Set up for success

There are some paradigm shifts and perspective changes that go along with progression through the hifi hobby. The journey from newb to wizened wizard of audiophilia requires you to be flexible and not have the tightest grip on “what you know.”

We often hear from folks who start with popular receivers and AV units that present a “juicy” frequency balance, and when they move to separates that are optimized for better speakers, there is sometimes a let down. In more than a few corners of this hobby, as soon as you put down a little cash to enter a new level, you find out you need to plunk down more cash on this and that to make it all work the same as you were used to with the all-in-one.

Be it new cables, a better grounding situation or re-positioning of subs or mains to fix the bass, success in hifi audio never comes without effort. But the good news is that once you pay attention to a few of these points, and you give your speakers a little more ground and space them appropriately, the reward of the higher levels of the audiophile hobby is singularly incredible. Those times when everything sounds so good that you can’t move — those are the times you remember forever.

The magical complexity of our auditory system is what makes all of this so damn fun, and also so hard to handle. We’re truly wired by default to know what is real versus what is synthetic, and despite volumes read and years spent studying hifi measurements and data, this truth is what we come back to in the end.

There are still things that we can sense that cannot be easily documented. Sure, we cling to the things we know, like frequency and phase and resonance and decay. But where is the measurement that can differentiate between an ensemble individually miked with excellent artificial reverb versus the same group with the same mics in a real reverberant room with the same decay?

Where is the measurement for the sound of a polypropylene and tin film capacitor versus a polystyrene and aluminum of the same design?

Anyway. I’m just bringing this up, because my friend and recording project partner Darren Myers and I spent a wild evening recently doing something that would baffle the measurement-only folks: over about 5 hours, we listened to and judged 21 different PS Audio DirectStream DAC FPGA code compilations of brand new firmware, to be released very soon. Apparently you can compile the same exact code different ways on an FPGA, and apparently each one sounds a little different.

Back when I worked at PS I was baffled by the idea that Paul or Arnie and Bascom would be able to discern the best code compilation of 20 of the same damn codes. But finally being in the position myself with such an immense responsibility it was actually clear as a bell to hear between the many comps. You want to know why?

Besides the fact that we’re ok listeners, what really was the key for laying it all out in front of us was that we had painstakingly set up a stereo system for utmost success. Then we set up our listening session for success. Let me explain.

We were in a room with tall ceilings and plenty of space. We had state-of-the-art mini-monitors on stands pulled out into the room by a third. The subwoofer was placed just in front of the arc of our stereo triangle, and integrated flawlessly. We were using exquisite speaker cabling and interconnects and power cords. We had a roughly $20K signal chain from source to amp, and we had choice NOS low noise tubes in the mix.

Further, we limited our testing music to 5 tracks that we settled on for different qualities. Importantly, we each knew very well at least 4 of the songs, and each song contained something subtle that was hard to render, offering us listening test points along the way.

The process of listening to a new code compilation and then going back to the reference (Ted Smith’s original comp of the new code) kept our brains on point as we took notes on each compilation.

What I can only describe as a mentally exhausting but emotionally fulfilling process could only have been smoothly carried out like it was with everything set up for its success. Had we a lapse in procedure or were we using inferior materials to construct the system, we may have found ourselves desperately reaching for the right answers.

But because we put in the work, like I said — it was clear as a bell which code was the winner. In the end, it was the one that took our minds off of the frequency balance and code and timing and decay and all that. It was the one that emotionally worked us like puppets. It was the one that made us say, “My God, that’s a real cello over there!”

It was the code that our brains decided was actually real. In the end the task wasn’t very hard at all.

What a trip. If you’ve got a DS, just you wait! New (and totally free) code is coming that will blow your socks off and take your digital rig to serious new heights. If you don’t have a DirectStream DAC and I’ve made you a little curious, give my man Nick a call (TMR line is 720-336-8742) and find out about the biggest value in digital audio right now.

Thanks for reading, now get out there and enjoy the weekend!