Is the hi-fi industry in safe hands (and does it matter anyway) ?

This is the post that I was thinking of when I came up with this blog’s tag-line. Could the hobby of hi-fi actually destroy itself by willfully wandering off into pointless blind alleys? And could the smaller players in the industry lose access to the digital audio stream?

Anyone can become an expert

Around the web, on the subject of hi-fi as with any other subject, there are experts galore, all offering the benefit of their wisdom and experience, stated with absolute solemnity and authority. I have to say that I question just about all of it, fuelled by a large element of ‘It takes one to know one’. That is, despite 30-odd years of messing around with this stuff, and being of a technical bent, I am all too aware of the vast, gaping holes in my own knowledge, and I assume that many self-proclaimed experts are in an even worse position.

My strongest doubts are reserved for the implicit assumption that if a person is called an expert, they must therefore possess special insights regarding the bigger picture, even if their expertise is newly-formed in some narrow field.

Obviously 90% of all hi-fi customers will know very little about the subject, and so it is easy for anyone with the ability to plug together the basic components of a hi-fi system to claim, or to be accorded, the status of ‘expert’. Various other special skills can be acquired through repeated, or on-the-job, experience like positioning speakers, plugging in mains filters, fitting carpet spikes, cleaning records, utilising cable lifters, de-magnetising things, and freezing CDs etc. etc. all without any knowledge of physics, acoustics or electronics. Yet the skilled person can still impart his wisdom, combined with conscious or unconscious use of the placebo effect, to impress the 90% and/or to sell them stuff. And it is only a small step from being a salesman of ‘tweaks’ to becoming a manufacturer of ‘tweaks’ (audiophile cables, cable lifters, isolation feet and so on) again with virtually no knowledge of anything fundamental like physics. The ‘knowledge’ is stated with the same sincerity and conviction as an electronics engineer describing how to design a low distortion amplifier. It is clear that there are few people in the audio business who would be able to distinguish between even these two vastly different levels of expertise, so the designers of ‘audiophile cables’, and amplifiers, carry equal influence and are accorded similar degrees of respect.

There are experts and experts

Which brings me on to the meaning of expertise when a person does have some knowledge of acoustics, physics or electronics. Qualifications in electronics do not confer any special insights into acoustics, or into the advantages of active over passive speakers, or the true consequences of a poor damping factor. An ‘expert’ in electronics could dive straight in and start employing their skills and qualifications to design passive speakers or valve amplifiers – and start their own company and be interviewed in magazines about it – without even considering the alternatives, and I am sure this happens. Many of the more subtle aspects of audio design fall into the gaps between academic subjects, but generalists who might be able to see the bigger picture and who might care enough about it are few and far between.

Even a celebrated physicist like Professor Brian Cox could fall into the trap of assuming that valves (despite their high output impedance and high energy consumption to name but two drawbacks) are somehow superior to solid state. Or that vinyl somehow confers a magical musicality that digital does not. (He gets his retaliation in first by invoking the “retro” word, but surely a retro enthusiast would be showing off genuine vintage gear rather than some modern things with blue LEDs and a brand new record player..?). I would love to have a conversation with Professor Cox about why he chose to spend £5750 on a modern valve amp with the heady output power of 18W, and particularly what cables he uses, and why! He presumably trusts the expertise of the ‘physicists’ who designed the amps. So did he give the amps the recommended 2-3 weeks of burn-in for 6-8 hours a day, when new? Did they sound better afterwards? Does he let them warm up for an hour before listening to them? Can he hear the musicality of the silver wire inside? Has he ever seen or heard of a piece of lab equipment with similar characteristics in the many leading research establishments he has known? That is, how many scientific discoveries has he missed simply because he didn’t think to use silver wires and valve technology for measurements, and a variable speed cutting machine for recording signals, in the lab? In an audio-related discussion, Professor Cox would be by far the most highly-qualified participant in terms of ‘the bigger picture’, but it is clear that his views are swayed by some sort of romantic notions about the magical properties of valves and vinyl. Many of the subtleties of audio design may not be immediately apparent, even to a physicist.

And of course, all the while, the most fundamental flaw in audio ‘expertise’ is all around us: subjectivity. So many audio experts whose entire repertoires are based only on listening to stuff. It is hardly worth repeating all the problems with this. The experts are probably able to list the problems too, but with an implicit disclaimer that because they’ve been doing it for so long they are immune to expectation bias etc. I strongly suspect that, in reality, the most experienced audio professional in any field would not be able to reliably distinguish between all audio phenomena relating to source/amp/speaker design defects, faulty hardware or psychological biases simply by listening. Experts’ opinions (e.g. on the efficacy of high resolution sampling) based solely on listening are meaningless, in my opinion.

