Engineers at play

There’s an influence on ‘high end’ audio that is probably incomprehensible to most ordinary people, but which I think is obvious to people like me: as an engineer, I understand the appeal of the well-defined little project. My DIY system is a perfect example. The conditions for a perfect project are:

  1. It has clear boundaries
  2. From the outset it is clear that it is probably attainable
  3. Notwithstanding (2), it is not entirely obvious how to do it.
  4. It might exhibit excellence in some aspect – maybe with the fantasy of doing it better than has ever been achieved before.
  5. There is scope for making it unique, not just a re-hashing of someone else’s design (and this can lead to a ‘wilful ignorance’ i.e. deliberately not reading around the subject in order to avoid spoiling the fun. In the case of audio, this is probably essential to avoid being sucked into a vortex of misinformation!)
  6. It gives ample scope for ‘play’ – experimenting, refining, testing
  7. It can be ‘pimped up’ ad infinitum
  8. It has an audience: there are people who may be impressed by it and who may even applaud it.

Engineers dream of being assigned such projects when working for other people – but rarely get the opportunity. So, as a hobby, or for the the ultimate fantasy of starting their own company, ‘high end’ audio is the perfect vehicle. There are other such hobbies, but audio is quite seductive in the way it lets the person who is adept at tapping holes in aluminium feel that they are in touch with high culture and not just other middle aged men with oil under their fingernails.

I believe this phenomenon is responsible for at least some of the trends we see at the self-appointed super-‘high end’ i.e. those massive creations of copper and milled aluminium that probably sell in minuscule quantities but look great in show reports and photos – if you like that sort of thing. These can be huge enclosures and power supplies around a $0.50 DAC IC, or the millionth ever amplifier design, or an elaborate device for rotating a disc. The audiophile world is full of people who are impressed by ‘big’, or ‘shiny’, or ‘curved’, or ‘angular’ and their praise is the nearest most engineers will ever get to feeling like the person they deserve to be. But the important point is this: just because an object exists and is big/shiny/curved/angular/milled from the solid, it does not follow that that product was ever needed: it’s probably just engineers at play.


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