Jim Bray's Car & Tech rants - publishing online exclusively since 1995
The Stereo

New book and disc combo promise help to budding audiophiles

By Jim Bray
March 25, 2021

Want to enter the world of audiophile listening but don't know where to start? There's a new book and accompanying high resolution disc combination available now that can help you learn where to start, where to focus your time and attention, and even how to listen critically. 

The book is "The Stereo", an "Audiophile's Guide" coming from the word processor of long-time audiophile and entrepreneur Paul McGowan, who also happens to be one of the movers and/or shakers behind Boulder, Colorado's PS Audio company.

It isn't for everybody, but if you plan to drop even just a few grand on a higher end audio system, the $58US the pair costs could be an excellent investment that could actually save you money by helping you not waste it.  

The book promises on its cover to help you "unlock the secrets to great sound" and after having read the book I'm on board – although as a contemporary of Mr. McGowan (I never had an audio company of my own, however, just a long-term abiding love for good audio and video) I already knew a lot of the wisdom imparted in the pages.

That didn't prevent me from doing some tweaking anyway, based on McGowan's advice, and the results improved my listening experience – which was already pretty darn fine anyway.

One thing this book won't help you with is building a home theatre with surround sound (hopefully, that will be covered in an upcoming volume), and while the advice is good and it makes a lot of sense, new audiophiles may find that it isn't a panacea because, as has been said many, many times before, it doesn't matter how ultimate your sound may be if the recordings you're playing are crappy to begin with.

Yeah, "garbage in, garbage out."

That said, the advice in this book is for people who want their listening experience to bring them the source music in a manner that best approximates the listener actually being there in the recording session. And for recordings such as that (and there are plenty available), the results of setting up a system as Mr. McGowan outlines can be fantastic.

On the other hand, many mainstream recordings – such as classic rock, etc. – are mixed not to reproduce the recording studio experience but to dazzle the ears via audio effects that can move sound around the room (in this case, in "two stereo dimensions"). An example? Led Zeppelin II's "Whole Lotta Love" and "What Is and What Should Never Be" (and many others on this and many other albums from many other artists) pan chords and effects from speaker to speaker, which is fun to listen to but certainly doesn't approach that "live in the studio" sound that's being pursued in this book/disc combination.

But if you want to build a system that will give you that sensation whenever the original recording makes it possible, this is a really good place to start.

The book is written in plain English for the most part, minimizing jargon and "technish" and McGowan doesn't even beat you over the head with pitches for his own equipment (not that he doesn't touch on it periodically, though mostly in a "here's what we do to get that sound" rather than "you're going to need our equipment to get that sound"). The book's an easy read, with large type and some humourous cartoons on hand to help illustrate the concepts being outlined.

And the book wraps things up in about 170 pages, with the remaining 40 or so pages making up an appendix in which there are definitions of concepts covered in the book – a really handy thing for people new to the magical world of great sound.

As mentioned, you're best served buying both the book and the disc and using them together during your setup and tweaking sessions, because they refer to each other and explain what's going on, and if you're new to this you'll probably appreciate it.

For example, one section of the book/disc walks you through some recordings in which the artists were "taped" with the microphone at varying distances from them. The idea is to create a soundstage in which you can actually hear the difference between the setups – and you can, definitely, if your setup is, well, set up properly. It's quite "ear opening."
 
Another section has one of PS Audio's people doing up and down runs on a string bass, and this was extremely handy in my room because I discovered a couple of frequencies that set my room off, vibrating and rattling things that really shouldn't be vibrating and rattling in my listening room but which, because the room is a definite compromise, were vibrating and rattling anyway.

These bad vibes came from the glass doors on the fireplace in the room, as well as some family photos the glass covers of which would start rattling like a frightened Sidewinder in reaction to some low frequencies from the double bass.

I've been trying to get the bass right in my system for ages, and this simple track cut through a lot of the issues I've been handy by pointing out explicitly where my room and its stuff was falling down on the job.

So, we're now messing around with ensuring the glass doesn't rattle any more. We aren't quite there but thanks to the disc we're a lot closer than we were. It takes time and experimentation.

