Interview with Paul Mc Gowan, the founder of PS Audio

Interview with Paul Mc Gowan, the founder of PS Audio

April 29, in Features

This year CES show in Las Vegas was said to be the biggest ever. The major part of the audio show was located in hotel Alexis Park and the nearby hotel St. Tropez that hosted the T.H.E. show.

One of the most crowded rooms was the PS audio room, where their new Power Plant products where displayed as well as their new amplifier and lab cable. This room (or actually 2 rooms) where very much different from majority of the other rooms. Paul Mc Gowan had most of his family there, and all of them dressed in colorful Hawaiian style shirts. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. They had a nice set up where a handful of power conditioners and line filters where displayed together with the Power Plant. These units where connected to a oscilloscope and a big screen, and one could monitor what the different units where actually doing as well as comparing the difference between them and the power plant. This was highly educational, and proved beyond doubt the effectiveness of Power plant.

I agreed to meet up with Paul at the end of the day so that he could give us an interview regarding his background, his work, and his thoughts on future of audio. Our thought was to present the persons behind the products that we read about, and to be able to hear their thoughts, ideas and goals.

HFR: Mr. Mc. Gowan could you give us the background how you got into audio, how PS audio started?

P. McG: I am basically self thought, I do not have an engineering degree, this might sound amazing that I do not have it, but this is how it is.

HFR: Maybe this is why you actually did things the way you did, since you where not conditioned by conventional thinking?

P.McG: There are good sides and bad sides to education. One bad side is that you learn what you can´t do. So I don´t know that I can´t do things, so I tend to do them, and once I ran into a roadblock, I say: well we go this way, and I have been pretty successful doing that. Its not been that easy, have I had the engineering background, but I had a lot of good teachers along the way.

We started in 1973; I was a disc jockey at that time. At the radio station I did a lot of the engineering, since that was my fascination. The owner of the radio station wanted to get some new equipment, and they did not have a lot of money, so he asked me if I would consider building some of it. They needed new phono pre-amplifiers. Said and done; I went on and built a phono pre-amplifier for the station, getting the information trough series of books and trough studying, and applying some of my own ideas. I tested it on my home system, which was a Kenwood integrated, and it sounded good.

Since I did not have any serious test equipment at the time, I took it over to a friend of mine who was a big audiophile, and asked him if I may try it on his system before delivering it to the radio station. I had built it with two 9-volt batteries, and it was in a wooden cigar box. He had a huge 3 amped system with Audio Research, Radco turntable and Jensen Electrostats. He took one look at my cigar box and said; No way that thing is going to hook up to my system !!

He send me to a person that worked for him; “he was into hi-fi and according to him was crazy enough to like that stuff, so go and hook it up at his place”

So I went over to Stan Warren´s house and hooked it up and it sounded really good. Next morning he knocked on my door and put 500 dollars on the table (a lot of money in those days), and I was really broke. Next thing he said was: “I want to buy half of your company”. I sad “I don´t have a company”. He said: “Oh yeah, you do” – “We are going to start a company and we are going to build those boxes, and we are going to sell to audiophiles” And I said: “Audio who´s?” So he told me about audiophiles and business, and that´s how PS Audio started. (P for Paul and S for Stan)

HFR: By that time you had gained some good reputation?

P.McG: O yes, we had power amplifiers, we had invented the first PDA processor, the company had always had a lot of good innovations. In 1990 I sold PS Audio, and started Genisis loudspeakers with Arny Nudel, who used to be the president of Infinity. We did about 10 years together, and about a year and a half ago I restarted PS Audio. The owners that bought it from me had done well for quite some time, but business went down, mostly because of argument between the owners. Steve one of the partners left, he is now the president of Wadia.

HFR: So you purchased the right for the name?

P.McG: Yes, I purchased only the name not the company, and we started our present work.

HFR: When you purchased the name, what was your plan, what did you want to do?

P.McG: When I had left Genisis, I wanted something to do, at that time the Power plant was not conceived.

I started to think; what do I want to do with PS audio? There are plenty of amplifiers out there, pre amps and DAC´s. I had done the Digital Lense for Genisis, so I was interested in this kind of technology. But with the unclear situation around DVD and SACD it was very uncertain where the market was going, so I decided that maybe I should do something very basic. Power being the basic thing, I had always believed that it was the absolutely most important thing.

