Book Review: "The Complete Guide to High-End Audio" Page 3

Bob Harley and I were talking one day in the Stereophile editorial offices. I asked him to clarify something in an article of his I was copy-editing, and we ended up getting into an in-depth discussion on decibels. Bob ended the conversation by saying, "Read my book—it's written for people just like you."

So I couldn't wait to read Bob's The Complete Guide to High-End Audio. Sure enough, the back of the dustjacket says, "Written for beginners and experienced listeners alike!" I looked forward to Bob's explanations of the many new concepts I was encountering in copy-editing Stereophile, and hoped the book would offer me the opportunity to expand my limited knowledge of high-end audio.

In his Preface, Harley states that the book contains enough technical detail for the most advanced audiophile, but is also "basic enough to arm a nontechnical person with the knowledge they need to buy and enjoy their first high-quality music-reproduction system." When I looked at the table of contents, I was further encouraged. The book includes chapters titled "What is High-End Audio?" and "Becoming a Better Listener," as well as one each on the various components in a high-end system—turntable/cartridge/tonearm, preamplifier, power amplifier, loudspeakers, etc.—and appendices on "Sound and Hearing," "Audio and Electronics Basics," and "Digital Audio Basics."

The Complete Guide gave me a better understanding of the basics about the different components in a system, their names and what they do, and what this Real Worlder should focus on in deciding what kinds of components to buy; eg, separate pre- and power amps or an integrated amp? And the book repeatedly states that, despite everything else, I should always trust my ears and my favorite music to tell me whether or not a component or system is pleasing to me. In this basic goal, Harley has succeeded.

The Preface continues: "At the next level"—which I assume to mean either that the reader already has at least a basic background in audio and/or electronics, or is reading the book a second time—"this book is a bridge between the new audiophile and the specialist magazines, which tend to assume a high level of knowledge about the subject. It will bring you up to speed so that you may better understand and enjoy the high-end press—particularly the product reviews. Finally, a thorough reading should make you very knowledgeable about high-end audio."

The first four chapters were inviting and easy to read. Unfortunately, the more I read of the subsequent chapters, the more discouraged and confused I became. There were sections that I was able to understand and from which I did learn—the chapters on "Tuners" and "Cables and Interconnects" (excepting the former's "Tuner Specifications and Measurements" section) were very good overall. But Harley lost me in his technical descriptions. I found about half the book useful; my reading of the other half turned into a roller-coaster ride.

Harley simply assumes too much knowledge on the part of the rank beginner reader, and thus leaves many basic questions unanswered. For example, in Appendix B, he describes what resistance is, which he describes as "opposition to current flow." In the next paragraph he begins describing Ohm's law, referring the reader to Fig.B-1, a "schematic diagram of a battery connected to a resistor by a conductor." What's a resistor? Does it incorporate resistance? Is it a separate component you install in your system? He describes what resistance is—I get the impression that it's undesirable, as "the higher the resistance, the less the current flow in the conductor." So why would you want a resistor?