PONO: The Finale

Here’s my prediction for the new PONO player and releases. We know that they won’t be high-resolution digital downloads but they could be processed in clever ways to make them better than the original analog sources. DSP (digital signal processing) has become a very refined art and DSP processing power has exploded over the past decade. As I mentioned in the previous posts about PONO, this is collaboration between some very smart music hardware folks in the UK and Neil Young. Let’s drill down on the pieces that each can bring to the party.

Meridian Audio is a very high-end, consumer audio equipment manufacturer. I managed to get the head of the company, Robert Stuart, to “loan” me a DVD player and processor many years ago to show off my DVD-Audio recordings (he is a big fan of my recordings and once told me that he brought a reviewer to “tears” playing one of my titles). The list price for the player and processor was about $37,500. No kidding…these are what we call top of the line audio pieces. When high-resolution audio showed up in the form of DVD-Audio back in 2000, Meridian was already heavily invested in the technology. It was, after all, Meridian that developed the MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) algorithm that became the core lossless audio compression technology of the format. These guys know music and they know how to code.

The processor that’s still in my rack has several clever settings including one called TriField, which “is a form of audio rendering in which a conventional two-channel signal is decoded (using Ambisonic principles) to an additional number of loudspeakers, typically three in the form of a Left-Centre-Right front stage. The technique provides significant additional image stability, especially when the listener is moving or off-axis.”

We’ll have to wait for another day to delve into the world of Ambisonics but I’m familiar with it and can attest that it produces a sound field that is greater than just the normal L-R stereo.

The PONO system will be closed. You won’t be able to download normal iTunes fodder or play your own ripped files and have them enhanced by your PONO player in the same way that tracks prepared by and made available through PONO will be enhanced by the new Meridian developed hardware. I imagine that you will be able to play files from other music download services but the “amazing” stuff will be reserved for the company’s own offerings (and probably for a premium price). The magic will be the connection between the content that Neil is getting from Warner Brothers and preparing and the special real time processing that the Meridian hardware player will do to the digital stream.

The fundamental question then remains. Is there any kind of processing that can be applied to an existing standard definition audio master that can transform it to high-resolution standards. I don’t think so. But I do know that it’s possible to remove background hiss, enhance the spatial qualities of a particular track and change the timbral balance of various components in ways that go way beyond normal mastering or equalization. The kind of clever algorithms that Meridian and others can apply to existing standard definition music will no doubt be amazing. I look forward to it.

But PONO will be closed. That means that it will remain a niche product with limited content availability and dedicated hardware. That’s the bad news.


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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