Many years ago I discovered a different way of thinking. A power amp can be viewed as an amplifier that is just like a giant valve, so you put all your attention to the amplifier and you feed it with the power supply. Another way of thinking is that the power supply is the most important thing, and that the amplifier only modulates the power supply. It is a same thing, but a different mind set, a different way of thinking.

That idea has been going on in my head for a long time, therefore I decided; why not start where the beginnings of all problems are – at the source. So we start there and we work our way back.

HFR: When did the product start to materialize, and transfer from tought process to physical product?

P.McG: A lot of time I do what I call freethinking, where I don´t worry about practical issues. Sometimes I just take long walks in the mountains where I live. On one of my walks I had a though game: “Forgetting the practical issues, what would be the best way to deal with power?”

The first thing I realized is that I can´t change the power that comes from the wall. Unless you have a generator on the back yard or a nuclear power plant. The idea I had been a large electric motor hooked up to a generator, in this way it would not matter what happens at front. If the power went down, you would have a governor so that the motor has constant speed, that would produce perfect electricity. So that was my first idea. Build it all in a box, the motor generator etc.

The problem is that after a while people would start calling that the bearing is gone or generator is broke, I smell ozone or the wife is angry because of noise. So then I thought how else can I do that? Then it struck me; of course I can do it electronically. So I decided to make an amp, and feed it a sine wave, so that was how it all came to be the rest was a matter how to make it work.

HFR: The process is to convert AC to DC and then back to AC?

P.McG: Yes, and then you have a stereo power amp because we wanted it balanced. In the smaller power plant we have to transformers in parallel due to size and to avoid the hum.

HFR: How long time did it take you to get a ready product from the laboratory prototype, and what was the procedure?

P.McG: I went to my production manager, Rick Cullen, who has produced all of PS Audio Gear and most of Genisis products, and I said: This is what I want to build. He and I worked together for about 4 months, struggling to get this to be a product. All of the PC-boards had to be made etc. Once we had the prototype done, we built 10 Beta units. The first 10 units where built in the AIR amplifier chassis. The manufacturer had 10 boxes extra so we hand built the first 10 samples.

By that time I had set up the homepage on Internet. So I started telling people about this new technology: “This is not a power conditioner, this is a power generator” – trying to get the point across, it was hard. I said that if anybody out there would like to try it for free, we would pick 10 people. We would send it out, and the requirements are that you try it on every thing you can. We want to know what you like and what you don´t like. I further said that we would tell the world, the good and the bad. What ever you say, I am going to publish it.

HFR: That was a very bold thing to do!

P.McG: Yes, it was very bold, but we did it. And we had one person that could never hear any difference, and all the other nine just went crazy, in fact their quotes are all over web site. In US we sell all our products with 30 day money back guaratee, and our return rate is less than 4%, the remaining 96% take it and they love it.

HFR: You are using the manufacturer for your chassis that is manufacturing for many known brands?

P.McG: Yes, it is Neal Feay, who is the biggest chassis manufacturer in the world. He is making products for Theta, ClassŽ, Faroudja, BAT etc. I had designed every PS Audio chassis since the day it started. And they where nice looking black boxes, they where not anything special. So we got complaints by people who looked at Mark Levinson, and Jeff Roland and all these really pretty products, and compared it to our products.

Therefore I hired Alex Rasmussen who designed each of these new products. He is very much into architecture and industrial design. This time I decided that we wanted to have products that looked really nice. The fact is that things that look nice are not much more expensive to build than not so nice once, if you know what you are doing. What cost more is that you normally pay someone to design it for you.

HFR: After the Beta versions where ready you started the shipping?

P.McG: We made a lot of changes in the production line, right up to the last day. That was based on what people found – what they liked and did not like.

HFR: Shortly after that you started getting positive reviews from different hi-fi magazines?

P.McG: Indeed, our biggest review was in Stereophile, which came in December, but prior to that we have had a number of other reviews. Magazines are always looking for things that are new; they want to present new things for their readers.

HFR: The positive reception seems to be based on the fact that the product is not just another gimmick?

P.McG: There is a side of me that does not like what I call “the snake oil”. I really object to it, it´s my conviction that it hurts our industry. They create an expectation and excitement with the customer, who takes the product home and realizes that it did not make that much of a difference or improvement. Things that I do, I like them to make sense. The power plant makes absolute sense.

