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About Those Audio Experts

KEF R Series

by Roger Skoff In this installment, Roger Skoff explores some Big Math and a myth that masquerades as something called "expertise". In short, we're probably missing something here. Like fun, for example.  Did you know that the United States government maintains “experts” on contacting and communicating with space aliens, even though no such contact or communication has ever taken place? “Experts” are also employed by governments, businesses and other institutions in any number of other arts, sciences, and disciplines, including economics, even though a standing joke among economists is that “if you put any dozen economists into any room to discuss any issue, when they come out they’ll have TWO dozen opinions.” And, of course, there’s “Climate Change” that has “experts” on both sides of the issue at each other’s throats, each claiming that they, alone, are right and that anyone who disagrees with them must obviously be a fool, an unbeliever, a willful obstructionist, a traitor or an agent of either the devil or The Right Wing – whichever they consider worse. Then, finally, there are the “expert” witnesses dredged-up by both sides of any litigation or appropriate criminal case to do battle with each other in defense of whichever side is paying them.

Frankly, whenever I hear people talking about “experts”, the first thing that comes to my mind is the phrase, so often heard on the news or read in the papers or on the internet that: “…the experts are baffled.”

Yup, that seems about right, especially when the subject is High-End audio, where, unlike so many other hobbies, almost everything seems to be a point of contention.

For a “newbie” just getting into HiFi, the obvious thing to do would seem to be to consult with and seek to learn from older, more experienced audiophiles – friends; people on the internet; and the “experts” who write for the magazines and blogs. The problem is that, even on the most basic issues: Tubes or solid-state; analog or digital; cones or planars or horns; physical media or downloads; generic or premium cables; power treatments or not; “tweaks” or not; and on, and on, and on; the advice they’re likely to get will almost certainly be inconsistent, and may sometimes even be strongly conflicting.

Why is that? It’s simple: in audio (and I suspect in many other fields, as well) It’s simply not possible to be an expert! Trust me, I know.

According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1991 ed.), an expert is (definition 1) “1 obs: experienced 2: having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience”. Another definition in the same dictionary (definition 2) goes on to describe an expert as “one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject”.

In audio, for someone to actually meet either of those definitions — especially the second one, calling for “mastery” — can never happen.

Here’s why:

The last time I checked, there were more than 400 brands (not just models, but discreet brands) of speakers on the market, along with hundreds of brands of audio electronics and possibly hundreds, but certainly no less than dozens of brands of cables, phono cartridges, and various audio “tweaks”. To show how truly impossible it is, though, to acquire the “experience” and “mastery” called for under those dictionary definitions, let’s define a simple, phono-only system, made from a greatly limited number of products and see if, even then, anybody could qualify as an “expert”.

For our phono System, we’re going to need a cartridge, so let’s suppose that there are only ten different models to choose from in the whole world. We’re also going to need a tonearm to mount it in and a turntable to turn the records, so let’s suppose that there are only ten of each of those, too. To get from the cartridge to our preamp, we’re going to need a cable and, of course we’ll need the preamp for it to connect to, so let’s say that there are only ten preamps and ten cables, too. Then let’s limit the number of preamp-to-amp interconnects to ten, and say that there are also only ten amps, ten speaker cables, and ten possible speakers to complete our system.

Finally, let’s declare that anybody who has listened to all of the possible combinations of just those products, for just ten minutes, each, will have sufficient experience and mastery to be considered an “expert” and to give worthwhile audio advice to those who might seek it.

As a first step in seeing how many experts we’re likely to come up with, let’s calculate how many possible combinations there are, even for that simple a System: 10 cartridges times 10 arms equals 100; times ten turntables equals 1,000; times 10 phono cables equals 10,000; times 10 preamps equals 100,000; times 10 interconnects equals 1,000,000; times 10 amplifiers equals 10,000,000; times 10 speaker cables equals 100,000,000; times 10 speakers equals 1 billion possible combinations.

