Book Review: Ethan Winer “The Audio Expert”

Everything You Need To Know About Audio

Book: The Audio Expert: everything you need to know about audio
Author: Ethan Winer
Reviewer:
Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Reviewed: February - March 2019

[A format and mythological products that wont find favour in these pages]

Introduction

Every audiophile should read The Audio Expert: everything you need to know about audio by Ethan Winer.

Every audiophile, aspiring home recordist & home audio lover should buy this book.

The real world examples at various points on his website help make each section much more immediately comprehensible. Listening to them on one’s phone or tablet, while reading in bed, is misleading. The samples do need playback at the audio quality familiar to the reader, or better, especially if a diet of MP3 through earbuds is too familiar.

After purchase of one’s own copy of The Audio Expert: everything you need to know about audio by Ethan Winer, read it from cover to cover annotating paragraphs or sections. These could be sections one disagrees with, sections one agrees with and sections one feels need additional material or your own investigation.

Then return to those sections that excited or infuriated you and read them again, now in the context of having read the whole book. Then take time to dip back in and randomly re-read passages, whether or not they’ve been annotated.

Ethan Winer takes a position on every aspect of audio. Ethan takes a very distinct position. Ethan is crystal clear from the outset where he positions himself. Ethan is humorous, often self deprecatingly so, in his stance, gently mocking the writing expressing other positions as well as offering critiques of his own position.

This book is well written. Anyone with a really good understanding of their topic should be able to explain it such that a reasonably intelligent 15 year old can understand the subject. This book is just such a tome. A first read offers a good overview and subsequent reads provide enhanced depth with each re-reading.

Many TNT-Audio readers will be familiar with much of the material but all will discover some new aspects of familiar subjects. Ethan explains the ‘how’ in workshop manual style and the ‘why’ in classroom style. This book also offers contexts and anecdotes to help ground the material in real experience and offer a personal touch to the narrative.

Taking a Position

Ethan sets this book in a primarily objectivist context. His statements of purpose in every stage of the recording and reproduction chain are where some readers might deviate from his chosen path. The Audio Expert author argues that the purpose of home audio is reproduction accuracy. The popularity of obviously inaccurate or inefficient high end audio products would suggest otherwise. At the domestic end of the audio chain, there are other dimensions to descriptions that could be proposed with more in common with the audiophile experience. These include pleasure and pride of ownership. Many of us (including TNT-audio writers) drive cars or ride motorcycles that could easily be outperformed on street or track by more modern versions with fancy electronic driver aids and active suspension systems but we prefer the grin provoking visceral joys of older more mechanical artefacts demanding more driver input. If we were trying to win races or merely get from A to B more quickly, the latest alternative will do a better, more efficient job. Ethan Winer is absolutely correct, in his assertions that the recording & reproduction chain needs to be at least good enough, and accurate enough, to convey the essence of musical content and artistic performance. Ethan argues that this need only be "good enough" (a phrase familiar to psychotherapists as much as engineers) and that anything beyond good enough is superfluous and wasteful of resources.

Audiophilia is an absorbing hobby that gives great play pleasure, regardless of its capacity for accurate reproduction. Onanophilia also gives many folks great pleasure but also without offering reproduction, accurate or otherwise...
"Is the Old Scribe suggesting that Ethan maintains that audio is concerned exclusively with reproduction?" Query Plebs, stage left, "And that anything else is merely pulling their plonker?" they continue enquiringly

Far from it. Winer takes the position that the maximum pleasure, sensual or intellectual, will be derived from capturing the essence of the performance in the recording and then reproducing the recording as accurately as possible. Ethan Winer takes the classic engineering or psychotherapy position that good enough is the standard to aspire to, and that anything more is a futile waste of resources. He defines good enough at every stage from microphone, recording sampling rate, storage medium, playback amplification, loudspeakers and rooms. Ethan is quite obsessed with listening rooms. Ethan believes that many of the subtle subjective differences audiophiles believe they hear could be due to slight changes of position of gear (especially loudspeakers) or ears. These positional changes affect comb filtering effects in rooms for which Ethan provides numerous real world frequency response graphs to support the argument.

