Interview with Paul McGowan from PS Audio

Paul McGowan is one of those rare audio enthusiasts who really loves what he does, believes in it and makes a good living out of it. It wasn't easy to start up a business back in the 70's and keep it running over the years. While many audio trends evolved, Paul and his team maintained a genuine philosophy: one that involves taking care of customers and making excellent products.

MI: Tell us how it all began. What drove you into the audio business?

PM: I began in the audio business some 35 years ago when my friend, Stan Warren (the S in PS) asked to market my design of a phono preamplifier built for a local radio station. He said it was such a good sounding device that people in the audio community would purchase it. He suggested we start a company named after the both of us and call it PS Audio for Paul and Stan.

MI: Do you consider yourself an audiophile?

PM: I didn’t then. I didn’t even know what the term “Audiophile” meant and had never heard it before. Soon however, I was hooked. Stan was the original Audiophile between the two of us, but I quickly got “the bug,” as well, and have been one ever since.

MI: PS Audio is well known for its power handling systems. What brought you into it?

PM: When I left Genesis, which manufactured loudspeakers, I wanted to start PS back again. My first thought was, “after being out of the audio electronics part for nearly 10 years, what could I design that would be something everyone needed but nobody had in their audio systems. It occurred to me that because of my strong beliefs in power as the foundation of everything we hear and see in our AV systems, that perhaps I should start at the beginning of the chain.

I looked around at what was being offered at the time, which included the Tice Power Block and the MIT Z Stabilizer. Both were “fluff” in my opinion and were more like a Band-Aid rather than a real fix for a real problem.

I knew there was absolutely no way to filter the problems on the AC no matter how hard you try. Impossible. I needed to make new electricity and this is where the idea of the Power Plant came form. It was, and is, a smashing success.

MI: What makes your audio line standout? What makes you proud?

They are so good because of the care we take in their design. I don’t mean paying atten-tion to the schematics, I mean paying attention to how they sound every step of the way. There are very few companies in the audio business that still “voice” their equipment… that still go into the listening room and tune their designs until they sound the way they want. We’re one of the few companies left that do and we’re religious about that. Every piece of equipment we design, from audio to power, goes through a rigorous listening, de-sign and tweaking process that results in extraordinary results when you play music through them. We really care what they sound like and we’ve got the skill to know what to change in a design to make it sound better.

MI: There’s a $1000 price tag on many PS Audio products. Is this a magical number for quality and affordability?

PS has always had a strong value equation. We believe you don’t have to pay “mega-bucks” for equipment and want our customers to experience high end audio performance at a price they can afford. We’ve found that $1K is a great price point and people can choose our products in this price range and expect and receive great results others might charge twice as much for.

MI: There’s kind of a future-retro glow in the design of enclosures, for example, the GCC con-trol amplifier. Who engraved such a classically elegant but still contemporary design?

The look of the GCC and its glowing bar of light was the thought of Alex Rasmussen, a very talented industrial designer in Santa Barbara. I think the G Series is one of the most beautiful industrial designs ever and we’re very proud of it. The new Power Plants industrial design is perhaps even more striking and this was engineered by a young man we hired, Chris Malato, who my sons went to high school with. When he graduated the uni-versity with a degree in mechanical engineering, we hired him, and he designed the look for us. Brilliant.

MI: What’s with the mysterious Gain Cell? Can you tell us the philosophy behind it?

PM: The Gain Cell is the idea I’ve had for over 20 years. It means that we have created an ad-justable gain for the amplifier stage of anything we make. Normally, the gain of a preamp or a power amplifier is fixed. 30dB is typical for a power amp and 20dB is typical for a preamp. In a power amp you cannot adjust the volume but in a preamp or an integrated (an amp with a preamp built in) you can attenuate the volume but you cannot adjust the gain of the amp.
Instead of throwing away the attenuated signal (in the case of a preamp) we have devised a way to actually change the gain or the amplification factor inside the preamp’s gain stage (or amplifier’s gain stage). This allows us to have less in the signal path. The audio signal never passes through a pot or attenuator. Instead, it goes straight into our amplification stage and then we adjust the gain of that stage. It sounds much better, and much cleaner that way.

