Going over your head

July 19, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

It makes me feel sad when I read that something in our technologically complex world of high-end audio has gone over someone’s head. That they cannot grasp the concept as presented to them.

It makes me sad because it means we’ve failed to communicate. It makes me sad because we all know that feeling of being overwhelmed—of being lost (like trying to understand cryptocurrency).

As people. As an industry. It’s on us to do what we can to keep the technobabble at a minimum and focus instead on clarity of definitions and terms we use.

Lord knows I have been guilty of using over-technical terms to try and foster understanding. I hope to not travel again down that same road.

As part of the HiFi Family, let’s do what we can—each and every one of us—to communicate in a way that promotes understanding.

In the words of my favorite philosopher, Foghorn Leghorn, “You’re built too low. Fast ones go over your head.”

Let’s not let anything go over anyone’s head.

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56 comments on “Going over your head”

  1. I disagree Paul,
    Not everyone cares about the technical side of home-audio, whether it be mid-end, high-end or ultra high-end.
    “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”
    PS Audio’s job is to produce great high-end home-audio gear that makes people happy every time that listen to it & happy that they spent the money that it cost.

    You type, “It makes me sad because it means we’ve failed to communicate.”
    Who do you mean by “we’ve”?
    Do you mean ‘we’ as in someone from a bunch of tech engineers or do you mean ‘we’ as in someone from PS Audio or do you mean ‘we’ as in anyone from the Hi-Fi fraternity??
    If you can’t explain something to someone then maybe someone else in the Hi-Fi fraternity can explain it better.

    You remember that Hans Beekhuysen YouTube presentation that I e-mailed to you a couple of days ago?
    Well, I did that because I understood how he explained Hi-Res vs DSD vs Redbook a lot better than anyone else has explained it before.
    The clarity with which he went about his presentation & explanation went right through my ‘technically bored mind’ & made sense to me…I can now explain it to myself & to others.

    In short, your explanation may not get through to the ‘student’ but someone else’s explanation might.
    Ultimately if someone who is not particularly tech minded really wants to know then (s)he will keep searching until they find someone who can explain it to them..if they REALLY want to know.

    Paul you do a lot, & a lot right in this industry; you can’t be expected to do it ALL right, otherwise there would be no room for self improvement 😉

  2. I claim the prize for the most technically inept and disinterested, because all I want to do is listen to music.

    I was listening to Darko and a guy called Cameron doing a podcast about the use of measurements. Cameron makes an interesting point that, two of the features that we treasure most, dynamics and soundstage, cannot be measured. There are things that may give a hint, but you won’t see a spec sheet saying “this speaker has 57.3 soundstage”. He suggests that any way of assessing these thing would be valuable intellectual property and no sensible manufacturer would talk about it.

    So I ask the question to myself, if you can’t measure it, how do you engineer it? Is it just trial and error? Do you just do the best you can with the elements you can measure and optimise and leave the rest to chance? If you design speakers by listening to them and want more soundstage or dynamics, how do you do it and how can you know without too much bias whether on listening again you’ve achieved it?

    I’ve always thought of audio design as a bit of a dark art, using good engineering, measurements as a check that you are going in the right direction (but not the ultimate goal) and a lot of listening. Personally, I’m happy it remains a dark art, i.e. with me in the dark about it.

  3. The biggest rewards being a teacher is the ability to get through to someone. It isn’t easy. Teaching is a real skill. Paul, I think your a great teacher and all those instructional videos you’ve made have certainly helped me.

    I think you should make a video on how to explain tube spec data sheets. I bet you could do it because you essentially know how a vacuum tube works and your a good teacher. 🙂

    1. @Nephilim 81,

      Pedantic Alert!

      I think you meant “you’re” (as in the contraction for “you are”) not “your” (as in possessive form of you). Sorry, but you did say you’re a teacher and I couldn’t resist.