Acoustics

The pictures of Ethan Winer's own living room at home indicate that his devotion to accurate music reproduction at home outweighs other domestic considerations. There is a similar level of acoustic treatment to that found in many production & post-production suites, including wall-ceiling corner traps and ceiling absorbers. 'Good enough' therefore is a high bar to achieve when compromising with domestic acceptability by the audiophile's co-habitees. However, the counter argument is that with better acoustic treatment, audiophiles would be less driven to purchase immense loudspeakers and overkill amplifiers in the hope of achieving sufficient bandwidth and dynamic range to tickle tastebuds.

Ethan writes with his customery clarity on room acoustics for the semi-pro studio and for the listening room at home. Prompted by this, your Old Scribe went further on bass control following Ethan's suggestions, admittedly at some expense aesthetically, in an already fairly acceptable domestic listening room and achieved improvement. Anyone who has never seriously considered their room acoustics will find great benefit from the measures proposed by Ethan, measures which are based on evidence not magic thinking. A room suitably treated is less prone to require other optimising, like identifying the zones of neutrality as demanded by the Wilson Loudspeaker set up proceedure, because the whole room should be reasonably neutral.

The great thing about a book like this is that it is packed with facts and evidence, and one can only disagree with the author by according different weight to different evidence parameters. Proper science. Science is the decision what to measure and how to use those measurements (including attempts to measure subjective experience). Engineering is then the business of making those findings work in practice. Music is an art form, and where we might debate is in the realm of Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

"Enough with the generalities," quoth plebs chorus stage left, "Give us an example of something or we’ll go somewhere else"

Audiophoolery

Among the aspects of audio reproduction where Ethan Winer strongly disagrees with your Old Scribe is his assertion that vibration effects are neither significant, nor audible. Winer is equally sceptical about bits of wire, turntables, cassette tape, magic stones, mains quality and other audiophoolery, or, depending on your position, subjective effects. Winer is clear that he suspects that the majority of reported phenomena are the result of the fallibility of audio memory, placebo effect and confirmation bias and changing comb filter effects caused by tiny changes of position in ordinary listening rooms during tests.

Ethan offers readers numerous online samples of gadgets like digital simulators of analogue tape (including sophisticated plug-ins that allow variation of tape speed, saturation, compression etc). He suggests that the seductive qualities of many old technologies lie in distortions we enjoy or are familiar in the context of particular musical genres. Your Old Scribe once encountered an old Selmer guitar combo with cut cones and couldn’t stop himself from repairing them, so perhaps we're not that target market. However, the adherents of analogue tape recording, Roy Gandy for example (see music list below) might argue that adding digital simulations of analogue tape distortions is the worst of all worlds. Dance music producers, like Dave Clarke (also see music list below) sample and add damaged vinyl scratches and hiss to music as likely to be reproduced in a club with turntables as via the equally ubiquitous MacBook Pro.

Flea powered valve amplifiers lack the full dynamic range or power bandwidth available on recordings, they obviously distort and by different amounts at different frequencies. Curiously (especially in the light of the evidence offered with this book) these obviously technically flawed amplifiers offer their owners complete blissful immersion in particular recordings in a manner unobtainable with other technologies. This is therefore about pleasure, not accuracy, by whatever mechanism it is achieved. Indeed the dynamic compression of an output transformer is as much a part of the single-ended sound as the ludicrously overpriced NOS 2a3 directly heated triode output valve or its equally collectible driver.

