A writer for a major news outlet contacted me a few days ago. He was looking for information on the world of high-resolution audio and specifically about the hype about so-called “high-resolution” audio downloads. He is not an audiophile or musician, just a guy researching the business and technology angle of this emerging market. A friend at a major company suggested that he contact me to get an honest appraisal of HRA. I was quite happy to chat with him on the phone. And today we spent a few hours talking and checking out high-resolution audio.
He was very interested in downloading a few tracks from PonoMusic to see if they actually are better than previous versions. So he opened up a new profile at PonoMusic and proceeded to purchase a couple of albums and a few isolated tracks. After the tracks had been downloaded to my studio MAC, I opened them up in Adobe Audition and showed him the spectrographs. After a little comparison and training, it was very obvious that things at PonoMusic (and the other high-resolution digital music download sites) are not exactly as advertised.
There are three levels of audio fidelity available to consumers. We’ve talked about these on many occasions but here’s what I explained to my visitor. The lowest fidelity digital files are “reduced resolution” and are typically encoded using a “lossy” algorithm such as MP3, AAC, or .OGG. No matter what bitrate is employed, this type of file always lacks some audio information as a result of the data compression.
The second fidelity level is called “standard resolution” and includes analog tape, CDs, and vinyl LPs. All of these formats fail to meet the fidelity of human hearing. They may deliver wonderful sonics but when it comes to specifications they don’t measure up. There will be plenty of contrasting opinions but this is how I categorize fidelity and formats.
Then there’s the world of “high-resolution”. These are exclusively recordings that have been made at the time the musicians were present on equipment operating at 96 kHz/24-bits or higher (although moving to 192 kHz is already overkill).
When it comes to purchasing high-resolution digital music, most of the so-called “high-res” music offered are transfers of “standard definition” analog tapes and therefore are “master quality” but do not reach real high-resolution specifications.
The issue of including millions of CD rips on the PonoMusic site is what it is. I’m done talking about that. If you want to pay premium prices for the same fidelity you can get from a $5 CD from Wal-Mart, then go right ahead. But what my visitor wanted to know was whether a 192 kHz/24-bit transfer of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album from the early 1970s benefits from being placed in a 192 kHz/24-bit bucket or whether a CD could produce identical fidelity.
The first thing that we did was visit the PonoMusic website. The headline, “Highest Resolution Music Available For Over 2 Million Tracks and Growing” is located next to the 3D graphic showing the colored bar graph of audio fidelity as provided by streaming, downloads, CDs, etc. (which is a very misleading graphic…aren’t sites like PonoMusic downloading files up to 192 kHz?). I haven’t been to the PonoMusic site in a while and was honestly surprised to see the change in messaging. They used to say the tracks available on the site were “high-resolution” and Neil has repeated said that CDs are lowest “high-resolution” audio he’s willing to put on the site. But now they’ve qualified their offerings as the “highest resolution music available”. Pono’s claim is factual but very misleading.
Saying highest resolution is very different than high-resolution. When you say “highest available”, there is no assurance that the tracks are high-resolution at all…just that they are best version they could locate. In fact, as we’ve seen and which was confirmed today after our purchases…99% of the tracks on PonoMusic are merely CD rips. They are the highest resolution available according to PonoMusic, but they are certainly not high-resolution versions.
But what about those that have 192 kHz/24-bits next to them. Are they better than the standard resolution sources they came from?
I’ll show what we purchased today in the next installment of this post.