Expertise and Audiophiles

Over the last few months, Scot Hull over at Parttime Audiophile has been putting together some very thoughtful posts on what it means to be an expert in the audiophile community. These posts were nominally in response to rather defeatist (or perhaps nihilistic) essay by Roger Skoff. Skoff basically argues that there is no such thing as an audiophile expert. This is a nice, democratizing sentiment, but unfortunately most of us know (and rely upon) expertise. Scot Hull responded with a five part reply: part 1, part 2.1, 2.2, part 3, part 4. The entire thing is worth reading and I wish I had the intellectual discipline to respond to his posts, but I don’t. Instead, I’m going to offer my take on the subject. I’m going to argue that expertise in the audiophile community is a key component in our community of practice and, my little essay will keep in the background lessons I’ve learned from Julian Orr’s landmark study of Xerox repair people

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Before anyone reads on, you should understand that of us who fussy and fiddle with our two-channel stereo systems obsessively are a strangle lot of people. We tend to have strong opinions about gear, sound, and music and support them with our (mostly) hard earned cash dollars. As a result, we tend to be a contentious lot and engage as much in debates about equipment over whose advice and opinions we should trust as experts.

The concept of being an expert on how high-end stereo equipment works and sounds is not all that difficult to grasp, of course. Folks who design and engineer equipment have a practical grasp of how to transform electricity into the sound that we’re willing to pay top dollar to enjoy. These individuals, however, are not the object of Mr. Hull’s thoughtful remarks because few would dispute their authority and understanding in matters of sound reproduction.

Mr. Hull sets his sights on the other, more ambiguous group of experts who fill paper and web pages with opinions and work at serious stereo stores all around the world. These individuals tout various products, communicate difficult and obscure technical details to the public, and engage in sometimes rancorous debates regarding the quality (and, less frequently, value) of particular equipment and approaches to sound. Sonic measurements, technical details, and other “objective” arguments animate discussions among audiophiles especially on hot-button issues like the value of expensive, highly-engineered cables, speaker design philosophies, or various room tuning devices.

The core of these audiophile conversations, however, is the description of sound using words. Most audiophiles love to listen to music and stereo equipment, but also love to read about, discuss, and even watch other people listen to stereo equipment and music. The interplay between our own listening and the listening of others provides a structured set of expectations way in the pages of audiophile magazines, websites, and in retail establishments. Audiophile experts deploy transferred epithets in a way that would make Homer (the poet, not the Simpson) proud. They easily talk about speakers being “bright”, headphones being “smokey”, amplifiers having “rhythm” and so much “intimacy” that it is sometimes hard not to blush. Parallel to and interspersed with this poetic language, is the technical language of “zero feedback”, “single-end triodes”, “jitter”, “dual resonant intermodulation minimization”, and, of course “illudium Q-36 explosive space modulators”.

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This is all to say that as audiophiles we both listen to music and read (and listen) to people talk about music. Within this community, experts carry authority primarily through how they write and talk about sound. There is a consistency in vocabulary and even in tone that characterizes audiophile conversations. Major consumer publications like The Absolute Sound and Stereophile have establishes standards for the kind of language used in the audiophile community. Major web publications like Scot’s Confessions of a Parttime Audiophile, the impossible to navigate 6Moons, or John Darko’s Digital Audio Review follow more or less along the same lines as the print publications. There is some little overlap between contributors to web and print publications, but authors and publishers of web concerns regularly contribute to other websites. Darko writes from TONEAudio and 6Moons. Scot Hull has written for the headphone-oriented Audio360 and The Absolute Sound. The ease with which authors can move across various sites both reflect and contributes to the common tone and approach to describing audio gear. Even the homey and relaxed tone of Jeff Day at his Jeff’s Place blog belies his contributor status at Positive Feedback Online.

The willingness and ability to communicate in a common language and tone is only part of what constitutes expertise in the audiophile community. Most experts in our hobby have access to more exotic brands which can have exorbitant costs and exceedinly limited distributions. Most of will not have the luxury of auditioning in our own home D’Agostino amplifiers or Wilson Speakers not to mention smaller more bespoke brands who create products when ordered or lack robust distribution networks. Experts in the audiophile community mediate access to expensive, rare, and high-quality gear through the use of a common language. As non-experts, we may not always agree with these experts in their opinions of high-end stereo equipment, but they nevertheless have access to equipment that we do not.

This intersection of readers and writers in the field of high-end stereo equipment creates what some have called a community of practice. These communities function through a series of shared expectations and mutually understood actions. Not all members of the community will share equally in the prestige within the community, access, or technical proficiency. In fact, the community includes both the audience for experts as well as the experts themselves.

This almost too long discussion (although not as long as Scot’s) is meant to contribute his efforts to define expertise in our hobby. That we have struggled to define the character of experts in our community is not a huge surprise. The conversation about audio gear depends on how we talk about equipment that in many cases we will never own or even hear. The nature of expertise in this context depends as much on how we talk about things as the things themselves.

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