I’m not even going to bother heading over to the Pono Kickstarter campaign page this morning. On my drive to the studio this morning the NPR “Tech Report” by Ben Johnson already stated that they were breaking records. And he interviewed Neil at SXSW to further spread the gospel about Pono and quality music. It’s really encouraging that so much attention is being paid to better quality audio but I’m dismayed by the lack of accurate information being reported by the media. It’s seems anything that Neil Young says is unchallenged and the unbiased truth. And honestly, maybe I’m just jealous that there’s not millions of dollars heading for my bank account.
If you want to listen to Neil’s presentation at the SXSW event on Tuesday you can listen to it at All Song Considered, a show produced and reported by NPR’s Bob Boilen. Neil is a touchy feely type…not an engineer or science guy. And the music world needs dedicated, high profile spokespeople that understand the importance of music…both from the production and consumption side. But it would be nice if he had an alter ego that could shed some of important technical aspects to high quality audio.
He opened his presentation by saying he’s “rescuing an art form” and that the investment community and the bean counters that invest in and run the labels have almost destroyed them. “There is a need for something to happen,” he said. The arrival of the CD in 1982 was one of the first steps backwards. “I thought the CDs were a little rocky when they came out. Because I thought I couldn’t hear the echo like I could on the old records and on the analog tapes.” [NOTE: a lot of artists refer to echo when they really mean reverberation.]
The message is clear throughout his 20 minutes talk. Music touched listeners in a way that was more emotional and natural back before digital technology began to dominate music distribution. CDs and especially heavily compressed MP3 files aren’t capable of delivering the same experience. Neil wants to put the “heart back in the music”. And so he’s opted to deliver higher specification digital transfers of the analog masters of the past to his high quality digital music player. How is this any different than what you get when you download a “classic” album from HDtracks and play it on your Astell & Kern player?
The middle section of Pono’s promotional video orders the various digital delivery specifications and MP3 format (curious that he’s mixing up the specs vs. formats…but oh well). The graphic is titled, “Underwater Listening”.
Figure 1 – The “Underwater Listening” presentation graphic from Pono’s promotional video [Click to enlarge].
The implication is that “true” fidelity isn’t achieved until you get to the “surface” of the water. Neil associates this with a sampling rate of 192 kHz. He says he can hear it and that it actually does bring all of the “analog” magic back to the music. Of course, it all depends on the source quality…but that fact is nowhere to be found in the video or on the Pono website. It’s always going to be a case of garbage in equals garbage out…or as I would say is “standard resolution in means standard resolution out.”
Virtually all of the “so-called” high-resolution audio downloads that I’ve analyzed don’t have any information above 22-25 kHz, so extending the sample rate to 192 (or 384 kHz, which has the swimmer with wings attached) is absolutely pointless. In fact, 96 kHz is as much as you need and even a properly done CD will usually suffice. And the Pono world will be issuing 44.1/48 kHz files so perhaps compact disc quality isn’t so bad after all.
A shark chases the poor “diver” at 1000 ft below the surface because the MP3 format is a bottom feeder and CDs don’t so much better at 200 ft below the surface. This is the first time I’ve seen the type of quantifier of audio fidelity and I’m not convinced at all by the analogy. Neil should target the poor quality of heavily compress MP3 files and leave CD and other higher resolution distribution formats out of the picture.
I would challenge Mr. Young and all of his rock star friends to listen to a well made 96 kHz/24-bit PCM file and tell me that it like breathing through a snorkel. I guess he’s making a point but he’s pushed the rankings beyond what we really experience with real HD-audio.
Photo credit: Bob Boilen