Now, let’s multiply that 1 billion combinations times the 10 minutes that our “experts” are going to have to spend listening to each combination and even if we assume zero setup time between combinations, it will still take 10 billion minutes to listen to them all.

A lot can happen in 19,000 years. I mean, these guys went extinct “only” ~4,000 years ago.

Hmmm, there are 60 minutes to an hour; 24 hours to a day; 365 days to a year, so that means that (60 X 24 X 365 = 525,600) if our “experts” were to listen non-stop, 365 days a year, they would only be able to audition 525,600 combinations per year, and that it would take (10,000,000,000 divided by 525,600 = 19,025.875) more than 19,000 YEARS to acquire even the minimum “experience” and “mastery” we’ve established as our standard for expertise.

Obviously that’s not possible. Obviously not even 1/10th of 1 percent of that is possible: It would still call for more than 19 years of around-the-clock listening, and even if that could be done, even assuming perfect auditory memory and incredible endurance, by the time they had gotten through little more than a fraction of even that reduced percentage of the total possible number of combinations, many, if not all of the products our “experts” were auditioning would be obsolete or their manufacturers would have gone out-of-business!

That was just considering the possible system combinations. When you also consider the effects of set-up and room acoustics, and consider how many possible listening rooms there are out there, the whole thing lapses into absurdity….

And is buried, entirely, when you stop to consider that different people have different tastes and preferences, and that what your “expert” likes and recommends may not be suitable to your taste, your listening room, or your choice of music at all.

So what’s the answer? Easy: High End audio is not an appliance, it’s a hobby. Forget the Consumer Reports approach, entirely. Do your own listening. Spend your time as well as your money in making your System selection. There are no rules except your own, so be your own expert and enjoy it!

About the Author

Roger Skoff was founder and designer for XLO Electric, which he sold in 2002. His first published writings were in the field of consumer electronics, where he was a reviewer for Sounds Like… Magazine, a consumer audio publication, and later became Editor of Sounds Like…News, an industry publication in the same field. In whatever spare time he has from his current consulting activities and ongoing research in cable physics, he writes for Part-Time Audiophile, Audiophile ReviewPositive Feedback Online, and Enjoy The Music.

25 Comments on About Those Audio Experts

  1. Gabriel B // May 9, 2014 at 7:35 PM //

    Peter Aczel, raging against straw mans? I’m not sure. The quantity of ignorance in the audiophile world is depressing, and some of the beliefs he attacks are set as the main standard in the confused retailing/reviewing system. His style is harsh, but I love it, and it looks like most of the most educated minds of audio (yes, there are experts in audio) appreciate him (Dick Greiner, Stan Lipshitz, Fred E. Davis, Ken Pohlmann, Siegfried Linkwitz, etc.).

  2. This is a silly article.

    Of course there are experts in audiophile matters and we rely on them to voice our gear (at the factory), identify brands to our stores, and to steer us clear of snake oil, duds, and scams.

    We may not agree with people’s expert opinions, and that’s fine. People will always make strange decisions and be stupid. On the tragedocomic level: people still don’t vaccinate their children, swear that they could “fix the gov’ment in two weeks if they had a chance”, and claim that “anyone can drive NASCAR; you just turn left”. (Or try to explain to me what happened at the end of the Roman Empire!)

    But this does little to detract for the reality that some people know more than other people and sometimes considerably more. The strange American tendency is for experts to dumb themselves down and “aww shucks” their authority away in the face of passionately held (but uninformed) opinions. It’s a bummer because knowing and trusting experts in our hobby can make it far more enjoyable.

    Bill

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 13, 2014 at 12:23 PM //

      Bill — FWIW, I agree on all fronts. That said, experts are routinely dismissed in audiophile forums as being ignorant of New Permutation X or Historic Variation Y, and therefore, nothing they say has relevance or value about this here Magic Rock I just bought for $400. It’s absurd. It’s also expensive. But it’s as if we consumers (as a whole) cannot seem to help ourselves — all mistakes must be personally repeated and personally experienced, and no lessons can ever be extrapolated from the mistakes from others. Baffling. Which is why, sometimes, it’s best to go over the top, which is what Skoff has done.

