I had a very pleasant phone call with the former CEO of Pono yesterday. John Hamm has been traveling a great deal since his departure from Pono, but we finally managed to connect. I knew I liked John when we first connected in April during the Pono Kickstarter initiative, which he conceived as the way to launch Neil’s dream of better quality music. I especially enjoyed spending time with him in Chicago at the AXPONA show…that’s where I heard the Pono player and he experienced some of my best high-resolution surround recordings. This former audio engineer, current audiophile, and businessman knew exactly what he was hearing in my demonstration room. I was thoroughly impressed. John is a guy that understands music, music, and money. Pono was very fortunate to have someone with his experience and dedication on board during the launch of the company.
Our conversation was private and I’m not going to share any information that John shared in confidence with me. He still regards Neil and the Pono enterprise favorably. However, there were issues and important choices that had to be made for a rapidly growing company…and differences emerged that ultimately caused a split. John was replaced as CEO by Neil Young and has moved in another direction. He wishes the company success…and I do as well.
Pono should focus on being straightforward, transparent, and honest about what’s being offered to customers of Pono. They have a great piece of hardware and I’m confident that the website will be wonderful. However, I felt let down when I discovered that virtually ALL of the tracks on the Ponomusic website will be ripped CDs at 44.1 kHz/16-bit FLAC. That’s not what I expected from Neil and his organization. It runs counter to his pronouncements and evangelizing all these years. He was all about 192 kHz/24-bit FLAC as the minimum standard for “rediscovering the soul of music”.
Here’s some additional information from their Executive Summary:
“The large majority of music we listen to today is digital. Because music is made up of analog waves, it is impossible fully to record those waves digitally because the music must be captured as a series of numeric samples saved as bits (0s and 1s). This is where digital recording devices are used to sample audio waves thousands of times a second, capturing the “loudness” of sound waves at each point in time – a process called analog-to-digital conversion. Ultimately, the digital bits end up on a playback device where the reverse process takes place. The data is processed through a Digital-to-Analog Convertor (DAC), which attempts to reproduce the original analog waves based on the digital samples. Clearly, the more samples taken and the better the loudness spectrum of each sample, the higher the quality of analog sound that can be reproduced. This is the essence of high-resolution audio.”
This is where a little more knowledge of digital sampling theory and practice would be helpful (as well as knowing the difference between loudness and amplitude). The Pono folks are suggesting that, “it is impossible fully to record those waves” because the process and storage containers are binary as opposed to analog tape, lacquer, foil, wire, or vinyl. This is wishful thinking and may work as a useful sound bite but is otherwise completely false. A well-designed high-resolution digital production chain consisting of an ADC and DAC running at 96 kHz/24-bits is more than adequate to record and reproduce the fidelity “as it was recorded by the artist and to experience music the way the artist intended.” Anything higher than 96 kHz/24-bits is overkill. When people start talking about 384 kHz and even 768 kHz sample rates and 32-bits, they’re in spin mode again. It’s pure fantasy.
It’s also not true that, “the more samples taken and the better the loudness spectrum of each sample, the higher the quality of analog sound that can be reproduced ” To a degree, fidelity benefits from higher sample rates and longer words but the capture system only needs to exceed the fidelity of the original recording when you’re transferring older masters. Contrary to their statement, this has nothing to do with high-resolution audio.
High-resolution audio is sound that has been captured and distributed at fidelity levels that meet or exceed the capability of the human ear. Analog tape doesn’t get us there. CDs get very close. Real High-Resolution Digital does! Calling anything else high-resolution runs counter to reality.
To quote Bruce Hornsby, “That’s just the way it is”.