Skill vs. hardware

January 16, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

I find it fascinating that a skilled designer with a good ear can make a cheap set of speaker drivers and a bang-together box sound great, while the opposite doesn't appear to be true.

Take for example the work of speaker designer, Andrew Jones, and Elac. Decent low cost hardware put together with a great deal of skill and an experienced ear makes for some excellent sounding speakers—which often sound better than far more expensive brands.

I would put forth the notion that skill outweighs hardware in almost every case.

You see that idea in electronics more than speakers.

As designers, we all have access to the same integrated circuits. An ESS DAC chip placed in an iPhone can be the same IC as in a high-performance brand's DAC, yet the two don't compare in sound quality.

In the same way food chefs make significantly different tasting meals using identical ingredients, it's the skill of the designer that really matters.

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70 comments on “Skill vs. hardware”

    1. Y'know, what this world needs is some serious comedy relief - I submit:
      The Hans Beekhuyzen pornhub channel.
      Now THAT would be funny.

      Speaking of - (insert your curse word of choice here) plumbing fixed - and I'd like to find the guy who invented the sharkbite connector and kiss him RIGHT on the forehead!

      1. Hi Jeff,
        Look, I do the best that I can here.
        As far as 'The Hans Beekhuyzen PornHub Channel' concept goes;
        I think that it would be a good way to strengthen Netherlands-Canada
        relations...just don't tell Hans about it 😉

        Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo!

        1. Yup. Hans would get out of breath for sure. Lol I’m sorry I love that man, but he looks like he is gonna drop dead at any moment. He looks incredibly unhealthy, sadly.

            1. Richard, Alan & Steven,

              To be fair, England did not get the match-fit preparation that would've allowed them to have been more formidable opponents...the constant rain when they first arrived here.
              I'm sure that all of us would've preferred a much closer contest, but it is what it is.
              England's selectors are as much to blame & Hameed was completely out of form.
              It was a joy to see Broad & Wood bowling today; I say that sincerely.
              West Indies next...Godspeed!
              Never forget the great love & respect (& banter) that the English & the Australians have for one-another.

              1. I suspect, FR, that it might be something in the beer that gave the Australians an advantage. I lovingly nursed a Coopers Original Pale Ale during the game last night and the Buffalo Bills trounced the New England Patriots. I shall return to the local import store and pick up a 6-pack in hopes that it will take them all the way to the Super Bowl--and win it this time!

                1. Hey there Longplayer. Wasn't that a beat down? I never dreamed we could crush the Pat's that definitively. I went to UB back in the early 80s. One had to become a fan by local ordinance, as I recall. But for being sore with them in trading Flutie time period I've remained a fan. Now on to K C. to teach them a lesson. Go Bills!

                  1. I have a Flutie Flakes cereal box on display on top of the cupboards in my kitchen. Bills vs. Chiefs will be a very tough fought game if both sides show up for it.

                    1. Another 2-3 months for our football (Rugby League) season to start-up again....tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.....

    1. Let's see if I can type a post with one eye before the Test ends.

      Ken Rockwell said the other day that the new £7,500/$9,000 Leica M11 camera body has too much resolution for a camera with manual focus, effectively that the key component (the sensor) is too good for the rest of the camera. A good reason to stick with my 5-years old M10 (and 65-years old M3).

      Digging a bit deeper into Paul's Post, what is the cost of parts? Massive companies like Onkyo make great value audio because, on parts, they can order by the million and have negotiating strength.

      On a slightly smaller scale, reading up on my CXA81, John Westlake explained that manufacturing in China, Cambridge Audio can get parts at 10% or less compared to the cost of the same part purchased in the UK.

      Devialet manufacture in France, and a key element of their business model is having a product range that generates enough volume to be able to order parts above the minimum order quantity, maybe 50,000 or more.

      There are lots of good engineers around, but Andrew Jones seems exceptional. Very strong academically, he's worked for leading manufacturers for almost 40 years and believes in designing products at prices that make them widely affordable. As Carly Simon said, nobody does it better.

      1. Amazing cameras the M10 and M3. No viewfinder quite like the latter's. I used to own a Leica CF projector lens that read a curved slide. Great design, low cost, it delivered the resolution obtained by the camera to the screen.

