To promote the soon available and long awaited Network Bridge, PS Audio’s Paul McGowan toured Europe. We met him at a presentation for Multifoon in Rotterdam/Holland and for a conversation the following day in Antwerp/Belgium. Our first question was, very simply, who is Paul McGowan? After a little hesitation Paul offered "a rebel, an old hippie who since the late 1970s is tackling impossible projects. For for me there is no cant’ do, there’s no impossible. Those aren’t options. Sure Sony, Microsoft and Apple are big companies but we, PS Audio, can do things as well." Later we’d get a clearer idea why Paul chose exactly those companies to compare himself to.

"PS Audio can be seen as the little big guys. We’re small but still bigger than anyone else we know. Our goals are to improve the focus on what we do. We ultimately want to make everything in the audio system." Even speakers? "Even speakers. But to get back to your question, I recently read an interesting book called The Hero And The Outlaw in which the authors combine Jungian archetypes with brands. Those archetypes are the hero, outlaw, lover, sage, magician, creator and others. I tend to be more rebel than hero.

"I grew up in California. After finishing high school, I attended a few classes at a photo academy. I made some money with photo shoots but music was a bigger thing for me - living a happy life with long hair, music and a lot a fun. Then I was drafted. Remember, it was the time of the Vietnam War. I was not looking forward to going to war. I looked everywhere for a way to avoid being sent out and after some research learned that if I signed up for an additional 3 years in the army, I would not be sent to the front. Instead I was stationed in Munich/Germany."

Did he pursue a technical education there? "No, I don’t have a formal technical education at all. With my rebellious streak, I believe that if you need to know something, you can study the subject thoroughly at the time you need to know it. Schools or other formal educational institutions apply standards which in my opinion don’t work."

So he was stationed in Munich. "I was lucky to get a job as DJ for the AFN radio station. AFN is the American Forces Network and broadcasts all over Europe. I had the time of my life as the California hippie spinning records. I had a radio show aptly named Underground where I could play all my favorite music including the long ones like Inagaddadavida. An even better thing was that I met my wife Terri in Munich. Another meeting which changed my life was with Giorgio Moroder who at that time had a studio in Munich. He cut awful German remakes of hit records and bubblegum crap but already had a strong feeling for synthesizers. Terri and I did some odd jobs for Moroder in his Musicland studio.

"We really did have the time of our lives there in Germany. You know that American soldiers had crew cuts? After hours most guys would wear a long-haired wig to impress the gals. Call me a rebel but I wore a short-haired wig during working hours and let my hair grow out so when I went on the town, I had the real thing." Paul’s eyes sparkled when he recounted this anecdote. "But the wig backfired when my superiors failed to get the joke. To make a long story short, I was sent to Columbus/Georgia to serve the final 6 months of my contract.

"Even though the Munich gig was cut short, I brought back a lot of memories and tapes." Tapes? "Tapes with the interviews I did for AFN with touring artists like Cat Stevens, Frank Zappa, Elton John and Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. We would first see the show, then do the interview. That was great."

Was there any chance we might hear those interviews again? "Quite possibly in the near future." So now he was in Columbus. What happened there?

"After working with Moroder in Munich and listening to bands like ELP using Moog synthesizers, I grew very fond of these instruments. Their disadvantage was not being polyphonic. Together with a business partner I set up a California company called Infinitizer in Santa Maria that would build one of the first polyphonic synthesizers. I figured out how to build tone cards that used voltage-regulated oscillators after reading piles of books on the subjects involved. One of our advisors was synthesizer maven Walter Carlos. Infinitizer the company came to an end when my business partner left off with the money.

"At the time I earned a small income as DJ for a local station. The station’s equipment was old and we needed a new phono stage. With no money, I picked up some books in the library and studied phono stage circuits, RIAA correction and anything else involved in a phono stage. At one point I had a working model built in a cigar box. The power supply was a pair of batteries. It worked but I had no idea how it sounded. I heard of a guy in town who supposedly had a very nice stereo. So off I went with the cigar box and asked if we could hear my phono stage in his system. With one glance at the cigar box, a big fat no was the answer. But there was another guy who called himself an audiophile and worked at a waterbed shop. This was the first time I heard of an audiophile. I did not know what that was. His name was Stan Warren and he listened to my phono stage in his system. He came back a week later and offered me $500 for my company. My company? I didn’t have a company. Stan insisted I did and that with the $500, he now co-owned it for 50%. He also had a name - PS Audio, Paul & Stan Audio, with headquarters in Santa Maria."

So that’s how PS Audio came to be. "Yes. We made phono stages which sold for $59.95 with a money-back guarantee. Of all the unit sold, only one ever came back for a refund. That gentleman missed his ping-pong stereo sound when the music was smeared out between the speakers!"

Paul continued:" We made hifi equipment for music lovers, fairly priced and suited for the man in the street. Having fun with hifi was our motto. That lasted until 1990. Then I met Arnie Nudell and joined Genesis Loudspeakers."

There he developed the Digital Lens, was it? "Correct. That became another successful product." Was that based on the philosophy ‘if you can’t fix it, rebuild it’? "When in 1997 the then owners of the PS Audio name were willing to sell it back to me for $1, a renewed PS Audio launched. Back in the phono stage days I discovered that the power supply is one of the most important parts of an audio device. My phono stage used batteries. When we started with the Powerplant, there were a few power conditioners on the market. They did well but stripped the music of its life. Because I could not clean the power and preserve the musical energy, I had to go a different route. I wanted to recreate and regenerate the power. So I built a power supply that converted AC to DC, then fed an amplifier that produced perfect sine waves at its output and made sure that output had enough power to drive the other equipment."

