Going the whole nine yards - the journey to PS Audio
TLDR Summary - Run, don’t walk to your PS Audio dealer and do this:
I can’t remember which one of my friends first told me about a unique DAC architecture known as a custom discrete DSD DAC. But he was definitely raving on and on about them so much that I had to listen to one. Up until then, I was only familiar with off the shelf chip-based DACs, from the Wolfson in my first Cambridge Audio DACmagic, to the BurrBrowns in my Benchmark DAC1Pre and Bel Canto DAC3.5 and later the SABRE32s in the Wyred4Sound DAC2.
My first experience with a custom discrete DSD DAC was with a friend’s EMM Labs TSD-1/DAC2 combination. It was crazy expensive and in an unfamiliar system - but you knew right off the bat, there was something special about those DACs. I won’t bore you too much with how DSD DACs work. DSD DAC designers like Andreas Koch, Ed Meitner and later Ted Smith all have videos on youtube that go much more in depth into that, if you are interested.
The downside - they were always out of my price range. The EMM Labs XDS1 was US$25 grand and the Playback Designs was $17k with the USB-X box. It wasn't until much later when I sold my car that I could afford both those players. And they have been pretty amazing.
Cue a few years after, I began reading about PS Audio’s new DAC design that sounded awfully similar to those esoteric designs. The difference was that the target price for this new DAC was surprisingly affordable. About 1/3rd the price of the Playback and it brought that same technology to the masses. I was definitely excited about the prospects.
When the DirectStream DAC finally arrived, I was fortunate enough to be able to listen to the DAC in a familiar system and the difference over the previous DAC (a PCM1704 R2R design) was palpable. I quickly purchased the DirectStream DAC and put it in my system. It complemented the XDS1 SACD player in my main system - providing a much needed USB connection which supported DSD for my computer audio. To be honest, I thought the XDS1 sounded better than the DirectStream DAC when I first got it but that was to change shortly, when Ted Smith began updating the firmware on the DS DAC. Within weeks, the difference became minuscule. And then the unthinkable happened. Pikes Peak OS was released and the DirectStream became a giant slayer. I still kept the XDS1 because I still had a collection of SACDs that I wanted to play - though that requirement began to wane once I figured out SACDs could be ripped, first by a modded PS3 then by an Oppo 103.
I guess at this point, I should qualify what I mean by “better”.
I used to judge the quality of music reproduction by “highs” or “lows” or “mids” because that’s probably the most you could discern.
With DSD DACs, what I began to appreciate was how well the DACs delineated the different instruments and vocals and sounds that make up the whole. Backup vocals stopped sounding like “a group of singers” meshed together but rather, became a harmony of distinct voices. Noises from the crowds become separate voices - and you are able to hear the different voices rather than one noise.
Picking up different instruments is usually easier to do in a simple arrangement. Dire Straits’s So Far Away was one of the first songs where I truly appreciated this. The song starts off with just a simple arrangement. Then more and more instruments are layered into the mix. At some stage, it just begins to mesh into a blur of sounds where you can maybe pick out the melody and Mark Knopfler’s vocals. With the XDS1 and then the DirectStream, you can begin picking out the different guitars and other instruments in the mix - like they were somehow unglued and became separate. It became intoxicating listening to all my favourite songs - rediscovering the magic of the engineer’s sound mix that had been lost to me before.
The other quality I look for is a little harder to quantify - but it’s one of those “you’ll know it when you hear it”. Some of my friends call this quality “emotion”, “energy” or “life”. One analogy my friend uses is the difference between someone’s voice when they’re hungry or when they’ve just had a feed. There’s more emotion in the way his or her voice projects and less like a recording.
Which brings me to the BHKs.
A friend of mine mentioned Paul McGowan had been dropping hints about this new amplifier he was designing with Bascom King after I mentioned how pleased I was with the DirectStream DAC.
I must be showing my ignorance - but my first response was - Who?
Sorry Bascom :)
To be fair, most of the gear that Bascom was involved in were before my time - or out of my price range. I remember googling Bascom King and I think I almost snorted out my coffee when I read the price of the Constellation Audio amplifiers.
My google search also revealed the video interviews that Paul had recorded with Bascom King - and one of the things Bascom King spoke about just resonated with me. It was about how music should convey emotions and it wasn't always just about measurements.
I think that was when I knew I had to have them.
Fast forward a year or so - and I finally had the chance to do a home audition of the BHK Signature 250 Stereo power amplifier in my own system and it set in place some plans for a revamped system.
But first a word of the BHK Signature 250 Stereo.
At that time, my system consisted of the following:
- PurePower 1000 x 2 power regenerators, feeding Sound Application power conditioners x 2for analog and digital components respectively.