No sense of progress

Compared to computer graphics and video, say, audio has a non-academic, cottage industry, or corporate after-thought, feel to it. It does not feel as though there are university departments all over the world forging ahead with brilliant new discoveries, or large corporations pushing at the boundaries to achieve the highest performance at the lowest cost. Instead, it is in the hands of small private companies who are re-hashing the ideas of the past in order to sell small numbers of very expensive boxes, or if the large corporations take an interest, it is in plumbing the lowest depths in order to shift large numbers of very cheap boxes.

So I find myself without many audio ‘heroes’. I might have been in awe of Peter Walker of Quad, or the founders of Meridian, KEF and other great companies, but even in my profound ignorance on many issues, I still have reservations about their ideas on the bigger picture and exactly how they are influenced by commercial considerations. A particular charismatic industry leader may promote high resolution sampling as the next frontier, while I may think of it as a red herring and a sideshow. Do they really believe what they are saying? Are their motives completely pure?

It just feels as though the industry and hobby are blowing around in the wind rather than ‘in safe hands’. It is by no means clear to me that there is progress towards, or in existence already, an audio system that is quite simply the best that can be. Nor that there is a continuum of audio systems that can be ranked in terms of performance and that might be loosely related to price, thereby allowing customers to influence the industry in a rational way by voting with their pounds and dollars. It feels as though the whole ‘hi-fi’ thing could drift off into an oblivion of all-in-one boxes and soundbars, headphones, home theatre, faux vintage toys, and astronomically-priced, over-engineered and fundamentally-flawed bling.

But maybe none of this matters, and for someone like me, as long as there are enough secondhand bits and pieces on eBay to cobble together something passable then there’s nothing to worry about. And new innovative companies and individuals could spring up at any time and continue forging ahead with audio’s absolute progress in the future. Possibly, but as a subject for another post perhaps, there is also a sense that nothing in the IT-related world is permanent. In order to create new innovations in DSP-based audio, access to the unencrypted digital audio stream is required. But will it always be accessible? There’s no problem at the moment, but operating systems are continuously upgraded; drivers are updated; interfaces are removed. For example, various mechanisms are already in place in the Windows operating system to prevent access to the digital audio stream, except for companies willing to meet onerous conditions. External hardware interfaces carrying unencrypted audio can simply be disabled.

Some output types such as S/PDIF typically don’t have a suitable DRM scheme available, so these need to be turned off reliably if the content so specifies.

Software must be approved by Microsoft, acting on behalf of Digital Rights Management (DRM) licensors:

Welcome to the world of … the Protected Media Path, where Microsoft, copyright holders, and DRM licensors may grant or revoke permission to use your own computer and digital media.

…this functionality is known as “selectable output control”; it gives software and encrypted media increased power to intentionally break compatibility in obsolete already-purchased equipment.

…Components that are loaded into the Protected Environment by the Windows kernel must be signed and authenticated; software developers must also have produced them pursuant to a license with Microsoft, and their developers must have committed to follow certain policies that Microsoft promulgates.

At the moment it seems unlikely that such systems would be activated for audio, but these kinds of restrictions could be enforced in future if a new, exciting digital format came along, seducing the audio and music industries, and the public into abandoning their existing ‘open’ digital audio systems, and if future high quality digital music releases became restricted to this format.

So can an individual or small company be sure that they will always be able to develop their own unique digital-based audio system that is compatible with the latest high quality music releases? Not necessarily. Might our future choices be between playing at vintage technology with vinyl, or streaming directly into a limited choice of licensed hardware and software?

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2 thoughts on “Is the hi-fi industry in safe hands (and does it matter anyway) ?

  1. A fundamental issue is that there is nothing like objective comparison,let alone a double blind kind of setup. There needs to be. As difficult, and imperfect as it would be, there must be a way to compare thing ‘A’ to thing ‘B’, with (most) everything else unchanged, including the reviewer’s knowledge of which thing is in the system. This is not impossible to accomplish in a worthwhile way. Just probably expensive..


    Steve

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    1. Thanks for commenting Steve. I think I take a different view on listening tests, myself. My view is that we should do anything to avoid them because they are so problematic. At the same time I also think that hi-fi is pretty simple if we make the decision to go active with DSP for our speakers. It would be my belief that once we have done that we could swap various DACs, amps, cables etc. and hear no difference, so no point in doing the listening tests. I may be wrong! But that’s how it seems to me at the moment.

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