      But believe me, the hamster wheel has been turning pretty hard over here. More to come.

  3. What an expert opinion? Try page 5 right here: https://tinyurl.com/mkxlaul

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 13, 2014 at 10:09 AM //

      Not sure if that was the reference/link you intended, but it’s a fun-to-read screed. But to be honest, his reviews just aren’t. I’ve paged through the last few dozen or so for something I could relate to, and just slipped off, as if the writing were coated in verbal Teflon. Might work for you — in which case, good on ya. Not my cuppa, though I do love it when he goes on a tear.

      • That is the intended link yes. I do tend to agree re the rather dry reviews. Kinda like comparing Top Gear to an Owners Manual. The latter may be more informative but I’ll take the former thanks. The honesty and rigour is refreshing however.

        I strongly recommend his “10 Biggest Lies in Audio” here: http://www.theaudiocritic.com/back_issues/The_Audio_Critic_26_r.pdf

        His audio “black hats” and “white hats” is the ballsiest audio writing ever IMO. Shame he’s no longer active. Anyway, I’ll leave you be, for now at least.

      • Part-Time Audiophile // March 14, 2014 at 8:12 AM //

        Bracing writing, to be sure. Unfortunately, oversimplification tends to blunt the cutting edge of his arguments. While I’m sure he’d argue, I submit that the conversations have all advanced significantly beyond the straw men he rages against.

  4. I was pondering audio tweaks the other day, and how so many of them seem to be like snake oil at worst, and herbal supplements at best. I’ve got an amp that’s underpowered driving speakers that are likely too big for the room and ought to go back to the factory because there’s a lovely rattle with deep deep base, coupled with a mass market subwoofer that’s surely not fast enough for the speakers…all in a room that’s not set up correctly for high fidelity listening. Not to mention I’m listening to digital rips, not vinyl records.

    But I do enjoy listening to my music with this system, and sharing that music with my kiddo.

  5. When it comes to art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Audio is quite similar in that we all have different hearing, different rooms, different experiences and different expectations. So, while their may be a theoretical best in terms of all known measurable, it still may not be a person’s favorite in terms of a musical experience. Hence the importance of doing your own listening and evaluation.

    And… in some cases where you have tried a reviewers suggested product and liked it…there is probably a slightly higher probability you will like some of their other recommendations.

    The beauty of audio as a hobby is that you can decide for yourself whether you are happy with what you have or whether it would be enjoyable to explore possible upgrades that could result in improvement.

  6. Bromo Ivory // March 9, 2014 at 11:46 AM //

    Audio is one of those weird things (like wine – I agree) that requires electronics rigor to make the recording and playback gear, but also a great deal of creativity to make the music that is reproduced. And enjoyment of music is entirely subjective, so what distortions (subtractive or additive) are acceptable are subjective, too. And, to go out on a limb, state of mind, mood, and other factors not directly related to the components affect enjoyment, too. So, really, if one were to “review” something, it IS a lot like a art critic.

    I am less comfortable, though, with such a high bar for being an expert. In most other fields, encyclopedic knowledge and direct experience of all possible combinations of all possible variables doesn’t exist, yet experts in many other fields really are experts. In the medical field, I would say a GP is an expert in medicine compared to the average person. The specialists are even more expert in a thin slice. None of them will possess direct experience in all possible combinations of all possible situations they may face, but they will have enough experience and knowledge to place them as experts compared to the GP and the general public. And they usually do a great deal of good, which in the end is what an expert is all about.