      Rant over,
      Kurt

      1. It’s probably the spelling perverter’s fault. It pulls that one on me all the time. There are about a half dozen typos that I know it will produce, and occasionally, I fail to catch them. Fortunately, Frank has my back.

        1. I’m only 62 Jack but I’ve noticed that with every additional year my typos increase.
          Ageing teaches me to just not give a sh!t about the small stuff anymore 😉

            1. Clay,
              Well, now that you mention it, my waist has reached an equilibrium.
              Hopefully, sometime in my eighties, when decreasing metabolic absorption sets in, I’ll be able to slim down again…that’s providing that I’m still here in the 2040’s 😉

          1. Ah yes, aging and typing… I used to be able to type. On a keybopard. Quite expeditiously. And with reasonable accuracy. But for whatever reason – now? 98.2% of the time ‘the’ becomes ‘teh’, ‘you’ becomes yopu’, thanks = thnaks, any word with an “N” or an “M” will be nm; samne with wioth taht, or teh otheer stupid thjat and often some conglomeration of letters that bear NO resemblance to the word I was attenmptiong to tyhpe! ANd Why The HEck can I no longer release the DAmn caps BUtton in TIme???
            I’m developiong typing-crypto-lysdexia. My backspace button is dented and the upper left corner is permanently slightly caved in. And it vaguely reads: ack pace.

            But then, along come phones and their autocorrect to save teh day. Really? REally?? Dear Autocorrect: If you’ve correct my typed word, there’s about a 27.3% chance you WERE correct, and in my head, I will thank you. If you correct it AGAIN after I re-type it a SECOND time… you’ll get a staunch verbal “Oh P$%# right OFF!!” Now if you re-correct my word a THIRD TIME – not only do you risk the chance of a supersonic hurled flight across the room, perhaps this is a sign that THIS IS THE *&%$# WORD I’M TRYING TO TYPE!!!!!! Examplke: “Everything I know about Meghan Marble, I’ve regrettably learned entirely against my will.” Meghan Marble?…? Really? For duck sakes you stupid mucking phone! Thanks, now I gotta go out and buy a screen repair kit.

            JEff.

            PS – Would somebody please hand me the pump action spray bottle of Extra Strength Markle-B-Gone formula for sanity sake! 😉

            1. When I was in high school they taught us shorthand. It was supposed to make us more productive in college by taking better notes in class. What a waste. All I now remember is: long dash is M, short dash is N, and comma is S.

          2. FR you are back!…. didn’t see you on here for a spell. Blame it on the cell phones (mispelling) . When using my voice function 60 % of what I say is incorrect. That is why I much prefer typing on a computer. Also Reading is great for comprehension. Another GREAT reason to purchase Paul’s audiophile guide which I have not yet but may do so in the future. With all the internet FB lingo and abbreviations people forget how to spell and generally communicate. At the other end of the spectrum is myself. I am usually lost in internet lingo, lol (which is highly overused and redundant). Abbreviations can be so canned and impersonal. I am over my head when people speak of DACs and streaming. Really don’t know anything about them. I only know analog audio turntables, FM for sound sources. I purchased many CDs years back but rarely use them.

            1. Hi Jim,
              I never actually left…I’m always lurking in the wings.
              Whatever works for you.
              If you prefer Analogue & Records then stick with them.
              I prefer CDs but I’m not hell-bent on getting into the nitty-gritty of every aspect of what makes Digital work.
              Each to their own.
              Voice activated or keyboard typing, there will always be typos 😉

      2. I’m actually not a teacher. Not even close…as you can see. I do know the differences between your and you’re, but I often get nailed with autocorrect as I try to speed type.
        In any case. You’re absolutely right! 😉
        Good catch my friend. Grammer is highly important and kind of a lost art in writing these days. I blame smartphones for sure. Damn tech. Lol.