        I suspect that the lenses for the M11 would not let the sensor down, maybe manual focussing is difficult with this model?

        1. The lovely 0.91 M3 viewfinder on the M11 might help, except it is too big for wider than 50mm. I sometimes have to use the external EVF on the M10, they should have built one into the M11.

          If once was bad enough, now watching the highlights as was not up early today.

          1. E. Leitz… A name synonymous with skillful designers and the highest quality construction. I owned an M4 then traded up to an M6 but these are film cameras not the newer digital models. It still feels beautiful in my hands and still takes Incredible black and white photos. It takes passion and skill to create great products with the right materials.

      2. Nice to co mingle the Leica and Elac brand in the same domain. I loved my Leica cameras. Many years of great usage.
        Last year I “stumbled” across the Elac brand and purchased a pair of 2.0/B6.2 and they were unreal irrespective of the price. Yesterday I treated myself to a clean up of the terminals of these speakers and the difference was tremendous! Living seaside does wonders for deposits on almost everything!
        The sparkle of the sound was a happy surprise! I did the same for a pair of EPOS Epic 2 and those have not been serviced for 9 years!! Also a big improvement in sound !
        70% isopropyl and a Q Tip did the trick!
        I still can’t believe what “Dr Jones” did when he designed the 2.0/B6.2. I have had TAD speakers in the past which he was responsible for.
        Sometimes I just laugh as to what I paid for the Elac speakers that I ordered directly from Elac on the B stock list. My brother also got a pair and just loves them! They do best with
        80 watts - not that efficient or sensitive-
        Just heard the Texas hostage situation was resolved with no injury to hostages. Our synagogue has armed guards at the entry gate all the time-
        Yes ,it’s gated as well!

        1. Do you know of Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith? A remarkable character, who has written biographies about Ernst Leitz and his daughter Elise, who saved many people before and during the war.
          choosemosaic.org/liberal/rabbi/

  1. Actually all iPhones with lightning connectors do no have internal DAC's, and the previous generations with 3.5mm jack utilized Wolfson. Apple devices have never used ESS to my knowledge.

    Some models that do use a properly implemented ESS DAC like the LG V60 or Meizu Pro 5 or vivo XPlay5 can rival any DAC, primarily due to the buffer stage.

    Certainly this is one of my greatest angst's, I have said before, that most consumer electronics these days are crippled by the mindset, "whats the least we have to spend for a given design" that leads to poor performing equipment. Rather than using quality buffer stages after the DAC, utilizing high performance parts that may cost a few dollars per part, cheaper options are leveraged like using a part that costs $0.25, leading to poor performance. Same DAC. Profit margins rather than audio quality rules the day.

    1. Let’s forgive Paul for his less than detailed knowledge of mobile phones, he makes a good point.

      If you look up the data, you will find that major consumer audio manufacturers like Onkyo and Yamaha (the audio division only) have a Gross Profit Margin in recent years of less than 10%. This is extremely low and unprofitable. In contrast TEAC, which is more in the professional and commercial parts business, has a gross margin of 40%.

      Audiophile companies, which do use high quality components, often have gross profit margins around 50%. Data is more limited, but Linn make close to 60%.

      So before making statements like “Profit margins rather than audio quality rules the day”, check your facts.

      1. Yes
        It’s not criminal to have a good profit margin and a good product !

        As consumers we need to judge our purchases.

        Profits will allow future development of the product.

        Capitalism has moved our society and the loss of it would be catastrophic!

      2. Maybe you didn't know, but I spent a decade at one of the most respected professional audio companies out there. In King Dollar's Court, profit margin trumps every time.

        1. Wherever you worked, they may have taught you how to divert discussions, but they didn't teach you to read financial statements. The accounts of the major listed Japanese producers are available online and don't support your angst-inducing theory that they use cheap components to rip off customers with high profit margins. The truth is quite the opposite. To the contrary, they make quality products on incredibly small profit margins and in recent years have operated at a substantial net loss.

