Frankly Speaking

    Confessions of a Setup Man, Part 13: Engineering Complex

    Issue 148

    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.

    Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/ThisIsEngineering.

    14 comments on “Confessions of a Setup Man, Part 13: Engineering Complex”

    1. Hi Frank,
      Because some of us can hear the differences in cables and other system tweaks just proves that the tools to measure those differences don't exist yet.

      If some people can't hear the differences shows that they are not equipped to do so (not that the differences don't exist). They are saving themselves some time and money by not being able to hear the differences (or ignoring what they hear due to bias).

      I am a mechanical engineer and there are many things in that field that still aren't provable by any current science but they still exist irregardless.

      I understand almost nothing in the EE field but still hold those people in high regard as without them none of this stuff would exist to argue about as you pointed out.

      The audiophiles who are also engineers probably add the most to the overall field of reproduced music.

      Vern

    2. Frank,
      Ken Kesey would have you bet more than a dime in today’s world and a Jack in the Box Taco tastes different because ‘Things Change with Time’…….especially depending on how much hot sauce packets are added……
      Ed

        1. Good morning Frank!
          Perhaps I'm a few days late in reading this article.
          Granted that I'm not a full scale speaker designer/engineer, but I understand where you're coming from.
          I know that you're old enough to remember how speakers yoost to be made.
          But looking back on the history of loud speakers, I wonder why do we need thousands of watts to drive our speakers today?
          I ask this question for this reason.
          If you can recount the many of times that you heard bass heavy music coming out of other people's cars, then you'll understand why I asked this question.
          Some people say that, they can't tell the difference in speaker magnets.
          And how one magnet has a slightly different sound to another magnet.
          But in the forties fifties and sixties, most of the loud speakers used alnico magnets in them.
          The good news about this is, you didn't need loads of power to get them to really scream at you.
          Perhaps they weren't really good for all that bass you hear out on the streets today, but you got very clear sounding music from them.
          But looking at todays speaker market, it's flooded with powered or if you will, active speakers.
          But for a tube lover like me, no company that I'm aware of, has never produced an active speaker that uses a tube amp.
          When I said something about it to the Hifi Family of PS Audio, most of the people thought I was talking crazy.
          But I do understand this fundamental thing.
          If you build it, they will come.
          And so, what I'm thinking, is if I build it, then perhaps I can create a market for it.
          But I don't think you need a lot of power to get high SPL.
          Anything between 25 to 75 watts of tube power, should get you where you want to be.
          That is, in less you're gonna set them up in a very large room.
          Please give me your take on all of this!

          1. Hi John,

            For me, the tide in speaker efficiency turned with the introduction of the original Acoustic Research speaker, which had an infinite baffle rather than a ported design. This allowed more bass from a smaller enclosure, as opposed to the larger enclosures of bass reflex designs, but at the expense of speaker efficiency. The introduction of higher-powered amps soon followed.

            Another factor is that speaker drivers can vary in efficiency. I had a 12-inch guitar speaker that was about 101 dB efficient, and it was a lot louder than another speaker I had that was about 95 dB efficient.

            I know some speaker designers prefer the "sound" of alnico magnets, and in the guitar amp world, alnico vs. ceramic is a "thing," with alnicos considered to sound softer and more compressed, while ceramic speakers are "tighter" in their response. It's all a matter of personal preference -- a blues player might like alnico, and a metal player might like ceramic.

            I don't know of any powered speakers with tube amps either but I don't see why it couldn't be done. You'd have to make sure the amp was adequately ventilated, and it would have to withstand the vibrations from the speaker, but these are things that could be overcome, I'd think. Certainly, powered speakers are becoming more popular.

            1. Hi again Frank!
              In 1974, my dad got me a hole intire quadriphonic system.
              The speakers, were four Bozack 210's.
              I didn't know this about those speakers until I opened them up when I was 13.
              But each one, had a pare of 10 inch alnico woofer drivers, and a 4by8inch alnico horns in them.
              The SPL of them, is as that guitar speaker you spoke of.
              My JVC receiver which I still have today, cranks out 21watts per channel times 4, in to an 8 ohm load.
              Now with that said, alnico speakers yoost to be very prominent in the hifi world when I came to know it in the early seventies.
              But what you said about building tube amps in to speaker cabinets, yes that can be overcome.
              If you take a close look at the combo amps that uses tubes, the guitar players didn't have a problem with shocking their tubes with heavy speaker vibrations.
              The tubes have these wire like devices that holds them in place.
              And also, the devices dampened the tubes against vibrations from the speakers.
              But what I'm thinking I could do, is put a box inside of a box.
              Sure this would make the foot prints of the speaker cabinets deeper then a typical passive speaker.
              But it would keep the heat away from the drivers inside of the cabinet.
              And I would just ventilate it from both the back and bottom of the cabinet.
              One person suggested that, I could put the amp on top of the speaker.
              And this would be a design for people that like to look at the glowing tubes when the amps are on.
              But just out of curiosity, do you know of any speaker manufacturer that still makes speakers for home use with alnico magnets?

    3. We need to talk to the Editor and get this guy a regular column maybe name it "Frankly Speaking",

      to write in such a straightforward or candid manner.

      Clearly he has a point of view that is entertaining, topical, full of wit and wisdom. Who could I talk to ?

      1. Hi Michael, I'm going to have to have a talk with that guy!

        One of the benefits of getting older, other than Medicare, which really comes in handy these days, ha! is that you're not so concerned about putting on a game face all the time, or proving yourself, or copping an attitude. You should have seen me when I was playing in a new wave band in the 1980s! I figure, at this point, might as well just let things fly and share experiences.

    4. Another well written piece, thanks Frank.

      In this hobby or passion of ours that is all about listening to music of each and every style or form, for me the mantra is - if it sounds good, it is good.

      I gave up paying much attention to the spec. sheets a fair while ago.

      Vinyl can sound great, just as digital can sound great.

      The down side of vinyl for me is that is wears out and you will never be able to replace those LPs pressed in the halcyon days of the '60s through to the '80s with ones of the same quality unless you pay a premium price. Also it costs way more to move up the food chain of premium playback for vinyl.

      The down side of digital is that improvements in DAC quality can convince you to upgrade. I am constantly amazed at what is revealed from digital sources that has previously not been audible, to me, even from vinyl.

      Frank, if you make these tube powered active speakers I reckon you'll sell a truck load of them. Good luck!

      1. Good morning Ian!
        Frank is correct!
        I am the one that came up with the idea of powered speakers that are both designed and built around tube amps.
        The current active speakers that are on the market right now, don't even use tube amps.
        They are either class A class AB or class D digital amps.
        The only company that I know that made speakers with tubes as apart of the design, is a company that's called, James Loud Speaker.
        But the only thing about those speakers, the tubes are just for looks only.
        They don't function as apart of the technical design of the system.

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