          1. Oh boy I’m gettin’ it today. Lol. Well deserved though. Thanks Martin. Only makes more conscientious about things of this nature in the future and it is called ‘proof reading’ 🙂

              1. Absolutely I do, but still you aren’t wrong. I find a lot of people in our community write/type reasonably well. I’d like to try my best to keep in accordance with that.
                Martin. I absolutely get your sense of humor as well and I quite love it, so no worries at all. 🙂

  4. Many times when listening to the presentations it is very clear that the presenter has little or no understanding of the concept or item that is being addressed. Terms commonly employed in this industry are misused or the presenter appears to be totally confused.
    The sad part is that as these presenters appear over time and the readership assigns greatness to them and listens to the rant as if it holds some authority!
    And where do you go if the presenters are few?
    Sad

  5. As the great philosopher said..
    “It’s good that I keep my feathers numbered for such an occasion ”

    Or “I say that boy is about as sharp as a bowling ball”

    I takes more than a good teacher. It takes a good student.

  6. Paul’s post today is a very noble one, but not an easy one to do.

    This is a hard one for me, because I am a tech head. I spend almost 14 years getting a bachelors degree, a masters degree and a Ph.D. all of them in physics. You do not do that unless you are a tech head.

    There is an old saying that a picture is worth a 1000 words. I have text books that almost every page has a sentence and then an equation, a sentence and then an equation, and so on. Those equations are “pictures”. They tell you exactly what is going on. You can understand what I mean with a few simple examples:

    F=ma ( force equals mass times acceleration )

    V=IR ( voltage equals current times resistance )

    In each case it takes five words and about thirty letters to say what three letters and one symbol says.

    Now due to the limitations of this website I cannot write out Maxwell’s equations that tell us how electricity and magnetism work.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxwell%27s_equations

    Please go to the link above and just take 30 seconds to scan down it. In my junior year I took E&M 301 and E&M 302 that explained everything that is on that wikipedia page. If someone asked me to explain it in 15 minutes without a single equation, I would be very hard pressed to do so.

    The point that I am trying to make here is that tech heads develop technology that in today’s world is a good deal more complicated than you put the hammer head on the handle and secure it with a wedge and it works.

    As I said, Paul’s request is very noble, but it is very hard to deliver on.

    1. I’ve always enjoyed reading your posts, Tony. Now given how wonderfully technically minded you are I’d love to know your thoughts (whenever you can) with this video in relation to some of the deception of measurements behind digital audio. The video is done by Passion for Sound and he interviews Rob Watts of Chord electronics about the M-Scaler doesn’t exactly measure well, but in fact makes the music that you here sound quite a bit better by increasing Tap length and the amount for more perceived transients in the music.
      Check this out. I really enjoyed it.

      https://youtu.be/orXrRwP7xLE

      1. So I watched the video and I enjoyed it. Here are my thoughts on it:

        1. On complicated things like high-end digital audio do not rely on ASR for guidance.

        2. I have never paid much attention to Chord electronic so I had to quickly educate myself. I turned to Stereophile reviews of the M Scaler and the Dave DAC done by John Atkinson. JA is one of the most technically astute reviewers that I know of and I trust him. Here is a link to a mini review ( https://www.stereophile.com/content/chords-million-tap-digital-filter ), however, there are two other review of the M Scaler ( 2020 ) and the Dave DAC ( 2017 ). If I add links to these these I will spook the website.

        3. Clearly Robert Watts is a digital genius on the order of Ted Smith. If I had three or four months to do nothing but study digital audio methods I would love to then be able to pose questions to both TS and RW and listen to them discuss their different approaches.

        4. As I understand it RW believes that it is very important to up sample PCM to very high sample rates ( ~ 700 kS.p.s. ) so that you can move the unwanted reconstruction images to very high frequencies and he believes in very long filters with high number taps so that you get good capture of the transients. I did enjoy his discussion about windowing functions. I have never heard a Chord DAC ( with or without an M Scaler ) so I have no idea if it produces great sound. I think you can get same thing by converting everything to DSD ( actually 10 X DSD ) as TS does. This helps with the reconstruction images and noise shaping. Then down sample to 2 x DSD and use a low pass filter convert to analog.

