Future Of Neil Young’s Pono Up For Debate

Neil-young-pono-591x332Guest post by Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.

Since the dawn of the digital age, some audiophiles have maintained that new formats from the CD to the MP3 and beyond have degraded sound quality.

Ever since we left vinyl, music has sounded like crap, they say.

Some of the down-with-digital crew say we need to do away with audio compression and go beyond “CD quality,” increasing the sampling rate of the music we listen to from 44,100 times per second (44.1 kHz) to 192,000 times per second (192 kHz) — while also boosting its bit depth from 16-bit to 24-bit. I myself proposed a similar idea five years ago.

This is precisely what Neil Young proposes to do with the Pono format and player, first reported by Rolling Stone and demonstrated by Neil Young on Late Night with David Letterman this week.

To be clear, these Pono files will not play on your iPhone, Android, or any other current portable save perhaps this one, so you’d need to buy the Pono player in order to hear them. It’s also not clear where they’ll be for sale. (The owner of Pono.net told Evolver.fm that he hadn’t heard from Neil Young or his people, while the owner of Pono.com [nsfw] has yet to respond.) Regardless, these files will cost a lot to make, and the players will cost a lot to buy.

According to Rolling Stone, “Warner Music Group — home to artists including Muse, the Black Keys, Common and Jill Scott — has converted its library of 8,000 album titles to high-resolution, 192kHz/24-bit sound.”

If Pono takes off, despite the added cost for both users and makers, Apple, Samsung, and every other smartphone maker could decide to build 24-bit 192 kHz D/A converters into their phones, and Apple, Amazon, and everyone else would start selling the files too.

Sampling rate dictates the highest pitch a format can represent, while bit depth concerns number of gradations of loudness. But can humans actually tell the difference?

In other words, is there any point to Pono?

Evolver.fm brought in some guests to shed some light on the situation:

Neil Young Says Pono is Hawaiian for ‘Righteous’

by Ed Jennings, freelance music writer

on the other hand,

Why 24/192 Music Downloads Make No Sense

by Monty Montgomery, creator of the open-source Ogg Vorbis audio format

Update: Montgomery clarifies that there are some things Pono could do to improve sound quality, although the increased sampling rate and bit depth that are said to be a part of it are useless from a science perspective:

There are several ways Pono could turn out to be useful other than increasing the resolution to 24/192. Better masters with less dynamic compression is one obvious possibility. Multitrack stem files, so listeners could tweak the mix, would be jaw-droppingly amazing (not likely, but I can dream). 

(Photo courtesy of Flickr/NRK P3)

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  1. Why do my kids fight to put my old vinyl LP’s on my turntables and crank the sound so that the neighbors complain???? Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, Warren Zevon, and everyone else sounds way better on analog vinyl…simple premise….its closer to the source
    I have thousands of audio files like so many people, but I’d stop downloading MP3 grade files if something better was available….
    If Apple is the Sun Tzu of design and technology, they should be all over this idea as an option…..or else they are simply ok with feeding their consumer base the lowest common denominator…

  2. Neil Young was the guy who said that the sterile nature of the early CD releases sounded like crap because they didn’t have the “distortion” that we enjoyed on vinyl. He said years-ago that the distortion added “warmth”. Sure! Tech has changed since those days, but he’s still spot on when it comes to quality of the traditional album times or modern day CD compared to the lossy MP3 format. Which is like comparing RAW format from your camera to Jpeg images in pictures. What ever happened to being an “Audiophile”? We have the finest digital home equipment at our disposal and we listen to music played, and the quality blows chunks.

  3. This sounds great for musicians with big record companies behind them, but this format would be prohibitive to Indie artists. You also have to consider download time and space for this format. Even a 16 bit 44.1 khz file takes time with 4G. A 256K MP3 is about 5.5 times smaller than a CD quality track. Therefore, I would see this as being more practical for home computers and specialized players. As far as sound quality goes, Pono of course should be far better, but compressed formats are more practical for mobile devices.

  4. @RudyJudy – Can’t see it being a problem for indie artists … most I know routinely use lossless WAV files as digital masters.

  5. HDtracks has been releasing 24/192khz files with less dynamic range than the original CDs. Pono either needs replaygain (in album mode) or a dynamic range reading for every album, otherwise it won’t be long before the files sound crap on pono as well. Search for “loudness war”

  6. I think you might be referring to the mastering portion of the production process. Since “louder sounds better,” nowadays they’ll push tracks to the limit by hyper compressing them, I think it was Bob Katz who said that the typical pop song has only a dynamic range of 5-7 db

  7. Then why would Neil be pushing a technology that has no inherent analog distortion? Did you read the liked articles? You disproved you own point. Have you done an abx test for analog source to digital copy? I have an audio degree and failed the test.

  8. You can’t make a song be higher resolution if it wasn’t already recorded that way. 99% of Major Lable released music is recorded on Protools at 44.1khz/24bit even if it was recorded to tape and dumped to digital later. By selling it at “higher resolution” you are lying to your customers. Its like burning a Red Book audio CD using MP3s. Itunes has already done this with they’re “Hi Res” songs that require a 24bit/96k wav file, but I don’t know of any engineers that record at 96k or higher unless its Jazz or Classical.

