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Auroville 32: TT or Technical Troubles
by Srajan Ebaen

I recently reviewed a piece for 6moons whose stupendous sonics had me fall quite in love with it. Shortly thereafter, I received an unsolicited and disturbing e-mail that claimed all manner of unsavory things about the component and its maker. I took this as an ill-disguised competitor's attempt to discredit this manufacturer and moved on. Then other notes to identical effect arrived and though I haven't been able to either verify or expose their allegations as mean-spirited fraud to this day, the whole subject did disturb me greatly.

Which brings me to the point of today's column. When a speaker manufacturer calls a design "transmission-line loaded" and the common usage of this term implies a folded labyrinth of elaborate internal bracing, a customer discovering that his speaker does in fact not contain such a labyrinth has a right to feel deceived regardless over whether he enjoys the performance of his speaker or not.

When a customer purchasing a single-ended Class A amp discovers that it really runs in Class A/B push/pull, he has a right to feel deceived. When a customer pays $300 for an upgrade and receives one lone $40-parts-cost capacitor upgrade, he's got a right to feel screwed - if he ever finds out about it. And when these things happen to a reviewer in the course of a review, he'll react similarly.

Here's the thing: 6moons and PFO do not contract with engineers nor do we perform test measurements which, in many cases, might prove or disprove a manufacturer's technical descriptions and claims. As it stands, publications like ours rely in good faith on the manufacturers to provide us with factual explanations when it comes to amplifier circuits, loudspeaker crossover networks, pending patents, what's inside sealed wooden or metal boxes and so on.

You might consider it a lamentable fact but most audio reviewers do not arrive armed with engineering credentials. The few exceptions tend to be active outside audio reviewing to make a living which partially explains why engineers don't review: They can put their credentials to better and more rewarding use elsewhere.

That leaves us hacks open to deception or misunderstandings. If and when we fall prey to them, we pass them on to our readers as facts, statements or claims. A common tactic to protect oneself from this is the tiresome insertion of "according to", "as claimed by", "apparently", "it seems" or "as per" to preface every blasted technical description outside of weight and physical dimensions with qualifiers. This now raises a loaded question: Who cares about technicalities when a component sounds good?

For many, this last question is really all that matters. For others, expectations about specific technical contributors may play an important part or sway their purchasing decision in more intangible ways. As far as I'm concerned, the subjective nature of audio reviewing should be counter-balanced by factual statements at least about how something works, seeing that performance evaluation are less unequivocal fact and more personal opinion. And for certain factual statements, non-engineers engaged in this hobby have to rely on what manufacturers provide them with. This includes most reviewers.

Does it matter whether an amp runs in Class A or Class A/B? To tell you the truth, I don't give a damn. It either sounds good or not. What I do care about is the potential for having misrepresented how it works. Since I'm not an engineer and in most cases, won't know what I'm looking at when a circuit stares me straight in the face, I have to trust the manufacturer to explain what I'm looking at. Should it turn out that I was misled and I find out about it? I would feel cheated just like a paying customer. This is simply an admission of limitation on my part: Subjective reviews without measurements can contain inadvertent technical errors about how or why things work. Readers who take such matters seriously might thus want to insert the earlier qualifiers into the pertinent places of whatever reviews they're perusing. As per. Claimed by. Probably. Perhaps. Maybe. Hey. I'm just repeating what I was told. It says so right here on the snazzy website. Pretty lame, huh?

Does this limitation render reviews useless because writers cannot verify certain claims? Scientifically speaking, yes. But if you're primarily concerned over how something sounds, reviews can still introduce you to promising new equipment you've never heard of before. They can still give you a first taste of what it might sound like in your own home. Even measurements do not always correlate with subjective performance. However, measurements can dispute certain claimed specifications or at times even what class an amplifier operates in or whether a speaker is really a 1st-order design or not. Does any of this pertain to how something sounds? Is it an important aspect when you consider a component for prospective purchase? You be the judge. There are magazines both on-line and in print that do offer measurements.

Manufacturers might remember that today's electronics consumers include many who are well versed in circuit schematics or even build their own DIY projects. That and the instantaneous responsiveness of enthusiast chat rooms should be a great incentive to be as accurate and honest about one's design and circuit claims as possible—and also because it's simply the right thing to do. When it comes to matters of intellectual property right and allegations of breach, theft or non-licensed incidents, reviewers are completely out of their depth. Simply put, if we receive something for review, we assume that the sender is its rightful owner and has the rights to whatever circuit, technique, material or special part is used therein.

This seems self-evident but I was still recently approached—and repeatedly—with certain allegations about a product. I simply had to tell the other party that if there were real or suspected issues, this was for attorneys or mediators to sort out. I've also been caught in the midst of a corporate restructuring. When the review product was dispatched, the company had been one. When the review was finalized, the designer had left and started another firm. Who should the manufacturer's website link of the review click through to now? Who should the product be returned to? Who was the proper person to send the fact-check copy of the review to?

Needless to say, this happens very rarely—as does the arousal of suspicion about the accuracy of a manufacturer's product descriptions, especially when alleged by outsiders claiming to possess proof to the contrary. But it has happened and is thus worthy of mention. But the most important item that compelled today's column is to remember that most reviewers are experienced listeners only and not capable of tracing a circuit to determine its architecture. We tend to trust what the manufacturers tell us about how their stuff works, electrically or mechanically. If apparently obtuse, euphemistic or plain unlikely, some of us will attempt to cross-reference claims or descriptions with other designer or engineering friends and limit the chances of being taken for a ride and thereby becoming the unwitting spokesperson for a manufacturer's bullshit propaganda.

But it does happen. Esoteric explanations are transferred apparently verbatim from a manufacturer's website as though the manufacturer himself had written half the review. It's an unfortunate byproduct of many of us not knowing as much as we perhaps should—about the inner workings of the gear we review. But how much do you think a proper EE or circuit or speaker designer would have to get paid who could easily reverse-engineer the review product? Wouldn't you assume some bias on his or her part? Or a specialist on dielectrics and conductor geometries reviewing cables? He is the bona fide expert but doesn't that disqualify him in some important way?

So perhaps the unseemly ignorance of 'Deep Techno" matters which most reviewers must either acknowledge or pretend away isn't quite so bad after all. In a way, it allows us to focus on the sound, which arguably is all that matters in the end. And the in-between bits of appearance, functionality, ergonomics, build quality, fit'n'finish and apparent value our ilk does manage rather well. So call us only half daft and not complete idiots…

Visit Srajan at his site

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