Recruitment: It's all very much music to your ears

Being an audio engineer is a sound job – especially if you like gadgets, writes Hazel Davis
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The Independent Online

Being paid to sit on your proverbial and listen to Led Zeppelin all day – sounds like a right-wing newspaper headline-grabbing job if ever there was one.

But like any piece of technology, someone has to test your hi-fi to ensure you are getting the best listening experience. Most large companies that develop audio equipment will carry out "in-house" assessments, and jobs in this area run the gamut in both the industry itself and universities.

Ben Shirley carries out research and consultancy work at the University of Salford's Acoustics Research Centre. He was a musician before he switched to the technical side, studying audio and video systems at University College Salford and going on to work as an audio engineer.

Shirley, who also has an MSc in digital music technology from Keele and lectures at Salford, does objective and subjective testing for audio companies. Objective testing involves accurate performance measurement of equipment in an acoustically controlled environment to measure how effectively audio equipment can reproduce sound, he explains. "For example, we have anechoic chambers at Salford – these are basically rooms with no reverberation or echo at all and a very low noise floor," he says."The room is built in a building which rests on damped suspension so that there is no noise or vibration from outside.

"We carry out testing on loudspeakers in here because it is possible to measure very small differences in performance with no influence from noise from the world outside." The companies which go to him for objective testing are in the fine-tuning stages of development.

Subjective testing, he explains, may be on the same equipment but the emphasis is on comparing people's response to the sound. "Often the measured performance of, say, a loudspeaker or an amplifier doesn't relate to what real people think sounds 'good'," he says. A good example of this is the difference between analogue and digital recordings. "We can make a digital recording that's very accurate and has measurably less distortion than an analogue recording of the same piece of music but many people prefer the sound of the analogue recording," he says.

Roy "Golden Ears" George from South London works for Naim Audio in Salisbury and is involved in the design and modification of audio equipment. But much of his day-to-day work involves testing hi-fi equipment, he says. "We try to come to the listening stage later in the design process but we alter things like resistors and capacitors as we go along."

George studied electronic engineering at the University of Southampton but taught himself acoustics and mechanics. "I've always been interested in music," he says. His first job was working as a speaker designer for a hi-fi company.

To work in hi-fi design and testing requires good engineering knowledge, the ability to solve problems, an open and inquisitive mind and good listening skills, he says.

In his case, good listening skills include the ability to listen to a hi-fi in a non-engineering sense, he says, so it's not just parameters like bass and treble, distortion and noise that matter but the music itself. Melody, rhythm and timing are important, as is whether the performers are playing together? A poor-performing hi-fi can degrade the perception of these musical parameters, he says.

Shirley doesn't think an in-depth knowledge of music is necessary to be an audio tester but says that you tend to find that musicians, or people who are very interested in music, make better critical listeners. What's more important is attention to detail, he says. "This is absolutely critical, as the smallest detail can affect the results adversely."

But even this work, an audiophile's dream, can become boring. "During a busy testing period," says Shirley, "I will probably hear the same pieces of music several hundred times. For anyone who loves sound and/or gadgets, testing hi-fis is an ideal job.

Designing subjective tests that can make sense of the preferences that people have is always challenging and interesting, according to Shirley. But what's the best thing about it? "The variety of expensive toys I get to play with!" he says.

How to work in audio testing

The University of Salford offers degree and postgraduate courses in sound engineering and acoustics (

The London School of Sound offers short courses in sound engineering ( Being musical or a music fan isn't enough – you have to be able to listen

A degree isn't necessary but a background in engineering or acoustics is helpful HD