Shooting down troubles

October 18, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

One of the hallmarks of a good technician is an ability to troubleshoot problems. It’s an art, actually, but one that fortunately can be taught.

When we are faced with problems we can’t fix with our tried and true methods our first reaction is often one of panic: nothing seems to work in the system even though all the equipment is powered up. It might just be you’re on the wrong input or the speaker cables are disconnected, but at the moment, you’re overwhlemed.

The experienced troubleshooter switches modes from flummoxed to sleuth. The whole of the problem is put on hold as the experienced detective methodically questions their assumptions. One by one, we verify each assumption as valid or invalid: powered up, controls in the right position, connecting wires intact, sources selected, etc.

Once assumptions have been verified and there’s still the problem, the savvy fixer next switches into the if-then mode. If this is true, then this must also be true: if the amp’s power is on and it’s connected, then when I touch my finger to its input connecting cable I should get a hum. Then move on.

The process is nearly always the same:

  • Exhaust all simple fixes
  • Question and validate assumptions
  • Move to if-then mode

Separate the trouble into these three logical steps and the problem has nowhere to hide.

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20 comments on “Shooting down troubles”

  1. You don’t have these problems with a portable radio. For some audiophiles this is all part of the fun. For me it is hell. When I first got a streaming-based system 8 years ago it didn’t work. It didn’t help that the equipment was new to me (basically a Linn streamer and amplifier and networked hard drive). It took an afternoon to find out that the ethernet switch was too slow. I’d got the $30 rather than the $40 unit.
    Complexity is a huge brick wall to people getting interested in quality hifi. I’ve always had a hifi system, wall-mounted speakers when the kids were small, but they only started using it this year as it now works on auto-detect. Whatever stream you throw at it, Spotify, Airplay, uPnP, it will detect and play it, and the volume control on the mobile phone will control it.
    I don’t think much of hi-end has caught up on this. Look at products like Bluesound mentioned yesterday, the core of the unit is idiot-proof convenience. Auralic are the same, amazing software a 3-year-old could set up, another relative newcomer. Devialet recognise this, the online configurator is genius, you basically define your system configuration within your customer account, it downloads your configuration to an SD card and you put it in the machine. You don’t even have to turn the machine off to put in a new card with a new configuration. You can keep multiple configurations online.
    The next stage is to have software manage all your devices at once. I think that is why Roon has been so successful. Leica just released beta software and app that controls all their digital cameras, rather than having a different app for each camera (for those with multiple Leicas!). Devialet are working on a new app to control all their products, although they had to design a new operating system first. It is at least 6 months away.
    So for today’s hifi user, troubleshooting should be a thing of the past. If there is trouble to shoot, the manufacturer has not done their job properly.

  2. Paul, I fully concur! But having started training as a technician in 1968 and still working I lay blame on my early hair-loss on the tasks, foibles and tribulations during my enjoyable career!

  3. I’ve always felt that it must be hell to diagnose a technical issue if you’re not technically inclined. I see what we defined as debugging a skill that is both enlightening and therapeutic. It helps understanding how the network of devices work in your home eco system. The thérapie is in the concentration and thinking in what you need to figure out when looking at a problem. Finding a solution is so rewarding, it gives you a feeling of utter accomplishment, it’s an endeavor worth experiencing and tweaking, one more tool to add to your life existential chest.

    1. Your first sentence captures what’s overstated about Paul’s claim (I suspect he’s reading backwards from his own abilities). Beyond algorithms and opportunity and experience, there are a complex of aptitudes that we’re born with which go into what makes anyone particularly good at anything in particular. For example, certain kinds of imagination, that is, to be able to picture a problem or situation or layout or design in one’s mind, is presumably one of them for a very good tech, just as it is an essential entry requirement for an engineer. There are other aptitudes, as well as personality characteristics, specific to the type of technical type of work Paul describes. But just taking the ability to “picture in one’s mind,” it’s something that cannot be learned, only what’s there to start with can be enhanced. Otherwise, anyone could be anything, which we know is not true – and psychologists would have a lot fewer middle aged customers complaining about having spent a decade or two trying to fit their round selves in a square hole.