    In audio, I have a great deal of help from reviewers, sales people, and passionate hobbyists, that may not have experienced the comprehensive matrix the author referred to, and I feel help and helped me to achieve something I find very satisfying. I would feel some are experts, and some are not. But they are all united in a desire for good sound, and most were grounded in the fundamentals, and had enough experience to allow me to trust them to help narrow the field to something I could pursue in a reasonable amount of time.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 9, 2014 at 1:59 PM //

      I’m putting words in Roger’s mouth here, but from my own experience, I’ve seen that this is precisely the criticism leveled — if you haven’t seen x permutation, you cannot be really said to know and therefore your opinion is worthless. It’s grade-school thinking, so entirely understandable given today’s self-destructive fondness for anti-intellectualism, but false. The logical root lies in the triviality with falsification of universal statements — you only need one counter to undo a universal. The fallacy, however, lies in assuming that the “rule” is then useless. Newtonian Mechanics is entirely, absolutely, irrevocably and irredeemably false. Yet it’s still wicked-sharp when it comes to talking about everything you, the observer, will ever see, hear, touch, and generally experience in your life. Unless you’re an electron. Or a photon. In those cases, you’re pretty much fucked — at least, given models derived from Newtonian math. But I digress.

      While Roger makes it patently obvious that a true “expert” in the sense that’s routinely abused (the one who’s seen/heard/tried literally everything) is impossible, his admonition is perfectly valid. Just because I say it’s the bees knees won’t guarantee that you will think the same. In the end, it’s on you, the hobbyist, to find your own path to happiness. If, as you say, an review can help you get there — that’s a winner, in my book.

  7. Gavin Hadley // March 9, 2014 at 11:28 AM //

    I’m not an expert audio equipment reviewer but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express..

  8. GBwomenrhot // March 9, 2014 at 11:23 AM //

    ….and there’s no better feeling than realizing ‘an expert’ was full of crap, and just trying to sell more magazines!!

  9. Right on, right on Roger!

    It’s a subjective medium and a hobby that is supposed to be ‘enjoyed’.

    In this business even the engineers are unknowing artists, and everyone knows there is a ‘best’ art, right?

    Greg

  10. Perry Wharfedale // March 9, 2014 at 9:19 AM //

    Yes, I agree, and would add the following: as far as I am aware there is no academic course or text book that covers the audible effects of mains cables, interconnects, exotic materials and all the other ‘tweaks’, yet manufacturers, reviewers and audiophile ‘experts’ spout on about them all the time. They are experts in a completely baseless and fictional subject, but are completely and utterly ignorant of a subject that does have some basis in science: psychology! Without studying psychology, and acknowledging the effects of ‘expectation bias’ to which no one – even a genuine scientific expert and not just a wannabe audiophile – is immune, they really are just blowing about in the wind, spinning embarrassing yarns and making fools of themselves.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 9, 2014 at 10:15 AM //

      I suppose.

      Personally, I tend to take this the other way — audio review as “art criticism”. To think of a review, and the aesthetic judgments therein, as something like “fact” is to bamboozle yourself and really has nothing to say about the review itself, its quality or its value.

      I’ll probably have to follow this up with a fuller post, but as I’ve said (ad nauseam): audio reviews are like wine reviews. Find a reviewer you like, who’s taste mirrors yours, and the whole system works. Without that, the whole system is pretty much meaningless as there’s no “fact” of the matter when it comes to value judgments.

      Which is why I don’t like technical discussions of architectures or materials, unless it comes from another designer, one with no axe to grind.

    • All the magazines that review $10,000 pieces of wire are EXPERTS. They always hear the improvements. Experts at fiction, and story telling.

      • Could not agree more. There are in fact many experts in audio, it’s just that they are ignored by the vocal ‘audio press’. $100k amplifiers from Audio Note with a THD of 5% (about 5000 times an acceptable level) get rave reviews. As cedup stated, expensive cables are always better than cheaper ones. There’s always ‘noticeable’ improvements that aren’t at all ‘subtle’ that their long suffering wives can hear through the din of the kitchen! Despite this no one seems interested in taking up the $1000000 challenge to prove they can actually tell the difference, which is apparently glaringly obvious. I know $1000000 doesn’t go as far as it used to (especially in high end audio) but it’s not exactly chump change. Perhaps there is no difference after all.

