Technical sophistication

Since joining this forum, I've been both amazed and sometimes intimidated by the technical sophistication of contributors. I'm wondering if many of you are engineers or have some similar background.

It seems that in-depth knowledge is sometimes (oftentimes?) required to set up a top-level system and - despite reading a couple of books and this forum, supplemented with online sites and a subscription to "Stereophile" (and "Absolute Sound" in the HP era) - I have no clear and present idea about what's going on, at least at a fundamental level. I've had "audiophile" (as defined by reviewers at various points in time) equipment for decades, but I consider myself a dilettante in this arena.

So, what are forum members perspectives on this observation?
I'm a radiologic technologist for which you have to know enough electronics to read a schematic and build an X-ray tube from scratch. Also enough chemistry and physics to understand how electrons bombarding a tungsten disk produces x-ray photons. And yet the funny thing is I knew all this before going through the program, and a lot of the reason I understood how the x-ray equipment works was because I learned about transformers, resistors, capacitors and all the rest by being an audiophile and all the years spent learning how all this stuff works.

Far as I can tell that is all that counts. Seems to me more often than not its a disadvantage being an engineer. Engineers know engineering and tend to look for engineering answers. Problem being all the really good components performance lies in a realm unfathomed by anything we are today able to measure. These are the guys giving absolutely counterproductive advice saying things like wire is wire and double-blind yada yada.

Not that it doesn't help to understand a few things. Mostly though you just need to understand there's an interaction between speakers and amps, and between cartridges and phono stages, and why that is and how it affects things. You can learn that by reading books like Robert Harley's Complete Guide to High End Audio.

Mostly though what you need is an open mind. Some things that sound positively ludicrous, like you can demagnetize an LP, actually work. And some things that sound like they absolutely must be true, like the sub has to match and timing matters, are so wrong its not even funny. So you keep an open mind. Until your ears tell you what to think. 

Which is really what will help the most. Ears. Ears and a vocabulary to interpret and express what you are hearing. Harley got that covered too. Cannot recommend that book enough.
Thanks for the detailed reply! I have Harley's book and I've consulted it occasionally. Perhaps a more disciplined and conscientious course of study is in order.
I’m a retired quantitative biologist.

I agree with @millercarbon that you need to trust your own ears. A few tips from my perspective:
  • Audiophiles have many "secret" techniques for improving sound. A few of them actually work. Most work their effects only on certain listeners. Is that too subtle? They are placebos, is what I meant.
  • Speakers and room acoustics account for the greater part of what you hear; equipment is next important; the cable game is for when everything else is really good already.
  • A tipped-up treble range will sound more immediate and impressive initially, and a year later, you’ll wonder why so many of your recordings are unpleasant to listen to.
  • At least in advertising and PR (which means also in the first pages of reviews), there is a lot of technobabble. Very little of it has to do with the reason the product sounds good or bad; it’s largely marketing fluff.
  • Anyone who says there is ONE best technology, or ONE best DAC chip, or ONE way to do anything in audio is a know-nothing blowhard.
  • Despite that, most audiophiles are great people when you meet them in person. Join the local audio club if there is one!
Have fun!

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Thanks for the detailed reply! I have Harley's book and I've consulted it occasionally. Perhaps a more disciplined and conscientious course of study is in order.

Two parts of the book were for me the most valuable were the section on listening skills and terminology and the chapter on the turntable. The advice on why the turntable is the centerpiece of any proper high end music system was for me a revelation. This was years ago back when the CD was supposed to be perfect sound forever. Its been so long and things have changed so much maybe people don't know but that's not made-up derision that was actually the CD marketing message: perfect sound forever. For a respected senior Stereophile reviewer to be saying not CD, LP, was - well it had to be taken seriously. And it was.

But it was the info on listening skills that really hit me. Does not take long reading comments to realize the extent of most guys listening skills ranges from "sounds good" all the way to "sounds better" which if that sounds like close to zero, yeah, then I write pretty clear after all. Compare that with some of the better reviewers like Harley or Fremer, guys who go to lengths describing tiny details of bits of aspects of sound to try and get across what they're hearing. Might seem like flowery prose. Sometimes might even be flowery prose. But it can also be the key that opens the door to your learning to recognize and appreciate aspects of sound you never imagined were even there.

Its a challenge because on the one hand you have the totally valid technical approach of something like say if the first reflection arrives within a window of three to six milliseconds the brain interprets it as being from the same source and so this interferes with our ability to localize the source. While on the other hand you have the totally valid listeners approach of the imaging is more solid with the speakers out from the walls. No right or wrong but its hard to argue you can really understand what is going on without understanding at least a fair amount about both approaches.
They're mostly wannabe engineers here, like that guy who runs this site:

millercarbon......I am curious. Your skills must go beyond those stated in your first post. Although now retired, I was a Radiologic Technologist for 25 years (medical) and then went into industrial radiography for another 20 simply because medical didn't pay as well. Beside knowing the X-ray circuit for the understanding of how the machines produce X-rays that type of question can, and is usually, asked on the National Registry exam.
Being familiar with a lot of stationary, portable equipment, and the use of isotopes I could never come close to building an X-ray tube from scratch. Just curious where your additional knowledge comes from?

Thanks to all for the replies!
I think you should go by your ears more than any technical sophistication.

Ultimately, your ears and personal pleasure and experience is what matters.

Having said that, learning and talking about technology is a lot of fun. Trying to figure out WHY things sound good or bad or a particular way is endlessly amusing. However, this is like arguing over the value of cobalt in an oil painting. Ultimately, the finished product, and how much pleasure it gives you hanging on your wall is more important.

BS = Bull$$$$
MS = More $$$$
PHD = Piled Higher and Deeper
Well there goes the neighbourhood……..
All someone has to do is use the word sophistication and uber shows up! 😀
mike_in_nc and @millercarbon,
I totally agree with your above valuable and helpful considerations. Because of this I just ordered the Harley's book that I was not aware.
Thanks so much and greetings from Italy.

The Harley book seems to me to serve more as a reference than a readily digestible plan of action. Nonetheless, it's quite good and more-or-less up to date.
There are online resources far more credible than what you'll find on this site or the magazine pubs - the BBC archives for example:
There are online resources far more credible than what you’ll find on this site or the magazine pubs.

>>>>Or maybe just get your info in the pubs. Ha ha
For really useful information without woo-woo, I recommend Jim Smith’s book, "Get Better Sound." A set of videos with the same name is also available. The focus of these is on optimizing your current system without additional expense, rather than buying ever-more-costly equipment and ever-more-bizarre accessories.
You’re the 2nd person to recommend this book. Interestingly, it’s out-of-print and Amazon prices range from ~$39 (one used copy available right now) to ~$995 (I kid you not on that). Clearly, Amazon sellers have priced their offering knowing what audiophiles are willing to pay for good sound, whether from equipment, sound sources or even books!
Learning/listening skills.

You can buy it straight from the source.


That’s great! Many thanks for that link! I think the Amazon copies were the book only (no DVD, etc).

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