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.