You Say You Want A Revolution? Hit Reset!

I received an email this morning from Neil Young. No, it wasn’t a personal email from the man himself but a form letter thanking those of us who signed on to the Pono website some many months ago. As you might imagine, Neil is gratified to see how many people have supported his Pono Kickstarter campaign [This morning is hovering around $3.77 million with about just over 11,000 people signed up to received a player engraved with a rock star’s name on it.

He calls out Elliot Roberts “for his tireless efforts to bring you the great signature artists we are offering with their special limited edition players. More signature artists seem to sign up every day!”. And why wouldn’t they? All they have to do is send Elliot their signature, sign the contract for a piece of the action and deposit a $10,000 – $50,000 check (or more…I’m just guessing that they’re getting $20-50 per unit). It seems to me that Pono has become more of a souvenir vendor than high-end music company. Is anyone else bothered by the money grab that’s being couched as a pitch for better audio? Do the celebrities endorsing Pono (after listening in an automobile) really need the money?

In some ways, it reminds me of the MaxD, “the HD Audio company that dramatically improves the audio quality of music, movies, games and voice”, company in Santa Monica that has celebrity spokesmen like Mick Fleetwood who said of the MaxD technology, “MAXD restored my faith in the future of audio!” MaxD is a publicly traded company and I’m sure that supporters are being granted generous blocks of the stock (which is currently trading below a dime per share!) I don’t think it will be too long until there’s a Fleetwood Mac Pono signature model.

[NOTE: MaxD is completely bogus…at least the Pono player and system are capable of good quality audio.]

Neil Young positions his efforts and those of his team as a “revolution in the way people can listen”. If he means that Gen X and Millennials will finally have the chance to hear music “creations exactly the way they were made”, he’s got it all wrong. The development of a very good quality playback device that can reach high-resolution audio specifications is not revolutionary. And neither is building a website that allows owners of the Pono music player to access “reduced resolution” audio files. Maybe we’ve been a niche but we’ve been out there.

Dictionary.com includes several different definitions for the noun revolution. It seems the third one would be the most applicable since Pono isn’t attempting to “overthrow an established government or political system”. Definition number 3 states that a revolution is, “a sudden, complete or marked change in something”.

Pono doesn’t satisfy this definition either. The only thing sudden about the effort is the amazing uptake of users willing to shove $400 at KS to acquire a high-resolution player. And “the complete or marked change” has been going on for at least 15 years…since myself and others started making and releasing higher quality recordings. I was so hung up on the amazing capabilities of high-resolution music and the DVD-Audio format that I haven’t ever released a compact disc!

I launched iTrax.com in the fall of 2007 as the first high-resolution audio download site. HDtracks came along a year later with major label catalogs. There is nothing revolutionary about Pono or better quality players and downloads. It’s not even new or better than what knowledgeable music lovers have been doing for a while. The only thing new or “exciting” about Pono is that a bona fide rock star, a bunch of other rock stars and a high-end audio manufacturer are collaborating to bring music back to the fidelity that many of us grew up with.

And while I agree that moving past heavily compressed “reduced resolution” files like MP3 and AAC to FLAC is a good thing…we’re still shackled by the output from the studios and labels. If you play a digital FLAC file that came from the usual sources, the output will remain as good as the master used to make the FLAC file.

The major labels have seen dollars in resurrecting their older catalog and newer digital releases through the “high-resolution audio” channel. For the most part, HDtracks has been the 800-pound gorilla in the room. But as many of you know, they get a lot of blow back because the “masters” that they offer are not really “high-resolution” and quite often of limited fidelity. They’ve even been shown to have “juiced” their transfers. Ponomusic is going to be offering the same masters as HDtracks.

There might be a few special albums that get new transfers and mastering. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Neil Young’s catalog offered on the site. He’s already prepared those masters for the Blu-ray releases that he did a few years ago. And they sounded great.

But a real revolution would be to get the artists, produces, engineers and labels to make better sounding recording in the first place. We have to demand it…or it’s not going to happen.


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.

11 thoughts on “You Say You Want A Revolution? Hit Reset!

  • Have been reading all these Pono related posts and checked out the Pono video and Neils talk. Just wanted to chime in and say: Although I fully understand how the ‘Pono thing’ is not technically the ultimate goal we wish to get to in regard to quality/fidelity of recordings/masters, I certainly don’t think Pono is a bad thing, or a step in the wrong direction… Note, I’m not implying that Mark has ever called this a bad thing.

    I feel this could be a great move toward mass awareness. And with this awareness will come more interest, enquiry, knowledge, expectation and demand…. demand for real high fidelity recordings.

    Sure, the promos all seems a little (okay a lot) technically mis-guided in technical terms eg; ‘closer to analogue’, ‘CD fomat is rubbish’, ‘192KHz gets us floating above the water’ …If this waffle helps get the ball rolling, then I’m not too fussed, in fact it’s quite cute:-)

    So, in short, this ‘could’ provide quite a good springboard in getting high-res audio into the mind of the masses, and not just amoung a bunch of grumpy audiophiles…?

    • I certainly hope that you’re right. Perhaps any attention to better sound quality is a good thing. I’m just apprehensive about the focus exclusively on existing fidelity rather than an expanded approach. Let’s all keep out fingers crossed.

      • Yep – but kids are clever these days, with the internet and an abundance of technology at their fingre tips, forums and social media. If this thing takes, they’ll know what it can do, and what it’s not doing. Do you think the industry could have just released Full-HD (1920×1080) resolution TVs and continued to only provide 480i, NTSC or PAL formatted material? …You reckon the population of today would be non the wiser??

        I too am hopeful we will see the same trend in audio …I’m hopeful, because I really want it to be true 🙂

        • Shane,l I hope you’re right.

          • Blaine J. Marsh

            I share Shane’s optimism. I just hope that the downloads are from at least the first generation (dare I say it) masters. Sound quality like NY’s would be an impressive foot forward.

        • I strongly suspect Shane’s vision is true. I support it 100%. Many Pono owners will grow eager for product that is equal to Pono playback capabilities. That is where companies such as AIX Records will start to come into their own. Mark, if I were you I would hurry to make more high resolution product available because there is going to be huge demand for it in 6 — 12 months.

          • I’ve got a lot of real HD tracks on iTrax.com right now…and hopefully more “reference” standard ones when the labels start giving me the masters.

  • Robert McAdam

    Talking about remasters Led Zeppelin are about to rerelease more in June. This is what I wrote in CA:

    “I reckon these new releases amount to gouging.

    I’ve owned the original Lp’s, original CD’s and lately the digital remastered CD’s. Three complete purchases of the entire catalogue. Plus I’ve ripped them to my computer.

    In saying that, I’m very interested in the Hires versions 24/96/24/192 of original albums. And will get them.
    I think we have heard enough live versions.

    Get this, the digital remastered versions of all albums which must have been redone at 24/96 but released at 16/44. They could have released them at the same time, I for one would have paid more for them.

    Pink Floyd’s 24/96 version’s were only available if you bought the entire box set. This is following the same Hendrix road extract every last music note ever played by them.

    A fine example of record companies last gasps to extract more money as they slowly sink into obscurity. This money is coming from the largely over 50’s. I’m 58 and always loved the Zepp machine.

    When we are gone what will they do?

    • They’ll equip our coffins with 5.1 surround and charge us an upgrade fee to keep the streams coming. Thx.

      • Blaine J. Marsh

        At least the room will be quiet


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