Ethan Winer demonstrates his pragmatism when he describes what he does in practice. For example he records his old Fender Telecaster through his Fender SideKick amplifier, not DI, even if he then adds some more Fender amp tone (with a plug-in) when he completes the mix. For those trying new plug-ins or rack effects processors, the real world examples in this book provide a great starting point. Many readers will be familiar with getting a new toy out of the box & trying each knob at minimum and maximum while playing a sample through it, before sometimes succumbing to the manual to learn any base settings. The examples in the book and the accompanying wav files on his website serve better than either alone to support his arguments. There are easy to access low res files backed up by high resolution wav files. These provide good starting points in the search for the ideal sound or processor effect. Looking at many performer’s pedal boards and reading Winer’s clear explanations of what is possible, with less risk of hum loops or crunchy connections, using digital emulations in workstations (DAW).

"The Old Scribe has got this far without telling the expert joke" observe surprised Plebs' Chorus, stage left
So, what is the definition of an expert? a voice intones
"We don't know; what is the definition of an expert?" oblige the Plebs' Chorus, stage left
Well... 'EX' means formerly or used to be...
And a 'SPURT' is a drip under pressure, so an expert is... [wait for it]...
Something that used to be a drip under pressure.

Actually this is one of those gags that also encompass a core truth. This book is full of anecdotes about how problems that presented themselves and initially mystified the author, Ethan Winer, prompting his explorations and research. Eventually this led to solutions and explanations that would otherwise have remained obscured. Proper science.

On instruments both musical and electrical

Chapters on musical instruments, how they work and why they're made that way, as well as how to record them should be essential reading for any audiophile, particularly those who do not play instruments themselves. One advantage any audiophile can gain in improving their system is to improve their reference points. The single best activity for audiophile research is to spend as much time as possible listening to live unsimplified instruments. Regular attendance of string quartets, piano quartets, original instrument performances and live opera (with a small orchestra stuffed into a tiny orchestra pit) are good ways to calibrate audiophile ears. Such attendance also illustrates how different a violin can sound in different spaces and how different grand pianos sound, no matter how visually similar. Such attendance also broadens the audiophile pallet beyond the 1970's prog rock and 1980's NWOBHM so dominant at audio shows.

Likewise, the electronics primer chapter is what we all wished we'd read first, instead of the Mullard Transistor Audio & Radio Circuits book or Radiotron Designers' Handbook. The descriptions of transducers (loudspeakers, pickups & microphones) is embedded in real world examples using understandable terms like "below bass roll off" rather than free air fundamantal resonant frequency in, for example, a description of how a reflex box works. Ethan Winer effectively explains the importance and the influence of microphones on what the audiophile hears. He also explains the various methods of storing audio and the advantages and disadvantages of each. He is not convinced of the importance of accurate high frequency phase nor of extending high frequency response above that of hearing and states his arguments for this clearly. Equally, Ethan offers hypotheses for why audiophiles might believe that they are hearing differences when these are changed. Until such day that these effects are properly psychoacoustically researched, both sides of the argument will struggle to prove it. Every audio test your old scribe has been party to has involved headphones of dubious high frequency intermodulation distortion performance, which would support Ethan Winer's position. Godel's Incompleteness theorum tends to apply to so much subjective audiophile expererience:
"A human cannot and reliability of his own mind, because he uses the same mind to judge the accuracy"

Global audiences will substitute local examples for North American, British readers of a certain vintage, for example, may be more familiar with the WEM (Watkins) Copicat than the expensively imported Echoplex. Similarly, for global audiences one bugbear with this book is the mixture of proper SI units for most specs and then linear dimensions expressed in feet & inches. No. Just because an author's Imperial typewriter (writing technology more contemporary with imperial dimensions) is in the USA does not mean that all the readers are similarly located, and American readers of a technical or scientific persuasion will understand metres and routinely use them in equations. It is as irritating as the UK habit of selling 2.4metres of 4x2 (inches) timber (lumber) at the builders' merchant. Your Old Scribe will stop whingeing about this when we begin receiving drive unit specs in bushels per foot-pound per cubit and a set of equations to use this parameter.