  9. I’d like to introduce another alternative to “HDTracks” and “Pono”- HDAudioPlus 320.48KHz “audiophile mp3”.
    Nearly 20 years in development and created especially for Classical music, HDAudioPlus delivers all of the the audio quality of hi-rez – and more – minus the bulk. By packing our “not-mp3” codec into the mp3 envelope, we can keep file size to a bare minimum.
    But here’s the best part:
    HDAudioPlus doesn’t require ANY special player, device, or software WHATSOEVER.
    It was designed to PLAY ON ANY DEVICE on ANY PLATFORM – Windows PC AND Apple!
    Too good to be true?
    Hearing is believing: Check out our stunning MTV-style Demo Gallery on Vimeo
    Likewise, please visit our commercial R+D website for documentation and “before and after” evaluation files remastered in HDAudioPlus (available for download) in all genres:
    Last but not least, chill out and tune in to our Baroque Classical radio station broadcast in breathtaking 320.48KHz Baroque 24/7 http://baroque247.com.
    Paula Wertheim
    Executive Director-HDAudioPlus, Israel

  10. An audio degree omgz that says a lot. This man must be an expert…
    He is pushing the tech because digital is the future for a variety of reasons (physical size, headroom.etc). It may or may not be better than analogue, but ‘higher quality’ (to a point) is definitely better than ‘low quality’ digital.

  11. I wrote an article about the pono player which highlights the negligible improvements in audio fidelity while measured against other factors that have become important to the music listening public (such as convenience, file size, DRM etc).
    To distill it into a single phrase: you won’t be able to tell the difference in quality to most CD’s and if you do you’re not likely to be that into the portable music market anyways.

  12. The sample rate is a Nyquist derivative while the resolution is capable of encoding some additional detail. But as hearing is not linear in nature the latter was deemed a valid trade off. All that said the human ear is a truly amazing device; two are better than the sum of the parts. I recall hearing a lecture by a Dolby and THX nerd who said the magic is in the timbre. The argument made was the sampling technique really behaved as a band pass filter chopping off the depth and sweetness of sound. High Compression is always lossy but now that great signal processing is cheap it is possible to capture every nuance. You couldn’t in 1985 when this journey started.
    Check out binaural recording. It will truly amaze you.

  13. I have digitized some vinyl LP’s to 24/96 wav files, using Audacity, a common, free, software program,then convert to 24/96 FLAC. The results for the most part are better than the CD counterpart; warmer, less compressed.
    I share this with fellow rippers, who feel that mp3’s were never good, and CD’s time has come and gone.
    There is nothing better than the sound, look and feel of vinyl. But it IS bulky, you need decent equipment, a good cartridge. stuff to keep it clean etc. It’s hard to find first issue LP’s in good condition etc. It’s a hobby that becomes a way of life. So a high end digital solution would be terrific for most people.
    The music industry has not embraced a new technology wholeheartedly since CD’s. The Mp3 revolution caught them off guard, first by hackers, then Napster made hacking easy. It took Apple to harness the technology and show the music industry that money can be made; but the industry were dragged into it kicking and screaming.
    There have been several competing high end formats presented over the years; DVD-Audio, Super Audio CD, Dualdisc, all of which failed because the industry did not agree which one to go with. Hi Res downloads and players that will handle it would be a solution.
    I’m wary of a company like Warner Music Group claiming that they have produced 24/192 files for 8000 titles. They most likely just bumped up their 16/44 over- compressed CD files to 24/192. I certainly have not heard of anyone being hired by WMG to handle this transition; at least SONY has a division , Legacy, that handles back catalog. Hell, Warner still sell hundreds of titles that were never re-issued, the same CD’s as they did in 1987.
    I don’t think independent labels and artists will lose out. If a format is settled, the indies will follow suit. Musicians who record professionally use at the very least 24/96 wav files in the recording and mixing process. Many still use analog tape along the line to capture that warmth that only finite compounds and friction can provide. With digital, it’s all 1’s and 0’s. No matter the resolution, kids will break the code and make files for anyone that knows what a computer is.

  14. This is an idea whose time has come, long ago. However, Omnipop1026 has plenty of reason to worry about WMG claiming to have suddenly found 192k files for 8000 titles. I’ve purchased several albums on HD Tracks, which claims to be an outlet for some of these sources, and it doesn’t take much to find albums that are: the wrong mixes; louder (more limited and worse sounding ) than the CD reissue; identical to the CD release itself. Pono is a wonderful idea but if the execution is lousy, which it very well could be, then it will become the latest laughingstock of hi end audio.

  15. LPs sound different because they introduce a distortion that some people prefer. CDs sound sterile because they lack this distortion. That is a similar argument of tubes vs transistors in that tubes induce even order harmonics that some people find to be ‘warm’.
    There may be an advantage to using higher sample rates or higher bit rates and I would love to do an ABX comparison. However, my hearing, at age 59, is not what it was when I was 20. I used to be able to hear an analog TV at ~16 kHz but I no longer can. I suspect Neil’s hearing is worse. Let’s line us up for a blind test to see what we can detect.

  16. We will all benefit by jettisoning the 16/44 standard.
    It was a necessary compromise given the technology of 1978. The mp3 generation was built on compressing the “lossless” 16/44 file, but it’s already lost so much.
    All Pono is trying to do is go back to the masters (mostly analog for the best music so far) and cut a digital version that ignores 16/44.
    I’m very much for it, and would purchase much of my library again in high res digital, including things I own on vinyl, if Pono mixes are approved by the original artist.

  17. oh, and take your double blind tests and you nyquist lab coats and any other charts and graphs you have. this is music people. use your ears and your emotions.
    set me down with my favorite piece of music, then play the MP3 all the way through, the CD all the way through, then somehow a 24-bit master all the way through. of course there’s a difference. i’ll hear new parts, new instruments, new range, new harmonics, new timbres, new rumbles, and new depth as you step up your quality.
    also – you hear with more than your ears. sound is vibration. digital sound at 16/44 is removing many of those vibrations.
    test tones are useless here. music is an ocean of tones.
    i have an icon of the mona lisa. looks pretty close at 16×16 pixels. resize it to 32×32, not so much. 1000×1000 it looks like a quilt.
    16/44 is a photocopy of the original. you can only sharpen a photocopy so much.

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