        5. I certainly do believe that there are many things in digital audio that are difficult to measure or we do not know how to measure them yet, but we do hear these things. This is were more R&D is still needed.

        6. The Chord gear is very expensive. $19K for the M Sampler and DAC and you still may need a transport. There are also very expensive versions of DSD DAC’s and transports ( e.g. Playback Designs and EMM ) which I have heard. In now seems that all of the best DAC’s are based on custom code stored in FPGA’s. I still believe that PS Audio’s DS DAC and PST produce world class digital reproduction and represent excellent value. There are now single box SACD players based on custom code in FPGA’s from companies like Marantz and Denon that are also worth listening to.

        1. Alright, Tony!

          Hey I’m so glad you enjoyed the video and I truly love your personable 6-point response.

          Now I’ve been saying that Rob Watts is kind of like the peoples champion when it comes to digital audio. The amount of listening joy I’ve experienced because of that man’s DAC inventions is off the charts. He has formulated some interesting principals about how to improve our perception towards sound, which isn’t exactly measurable in most regards. Of course, ASR is gonna have a field day with this, however the irony is Rob Watts is an expert in psycho acoustics and is fully aware by how all his equipment measures inside and out and I find it funny during the interview he’s speaking behind so much measuring equipment like spectrometers etc.
          I see that irony like an F-U to ASR. Rob knows what he is doing just as Paul and his team know what they are doing with their AC Regenerators.

          I think people need a stronger education on how measurable equipment devices work and how measurable differences work. A good seminar course on that would be helpful, especially for someone like myself. I don’t know everything and if I watched ASR’s video on the M-Scaler I’d be really thrown off.

          Anyway. Loved your response and I’ll be sure to read Jon Atkinson’s review of the M-Scaler.
          Thank you, Tony
          Oh for the record Chord DACS are definitely worth your time just as myself hopefully sooner rather than later I can try a PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC.

          Have a great day, man. 🙂

          1. Hi Nephilim 81,
            I was going to reply to your earlier post last night, but it was just tooo hot!
            This has been an interesting thread and Tony’s analysis was excellent.
            You obviously like Chord dac’s but I wanted to share my limited experience.
            When I was looking for a new dac, thinking that there must’ve been some improvements in the 15years or so since my last one, Chord was on the list. I’m a big believer, if you can, in trying at home in your own system. The only Chord dac I could easily get hold of was the Hugo, cost about £2k. I would have preferred to try the more expensive dac’s but it just wasn’t feasible at the time. It was good, detailed but I didn’t really enjoy listening to it. To me it was too much in your face, what I call ‘hi-fi sounding’. Initially impressive but wearing over long periods. I did try it over a few days but was happier with my original dac. I appreciate this was only the Hugo and the Hugo TT or Dave and M scaler may be a different ball game, I should hope so considering the cost increases, but for me it kind of set the tone for the Chord ‘house’ sound. I didn’t want more of what was on offer.
            To conclude my story. I read loads of reviews of dac’s on my short(long)list but wasn’t able to fulfill my requirement of a home audition. Then, one of those chance happenings. A dac that was way over my budget new became available locally under budget. I felt this was an opportunity that had presented itself to me and I’d be foolish to let it pass by. Very fortunately it worked out. It was a similar sound to my previous dac but more of it, exactly what I was looking for. Of course being an audiophile a little bit of me still wonders what those other dac’s would have sounded like but it’s a question that will remain unanswered. I think once a certain level is reached all or most dac’s sound good, the tricky bit is finding one that suits your taste, and for that you will need diligence and a little luck.