While talking about agreed universal standards, Ethan Winer rightly celebrates the enduring MIDI 1.0 standard (page 381), especially after the SACD, DVD-A and Blu-Ray débâcles, the continuing lack of a decent standard for domestic audio connections, and historical examples like the SQ, CD4, QS and UD4 fiasco. As Ethan states:
“Indeed, the endurance of MIDI is a testament to the power of standards. Even though the founding developers of the MIDI Manufacturers Association competed directly for sales of musical instrument products, they were able to agree on a standard that benefited them all. If only politicians would work together as amicably toward the common good”

Ethan Winer seems to enjoy puns and jokes as much as this page, so he may appreciate the image top of the page featuring an ancient analogue pick up arm, believed by many to 'sound better' than later versions (these myths attributed to the horizontal bearing being a couple of mm wider than later versions, the arm tube being a different alloy and so forth) fitted with an exotic wood headshell (actually a cheapie from fleabay which arrived with incorrect wiring) on an ancient turntable notorious for rumble.

Finally, a thorough book like this benefits from a good index and this book has a great one. A useful index extends the utility of any factual book for years to come so this is a book to keep, still covering the foundations, long after the technology changes.

Conclusion

Buy The Audio Expert: everything you need to know about audio by Ethan Winer.
Read The Audio Expert: everything you need to know about audio by Ethan Winer and listen to the online samples.
Annotate all over your copy of The Audio Expert.
Read it again.
Readers will then be able to take informed positions, whether or not in agreement with Ethan Winer’s positions on such diverse topics as phase accuracy, room acoustic treatment or digital bit rates, and discuss them intelligently at shows, in salons or on forums.

Ethan Winer is, despite his protestations to the contrary, a genuine experienced audiophile, Winer is also a talented producer and recording engineer and above all a talented musician who has chosen to master a new instrument later in life. This is the best way to maintain one's brain health and kindle new neural pathways. Readers will also have the opportunity to improve bit depth and sampling rates of their brain resolution by reading this material carefully, digesting it fully and thinking carefully about the arguments put forward.

Whether or not every reader agrees with every position taken by Ethan Winer in his book The Audio Expert and the accompanying online examples, the read will be worthwhile. The ideas should prove to be useful catalysts to challenge one's existing prejudices and prevailing myths.

