense. I still use them for music but it just isn’t a deal breaker for me if there wasn’t a remote.

  13. I love the old sci-fi movies and tv shows like “Time Tunnel” where the equipment had lots of knobs and blinking lights. For example, Dr. MacGregor (Lee Meriwether) frantically turning knobs on the time machine console, trying to get Doug and Tony in focus to save them from calamity. As she turned the knobs her whole body was into it, so we could sense the frustration.

    Remote controls are nice, but the small size of some of them challenges the dimensions and dexterity of the mature human finger. Some of them look almost the same, rightside up or upside down, requiring visual inspection before you press a button. And forget trying to use the ones with unilluminated buttons in the dark. It’s hit and miss. A good equipment review should always include the ergonomics of the remote control.

    1. JosephLG,
      Good point.
      I find that the batteries are usually located at the ‘bottom end of a
      remote control & so when I pick it up, I can feel straight away
      whether it’s right-way-up or upside down without having to look at it.

  14. Remotes would be fine if they all had a universal position for the buttons. But if I have to look at the remote for every function – forget it.

    Harmony smart remote runs every thing. iPad or PC home remote or voice control aided by IFTTT. “Alexa – I HATE this f#[email protected] commercial “ will mute the tv. “Hey google – how did Trump f$#@ up today?” will change the channel to CNN. “Hey google, Felix (the 5 pound hound) is ready for bed” will turn off the tv/stereo, drop the house temperature, lock the door, lock the truck, turn the lights off, activate the hall & bedroom, lights & respond with “would you look at the time? It’s a school night. Go to bed for krist’s sake”
    Hey, when you live alone, sometimes ya gotta make your own fun.

    In the sound room – an iPad is mounted to the chair & the stack is two feet to my right. It has to by accessible immediately. Volume MUST be a rotary twist knob. Because repeatedly tapping an index finger is what you do to a moron’s forehead, it is NOT how you change volume.

    1. I don’t have to look at my remote anymore, once it’s
      in my hand my fingers just know, intuitively, where
      the most used buttons are.
      I guess it’s a matter of repetitive familiarity.

      Thankfully I still press buttons instead of tapping on a screen 😉

  15. As far as my music listening is concerned I don’t need a remote. I do all my serious listening near-field with everything in reach. Have a vintage set-up, 3 large speakers a side, 1 at the rear plus centre speaker behind computer plus sub. Like being in a giant pair of earphones. Lots of detail and presence, as loud as I like — and sound levels don’t need to be outlandish as I’m right in the middle of it all without the need to alter room acoustics etc. I like the amp close by as I listen to a lot of old stuff, the sound levels of which can vary quite a bit. Am pretty old myself, 80 next birthday, so heavily into rockabilly, rock’n’roll, jazz, country, etc, with a pre-Beatles cut-off point (except for Creedence).

  16. Huh I’m not gonna lie gentlemen. For my main desktop set up I gotta get up to change the volume. My amps or DACS have no remotes.

    Still getting my cardio old school style. Lol

  17. I still run a PS audio 6.2 pre which I can’t image the need to ever replace. I have made some tasteful upgrades including burson opamps, sparkos voltage regulators, new caps and the like. The noble pot has had a good cleaning and deoxit treatment. This article definitely caught my interest because I have been considering retrofitting with a muses attenuator which includes an ir remote from audio academy…. But, at the same time I have also been considering a stepped attenuator from Denmark…… I wonder if the new PS audio preamps use muses chips ?

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