Confessions of a Setup Man, Part 13: Engineering Complex

Confessions of a Setup Man, Part 13: Engineering Complex

Written by Frank Doris

I’m not a degreed engineer. True, I understand and can write about complex concepts. In fact, I’ve edited and rewritten articles by engineers, some of whom are way better at their trade than they are at putting words together, but I’m not, in fact, a trained engineer.

This often puts me at a disadvantage when diving into the tech of audio stuff, and especially when getting into debates about subjects that require comprehensive engineering knowledge. For example, I know what the Nyquist theorem is, but not so deeply that I can convincingly argue on a technical level why some people think the 44.1 kHz sampling rate of CD-quality audio is inadequate. I get the concepts, but can’t debate on the topic on the same level as an engineer who knows his or her stuff. It’s been said that 44.1 kHz can be inadequate because of poor brick-wall filters in A/D converters…or, would that be D/A converters? Or both? I gotta look it up again. (It doesn’t help that in many cases, the older you get, the harder it is to remember things.)

I’m better at writing than I am at math. I can “grok” math up through trigonometry, but as a college freshman I was chagrined to find out that I simply didn’t understand anything beyond basic calculus other than to know that there are limits, and my brain had reached mine.

But math and engineering are inseparable.

In other words, when talking with engineers, I’m on unequal ground. When I was just starting out in audio, this made me feel insecure. Who the heck was I to talk speaker design with David Wilson, or room acoustics with Dr. Floyd E. Toole? I just didn’t have the foundation to converse on their level. I still don’t. I’ve learned a lot, but I’m never going to get that engineering degree.

On the other hand, I have decades of experience in working with and listening to audio components. And when it comes to having the conviction of knowing what I hear, the word “insecure” does not apply. I’ve been to the Harman listening lab in Northridge, California, where I laid my reputation on the line and passed rigorously-controlled double-blind listening tests with flying colors. (But that was something like 15 years ago. Could I pass such a test today, with hearing that is undoubtedly now diminished? I bet a dime, Martini.)

So, what’s the real disadvantage for me, as an audio editor and writer and audiophile, of not being a trained engineer, aside from the fact that no one’s ever going to hire me as a product designer?

The only time I feel that a lack of understanding puts me in a weaker position is when I’m reading certain audio forums.

Let’s shoot the BB gun right into the hornet’s nest and bring up some fave topics of…discussion on these forums.

Cables make a difference.

Analog and vinyl sound better than digital.

44.1 kHz isn’t a high enough sampling rate for digital audio.

Blind testing is the only way to determine differences between components.

Listening without measurements is useless. If you can’t prove your observations by measurements, they’re meaningless.

Like so many online forums, they tend to be dominated by a few individuals who anoint themselves as “experts,” complete with their self-proclaimed expert scientific background. (To be fair, at least a few are scientists and engineers.) That would be one thing – it’s a free country, and we’re all entitled to our opinions. The problem is when they get vicious and insulting about those who don’t agree with them.

I sometimes hear differences when listening to different cables. I know this in every fiber of my soul, just as I know that if I put my fingers in a certain position on my guitar, I’m going to play an E chord. I have decades of experience and trust my judgment. Observation is a valid scientific principle. So, when I see some online forum know-it-all not only proclaiming, say, that cables don’t make a difference, but hurling personal insults upon anyone who dares to say otherwise, my first reaction is, I’m going to take them on. But I can’t do it using math, or by citing experience of having done any measurements or testing. So, I can’t defend myself on their playing field.

And, that’s about it as far as having an engineering insecurity complex these days. In fact, I understand most of the principles of audio (I should hope so, having kicked around the field for all this time), if not all of the math. And, again, I trust my ears.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m down on engineering types. Quite the opposite. I am boundlessly thankful to them. Without engineers, audio components wouldn’t exist. And I have to say that all of the engineers and designers I’ve met over the decades have been unfailingly generous with sharing their knowledge. (I haven’t met any of the nasty internet pundits, and don’t feel any great sense of loss.) We should respect and cherish engineers and designers. And it’s not like they don’t get flak either. A brilliant cable designer, who I respect immensely and who has taught me a great deal, told me that if you’re an engineer you have to have a thick skin. You will encounter those who are skeptical of your ideas, or say they’re impractical or impossible to put into production, or won’t work, or cost too much.

Let’s shift gears. How much do we really know about science, let alone audio science, and when you get down to it, the nature of reality, anyway?

If technology is increasing at an exponential rate, how far along are we on the curve? If we’re at or close to the base of it, then where will technology be 50 or 10,000 years from now, and doesn’t that imply that we know relatively nothing? Or are we on the S-curve of audio innovation, where progress begins slowly, then accelerates rapidly, then slows? For example, how much further can loudspeaker materials evolve?

Physics has been trying to come up with a Theory of Everything that would explain and reconcile all known physical aspects of the universe – Newtonian physics, quantum mechanics, why those greasy Jack in the Box tacos have such irresistible appeal – everything. They haven’t.

What the heck are dark matter and dark energy? Is the universe a hologram? A giant alien computer? The face of G-d? Is the human mind even remotely capable of understanding what’s really going on? In the novel The Dark Forest by the brilliant science fiction writer Cixin Liu, one of the characters states, “…our science is nothing more than a child collecting shells on the beach who haven’t even seen the ocean of truth. The facts we see under the guidance of our science and reason may not be the true, objective facts.” Speculative fiction, or prescient insight?

While some may find such heady stuff daunting (or even a little upsetting), I find it thrilling. It means that there are many discoveries yet to be made in audio (and in everything). After all, if the goal of a high-end audio system is, as Harry Pearson put it, to reproduce the sound of real music in real space, we’re not there yet.

And we won’t get there without engineers. Or astute listeners, music lovers, musicians, reviewers, critics, cranks, idealists, pragmatists, acousticians, computer scientists, writers, poets, business executives, mathematicians, hobbyists, experimenters, researchers, tweakers, accountants, physicists, naysayers, professionals, amateurs, skeptics – and dreamers.

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