Understanding vs. Knowledge vs. Expertise

Reading Archimago’s latest article, I am struck by two things:

(a) he’s probably a much nicer person than me

(b) the high end audio business may not be so much a scam as a <word that begins with “cluster”>.

What I’m thinking is that millions of words (not Archimago’s I hasten to add) and thousands of product developments can all stem from an incomplete understanding of something, plus the obscuring of central ideas with mere facts and ‘expertise’. Case in point is the subject of digital cables, discussed in the article. Archimago has endless patience and ‘plays along’ with the manufacturers and their disciples, giving them the benefit of the doubt by testing their products, even though he knows that they will always give more-or-less identical results. I am more inclined towards the idea that we should just ignore them. Unfortunately, neither approach can rid us of the cloud of confusion that surrounds the subject, and which must ultimately divert attention away from real progress (and with the Kii Three and Beolab 90, for example, we at last have some real progress to evaluate, and hopefully to make cheaper).

Which of the the following propositions are false?

1. Digital audio is degraded by jitter.

2. Cables carrying digital audio signals impart jitter onto those signals.

3. High quality cables can be designed to reduce jitter compared to others.

4. Digital audio can be improved by high quality cables.

I would say that none of them is completely false in all circumstances, and herein lies the problem. An entire industry is sustained on these propositions; manufacturers talk knowledgeably (and who knows, maybe honestly) about them. But while the propositions may all be true individually and with qualifications, they are an incomplete representation of the role of cables in digital audio. An understanding of digital audio at a system level would show that many implementations are certain to be immune to cable quality (and the remainder of implementations are highly insensitive to it). Those bi-directional implementations that deliver the audio data in packets on demand, slaved to the DAC’s sample rate, are immune to cable-induced jitter by design. Case closed. We could simply move on.

But if you have the misfortune to enter into a discussion about the subject on a forum, you will quickly encounter many vociferous people with detailed factual knowledge and expertise regarding cables, and that that is all they want to talk about; it won’t be long before someone brings up “eye patterns”, transmission line theory, the “skin effect”, “six nines” copper, monocrystalline metal and so on. Or they want to talk about listening tests and statistical ‘p-values’. This lower level knowledge, even if correct within its own little sub-fields, is not really relevant, but unfortunately forms a smokescreen that obscures all understanding.

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4 thoughts on “Understanding vs. Knowledge vs. Expertise

  1. A well shielded cable with pure copper conductors is all I need. The electrons don’t care they just have holes to be filled. A competently made cable of quality conductors and connectors works fine in most circumstances in the real world without spending hundreds per cable. I have a couple Straight Wire patch cords nice fit finish but they don’t sound any better than my Monster Cable interconnects. Also these were all thrift store purchases for no more than 4 bucks each.

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  2. I think you are far too kind to the cable ‘industry’. Clearly a cable can impact the wave form slightly, although you might think it would be very specific to the driver and receiver circuits. And having done so it might conceivably impact the error rate – though many if not most DACs seem to have some sort of error indicator and when did you last see that light?

    But they can’t change the overall data stream rate – over time the number of bits must be the same injected and received.

    I find it hard to believe that the reconstructed timings with PLL doesn’t provide a degree of averaging that will hide the tiny variation of the way the bits are actually transmitted, especially if we force the data rate up from 44.1 – that variation must necessarily be a small fraction of the signal to carry an individual bit.

    BTW have you seen the latest Hi Fi News and Record Review? Brave to interview Linkwitz. The contrast between the concerns of The Man Who Knows and the rest of the magazine is pretty stark.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I also have a strong urge to put quotation marks around the word “industry” – industry suggests something useful and necessary, neither of which applies to audiophile cables. You highlight another issue, which is that of course a system cannot eliminate the effect of the cable *completely*, just as it cannot *completely* eliminate the effect of the moon’s gravity or someone using a mobile phone five miles away. This theoretical (but not measurable) ‘fact’ can always be used to suggest that there are audible differences between cables; if you can’t hear it, it’s because you are not a true audiophile.

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