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Some reading material on Pono

Neil Young’s Pono music store and triangular music player are coming soon: the Kickstarter campaign has reached nearly $3 million already, as I write this, with no limit in sight.

Pono’s main attraction is higher-than-CD-quality downloads, up to 24-bit/192 kHz, losslessly encoded as DRM-free FLAC files, and an awkwardly triangular iPod-like player, designed to fit in nobody’s pockets, capable of playing back those high sample rates.

As usual for the high-end audio world, there’s a lot of placebo and misinformation. Fortunately, smarter people than us have already written about it extensively.

First, for the straight scientific data and healthy perspective on whether 24/96 or 24/192 even can be audibly better than the 16/44 CD-quality audio we’ve had for decades, read Dan Rutter’s Righteous Bits:

The big deal about Pono is, of course, that 24/192 audio is meant to sound better even than CD, let alone lossily-compressed MP3s or AACs. According to Neil Young, digital-music listeners today, who are almost all listening to music data-reduced via MP3 or some other lossy codec, are as a result enduring sound worse than that from a 78-RPM shellac record. …

And actually, I think that from his own point of view he may be right, in a way. But the only way for him to be right is a terrible one, that leaves me wondering if everybody else is just humouring this old guy with a large wallet.

Problem one, which is a bit of a biggie, is that 24/192 doesn’t actually sound better than CD audio.

Then read Dan’s follow-up in response to the angry letters he got (if you didn’t read these when I first linked to them in November).

Going a bit deeper into exactly why 24/192 doesn’t sound better, Christopher Montgomery’s 24/192 Music Downloads are Very Silly Indeed uses actual science, math, and reasoning to prove that higher-than-CD-quality music is not only not better, but can actually be slightly worse. I learned a lot from this one:

Sampling theory is often unintuitive without a signal processing background. It’s not surprising most people, even brilliant PhDs in other fields, routinely misunderstand it. It’s also not surprising many people don’t even realize they have it wrong.

The most common misconception is that sampling is fundamentally rough and lossy. A sampled signal is often depicted as a jagged, hard-cornered stair-step facsimile of the original perfectly smooth waveform. If this is how you envision sampling working, you may believe that the faster the sampling rate (and more bits per sample), the finer the stair-step and the closer the approximation will be. The digital signal would sound closer and closer to the original analog signal as sampling rate approaches infinity. …

All signals with content entirely below the Nyquist frequency (half the sampling rate) are captured perfectly and completely by sampling; an infinite sampling rate is not required. Sampling doesn’t affect frequency response or phase. The analog signal can be reconstructed losslessly, smoothly, and with the exact timing of the original analog signal. …

Why push back against 24/192? Because it’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, a business model based on willful ignorance and scamming people. The more that pseudoscience goes unchecked in the world at large, the harder it is for truth to overcome truthiness… even if this is a small and relatively insignificant example.

Finally, don’t miss Justin Colletti’s excellent Neil Young and High-Definition Sound, after polling his audience of audio professionals to see if they could blindly pick which of a pair of files was the uncompressed WAV and which was the 256 kbps AAC: (spoiler: they couldn’t)

Because of their ability to help us overcome the placebo effect and confirmation bias, blind AB tests have the power to help us make important decisions – and to keep us from making bad ones. …

In the meantime, let’s face it: If you’re a trained listener and you find yourself rapidly flipping back and forth between two sources, desperate to identify some kind of difference, maybe it’s because that difference isn’t very meaningful at all.

While any passionate listener is wise to push the limits of her listening through non-blind practice and blind testing, when she comes up against a difference that seems inconsequential, isn’t it best to focus on the big wins instead? …

Buy yourself some great headphones or speakers instead and you’ll have a tangible connection to your music that will smoke the competition in any A/B test.

I came to a similar conclusion in last month’s Headphones and Coffee.1 There’s a lot we can do in speakers, headphones, and mastering to improve music quality, but modern compression formats and the CD Audio sample rates simply aren’t real problems, and people’s money is better spent on improvements that actually bring detectable improvements.

Pono might bring us music that’s better mastered for high-end speakers and headphones, rather than awful butchery to sound better on FM radio and earbuds, but we already have that with Mastered for iTunes. We even already have remastered 24/192 FLAC downloads for purchase at HDtracks.

If Pono succeeds, it could expand the availability of well-mastered audio releases. That outcome would be great for everyone, but it would have nothing to do with most of the technical claims they’re making and selling to people in triangular metal enclosures.

  1. That’s now slightly out of date. After everyone in the world told me to try the infamous Sennheiser HD-800 headphones, a better amp, and a more sophisticated audiophile DAC, I finally did. Review coming soon. ↩︎