Dr. AIX's POSTS — 13 March 2014

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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”.

underwater_pono_gfx

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

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

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