Pono Says High-Quality Audio Is All Wet

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


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.

20 thoughts on “Pono Says High-Quality Audio Is All Wet

  • Phil Olenick

    Of course he’s dissing the CD format – how is he going to replenish his bank account if he can’t get his fans to buy new copies of his records! I’ll bet he didn’t criticize CD quality when folks were recreating their LP collections on CD. (Pity he didn’t include vinyl in his diagram!)

    At least he’s in the PCM camp – I always have a hard time understanding how folks who denounce Sony’s CD format praise Sony’s SACD format, which is based on what was intended as an archival medium for CD masters.

    The real question is whether his device will be open to PCM files from others or will – like Apple’s devices – only play their own format or the (safely inferior) MP3 format.

    If his device is open to all to release music for, more power to him.

    • It will interesting to see what compatibilities the Pono player will have. It could do what the Astell & Kern device does or have some sort of DRM.

  • Jim Livengood

    Hi Mark

    Of course you are right, but I can see Neil’s point, mistaken though he may be. After amassing a large number of LPs, I looked forward eagerly to the digital era. It was a huge disappointment for a long time—so much so that I went back to analog for a number of years, because my albums sounded better than my CDs. After some time, CDs began to be made better and CD playback technology got better—odd for something that was marketed as perfect. (An aside: I bought one of the first CD players on the market and I believed Julian Hirsch that all players would have to sound the same—bits is bits. After I got a second-generation player, I could literally not believe the jump in quality—I had been led to believe it was not possible. My point is that there are reasons why people don’t trust pure theory when their ears tell them otherwise.)

    Now my digital music, on the whole, sounds fantastic compared to vinyl. There are still lots of bad CDs out there, remastered and compressed, and when I get one (even when it’s camouflaged as high def by HDTracks), I throw it away. Some LPs still sound better than their corresponding CDs, and that is a mortal sin for the engineers responsible. Some high bit-rate MP3s sound better than some CDs or records. But good digital recordings such as yours blow me away and are better in every way than any tape or LP I have ever heard. Why don’t you invite Neil over for a demonstration? If knowledgeable guys like you can show the way, the truth will eventually get through and the charlatans will all go out of business.

    • Jim…thanks for the comments. I think your assessment is absolutely right on. Any format is only as good as the production behind it…including HD-Audio files or CDs. I’ve spent 15 years making real High Resolution Audio at AIX Records…and I’m convinced that if Norah Jones, James Taylor, Beck or Neil came by and heard what is possible by recording as I do…they might consider doing a project in a similar way.

      I have had a number of major artists listen (Todd Rundgren, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, Trent Reznor and Jennifer Warnes) to real high-resolution, 5.1 surround audio and the reaction was very positive. I recall Paul Williams’ reaction in particular. My co-producer (John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and I had talked up how great the sound would be and Paul basically said, “Yeah, I’m sure it is”. When he sat in my studio and heard a few mixes, he turned around in his chair and said, “Mark, I couldn’t really understand what you and John were talking about before…but one listen and I understand. Thanks so much for doing this!”

      I’d love to get artists to hear what I do. Readers have downloaded our sample over 15,000 times…and the response is always very positive. Baby steps…

  • Blaine J. Marsh

    It’s pretty misleading and unless Pono’s files sound better than HDTracks, etc, they are going to disappoint a lot of people. They might survive if they have significantly more higher than CD resolution files available to download; otherwise, it’s just a “me too” operation with an expensive portable player. If it is a success, I suspect Apple will be quick to follow.

    • I know the arrangements with the major labels because I’ve got those deals sitting on my desk. There is only one gate keeper in all this and the files that Neil gets will be the very same ones that the Chesky brothers have been selling…and the same ones that they’ve offered me. I can’t go there.

  • I love Neil Young’s passion for quality audio. I can’t help but think that all of the attention given to Pono and correspondingly to high quality audio is very positive for all of us who love listening to high quality sound at home and in our car. If you ever get the opportunity to listen to the Blu Ray version of his “Neil Young Archives Vol. 1” collection it is the closest any of us will ever get to hearing Neil’s music from a master tape. The entire collection is presented in 24/194 kHz.. It is fabulous. Hopefully Neil will make his entire back catalog available for download at 24/192 as part of the Pono program.

    • I suspect you may be right. His celebrity and well known passion for great quality audio will life all boats. His recordings are unique and I have the Blu-rays that you mention. They do sound every bit as good as the analog masters.

      I honestly wonder what he would think if I produced just one track in AIX style.

  • E. Borden

    The DSD guys should add to the “underwater listening” chart by putting a guy in a rocket ship flying through space.

    • Yeah…where there is no sound because of the vacuum of space!

  • I heard Leo Laporte saying he was backing the Kickstarter campaign, despite reservations about the odd triangular format of the player. I first heard about you on one of his network’s podcasts; I think it was Home Theatre Geeks. It’d be good to hear you expound your views to his audience again. The need for the entire production process to meet certain standards can’t be reiterated enough, in my view. It helps to counteract all the woolly flimflam from others in the music business!

    • I’ve been on the Home Theater Geeks a few times with my former classmate Scott Wilkinson. I’ve never spoken to Leo himself but perhaps I should reach out. Interesting that he would back the Pono campaign…the signed players might may good collectors items.

  • BTW The Oppo Digital link doesn’t work. I had to edit the URL to get it to work!

  • Scott Sommers

    This is from today’s Rolling Stone interview with Neil Young. About Pono, he says,
    “We’re going to be able to play records back just like the artists made them — with absolutely no magic sauce, no DRM, no encoding, decoding, none of the things that screw with the sound and make it an intellectual property.”

    Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/neil-young-on-pono-his-new-album-and-using-lps-as-roof-shingles-20140314#ixzz2vxmwyhuN
    Follow us: @rollingstone on Twitter | RollingStone on Facebook

  • craig allison

    Well well, another jab at Pono. I hope you are sitting down Mark, and I hope your readers see this

    I have in my hand the Almeida,Byrd dvd-audio disc on your label,and I really like it. But after all your dissing over the issue of provenance, and all the claims that no analog master tape transfer can be called Hi-Res, I see two things clearly printed and on-screen, One is the phrase HI-RES pasted on the display. The other is the fine print that states that this disc was re-mastered at 24/96 FROM THE ORIGINAL ANALOG TAPES.
    So, back then, high-grade analog qualified as Hi-Res to suit your business directive, but today you disqualify it because it doesn’t, but you do your futile best to sink the Pono ship, which incidentally you won’t be able to do, because they are doing the same thing you did, Shame, Shame on this. Speaking from both sides of mouth to suit your purpose…whoa.

  • Bob Dornan

    In your chart , bottom 2 catrgories, under distribution you reference “hi res” audio. Should not be called that.

  • Bob Fernbach


    Did you catch the error on the standard res. track where the DAW was placed down in the vinyl line instead of the CD line?


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