  4. Problems with separates can be difficult to resolve for non technical enthusiasts, for instance tracking down earth loops, poor interconnect problems (not helped by the continued adoption of the RCA plug/socket).
    I was trained as a tech so moving up a level it makes it so much easier if manufacturers are approachable and friendly like yourselves. The lovely EvaAnna of Manley & their tech. dept are brilliant as were the lovely folk at NRG (remember them?) at Walled Lake Michigan.
    Send the serial no’s and get schematics emailed by return, always handy just in case.
    Good customer relations is certainly one important factor in deciding where to place my purchases.
    In my past life I remember repairing a ships radar display at four in the morning with just a dim torch (not to affect watchkeepers night vision) while the ship was in thick fog in a shipping lane.. now that was a wee bit of pressure.

  5. A technician came to my house and showed me how much signal strength you lose by using wifi repeaters. So here’s one priceless tip from a non-technical person who’s been streaming hi-def music for the last several years: USE CABLED ETHERNET, NOT WIFI.
    From what I understand, Sonos, which I think is brilliant, recognised the problems of domestic wifi from the outset and the main purpose of the Sonos Bridge was to isolate the Sonos wifi stream from the rest of the wifi traffic on the network. Clever people could probably do this on their own modems and router, but Sonos made it a core part of their technology, idiot-proof and reliable and the rest is history.

    1. Steven I am totally with you on the wired vs wireless, and have gone to great strides in the house to run wires wherever I can. The quality of connection and service is so much better. I also, instead of using repeaters, which totally degrade the signal, use access points as well which are hard wired. I set them to the same SSID and password as the main router wireless so as you roam around the property your connection hops from access point to access point and then gigabit connection to the router. Works quite well. It has been interesting trying to snake Cat5e cable through cracks and crevasses and through attics and down through head ducts to get them to where i need them to be however 🙂

      1. I was having wifi signal issues as my wifi system could not bounce the signal from my ground floor satellite TV hub (wired to the dish) to the TV on the second floor of the house. So the cable guy ran a CAT5 from the modem on the first floor to the TV hub on the ground floor, giving me a direct wired connection from the modem to the audio system (next to the TV hub) and the TV signal only has to bounce wirelessly from the first floor to the second floor.
        The CAT5 goes under a carpet, out a wall, over a flat roof, down the side of the house and back in at ground level. I assumed a $0.20 cable would be rubbish, but seems fine to me. I bought a 50m CAT6 external use oil filled cable off Amazon that still only costs $0.50/m, but I’ve not found the time or inclination to install it.
        I use the ASUS RT-N66U access point. Their stuff is unbeatable and it can be set up and controlled with a very good iOS app. I used the DSL-AC68U router/modem and that was equally as good.
        Devialet customer care told me that the vast majority of their customer problems were because of network issues rather than their equipment.

        1. I bet Devialet is not unique in finding out that their customer’s networks are a primary culprit in service issues. I see many disclaimers on a lot of sites that speak to network issues and resolving and testing them before doing anything else. It can be sometimes as simple as still using an old bit of Cat3 or regular Cat5 line (because the customer remembers how much they paid for it ha ha). I feel fortunate that for the most part I can troubleshoot this stuff myself and don’t feel so helpless when it comes to technology.

          1. When we all have 5G and unlimited ultrafast GSM, in a couple of years or so, our audio systems will just patch into our mobile phones and that will be the end of it. It might also be the end of MQA, if it lasts till the end of 2018. Why PSA supports MQA I don’t know (p.s. I worked out their cunning plan for world domination from their most recent accounts, it’s even more of a con than I originally thought. It also strikes me as implausible. I need to debrief Bill, the PSA financial guru.)

              1. Actually I read that from some other USA manufacturer as it is the only hi-res streaming option. I emailed Qobuz about their apparent delay in the USA, and their position on MQA. They emailed back that they will post something up on their blog.

  6. As far back as December 1987, Frank Van Alstine published in the corresponding issue of his monthly publication: “Audio Basics”, A Troubleshooting Diagram and Flow Chart to help you track down System Problems.