Strip and rebuild? "Strip and rebuild is also what we do in the PerfectWave Transport. We rip the CD with our own software like a computer does, not as 99.99% of all CD players do. Then the data is loaded into a Digital Lens—a further development of the Genesis Digital Lens—before we add a precision clock. Now the data is cleaned up and clocked correctly. Instead of serial S/PDIF transmission of data to DAC, our PerfectWave DAC is fed by the four paths which an HDMI interconnect offers. S/PDIF was never developed with audiophiles in mind." There again was a twinkle in Paul’s eyes. "HDMI offers the possibility to use separate conductors for the clocks and data and we can input  that straight into the DAC chip. And because our signal is I²S, the native protocol between CD players and DACs, we don’t need to convert any formats."

And now there was the Network Bridge. "The bridge is the missing part for the PWD. It enables digital music to come from any device you can think of. On board the bridge sits a separate Lens that can clean up—rebuild if you like—any incoming signal from uPnP routers, Ethernet devices and USB gear. The final version of the bridge also has WiFi. With the bridge we open up all available music libraries, be those on a NAS, USB stick or computer."

During the demonstration Paul ran a USB stick plugged into a uPnP [universal plug and play] router. "This becomes a $150 music server when you plug a stick or USB hard drive to it. I like the USB stick for travel as I can carry a few GB of music in my pocket. Then the app controls it all. You saw how enthusiastic the audience was when I passed the iPad around."

At the demo Paul showed what the combination server of router with USB stick, PWD DAC and iPad was capable of. Of course the iPad was the ultimate gizmo but the PS Audio app was no chopped liver either, controlling the music selection and displaying cover art, track lists and additional background information from the cloud of PS Audio computers. This cloud is a combination of software and hardware accessible via the Internet. Among other things, the PS Audio cloud contains a huge database of music and accompanying data. Tap on your iPad to open the app, browse through the collection of songs on—in our case—the USB stick and select one or more tracks. The app connects to the cloud and downloads the associated cover image and meta data. Tap ‘play’ and off you go. The app can also control the PWD volume, sample rates and filter selections. In Holland, the Network Bridge stripped and reclocked the data and what we heard from a simple USB stick and router was amazing sound. This Network Bridge is serious stuff and many if not all music server competitors should probably eat their hearts out.

With these types of developments, there's always a lot of programming involved - field-programmable gate arrays as CPU for the transport, the Network Bridge internals and plenty of code writing for the iPad, iPod and iPhone apps. How did McGowan procure the necessary knowledge? "From around the world actually. When we started the program, we wondered just like you where to go for the know-how and skills. Then we used the internet to send out a question for programmers. We got reactions from all over and ended up with a team in Siberia that does stuff like playlist services and our internal player. Then there’s a programmer in California who wrote the app and teams in India and Romania who perform FPGA programming. It's quite fascinating. I’m just  the project leader and guy who always wants things different than the programmers."

We heard that PS Audio was developing a NAS. Why? "The main reason is that using a NAS for music retrieval is often a pain. Even if they come with built-in software, there are compatibility issues. We don’t expect our customers to become computer experts. The PS Audio Experience as we now call it should be painless and fun. At home in Boulder we now have a music library of 370.000 tracks occupying 12TB. That’s our playground. When you have such a big library, no current uPnP-based software can search through this it, let alone do so in a timely fashion. Our software can. We want to grow our library to 500.000 tracks for the ultimate test bed. Besides blazing access, we also want the software to handle classical music where you don’t have simple tracks but parts and movements. I want to be able to address those separately. That requires serious programming. During that process we found a way to properly tag WAV files just like FLAC and MP3. This was a unique effort and we made it."

So the NAS will basically be plug ‘n’play? "All the tricky stuff is done for you. All you do is upload your music and our software does the rest."

Now we saw why Paul had invoked Sony, Microsoft and Apple earlier. Based on the above, there had to be other developments going on as well. "Definitely. In the US and no doubt elsewhere as well, a few big companies have killed radio. Radio is no longer interesting. There are no storylines in the programming as there were during my days. It’s become McDonalds. I can’t help to let the rebel in me on the loose again so PS Audio is coming out with internet radio – high-quality streaming music free of commercials. DJs will be volunteers while PS Audio picks up the Internet costs. There will be 10 stations, each catering to a specific musical taste."

This was great news. What a fantastic way to discover new music. "That’s what we think. Besides DJs who can be located anywhere in the world thanks to the Internet, we are also looking for librarians. These are people with an in-depth knowledge of a composer, musician or musical era. We look for these people because it is my wish to catalogue all—and I mean all—available classical music. This is possible because classical music spans a finite time period that already lies behind us. We have written some fuzzy logic that will allow us to catalogue all the music and find our way through it."

Was that really all he had up his sleeve? "Not really. In my spare time I am toying with a pet project about an active room. The room itself will be amplified with its own speakers. This will bring you right over to the recording venue as the room and not the music changes. So far it’s only an idea however." At this point Paul had to leave for another presentation. We look back on a very pleasant and entertaining meeting with a friendly rebel in the audio industry.