Dr. AIX's POSTS — 08 July 2014

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It’s been a while since I’ve talked about Pono, Neil Young’s hardware effort and Ponomusic, his online high-resolution audio digital music site. So I figured it’s time for an update. A supporter of their Kickstarter campaign forwarded the latest update from the Pono folks AND the Pono effort was included in a list of the “2014 edition of The CNN 10: Inventions”. They described the Pono device as one of 2014’s “Game Changing Gadgets”.

First let’s examine the CNN write-up on the device. There are a few incorrect statements in the piece. For example, the writer states, “Pono will stream music in 24-bit, 192-kHz sound, which is far cleaner than mp3s and even better than CDs.” Actually, Pono will NOT stream music like Spotify or Pandora as part of a subscription model. The Ponomusic site will offer 192 kHz/24-bit FLAC downloads as supplied by the mastering departments of the major labels and other independents.

And the provenance of the master coming from the label supplier doesn’t guarantee that the music will sound “even better than CDs”. In fact, the difference between a well made CD and a 192/24 FLAC file would be hard to hear from any device let along a portable one.

The sidebar includes a number of questions and provides some answers as to why Pono made the list. The final one asks, “Why it’s cool”…and the response? “It restores the richness and nuance of music, while maintaining the convenience of digital downloads”.

I would tweak this statement somewhat. High-resolution audio doesn’t “restore” anything. The quality of sound was there all along in the original source. What Pono is doing is delivering a digital version of that source in a high-resolution audio FLAC file (that doesn’t make the original source high-resolution…just brings it up to the quality of the original mastered output).

Check out what the head audio engineer, Bruce Botnick, at Pono wrote in the update sent to supporters.

“In my mixing studio, I listen to the best sound every day from analog to the highest digital sampling and highest bit rates.

My tests were to take a 30 ips {inches per second] NAB Analog 2 track stereo master and transfer it from a ATR-104 Analog tape recorder with Aria Class A electronics to digital at 192k/24 bit ProTools XI • HDX, using Ayre and Black Lion professional A/D and D/A convertors.

The first process is to convert the 192k/24 bit WAV music files to 192k/24 bit FLAC and then convert the FLAC music files back to WAV and back into the Pro Tools session.

The second test is to stack the WAV and FLAC music files in Pro Tools, with one format out of phase and see if there is full bit for bit cancellation and the round trip is 100% accurate. There was full bit- for-bit cancellation.

The third step is to play both the WAV and FLAC music program against the original 30 ips NAB Analog 2 track stereo master and do a blind listen for differences in the sonic landscape between formats. That test was superb in that the listeners couldn’t tell which format they were listening to. For the final process we did the previous test, this time against the PONO player. The blind tests were amazing, as again the folks listening couldn’t tell which was which.

Charles Hansen’s no compromise analog circuitry for the PonoPlayer is open with beautifully accurate musical reproduction, excellent imagery with accurate room tone and reverb, true HiFi reproduction without compromise.

Charles Hanson has listened to ten players and he found the performance to be comparable to his own products that cost thousands of dollars.”

Bruce is a world-class audio professional and has decades of experience and knowledge in all areas of making commercial records. His evaluation of 192 kHz/24-bit conversions of analog 2-track masters is very telling. I’m in agreement that a 192/24 PCM file with great converters can best the ATR-104 playback…I would venture to say that a 96 kHz/24-bit PCM transfer would have produced the same results.

The FLAC 192/24 files that they will make available at the Ponomusic.com store are coming from the major labels…and Bruce will not get the opportunity to “remaster” them or even “retransfer” them using his professional equipment. CEO John Hamm has said more than once that Pono is not in the “business of re-mastering”…they are going to be a music download service similar to HDtracks, HighResAudio, ProStudioMasters, SuperHiRez and a few others. The special sauce will be in the hardware that Charles Hansen has built.

The devices will undoubtedly be among the best of the portable devices for playing high-resolution audio. But will the Ayre designed device be measurable or audibly better than the HTC M8 HKE Smartphone that Sprint is promoting? I’m confident that consumers will get the same quality as was captured during the original sessions, mixed by professional engineers AND mastered to meet the needs of the commercial music business. They have a lot of work ahead of them…but they seem to be making good progress.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

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.

(4) Readers Comments

  1. Thanks for the Pono update Mark, it will be interesting to see how the Pono player will compare to the Fiio and Astell & Kearn players when it comes out. Lets’s hope the Ponomusic downloads when they come are the real thing and we don’t end up with more HDTracks shenanigans.

    • Love the TurtleRustler name…LOL! The Pono people will deliver a very nice sounding unit, I’m quite sure of that. But it will be within the constraints of a portable, battery powered device…and that means it will only be so good. The recordings will make all the difference…and sadly, the download catalog will be exactly the same one that HDtracks offers.

  2. Mark,
    Please check the Sound & Vision magazine site at http://www.soundandvision.com/content/high-res-all-embracingly-defined.
    That is quite confusing! And about the provenance? With the HRA definition from DEG, CEA and RA , everything, but lossless, is HRA. I need to know about the recording source, how was it made. Is it HRA or not? Old recordings made originally in the analog domain are definitely not HRA. I am not saying that they are bad, simply they are not HRA. The audiophile community must be aware of the swamp it is navigating with these loose and inaccurate definitions, which were established to fit all of the interests involved. That is very sad!!!

    • I read the article…thanks for the link. I agree with some points but including analog sources as “high-resolution” is incorrect. CDs can actually provide better fidelity than analog tape.

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