Music enjoyed during this review Reference system
On vinyl:
  • Lightenin Hopkins: Goin Away all valve from microphone to loudspeaker with the Canor phono stage
  • Stephen Fearing: The Secret of Climbing Roy Gandy recording for Rega Research Ltd 2018
  • John Coltrane:: The Lost Album
  • David Bowie: Cracked Actor (live LA 1974), Parlophone ltd. ed. 5 sided triple vinyl
  • David Bowie: Dark Starposthumously released final album
  • Richard Strauss: Vier Lettze Lieder, last songs too, sung by Jessye Norman
  • The Tubes:: The Tubes
  • Dave Clark: Rise 1
  • Dave Clarke: Archive One
  • Dave Clarke: Charcoal Eyes
  • Keith Jarrett: The Köln Concert
  • Leftfield: Leftism, 2018 triple vinyl remaster
  • Wilko Johnson: Blow Your Mind, with the magnificent Norman Watt-Roy on bass
  • Bob Dylan: Desire, became an earworm because Mozambique in the news
Equipment used in these reviews:
  • Turntable support: modified Origin Live Ultra wall shelf, tuned with PolyCrystal vibration control devices and 12mm laminated glass shelf
  • Turntable 1: Michell Gyro SE on PolyCrystal point discs with top hat PSU PolyCrystal point disc and BrightStar Isonodes
  • Turntable 2: Michell Orbe SE on PolyCrystal point discs with Gyropower PSU PolyCrystal point disc and BrightStar Isonodes
  • Pick-up arm 1: Hadcock 242SE Silver silver wired straight to silver bullet plugs
  • Pick-up arm 2: Michell Tecnoarm
  • Turntable 3: Audio Files Spoke Modified Linn Sondek LP12 with aerolam subchassis and triple Spoke modification
  • Pick-up arm 3: SME 309
  • Turntable 4: Garrard 401 with plywood, concrete & kiln dried sand plinth
  • Pick-up arm 4: SME 3012 Series I and aftermartket thread & weight bias assembly
  • Pick-up arm 5: SME 3012 series II with FD200 damper
  • Pick-up arm 6: SME 3009 series II
  • Turntable 4: Thorens TD160 somewhat modified & mollified
  • Pick-up arm 7: SME 3009 Series II improved detachable headshell, on the Thorens
  • Cartridges:Dynavector XX2 MkII; Benz Micro; Cartridge Man MusicMaker II; Modified Decca London; Audio Technica VM500 and VM95 ranges
  • Phono pre-amplifier 1: Canor TP306 VR+ phono-preamplifier
  • Phono pre-amplifier 2: Gold Note PH10 phono-preamplifier
  • Phono pre-amplifier 3: QHW The Vinyl phono-preamplifier
  • CD Player 1: Shanling CDT100c modified by Chevron Audio
  • CD player 2: Avondale Audio AAA5
  • Phono and CD player supports: Yamamoto PB9/PB10 feet; ERaudio SpaceHarmoniser violin plank; ERaudio steel cones; Something Solid shelf: Something Solid XR4 rack; Something Solid Missing Link feet.
  • Audio Research Reference 3 pre-amplifier
  • Vibration Control includes BrightStar Isonodes and BrightStar Little Rock on Something Solid shelf & rack
  • Integrated amplifier: Canor TP106 VR+
  • Pre-amplifier 1: Audio Research Reference 3
  • Pre-amplifier 2: Yaquim MS12B
  • Pre-amplifier 3: Naim NAC42.5 test mule in various cases powered by various DIY overkill power supplies including Sonic Link/Audiokits parts and Avondale parts
  • Pre-amplifier 4: Quad 44 with versatile tone tilting and shaping
  • Power amplifier 1: hot-rodded Assemblage SET300B Signature from the DIY wing of Sonic Frontiers
  • Power amplifier 2: Burson Bang
  • Power amplifier 3: Graham Nalty designed & built Care Music prototype
  • Power amplifier 4: Paravicini designed 4W SET3080
  • Loudspeakers: TQWP/Transmission-line hybrid passive loudspeakers (18mm & 25mm birch-plywood cabinets; long fibre natural wool stuffing; Deflex panel lined) based loosely on the late John Wyckoff's Hammer Dynamics
  • bass-mid driver and crossover (with litz-wired inductors & couture capacitors) and B&C DT400N tweeters.
  • Loudspeaker supports: Yamamoto PB-18 African ebony & ceramic loudspeaker spike receiver bases
Some wire is used to join these components together too. No interconnects cost more than 10% of the device at each end, much of it made by the Old Scribe mostly from Neutrik, Van Damme and Sonic Link/Black Rhodium components. Speaker wire is ultra-low impedance Black Rhodium S900, a prototype variation on the Black Rhodium S600 cable that came out well in Ben Duncan's objective and subjective correlation tests.

DISCLAIMER. TNT-Audio is a 100% independent magazine that neither accepts advertising from companies nor requires readers to register or pay for subscriptions. After publication of reviews, the authors do not retain samples other than on long-term loan for further evaluation or comparison with later-received gear. Hence, all contents are written free of any “editorial” or “advertising” influence, and all reviews in this publication, positive or negative, reflect the independent opinions of their respective authors. TNT-Audio will publish all manufacturer responses, subject to the reviewer's right to reply in turn.

Copyright © 2019 Mark Wheeler - mark@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com
Images free to use or creative commons.