Steve McCormack: It's All In The Details Page 4

McCormack: That's right. Within a logic type, there is not a great deal of variation, but sometimes it's a meaningful difference. Between different logic families are enormous variations in what they will do to the sound of a digital system. If fact, I was flabbergasted when I first discovered this. I was making a phase-inverter circuit in an early Prism model with an exclusive-OR gate. I just grabbed a part and put it in. Hey, this is digital; it's all ones and zeros, so it doesn't matter, right?

Harley: Either it works perfectly or it doesn't work at all...[laughs]

McCormack: Exactly. So I got a part and put it in there and the sound I was familiar with in this player was just gone. In its place was something that sounded almost like a classic piece of tube equipment. It had this slow, round, warm, bloated kind of sound—very syrupy sounding. I didn't know what I'd done wrong, and yet the system was obviously working. I knew from what I had just done that it had to involve the circuit. Fortunately, I had socketed this thing, so I stuck an HC series gate—which is a very high-speed logic gate—and, lo and behold, not only was the sound of the Prism I was used to back, it was better than before.

I spent some time looking into that further, and it turned out that not only was this logic gate performing the polarity inversion, it was acting as a high-speed buffer that was providing a better match between the filter chip and the DAC. So that's a technique we've employed in our players for some time now—high-speed digital buffering. I was able to come up with a specific part from a specific manufacturer that brought me closer to the performance I was looking for. That's one of the details. It's what high-end audio is all about.

Let me add one more notion about the personality of parts to illustrate the degree to which I go in trying to pay attention to details. In all of our products there is inevitably some wire involved; we find the wire to be very important, especially in digital systems. It's a key element in the performance of the system. I discovered some time ago that the direction the wire is used in also makes a difference. I characterize all the wire we use. We get the spools, cut a chunk, put in a system, listen to it, and then change the direction and characterize it for direction.

Again, that's a complete value judgment on my part, and there are a lot of people who would consider me a complete fool or idiot or whatever word you want to use for doing something like that or for thinking it may matter in the first place. But to me, it's another detail. Every one of those details, taken in isolation, might not be that big of a difference. But they add up. And you're talking about hundreds of decisions like that that go into making a high-end product. Ultimately all of those decisions have a bearing on the personality or sound of the product. If I do my job well in making those decisions, I come up with a product which meets my requirements and meshes with that internal model of how I want it to sound.

Harley: Is the sensitivity to the musicality you were talking about innate in everyone, or is it more of a learned skill?

McCormack: To the degree I'm talking about, you have to have a certain amount of interest. You have to care about music. You have to care about trying to get the message. Certainly there are many people in the world who enjoy listening to music on a table radio. There's a message there for them, but it may be that people like me, and other audiophiles, are looking for something more. We're trying to dig into that message and extract from it as much as we can. I think that almost anyone who has any feeling for music at all—and that includes most people—will respond to a system that is more musical in the sense that I'm talking about. But they won't use the same terms you or I might use. They'll say, "Hey, I like that."

The idea is that the music grabs you. That the rest of the world goes away. That the music reaches you and speaks to you directly. Although some music is intellectual, it is largely a language of emotion. When it is portrayed properly, it reaches you on an emotional level.

Harley: So the criterion for determining a product's quality is how easily you get lost in the music, not specifics like soundstage width and other things audiophiles describe?

McCormack: As a manufacturer, I have to pay attention to all those other specific requirements. But for me, the real goal is that sense of musicality, that sense of involvement. As a designer for McCormack and The Mod Squad, my primary goal is to design a piece of equipment that people will use to get more out of their music. To become involved with their music.