Greg Smith Book Reviews

If you have not done so,
please read the introduction to the Book Reviews Series

August 1997

You can buy this book from It's also available from Audio Advisor.

The Complete Guide to High-End Audio
by Robert Harley

ISBN: 0964084902
List Price: $29.95

It's really tough to try and create an introduction to high-end audio that starts at the bottom so that everyone can understand it. Robert Harley, well-known Stereophile (oops, I mean Fi) writer, takes his shot at it with The Complete Guide to High-End Audio. At over 450 pages of 7"x10" writing, it's certainly quite a bit of writing. Sure, the cover illustration was done by a Gregory Smith, and material from them is usually worth looking at (I may be biased here). But is it a good book for you to read? If I could answer that in the first paragraph, this review would be much shorter.

TCGTHEA (what an acronym) is organized around 13 chapters and 3 appendices. The first four chapters give an introduction to the philosophy of high-end audio, telling information about how to get started and what's important to buy and to listen to. Some of this material is a defense of Harley's high-end belief system, which depending on your viewpoint you may either find inspirational or repugnant. For example, the opening of the 3rd chapter describes audio listening as an experience for connoisseurs because it's impossible to fully grade the quality of components via measurement. Quotes from Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge, which Harley seems to find quite valuable as a source for his philosophy of audio, are sprinkled in support of this view. A second example drawn from there finds parallels between the way a listener learns about the audio experience and the way medical students learn X-ray diagnosis, where initially confused students learn the language used to describe their field while simultaneously gaining enough knowledge of the field that eventually everything "clicks". While this is an interesting comparison, it's hardly concrete--I've heard people reinvent some high-end terminology while making good listening comments just by being attentive listeners, without ever being influenced or trained in the lingo of the high-end.

This is typical for Harley's book. He describes how he views the field, giving his opinions. While this is fine, and can be very instructive, readers of the book should be somewhat wary of taking everything he says at face value. Sometimes, the descriptions are written well and accurately represent his opinion as such. If I read, "When matched with an appropriate loudspeaker, tubed power amplifiers offer unequaled musicality, in my experience", I don't have a problem with that. Musicality isn't actually a word with any definitive meaning, after all, and this is obviously stated as an opinion. But when Harley goes off and says "even today's state-of-the-art digital audio doesn't approach the sound quality offered by a good LP playback system", that's where he's dangerous. Those who view Harley as an authority figure who should be believed when presenting material as fact could be led quite astray by comments like that, which should have been prefaced with "Among some of the high-end true-believers".

Fact is, this book serves as a documentary of the high-end experience as you'll see it presented in magazines like Stereophile. That's the most useful way to read Harley's book: as a description of a value system, so that you can understand the assumptions and prejudices that go along with much of high-end audio. If you take everything as straight fact, you'll be sadly disappointed. If you read the book, don't be afraid to disagree, because he's certainly not an authority on all the topics presented.

I could pick at the technical errors which litter the text, but reviews like that in issue #24 of The Audio Critic have done some with far more vehemence than I can muster. They are particularly abusive of the rudimentary circuit analysis given as accompaniment to information on preamplifiers and amplifiers. I have to agree; Harley doesn't really understand the technical parameters involved with the creation of complicated circuitry nearly well enough to attempt to explain it to others. To be fair, sections like that are minimal within the context of the book itself. Most chapters start out with introductory material and slowly get more complicated as they go. Based on my reading, I'd say you should trust what you read less as you progress through each chapter. For example, the chapter on loudspeakers starts with a very down-to-earth description of selecting a loudspeaker, considering things like room size, matching electronics, and listening habits. This I'd consider good reading for the beginning audiophile. The intermediate sections on driver construction and bass loading are decent descriptions of those topics. By the time you get to crossovers, Harley is in over his head. The topic is so simplified it would lead the average reader to believe that there are no concerns to building a crossover than figuring out what frequency and slope to use, along with some concerns for parts quality. The endless real-world concerns involved with issues like driver impedance compensation aren't even hinted at, a topic far more pertinent than his rambling about air-core vs. iron-core inductors and capacitor bypassing.

A decent chapter, in the balance, as long as you take it with an appropriate grain of salt. That's a good description of the whole book. As long as you ignore statements that seem blatantly stupid, like "loudspeakers costing more than $2000 are often disproportionately better than those costing under $2000", you'll be fine. Just because Harley wouldn't know a diminishing marginal return if it bit him in the ass doesn't mean that his opinions in other areas aren't helpful.

There are a number of helpful sections that contain information your typical audiophile wouldn't be likely to stumble onto just by reading normal audio publications. The section on descriptive language used in high-end reviewing would be quite valuable for getting an idea just what ideas are being presented by their reviews. Similarly, there are several spots where Harley shows examples of "good" and "bad" measurements from Stereophile reviews. If you read their reviews, and are baffled by the graphs of RIAA accuracy, impulse and step response, or crosstalk, this book is worth buying just to clear up what you should be looking for. Education on that topic isn't easy to acquire, and it makes it far easier to follow the technical commentary given in those reviews. The listening room chapter gives a very good introduction to room modes, showing how to compute the frequencies involved and graph them out to evaluate the potential room problems. Typically you'd have to read an acoustics book to pick stuff like that up, and those are never as easy to read as this treatment is.

That's another potentially useful function of TCGTHEA. Much of the technical information consists of drawings reprinted from other audio books. Whenever you see this happen, there's an easy method to deal with the inaccuracies Harley introduces into the advanced material: if you really want to know more, buy the book he's copying from instead. Unfortunately, books like Alan Cohen's Audio Technology Fundamentals and the collective Audio Engineering Handbook are both out of print and difficult to obtain; you might find a copy in a library. More usefully, those who want to know about digital audio should be reading Ken Pohlmann books like Principles of Digital Audio or The Compact Disc Handbook. About the only source Harley pushes that I'd steer people away from is Martin Collom's High Performance Loudspeakers. While this one is a wonderful book, it's also extremely difficult to read for a beginner to the topic. (Random note: I'm already working on reviews of most of the books mentioned above that are still available, you should see them over the next few months).

While Robert Harley claims to have constructed a "Complete Guide", the only part of the subject it really covers completely is the oddness that goes along with the high-end audio community. Those who are trying to understand how this odd subculture views the world, whether it's because they find magazines like Stereophile inscrutable or because they'd like to get along with their dealer better, would be well advised to purchase a copy of this book. It's the quickest way I know of it immerse yourself in high-end mythology, while getting one man's views of what's important. Keep yourself a bit skeptical throughout, don't read too much into the technical parts, and this can be a helpful introduction to the high-end.

.....GS (