          1. Steven, you are certainly welcome to your opinions, but once again, you only show you really don't understand the industry and engineering considerations when it comes to consumer audio design.

            Have a great day.

                1. Yeah, I know that...
                  (as opposed to, 'No sh!t, Sherlock')
                  But you do type a lot of 'nonsensical poppycock', as Steven has pointed out.

                  Perhaps, & hopfully, 'Oliver Kalyan's' post today at 6:58 pm, might enlighten you.

                  Have a f**king fantastic day!! 😀

                  1. Concerning Andrew Jones, he joined KEF, initially in the research department looking into such things as measurement techniques and improved prediction of performance from impedance measurements (with the help of Dr. Small of Thiele/Small parameters fame). He subsequently became Chief Engineer and worked extensively with concentric driver technology. After 11 years he moved to the USA, at the invitation of Floyd Toole, to work for Infinity.

                    Concerning the assertion denouncing measurements, (interview concerning the Pioneer speakers) "Andrew has a feeling in his head of the sound he is trying to achieve. The technical approach is a mix of art and science. There are things you can do by measurement, yet that only works if you can measure correctly, since it is a three-dimensional process. There are numerous axes to consider when measuring, and how a speaker interacts with its environment. Understanding the experiment, measurements, design, etc is critical to correlation. The process is to set a goal, build and check that you meet that goal by measurements combined with listening and then making any necessary changes. Then measure again and listen again. It is this process that keeps him on the path to achieving what he had in mind. There are a whole host of other factors that come into play in finalizing the sound including equipment, the room, music, etc. that must also be considered in order to meet his goal."

                    As a member of the Audio Engineering Society (AES) Andrew was able to draw from the knowledge and expertise of others to learn about how to design and measure speakers.

                    1. Barsley,
                      See how confused you are?
                      You don't have to tell me about Andrew Jones as I know that he was with KEF prior to being with ELAC, etc.
                      What is the payoff for you coming here & regurgitating information that can be Googled?
                      Does doing this give you some sort of legitimacy in your own mind?

            1. Not my opinion - it’s fact. The Japanese company data is available at kanjinet.com and the UK data at Companies House UK.

              Of course you can keep spouting your uninformed BS about how consumer audio companies are ripping people off with overpriced rubbish.

  2. So what are the unique capabilities that make Andrew Jones the exceptionally skilled speaker designer?

    As already noted, he has a strong academic background. However some of the best design engineers I have met are without degrees, or have degrees in unrelated fields. Therefore it is the mental capacity to absorb and comprehend the basic science, not the letters before or behind the name.

    What makes a truly great designer I believe are the personality characteristics of curiosity, willingness to take calculated risks, and accept failure.

    Andrew Jones speakers, like all great designs, are “more than the sum of their parts”. Great speaker designs don’t need gilding fort the eye, or a high dollar parts list to prove their worth.

  3. As good as the Elacs are, Andrew Jones crowning achievement has to be the speakers he designed for Pioneer. Both the bookshelves and floorstanders are amazing (though the bookshelves are best). There is no way they can sound so great...yet they do. And they can be had for virtually nothing....like less than $100 on Ebay!

  4. The real skill may be in the way the hardware is implemented. For all I know, all ESS chips may sound the same. But the audio circuit afterwards doesn’t.

        1. While there are many choices for an output in the configuration of the DAC, Ted chose to use an output transformer for a couple of reasons. As you may recall, the actual output of the DirectStream DAC is from an LVDS FPGA output. It's actually the pure DSD stream running in the megahertz range. LVDS is fairly low voltage so then we run it through some switches (actually high-speed video op amps so we don't get close to the rails as a logic device would) to produce a much higher voltage datastream.

          Now it's time to low pass filter the noise and here we can use a traditional filter scheme or an output transformer designed to do just that. We get another boost in voltage as well as LP filtering and isolation provided by the transformer.

  5. Dear Fat Rat, Richard and other sports posters,

    Paul is a sweet, gracious, accommodating and patient blog host, and never complains about this, but I don't understand why you so frequently pollute this audio blog with utterly irrelevant sports stuff.

    Isn't there a Facebook group or something for sports talk?

