Audio Basics: A Is For Ampere

In the real world, "knowledge is power" means that if I know more about something than you do, I am better able than you to control it or use it to my own advantage. This is no less true in high-end audio, where a gut-level understanding of how a component works can free its owner from the constraints and frequent inaccuracies of instruction manuals, folklore, advertisements, and the nugatory, nullifidian nonsense in the mainstream audio press assuring you that most of what you know damn well you are hearing is really only a figment of your imagination.

Many years ago, Life magazine did a feature issue about "The Sacred Cow of Science," which included a pictorial diagram of scientific knowledge. It was an inverted pyramid, with all the contemporary scientific disciplines at the top, and supported at the bottom by a toothpick that was labeled Basic Premise. The Basic Premise was summed up, essentially, by the statement: "That which is proven to be, is." In other words, if something is obviously something, then you'd better believe it. Today we know better. Today we have quantum physics, whose main impact to date on scientific thought has been to show us that: "That which is proven to be, isn't necessarily." This kind of enlightenment could displace revealed religion if there was less objective proof of its truth.

Even the toothpick is different today from the way it was. The "Basic Premise" physicists argue about today is the cosmic question of whether the universe originated with a Big Bang or a Little Whimper. If it Banged first, the assumption is that it will eventually Bang again, which will wipe out all our investments, contractual obligations, and guilt-edged insecurities once and for all. If it doesn't Bang again, we'll all be swallowed up, whimpering, by a black hole in which even the IRS will be powerless.

There is also a theory about information communication which holds that people are averse to learning anything new (footnote 1). Since most Stereophile readers are probably no different otherwise from other people, I shall drag basic theory into what follows only when it is absolutely necessary for comprehension, which will be most of the time. Technical stuff is really very simple as long as you don't have to divide and square things. So while boredom may be forgivable, intimidation isn't.

The Incomparable Electron
Since this whole business of audio is about making electrons sit up and bark, it is necessary that you learn first about them. Actually, all you really need to know is that electrons are negatively charged particles of matter (footnote 2) which, left alone, spend their time zipping aimlessly around atoms (footnote 3) like tiny satellites (footnote 4). Some electrons are much easier to knock out of orbit than others, and it is the number of these detachable electrons that makes some atoms good electrical conductors and others lousy conductors. Most metals, for example, have lots of them, while insulating materials like vinyl and polypropylene have virtually none. A length of wire has billions of conductive atoms, each with its complement of orbiting electrons just waiting to fill the air with Mahler or Mötley Crüe.

Footnote 1: Most people would rather starve to death than learn something new that might feed them.

Footnote 2: They are not "pure energy" because they have mass, a fundamental property of matter which we, immersed in a gravitational field, perceive as "weight."

Footnote 3: The atom, in case you lost absolutely everything after high school, is the most fundamental unit of matter, divisible by which there is nothing. Except particle physics.

Footnote 4: As elegant a description can't help but be wrong---and it is. Quantum physics actually describes electrons as standing waves---resonances---in a probability function, which doesn't exist anyway. But as the classic "tiny little satellites" description behaves as though it were right for electronics and audio, it would seem to be sufficient for our purposes.---JA