        So there are experts Mr Skoff, it’s just that esoteric cable snake oil salesmen with a flat earth technological view choose to claim otherwise in order to make a buck.

      • Part-Time Audiophile // March 12, 2014 at 8:02 AM //

        I love how everything reverts to cables. As for the million dollar challenge, Fremer has answered this and the Amazing Randi backed out. And double-blind testing, while interesting for medicine, is generally considered to be odd when compared with, say, flower arranging. It’s just not a “knife for all seasons”.

        But I take your major thrust, which seems to be that there is a lot of apparent “advertising” in your so-called expert reviews.

  11. David Hallerman // March 9, 2014 at 9:17 AM //

    The “expert” analysis of expertise here is basically on target with a BIG except — when it comes to climate change, the vast vast majority of scientists who are involved in the area say it’s real. To conflate the opinion of those who have studied the matter with those people who have axes to grind, say those employed by oil companies, actually undercuts the author’s article.

    But editing is always possible.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 9, 2014 at 10:08 AM //

      I think his point was more that there are quite a few no-nothing blowhards on both sides of that particular aisle, regardless of the truthiness of the theories under debate.

      • David Hallerman // March 9, 2014 at 12:28 PM //

        When you use the word “truthiness” — word coined by the great Stephen Colbert basically to mean BS — to describe theories of climate change, you are most definitely going off-topic.

        So to go back on topic, I would say there most definitely are experts when it comes to subjective areas such as audio.

        However, unlike many people (including the author of this post), who often believe experts are supposed to have the answers, I’d say that experts in subjective areas are the people who offer questions and suggestions. Experts help others learn the best questions to ask for themselves.

        That is, an expert doesn’t give a man a fish, but teaches him how to fish.

        So, in the subjective area of audio, an expert would help others ask questions such as:
        * What size room do you have for listening?
        * What kind of music do you listen to most?
        * Do you prefer vocals or instruments? Do you prefer acoustic or electric?
        * What’s your budget?
        * How comfortable are you with electronic equipment and technology?

        I could go on.

        And in the category of suggestions — not answers — experts help others through ideas such as:
        * When auditioning speakers, try this placement or that placement.
        * Also, try this type of music and that type, that you enjoy.
        * If your budget is X dollars, here are the pros and cons of five DACs in that price range.

        That kind of thing.

        The thing is, in subjective areas such as audio, the true experts realize there are no, or very few, absolute answers. But not everyone knows what questions to ask themselves as they assemble their audio systems for their rooms, their musical and sound-quality tastes, their budgets, their aesthetics. And the true experts help people help themselves.

        Dave, who is pegged as an “expert” in his work and therefore is acutely aware of how little experts know in subjective areas other than helping people realize their objectives by learning how to navigate all the subjective elements

      • Part-Time Audiophile // March 9, 2014 at 1:42 PM //

        Popularized by Colbert, but used by philosophers for … oh … decades. The point is that there is a helpful and useful distinction between truth and truth-likeness (aka, truthiness). I’ve argued elsewhere that the latter is a far more useful term when talking about theories (see the works of Karl Popper) and tends to avoid all the silliness we’re hearing in the media about “it’s just a theory” when talking about evolution or climate change. And now back to your regularly scheduled debate.

      • Part-Time Audiophile // March 9, 2014 at 1:48 PM //

        I think another helpful distinction to draw would be between ‘expert’ and ‘review’. I think most of what you list is a useful set of criteria for the latter, but doesn’t necessarily inform the former, if you follow. I think the only real criteria that would helpfully distinguish and expert from a non-expert is experience. Your point, about the odd character of the knowledge that the experience actually brings you is spot on: the more you learn, the less you know. I’d be wary of any expert who wasn’t avoiding simple, declarative statements like the plague.

  12. Roger, you defined the problem expertly…..

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