The problem with our room is that it's a major compromise. We use it not only for stereo music but also for high resolution surround music and, of course, movies and the like. It's more a home theatre than a stereo listening room and I'm okay with that because I can't really justify a dedicated stereo listening room any more at this stage of my life – and my work.

I had one a few years ago, as well as a dedicated multi-channel home theatre, and I really miss it. But we were blessed with precocious grandsons and decided to combine the two rooms into one (the poorer of the rooms, alas, but our priorities are grandkids first, A/V system second these days) and convert the other one to a play room. While accepting the audio compromises this meant.

So now, I have a fine 5.1 channel system in a room in which one entire wall is stone and which therefore wreaks havoc on the sound waves that bounce around the listening area.

Yet even here, I used The Stereo and The Reference Music Disc to great effect. First, I moved my speakers farther out into the room. They'd been about two feet from the wall behind them, which is better than nothing but not far enough to really give a stunning sound stage. McGowan recommends placing the speakers about four feet from the wall (and many other things that can help), but if I did that I'd be divorced for sure.

That said, the system now sounds better than it did before I gave it the "McGowan tweak"

As mentioned, I've been having the dickens of a time getting the bass right in that darn room. It was often softer than it should be when playing stereo, and overpowering on 5.1 movie sound tracks. Moving the sub out of the corner helped more than I thought it would and, with a couple of other tweaks my system allows (balancing the speakers/subwoofer using my Oppo disc player's test tone generator as well as ensuring the sub itself has its settings right), I've improved the sound audibly.

And it was a darn fine system already, with separate amplifier and preamp/processor, good quality cables, etc..

So, if this book and disc combo can help someone like me – who already has good electronics and knows (or so I thought…) how to set them up and use them – imagine the great head start you can get as someone just starting out in the magical world of high-quality audio.

McGowan walks you right through the process, from choosing components and placing them properly and getting them tweaked the way they should be for optimal sound. He also touches on the tweaking of the listening room, which is nearly as important (if not AS important) as choosing and placing the right equipment. He talks about sound deadening strategies – from furniture to room add-ons – and it's all good stuff, quite common sense, but probably stuff you never thought of, or thought mattered.

He even some advice on how to listen to music critically, which may seem a tad silly but which is actually quite valuable if you're new to the game.

The Audiophile Reference Disc also includes tracks to help you set up your system for correct left, right and phantom center channel identification, correct phase, the aforementioned bass response, soundstage width and depth - and more. You'll probably keep it around as a reference and revisit it periodically to ensure your tweaks are still tweaked. Or you might just like the music included on it.

And as McGowan says clearly and repeatedly, you don't have to spend your kids' inheritance on equipment, you just have to get equipment that sounds good regardless of the price. He also offers strategies to do just that as well.

One strategy is to purchase separate components for your power and control pieces, as opposed to a receiver. Why? A receiver (which combines tuner, preamp and amplifier) is an "all in one" solution and by default that means there are compromises. Having separate, dedicated preamp/processor and power amp can help here – and a side benefit is that you can upgrade one part without having to throw away the whole baby.

While the advice in this book and on the SACD (and its accompanying data disc) is really designed to exploit the joys of the "live in studio" or "live" recording, where the artist is recorded without overdubs or other such aural additions, there's more to music than that. And this is good news for those who may find such music difficult to find, or at least difficult to find in the genres you enjoy.

Fortunately, a well thought out, wisely purchased and properly set up audio system (stereo or surround) will sound great with whatever source you play, as long as that source is recorded well. You may not get the "live in studio" effect, but you can still get terrific sound quality.

Alas, there's no hard and fast rule saying that if you buy system X and play recording Y on it, it'll sound great. It might. It might not (always remember Garbage In, Garbage Out!). But if you don't spend the proper time and attention on your basic hardware, and your setup, you can guarantee it won't sound as great as it could.

And if you don't know where to start when it comes to building your stereo or home theatre, Paul McGowan's well-written and accessible "Audiophile Guide: The Stereo" is a darn good place to start.

Copyright 2021 Jim Bray
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