- Combination of ASI Liveline and Essential Sound power cords
Interconnects and Speaker Cables
- Combination of Lenehan Audio Ribbontek interconnects (XLR), ASI Liveline XLR, Silversmith Silver XLR.
- Silversmith Silver speaker cables
- Quiet PC fanless PSU, fanless Heatsink CPU quad core i7 from 2014 with SSD and 16GB RAM running Windows 7 Pro and Roon (used with Bridge 2)
- MacBook Pro bootcamp Windows Server evaluation with JRiver with USB Regen - connected via Locus Design Nucleus USB cable and Curious USB Cable - tail
- EMM Labs XDS-1
- ProJect Audio RPM10.1 evolution with 10cc evolution carbon fibre tonearm
- Sumiko Pearwood Celebration II moving coil cartridge
- vdh D-501 Hybrid cables from turntable to phono preamp
- Bel Canto Phono 3 phono preamplifier
- Audio Research Reference 5SE
- Electrocompaniet Nemo AW600 monoblock power amplifiers (600W into 8 ohms)
Speakers and Subwoofer
- Thiel CS3.7 floor standing speakers
- Thiel S1 subwoofer integrator
- Thiel SS2.2 subwoofer
BHK Signature 250 Stereo
It was a simple swap to unplug the cables from the Electrocompaniet Nemos and transfer them to the BHK 250 Stereo.
I just had to change the Thiel S1 Integrator to account for the different gain of the BHK Signature 250 (30dB) vs the Nemo (measured 34dB)
The demo BHK 250 was already pretty much run in - being about used on and off over the course of 10 months in the store.
This is what I wrote in my notes of my audition.
With that audition completed, I knew it was just a matter of time before the BHK 300 monos were mine. But I got greedy. I ended up going the full nine yards - ordering the Bridge II, the DS Memory Transport, the BHK Signature Preamplifier along with the monoblocks.
That day finally arrived last week. I had it delivered to the work address - so the missus wouldn't ask too many questions. Shhhh.. And it took two days to carry all the boxes back in my small little hatchback.
Over the course of the weekend, I started to replace my gear, in stages.
First up was the BHK Signature 300 monos. These beasts were heavy. While I didn't realise it at the time, I had strained my back in the process. Woke up this morning with a tinge of back pain. But I can tell you, it was well worth the minor pain. And here’s why - from my notes of the listening session:
I recently upgraded my AV gear to handle 4K/HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 and while there have been some “WOW” moments when I am watching the new UHD BluRay movies, I honestly don't think I was ever so captivated, so raptured that I couldn't move from my seat - the way I felt when listening to the BHK 300 Monos. I just didn’t want to stop.
In the end, I finally got incentivised to disconnect the EMM Labs XDS-1, the Audio Research Reference 5SE and re-connect the DirectStream Memory Player and the BHK Signature Preamp.
I left the Audio Research in the rack - but just stacked all the 3 PS Audio components one on top of the other. Had to keep the protective transparent sheet so I could put footers to separate the boxes.
My first impression with the preamp is that nothing much has changed. That’s not a bad thing. The Audio Research Reference 5SE is about 2 times as expensive in Australia and is consistently rated as a world class preamplifier.
On closer listening however, it did seem the soundstage is slightly closed in compared to the Audio Research. But this is from zero hours on the tube clock. I suspect this would change as I clock in more hours in the BHK.
As it stands, the BHK preamp at zero hours appears to trade off some of the midrange lushness of the Audio Research for an improvement in imaging precision, clarity and transparency.
When listening to Bocelli’s rendition of Autumn Leaves in French from the HD Tracks’ compilation of his albums, the differences became more noticeable. With the Audio Research, there were instances when Bocelli’s voice obscured the strings accompanying him but the BHK still reproduces the strings so clearly alongside his voice.
Overall, I think the BHK preamp doesn't feel like a downgrade in performance compared to the Audio Research. You trade off some of that tube lushness for better resolution and detail, no different from when I compared the Ayre KX-R against the Audio Research, both world-class products. And for the price PS Audio is asking for them, it’s a steal.
I remember reading this anecdote about Paul McGowan’s first ever product. A superb sounding home-made phono preamp for a radio station - housed in a re-used cigar box. Which I guess leads me to possibly the only criticism anyone could level at the PS Audio gear - they don't look pretty. No fancy dials, no extruded copper casework. But where it counts - on the inside, PS Audio has spared no effort. As an engineer by training, I have no complaints with that approach. If anything, I think that is laudable. One of the best cars I have ever owned is a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Looks like a boxy Japanese family saloon on the outside but has the guts of a rally machine and drives like a dream. More importantly, they were giant slayers.
And that’s what PS Audio have created here.
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