On May 18, 2012, Paul Barton, founder and chief product developer for PSB Speakers invited me and a handful of other A/V journalists to visit Ottawa, Ontario, Canada for a guided tour of the NRC (National Research Council) acoustics labs—the very lab facilities where many PSB product designs (and some NAD products) are evaluated and put through extensive double-blind listening tests. I had read about the NRC labs many times, but had never seen them first hand so that I jumped at the chance to see the labs and learn more about their day-to-day operations. Before I talk about my day at the lab, however, one critically important point of clarification is in order.
Clarification: As a matter of policy, the NRC does not invite visitors to its campus for any sort of PR-related activities. However, the NRC does allow some of the Canadian firms that use NRC facilities to bring guests on site (subject, of course, to relevant NRC security regulations). The only way that I, as a representative of Playback and Hi-Fi+, was able to visit the NRC facility, therefore, was as an invited guest of Paul Barton and of PSB Speakers.
About the NRC: Founded many years ago, Canada’s NRC is a brilliant example of government working in close collaboPSB-NRC Master ration with business to insure the long-term viability and growth of high-tech industries. The NRC was established to support advanced research spanning a wide range of technology-related disciplines, all with an eye toward making sure that Canadian firms will remain competitive, and ideally play leadership roles, within rapidly evolving technical markets. Moreover, the NRC also exists as a means of making sure that Canadian security and defense forces remain at the cutting edge of technical developments.
To these ends, the sprawling campus of the NRC comprises a total of 65 buildings, each dedicated to a specific area of research. On the drive in, for example, I saw a giant aerospace research center and an absolutely huge wind tunnel, which according to Paul Barton, has become a popular destination for certain NASCAR teams hoping to gain an edge through extensive aerodynamics testing. As I understand things, Canadian firms (including startups) can lease research time and technical assistance from full-time staff in the appropriate NRC facility at special, in-country rates. Firms from outside of Canada can also use the facilities, but pay much higher rates. In this way, NRC helps Canadian firms gain and maintain a technical edge in increasingly competitive worldwide markets.
Happily for audiophiles and music lovers, two of NRC’s buildings provide space for acoustics laboratories—labs that have been used successfully by PSB for R&D work on loudspeakers and, more recently, headphones. One lab building contains an anechoic (echo-free, sound absorbing) chamber, while the other provides an IEC standard listening room that is set up to allow extensive, comparative, double-blind loudspeaker listening tests.
Just to give us a sense for the sheer scope of research activities at the NRC, Paul Barton had made a special arrangement for journalists to see an ultra high-powered electron scanning microscope lab set up on a vibration-isolated platform in a research area located in the same building as the anechoic chamber. It was most impressive to see the giant microscope, to learn that in operation its test chamber is evacuated by a pump so powerful that the vacuum in the chamber contains fewer atoms that an equivalent volume in outer space would (!), and then to see resulting scan images out in the control room area. The researcher in charge showed how the scope could easily examine samples of materials at the molecular/atomic level. He pointed, for example, to a test screen that looked something like a close-up, black and white image of, say, a piece of tweed fabric. But in this case the “pattern in the fabric” in fact showed the alignment of individual atoms within a sample of a superconductor material under examination. Pretty heady stuff…