    (I am sorry, Paul, for making a policing sort of comment. I know that if irrelevant and random sports talk doesn't bother you, then it shouldn't bother me.)

    1. I get your point, but the conversation on this happy forum has never been so sharply focussed on only one thing at the expense of the rest of life. Love of audio has brought us together but occasional brief, good natured banter by football fans never bothers me. A rabid slagging off would be right out of place but the culture here really doesn't invite or support that. Just my $.02.

    2. cos Fat Rat, Richard mee and uffers are a wel inteligont lot annd apreeeciate clicket as wol as ordio and wee no dat Paul Mc Goowan luvs a bit of hoomer in is poasts.......so RONRES pleeze stop bing a boorin old geezer an liten up a bit......clicket tis not a mattor ov life or deaf ......tis mouch more important dan dat!.

      keep smiling team ....love your post and videos Paul and we all appreciate you being you....keep up the great work.

      rock and bloody roll!

      Baldy Bloke.

    3. I’m not always on topic as well, but anyway +1 from my side, even if not posting about any other BS often means no posts at all. However there will be very different opinions.

      1. I think you hit it right on head. I was complaining about this exact topic of being scattered all over the place over six months ago and now even I am getting involved with all of the side conversations and becoming comedic as well. It’s time for me to stop and I don’t care what some other idiot says down below about how important cricket is. Let him go chirp on another channel.

    4. Hi Ron,
      There are occasional discussions here on 'Paul's Posts', even instigated by Paul himself, sourdough bread, vegetarian diet, Coronavirus & mask wearing & photography, just to name a few, that have nothing to do with home-audio.
      Also I have told Paul, via private e-mail, that if I ever post anything on his 'Paul's Post' site that he feels should not be here, to please just delete it & I will not be at all offended.
      Lastly, in future, please train yourself to skip over my comments & replies.
      Have a nice day 😀

    1. The thing about cameras is that they have many parallels with audio, except they process light rather than sound. And the best ones were made 60 years ago, unless you are chasing resolution to the point of it becoming meaningless.

      1. Steven not to be confused with Steven,

        Personally I like the variety of topics on this site, especially cameras and cars.

        My comment was in support of the diversity of topics discussed on the site.

        In the past, Paul himself posted a recipe for his chicken soup (vegetarian of course)

        FYI it pained me to give my dark room equipment away a few years back. Sad that there is a skill I learned and loved, but has ceased to have relevance.

  6. I participate in a very nicely monitored music and audio forum where there are strong rules about no politics, no religious comments and no bullying or trolling. They do a really nice job of keeping the forum rules enforced. However, keeping a thread on topic - forgetaboutit.

      1. I dunno about that..
        Require daily lubrication (Beer, Wine, Scotch)
        Parts prone to wear & tear - especially the moving parts
        Tend to be rather unproductive when the power goes out
        When running finicky or being persnickety & non-productive - a good smack will often rectify
        Old ones are abandoned as antiques and replaced with newer models (never as good though..)
        Runs well even on bad gas
        Are we not machines?

        And I agree - no need to for content police - I can get quite droopy-eyed at the sports stuff & just skip to the next part. Because there's never a dull moment here.
        Besides it is the 7 degrees of McGowan Bacon. (Paul McBacon?)
        Soccer -> Fan Crowd
        Fan Crowd -> Beer & Hot Dogs
        Beer & Hot Dogs -> French Fries
        French Fries -> Chips
        Chip -> IC
        IC -> DAC
        DAC -> PS Audio!!
        There ya go.
        We're NEVER really off topic...

  7. Obviously Mr. Jones squeezes every drop of performance out of every cheaper component and uses his ears to do it rather than take advanced, expensive components and use measuring instruments to make the final product and believe that that is the best that can be done. I am sure Mr. Jones uses measuring instruments but to get the wrinkles out in the final product. Of course having outstanding hearing ability is at back back of it all. That's my opinion. Regards.

  8. It's like the old truism in the guitar world: play through Stevie Ray Vaughan's rig and you probably won't sounds like SRV. But if Vaughn played on an unfamiliar guitar through an unfamiliar amp, he'd probably still sound like Vaughan.

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