    The method consists of two parts: a diagram of a typical audio system, in which all possible connections are shown, and a Flow Chart of no less than 42 steps, to easily isolate and identify a defective component or cable, without the need for any instrument, tools or special training in engineering.

    According to Van Alstine, it takes just a little bit of common sense and logic.

    I do not know of any manufacturer that took so much trouble to help their customers, the instructions given in the troubleshooting section of the user manuals, are so terse and most of the time do not attack the various problems faced by the users, even worse the interaction with other components of the chain.

    In cases like this one is that one says: Past times were better.

  7. Many years ago, my wife’s boss called one night as he knew I was into stereo gear. He was apparently very stoned. His stereo wouldn’t work. I tried to talk him through the usual troubleshooting which was difficult since I didn’t know his system or even him. Try this, try that, etc. Then the big AHA moment. Is it plugged into the wall? Nope. “Hey mannnnn, thanksssss…”

    1. This has been my problem in each instance of my troubleshooting the Sprout100.

      I was so excited when the first one arrived, and I got everything was plugged in properly, but no sound…everything but the AC mains.

      And with the digital volume control, it defaults to a much lower setting when you plug in the headphones. There is enough signal, to cue you to turn it up, but going from headphone back to one with speakers, this default to the mute feature I am sure will protect the drivers of some speakers, and ears. But, I was so convinced that the DAC stage had failed, I returned the unit.

      Now, I have everything figured out, except for one thing. I have the habit of turning off the Sprout100 at night–which really is not “off” it is a power save mode unless Mains are pulled.

      I come out in the morning, and instead of Cat Stevens’ “Morning has broken” I think I must be listening to Pink Floyd (whose albums always seem to have at least 1-minute of dead air at the beginning) then realize I need to power the Sp[rout100 up…

  8. I’m not going to relate any of the countless horror stories I’ve seen where so called trained experts failed to correctly identify and repair a fault in many fields of endeavor. However, I will say that when a problem is intermittent it is among the hardest to find and fix. Just when you think you’ve got it repaired, it comes back again. It is important to get to the root cause of the failure, not just the symptom. When you see some part that has failed, the first question to ask is why did it fail? Replacing it without knowing the right answer could be a waste of time and money as it will only happen again. Many years ago my next door neighbor had hiccups for four days. This can be a serious medical problem or indicative of one. He went to see his doctor and when he got there the hiccups stopped. When it got home they came back again.

    The failure could be inherent in the design. An old saying among repair technicians was that a $300 picture tube protected a 10 cent fuse. When Pilot Radio built its first solid state stereo console, after 8 hours one channel of the power amplifier always failed. My friend who worked there said that for awhile they were coming back for in warranty repair faster than the factory was turning them out.

  9. In my opinion and from experience, the “let’s get it fixed rather than just replace it” issue is pretty much a high end device decision. In my experience, anyone with a consumer grade box of any kind, or speakers, who experiences a failure usually just throws them out and goes and gets new ones. If it’s under warranty then perhaps they send it in or take it back to the dealer (Best Buy, Costco, etc.) but seldom do they ever take it for a repair. It’s not worth the expense for the most part when they can replace it so cheaply given the level of equipment they are buying.

    As for high end equipment, I have always been frustrated by the need for repairs in the first place but, I rationalize this as I do high performance automobiles or other products, in that they are functioning at the cutting edge of their craft and as such are probably pushing the physical limits of their components, so, things break from time to time. I have friends with very expensive performance cars and they are constantly needing tweaked and serviced to stay in top form. Too much bother for me, I’ll stick with my Lincoln that I can drive and forget most of the time 🙂

  10. I do not really have a problem with this. If you connect it, it seems very basic, as there are limited points of failure.

    The exception is when you get into a music server scenario. All bets are off in that environment.

  11. Very helpful advice. More often than not it is either a connection or the selector knob in the wrong position. A loose AC connection is another cause . Even turning the air conditioner on or off can switch remote controlled components off. Turning the temp. control on the air conditioner can change the volume and multiple presses on the remote can reduce the volume to zero. Like you said just don’t panic though that is a normal reaction often. And if nothing works then there is a great possibility that something is not working and the problem could be serious. Regards.

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