Interview with Parker Litchfield (Senior Engineer at Soundsmith)

We are extremely lucky to have a very smart audio engineer in our discord community! His name is Parker and he has graciously agreed to do an interview. Hopefully we can make this a bit of regular feature so we can tap into his deep knowledge.

When did you first get into audio? What were your first experiences that pulled you into audio?

My first venture in audio started freshman year of high school. I hooked up my parent’s vintage Polk Monitor 7 speakers that were collecting dust to a Yamaha RX-500U and played music using my phone. I was happy to have a stereo. From there I started thrift shopping and picking up used and broken HiFi equipment. Eventually, I came across a turntable at the goodwill and purchased a shure M97XE cartridge. My first new audio purchase. From there I began collecting records and the rest is history. I guess what pulled me in was the curious nature of a high performance electromechanical system. It was truly fascinating to me at first, and still is to this day.

What was your most memorable audio experience?

My most memorable experience in audio was without a doubt, when I visited Soundsmith for my interview. I was never more intimidated in my life. Being led into the blue room with audio equipment up to the ceiling and stunningly gorgeous, ominous paintings, dimly lit and sat down in front of Peter Ledermann’s creations, his life’s work was something I will never forget.

Who are your inspirations in hi fi audio and engineering?

From the beginning, my father has given me all the tools necessary to build anything I could ever want and taught the skills to use them. From woodworking to electronics and motorcycle maintenance. He is truly incredible. If you give him an impossibly difficult task, he will find a way to complete it, no matter the odds. It really is a sight to behold. My boss Peter is my main source of inspiration and guidance in audio. On almost every occasion, he’s too brilliant to put into words. You can read a bit about him on our website or watch his talks at RMAF. Nelson Pass is another wonderful and brilliant individual. What I like about him the most is his contributions to the DIY audio community, having basically started it. For that I’m forever grateful. Between those 3 I have my intuition, my library of information, and my inspiration.

What do you work on personally in audio? What is your day to day like ?

To start off, there is no such thing as a typical day at soundsmith. My days mainly consist of electronics troubleshooting and repairs, quickly and effectively solving problems with Soundsmith product manufacturing, helping with said manufacturing when we receive large orders and performing various critical procedures to prepare or fabricate components for manufacturing. I also fix things around the facility and talk with customers for equipment service. It can be summed up in “putting out fires”. I also take pleasure in things being exciting. That’s not always a good thing.

What is important to you when listening and evaluating an audio system?

Typically I listen for a natural presentation over a wide selection of music. At shows I have a few songs I like to request, one with strings, some with square waves and big transients and some with vocals. It’s important for a system to be able to handle anything you throw at, it in my opinion. I want to hear the music, not the system. Without naming any names, from my experience at shows and in service, the number of manufacturers who consistently sound normal to me, can be counted on one hand. That’s not to say, I don’t appreciate various unconventional designs (as long as they’re intuitive), and I certainly haven’t heard everything. Not even close.

What is going right and what is going wrong in the hifi audio industry today? How would you fix those things that are not ideal if you could?

To pick out what I view as most relevant, the audio industry has shifted away from high fidelity in favor of convenience, aesthetics and clout. There is an immense focus on aspects of sonic reproduction that do not matter and blatant rejection of scientific evidence when suggesting counter arguments. Our understanding of audio recording and reproduction has shifted away from some of its most basic principles. As an engineer, I work with someone stuck in their own world as I witness things unfold around me. Being active online has gone on to show how much was lost over the years and identify voids in our technical understanding. The only way to fix it for me is to not worry about the state of the industry and keep making what I enjoy and what I find amazing. Not for profit, but for fun.

Is audio gear getting too expensive? How can we combat this?

Depending where you look, you will find entire systems with near perfect qualities in every regard for the price of an audiophile power cord alone. The shift towards ultimate, unattainable high pricing I find truly asinine. The best way to combat this is to not give it any attention, instead focus on things that sound good and aren’t too hard on your wallet. Another way is to research the technology involved and develop your own BS-o-meter.

What are a few common mistakes made by audiophiles when choosing components such as loudspeakers, dacs, amps etc ?

Mistakes in this case arise from making decisions based on emotions rather than understanding. It’s always better to do copious research, see what’s under the hood. If you don’t understand what’s going on in there, that’s a perfect opportunity to learn. Doing things this way, you could save yourself a lot of time, energy and money.

How important are analyzing measurements of audio equipment versus subjective experience for audiophiles?

Some people like the sound of their amp with 5% THD. To understand why, is to be able to interpret measurements. With a rudimentary understanding of measurements, you can identify which aspects of sonic reproduction are more important to you, thereby making your decision making process a bit smoother. That being said, the curious dichotomy of audio engineering is how poorly mathematical models translate to reality. You cannot measure sound quality, hence a balance of subjective and objective parameters is required for clear understanding of the equipment in question.

Are there any good resources you recommend to non-engineer audiophiles to learn more about what makes for well designed gear?

I can say without a doubt, the best way to learn is through service and DIY. Develop the skills to troubleshoot and repair equipment so you know what’s good and what’s explosive, what’s linear and what causes distortion. Another way is to start building kits and understanding the schematics. Look at other people’s work and research what each component does as well as why it’s there in the first place. In other words, start from the ground up, learn the science behind it and browse the DIYaudio forums.
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I thought the interview was a success, both smod and Parker worked well together and created a very interesting artical, one that kept my interest from beginning to end. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing insights of the audio world, especially from the inside man at SoundSmith! Thank you gentlemen, thank you very much.
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