HFR: From there you went on to developing the Lab cable, that also is a very interesting product?

P.McG: O what a field to jump into! We wanted to start basically from the plug and work our way to the reproduction equipment. I felt that now that we have perfect power, to try to deliver it properly. There are many fine cables around. But I felt that lot of it did not make any sense. I looked at it from the begging asking the question: “What does a good cable need to do?” – “What makes a good cable?”

I found 2 really important things: It needs a lot of finely stranded copper, since you need a lot of surface area, and a lot of copper so that you keep the DC resistance very low. After that you want to make sure that you have good shielding. We looked at the telecommunication industry how they shield things. They triple shield their cables. Each shield takes down the transmitted radiation. So that is how we built our prototype, and it sounded very good.

HFR: It was however not very easy to get that cable manufactured?

P.McG: No, at first we could not find anyone to do it. We went to over 100 companies with our specifications. I expected to get 10-15 answers back. Only two companies came back and said: “Yes, we can build it” – and one of them was twice the price of the other. There was not a lot of choice. (smiling) We went there and looked at the process how the cables where made, as can be seen on our web page. I found it interesting. My first thought was that this should be easy to do. But it turns out to be quite complex procedure.

HFR: Although the cable has a large diameter it is surpassingly flexible?

P.McG: That was one of the criteria when designing the cable. A lot of work went into what insulation materials and sleeves that should be used to make it flexible and practical to use.

HFR: At which point did you decide to use it as loudspeaker cable, since you initially designed it as AC cable?

P.McG: As I was building it, it dawn on me that power delivery is a same basic thing, but at different frequency, and since there was nothing limiting the frequency in this design, we tried it out and it sounded great. It makes sense; if you design a proper power delivery for AC it should also work for speakers. It is very quiet, and if it has any drawback it is its capacitance. Depending on which power amplifier you are using it could have the top end slightly rolled off.

This cable has mid range, mid base and bottom end like no other cable I have heard in my 30 years of audio. Every cable has some weaknesses, but apart from the very slight roll of, every other aspect: the space, the weight, the harmonic balance and extension are exceptional.

HFR: This cable like the rest of your products appears to be priced very competitively?

P.McG: We have a standard pricing formula that we use, which is about half what others are charging. It makes it little more difficult for distributors and dealers, because their margin is less, and my margin is less. But it benefits the end users and it keeps my competitors away. (Laughter) Because when they go out and try to build the power plant, they realize it can´t be done for a lower price.

HFR: With all of this done, what are you ideas and thought about future audio?

P.McG: I would like to produce the Digital Lens that is compatible with future standards. We do have a new product coming out that has to do with the real power factor and correction of that. So there is lot on our plate that we want to do.

As far as high-end audio, in my opinion, the future is not 2 channel for music. One of my dreams has always been to create a system of true surround sound, where one really feels that he is in an environment. We have an Amphi theater where I live, and Detroit Philharmonic Orchestra comes to play there. When I sit in the audience and close my eyes, and try to visualize that I am in a room trying to listen to a stereo – and I cannot do it, because I hear everybody around me, I hear the reverb hitting of the side. I can tell, and you could not fool me that I am not in a room.

What I would like to do is to recreate that space, and the only way to do that is to surround your self with 5 channels or what ever it takes. You cannot do it with the present compressed medium, and you have to record for that. You would literally have microphones set up that places you in the audience, with side microphones properly placed, and reproduce that perfectly back on a system. That is the future. The 2-channel system is just too limited.

People talk about great imaging and they hear the images behind the loudspeakers, but that does not fool me that I am at a live concert, never has and never will. Someday if we are really going to make some progress, we have to put our heads in a right space, and I would like to at some point move that forward. That would be a great project.

HFR: That sounds like a great challenge, considering the inertia of the soft and hardware industry?

P.McG: “No question about it” With a smile on his face he continued: “But I just might be dumb enough to think that we might be able to do something. After all the bumble bee cannot fly, but it does not know that.”

With this word Paul ended the interview, and I left the room with a smile on my face, thinking that behind all the major innovative inventions, there always is a burning spirit and a personality, something that this industry needs more of.

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