About Those Audio Experts

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.