            1. Rich of the Tea! 😉

              Yeah it is a hot one here in my city as well. Past couple of days we are dealing with temperatures near 40 Degrees Celsius. I work mainly outside and it is like I’m working in a sauna. It is tough to find the energy at the end of the day to do anything, so I completely understand how you feel.

              Anyhow. Yes. I am a fan of Chord DACS and I’ve tried all their Hi-end flagships… DAVE/M Scaler and TT2 M Scaler. They are both have immensity in their sound with an absolute ton of detail. Very good DACS/Amps however far too expensive for me. I settled on the Chord Qutest and I run it off the 3V RMS setting and it is sublime. I’ve had it for 4 years now and I have no intention of wanting to sell it.

              Meanwhile. I totally get what you are saying. The Chord DACS present the details of the music right in your face, but of course not in a jarring way…at least for my tastes. Anyway, what kind of DAC tech do you have? Most people who are a Fan of the R2R ladder DACS don’t gravitate to the Chord presentation because even I find those DAC techs incredibly different. The R2R DACS are great as well. They’re Laid back, smooth and realistic. I have one inside my Cyrus CDi player. I like it. It is a 32 Multi bit DAC, but I keep using the Qutest. The sound of that thing is so powerful and authoritative. The bass strength is greater as well.

              Really nice to hear from you. You’ll have to share with me, in future, the DACS you like.
              And yes. Tony’s response was excellent. He’s one of the more technically gifted thinkers on here. We are lucky to have him. Team PS Audio has been a good home. 😉

              1. Yes, just on what will probably be my last mug of the day. Whilst I appreciate how dac technology could be a useful pointer to choosing a dac it’s not something I’ve done and had to have a quick read before I could answer your question. My previous dac was FPGA which I believe is Chord’s approach but it didn’t sound like Chord to me. I’d say it was detailed and smooth, relaxing and laid back, which is a plus or a minus depending how you like your presentation. My current dac uses a “commercial delta/sigma device in a unique and proprietary way” according to the manufacturer. So a different approach and yet as I mentioned before gave me a similar sound but more of it.

                  1. Ha, that’s funny Tony. I must confess I find it frustrating myself when posters reference equipment but don’t name it, but to be fair Nephilim did ask which tech I used. My first stand alone dac was a Meridian 203, the second version, delta/sigma I think, I still have it. I then worked my way through a range of Audio Synthesis dac’s culminating with the DAX Discrete which used a proprietary ASL (Audio Synthesis Link) bitstream and timing in separate glass links, to connect to a suitably modified Marantz DVD player. It played Red Book, SACD and DVD-A. The company isn’t widely known and has recently stopped trading but information is out there. My current dac is the Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference Series 2. This doesn’t do SACD which obviously was a negative but I was so impressed with the improvement on Red Book that I decided it was a sacrifice worth making. Unsurprisingly I have many more Red Book CD’s than SACD’s. They now do a series 3 which reviewers say is another good step forward but with cost in mind I’m not planning on upgrading. Again there’s plenty on the web for any further research. I hope that answers your question 🙂

            2. Hi Rich,
              With regard to that whole ‘in your face’ DAC situation…the DAC
              in my AU$710 Marantz – ‘CD6006’ player ‘sounds better’ with
              almost all of my ’60s, ’70s & ’80s recorded music than the DSD DAC in my AU$4,000 Marantz – ‘SA12 SE’…in my current main rig.
              But if I pair said ‘SA12 SE’ with slightly ‘softer’ loudspeakers it
              sounds brilliant, without the fatigue…voila!

        2. I forgot to add this earlier.

          7. There is, IMO, nothing more important in digital audio than higher than sampling rates. This is even more important on the front end ( i.e. analog to digital conversion ) the on the back end ( digital to analog conversion ). RW mentioned in his video that we have no idea what they have done on the front end and it will always help to know this. I also think it is great that Paul i going to DSD 256 at Octave Records.