MI: What steered you into headphone amps? Are headphones something you personally enjoy using?

PM: No. One of our engineers, Jon Magnussen loves headphones and wanted to make this for his own project. When it was done, I listened to it and was so impressed that we released it as a product. It’s quite good you know!

MI: Does PS Audio embrace the digital era?

PM: We have always embraced digital. In fact, we built the world’s first high end CD player and we invented the world’s first DAC. We have always been on the forefront of digital and be-lieve that while it’s not as good as pure analog, it has potential. I listen almost exclusively to CD’s through our Digital Link III DAC and love it. We have a revolutionary new transport we’re releasing soon and it’ll be able to RIP a CD and place it into a solid state memory, where you can listen to the CD out of the memory with no problems at all.

MI: To you, what’s the most important part of the audio chain?

PM: AC power. The power supply, the AC itself, plays a much more important role than any power amp design or preamp design. We have to remember that everything we hear and see in our audio video chain is, in fact, the AC out of the wall modulated to a CD, DVD or vinyl.
When I look at an amplifier, I see a giant AC to DC power supply first, and a means to modulate that power supply second. That’s a big distinction from how most people view it. Most designers look at a power amp and see an input and an output amplifier fed from “some” power supply. That’s wrong thinking. The amp is a valve that modulates the DC in the power supply. The better the power supply, the better the audio.

MI: Where do you think the high-end market’s going? Does the path spell doom?

PM: Not doom, but change. Look, there will always be a market for people who want some-thing better, who want to have the finer things in life and who can appreciate them. We all tend to get nervous and think our high-end audio world is collapsing. It’s not. It’s readjust-ing, and in many cases, for the better. I see a bright future ahead… personally.

MI: The iPod revolution is said to have led many people to rediscover music. Has this change affected your business at all throughout the last few years?

PM: Nope. Other than bringing more music to more people and making them appreciate what we do even more, I think the iPod is a good thing.

MI: What’s really going on with high-end audio these days?

PM: It’s changing and as I said before, in many cases for the better. I’m always so happy to see a new younger person coming in and realizing the wonderful systems we have. It’s like when you drive a car. Most people drive a car like an appliance. It just moves them from one place to another. But then there are the people who buy a car and enjoy it. They know all about it and they know how to have fun with it. There’s no difference. Or even wines or cheese. Most people drink crap wine. But every one of them appreciate fine wines and cheese when they are introduced to them. I don’t think people change, they are always looking for something better (at least some percentage of people are) and this is where a fine audio system brings music to people in a way nothing else can.

Where else can you close your eyes and be transported back to the 1960’s or 1970’s and hear live recorded music as if you were there? It’s like a time machine and on a good sys-tem, it can be magic.

MI: What does the future hold for PS Audio?

PM: The future is very bright. We’re having the time of our lives, expanding our audio line, our power line and soon a new cable line that’ll blow everyone away. I am very excited.

MI: What’s your dream product?

PM: An all in one box that sounds as good as anything ever made but with no cables of any kind.

MI: What are you especially proud of?

PM: Building our team and serving our customers. I know it may sound stupid, but I am more proud of the culture we have created at PS than anything. We work hard at taking care of our customers, answering their questions when no one else in the industry will even talk to them. We try and stand out like a shining beacon in the night for audio, the arts and for great customer service. I am most proud of that.

MI: How can one stay as passionate as you are? What’s your secret?

PM: The secret? Simple, do what you love and everyday, when you wake up, it’ll be exciting to jump out of bed and go to work.

MI: Any last words for our readers?

PM: Thanks for your support for high-end audio and bring someone young into your home to show them your system. Turn them on to the wonders of high-end audio. It’s fun to watch their faces light up with wonder and joy when they hear a real system. When they hear the bass move their seat, the speakers disappear and the wonder of a dedicated listening room. I look at these as temples and when you bring a new person into your temple, you’ve shared your joy and spread the passion for what we love to another person. There’s no better feeling than that!

Matej Isak