Neil Young’s Pono music service, described as a “high-resolution, studio-quality, cloud-based digital music ecosystem” three years in the making, was officially launched this week.
Unveiled in a keynote address at SXSW before pre-orders were offered directly to the public on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, the portable PonoPlayer, along with accompanying iTunes-styled PonoMusic online store, are being touted to revolutionise the music consumer’s experience of audio quality.
Driven by the 68-year-old Canadian icon’s own passionate desire to upheave the tinny mp3 fidelity that the average music listener has been acclimatised to, Young is banking that once people hear the ‘lossless’ super-detailed Pono format, they’ll never look back.
The Kickstarter campaign landed with an enormous splash, raising over $2 million in its 48 hours, backed by one of the most impressive roster of music celebrity endorsements ever assembled, with everyone from Jack White to Elton John, Foo Fighters to Beastie Boys and beyond offering their enthusiasm for Pono.
But aside from that musical parade of stars who’ve been gifted a chance to actually hear the “sound of the future”, few have actually heard Pono’s high-resolution sound. Audio that ranges from 1411 kbps (44.1 KHz/16 bit) to 9216 kbps (192 KHz/24 bit) to be exact, which the Pono Kickstarter says is “about 6 times more musical information than a typical mp3.”
But has everyone simply bought into the hype of what Pono promises – to liberate listeners and artists from the shackles of poor-quality audio – rather than the actual product and its specifications?
The question of “is Pono really worth buying into?” is one asked by Dr Paul Doornbusch. An Associate Dean and Audio Production Program Leader at Australian music college Collarts, Dr Doornbusch “cannot recommend Pono to anyone;” here is why.
Properly produced CD-format audio is at the very limit of human perception. If you want to listen to hi-resolution audio (which we do weekly in classes) just do it from your computer or download some from HDtracks’ website and try it on your computer – most modern computers (and many phones) are capable of playing back 24-bit 96KHz files without conversion.
I bet nobody in the Pono Kickstarter promotional video was offered a properly controlled test between Hi-Resolution audio and properly converted CD-standard audio of the same material. Such tests have been done many many times and they routinely show a result of 50%. Ie. People are guessing which is which.
There are very good reasons for using a high-revolution format for audio production, 24-bit and 192KHz is useful because the maths in the processing generates small errors and making the errors generated there smaller than the ear can hear is possible in a high-resolution format. Using 16-bits and 44.1KHz (CD standard) for audio production can let these errors creep into the area of audibility.
However, 16-bit 44.1KHz is an excellent distribution format and essentially has resolution beyond what the normal person can hear, if it is properly managed. There is a process called dithering, and when a 24-bit 96KHz (or 192KHz or 384 Khz) file is properly sample-rate-converted and dithered to CD format, then the result is audibly the same, even to critical listeners.
MP3s are another matter all together, and these are a lossy format where information is thrown away to make the file smaller. MP3 files of less than 320KB/S are usually easily audibly inferior to the original CD version. We do not recommend MP3 coding for anything except non-critical work where space must be saved.
There have been, of course, poor examples of digital audio practice, especially in the early days, and many pre-conceptions and prejudices about digital audio are based on generalising some poor practice to all digital audio practice.
Also, things like the “loudness wars” are only possible with digital audio, but it is really a misuse of the technology. Everything mentioned in the Pono video is poor mastering (loudness wars) or because of over-compressed MP3 coding. Students at Collarts learn the right way to do it, and why they should do it that way! “What Pono offers is already available if you want it.”
From the area of “Hi-End” HiFi we have inherited many myths and even totally wacky ideas about audio and sound production.
Some people believe and argue that small rocks in the room or small felt spots on the wall make it sound different. Some people sell small wooden stands to elevate your speaker cables because they say it “sounds better”.
The truth is that if you move your head a few centimetres it will sound different and many people fail to appreciate the effect that room acoustics and simple movement will have on the sound, let alone the expectation bias that we are all susceptible to. So people who believe these things make it sound different are not taking into account that they changed because they have moved in the room, or the expectation bias.
What Pono offers is already available if you want it. Educating the public about the evils of MP3 is good, but 24-bit 192KHz audio is overkill as a distribution format
Along with the large amount of misinformation on the internet, there is some good information. This video below (for instance) is excellent! Additionally, watch this video [also from xiph.org’s Monty Montgormery] from 4 mins or from 8 mins.