          1. Oh goodness me! Lucky number 7. 😉

            Yes. I agree. It is upsampling in relation to the amount of dithering/noise shaping that can increase a greater perception of realism.
            I really don’t care if something doesn’t measure ideally to what is considered acceptable. If it sounds good I’m not gonna put up a fuss.
            I think the MQA club may fall into this line of thinking, but I could be wrong. 😉

              1. Hello my friend. I don’t think so. MQA still runs wild with many companies like MyTek. The Brooklyn and matrix DACS are laced with it. Lol.
                Also I noticed on Japan CD, a sales tactic for the UHQCD’s is an MQA encoded playback layer on the disc stating “original hi quality master.”

                I’m sorry. That is outta down the biggest line of B.S I have ever had the pleasure of laughing at.
                The icing on the cake would be to blow up a picture of Neil Young’s face on the disc with 32-Bit 384khz playback layer too!

  7. Paul, like some others, it simply doesn’t matter to me.

    I was reasonably well informed with audio, at least up until the mid-80s. I knew a fair bit about system set up, including turntables, although my electronics and acoustics knowledge was certainly limited. But I felt comfortable I had my system performing at a decently good level.

    Then along came digital. My initial experiences with that were not encouraging. And while I admit it has improved, I’ve not felt the need to keep up my understanding of bits and pieces. My musical enjoyment remains satisfying. I just didn’t see the need to study and understand the intricacies of digital playback. And the thought of transferring 3,000 LPs to another format seemed downright silly.

    So not that you or others failed to communicate, I just found little value in that information.

    1. m3, You are not alone when it comes to digital audio. Many people have no idea how digital audio works and the way digital audio was rolled out and explained left a lot to be desired.

  8. Politicians, economists, theoretical physicists, theologians, doctors, lawyers, etc. love to go over people’s heads. If they spoke straightforwardly in plain English, people might understand! LOL

    1. Joseph, When it comes to theoretical physicist we have to make an exception. I am a retired experimental physicist. I have to ask theoretical physicist to slow down and explain things to me in simpler terms. These guys think and converse on an entirely different plane than other scientist do. They come close to being a different species: Homo Sapiens Sapiens. 😉

      1. A different species indeed. They try to dumb it down with terms like “string theory,” even though they don’t really understand the universe at the sub-atomic particle level, what dark energy is and how gravity works. “Parallel universe” is such a tease. To me “string theory” is just another term to lead the blind along, as if by a string. It gets them government grants, for sure.

        1. Joseph, String Theory has pretty much fallen apart. I have never met a theorist who tries to dumb it down. We have talked about gravity before and I still say the we know what gravity is ( it is an attractive force between any two pieces of mass ), we do know how it works ( it works according to Newton’s law of gravity ), however, we do not know why there is gravity. Obviously, if we did not have gravity the universe would not be what it is, but that does not answer why there is gravity. That is like asking why is there a universe and why is it as it is? l do not know anyone who can answer that. What I can say is we are constantly learning more about the universe and that is a good thing.

          1. Tony, I think string theory is a good example of theory gone bad. Einstein was right. “If you can’t explain it to a six-year old you don’t understand it yourself.” I didn’t realize string theory had been abandoned because, frankly, I haven’t looked into it for a while. I recall watching a YouTube video a few years ago in which Dr. Michio Kaku pushed string theory as perhaps a promissing “theory of everything.” I wasn’t buying it. As for gravity, I object to any scientist who claims to understand how and why gravity works and how the universe works (Dr. Stephen Hawking, R.I.P.). Sure, Newton gave us mathematical models that predict how masses mess with each other, but seems we agree that neither he, nor any other scientist, has been able to explain how gravity works. Like dark energy, gravity remains one of life’s greatest mysteries.

          2. You said this very well in relation to how as a human race interconnected with in our planet we do not know everything! Our planet Earth is more advanced and sentient then we could ever imagine. 😉

            It goes waaaay over my head. I’m okay with that though.

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