Apps, Mobile & SMS

Neil Young’s Pono Format Might Benefit Interactive Audio Apps More Than Music Playback

Pono-neil-young-lettermanGuest post by Eliot Van Buskirk of

We recently ran a pair of opposing opinions about Neil Young’s proposal for a new high-end music format and player, called Pono, which would purportedly bring sound quality back to the masses — sort of like how Beats by Dr. Dre and the new Apple EarPods are trying to do, but one step earlier on the musical distribution chain. These new music files would likely be uncompressed (or lossless) 24-bit, 192 kHz audio files, offering a much higher resolution than the CD, which, like subsequent digital formats, is encoded at 16-bit 44.1 kHz.

However, just like some doubt whether Beats and Apple EarPods headphones actually sound as good as their marketing material would suggest, some doubt whether the higher numbers in Neil Young’s Pono format would actually translate to better sound. Notably, Monty Montgomery, who understands how these thing works so well that he build the world’s most popular open-source audio format, Ogg Vorbis (found in Spotify), wrote in his guest post, “Unfortunately, there is no point to distributing music in 24-bit/192kHz format. Its playback fidelity is slightly inferior to 16/44.1 or 16/48, and it takes up 6 times the space.”

Ouch. Sorry Neil, we love what you’re trying to do here, but that doesn’t sound like a winning approach.

However, there’s a good reason that engineers record and mix at 24-bit and 96 kHz or above: When you process audio during the recording and mastering processes, those higher quality files end up sounding better due to negating minute additions of noise to each generation, among other things.

If Montgomery is right, then Neil Young’s Pono will be a waste of time, bandwidth, and disk space for simple music playback. However, an increase to 24-bit 192 kHz audio on the listener side could have positive ramifications when they in turn process sound. Music videogames, DJ apps, remixers, social karaoke apps, equalizers, and other apps that let listeners interact with sound in such a way that the audio gets processed could find that Pono or any other high-resolution format could produce better results. DJs in particular might be willing to pay for files that can be manipulated and still sound great.

Selling an interactive music format that outputs great-sounding results even after multiple rounds of audio processing might not be as sexy as upgrading the sound of all digital music. However, it might be more realistic.

See also:

Will Neil Young’s ‘Pono’ Player Really Make Music Sound Better?

Guest Opinion: Neil Young Says Pono is Hawaiian for ‘Righteous’

Guest Opinion: Why 24/192 Music Downloads Make No Sense


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  1. “Unfortunately, there is no point to distributing music in 24-bit/192kHz format. Its playback fidelity is slightly inferior to 16/44.1 or 16/48, and it takes up 6 times the space.”
    This is simply not true. Why this man is lying, I don’t know, but 24 bit / 192khz is far, and noticeably, superior in playback quality to 16/44.1 or 48.
    And who cares if it takes up 6 times the space? We have the technology to store thousands of these files in a single, tiny drive, so who cares??

  2. ” bring sound quality back to the masses — sort of like how Beats by Dr. Dre and the new Apple EarPods are trying to do”
    Uhhh…. what? If its something that those two products specifically DON’T do, is bring good sound quality back.

  3. I find this confusing. How is it true that the playback is “inferior” and also true that it’s “higher quality” that “sounds better”?
    And do we know that Mr. Montgomery has listened to a recording that was actually recorded, mixed, and mastered at 192/24 (possibly with an analog step or two)? After all, there aren’t very many available.
    I had the opportunity to listen to Neil’s Harvest album on LP, CD, and DVD-Audio (a 192/24 mix). Vinyl won, but it was very clear that the 192/24 mix was throwing a lot of extra details at me – the presence of the drums, an extra ‘realness’ in the vocals and acoustic guitars. It was a very obvious step up in quality. Just like the numbers would suggest. “It’s arithmetic.”
    I think high-quality sound is something that isn’t on the RADAR screen of most people, even lots of people who actually work with technology and music. People have gotten used to crap.
    I guess I am saying that a quote from a guy whose made a name with a compressed format probably can’t convince me that there’s no reason to strive for high-quality formats.
    MP3s have their place, but they are not a replacement for uncompressed sound, be it vinyl or hi-res digital. I’m twenty-nine and the music industry’s standards have actually gone DOWN over my lifetime. Someone’s gonna change it, whether it’s Neil, or some advancement that happened because of video games and filtered into the realm of music.

  4. Monty says “Unfortunately, there is no point to distributing music in 24-bit/192kHz format. Its playback fidelity is slightly inferior to 16/44.1 or 16/48…”
    I cannot imagine an experience more diametrically opposed to my own. With properly done 24/192, for the first time in my experience, I’ve got a recording format that I cannot tell apart from the direct mic feed.
    Statements asserting 24/192 is inferior (as opposed to finally fulfilling the promise of digital) strike me much like saying there is no color in a rainbow.
    I applaud Mr. Young’s desire for higher quality in the delivery format.
    Barry Diament

  5. Psychoacoustics must surely play an important role in this discussion. Hearing something is not purely a mechanical process (sound waves impacting on an ear drum and sending vibrations through the cochlea) but is also a perceptual experience where poor sound is often ‘improved’ by the brain filling in the missing pieces or missing frequencies. Take for example the famous conductor from the early part of this century who, upon hearing for the first time his orchestra recorded and played back on a single horn grafonola is said to have exclaimed, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘Why would anyone ever again buy tickets to a live concert when you can have an entire orchestra in your living room!’ Now, considering his acute hearing and skills as a conductor, his statement seems absurd, but it serves to illustrate the power of the brain to recreate the experience of full fidelity sound by filling in missing frequencies. The success of the 16 bit 44.1 khz compact disc as the major music carrier since 1983 proves that the vast majority of listeners will accept mediocre sound. A quick survey of the stereo equipment and headphones/earbuds used by 95% of music listeners lends further proof to the claim that quality doesn’t matter much. Music consumers put convenience way ahead of sound quality! If that isn’t true, then why did the LP record dissapear as the main commercial music carrier? Because, as great as vinyl on a good turntable can be, it’s clumsy, prone to damage, inconsistent, inconvenient, and expensive!

  6. Not really sure why Monty thinks the playback fidelity is actually inferior, but there is no real statistical difference between Redbook and anything higher. Assertions that higher sample rates sound better on playback have been proven in double-blind tests to be no more than placebo, and, with dither, higher bit depths only increase the S/N. 44.1kHz sampling sufficiently covers the frequency response of human hearing, and really, you just can’t hear anything above that (you really just can’t), and 16-bit already has the noise floor at about 90dB lower than the music, which is practically inaudible.
    There really just isn’t much of a difference. People that say higher quality formats sound better are only hearing that because they think it sounds better. Human hearing is very susceptible to suggestion.
    Not saying I don’t think better standard formats would be better, but the real statistics and double-blind tests don’t lie.

  7. Sorry, your wrong. Just plain wrong. Go ahead and listen the different formats for yourself and HEAR the difference. 24 bit is much more dense sounding. You can turn it up and make the windows rattle. The bass is thicker and heavier, the mids are much more palatable, and the highs are much more sweet and detailed. It’s about density and detail and you have cloth ears if you can’t hear the difference. It doesn’t even take good equipment to hear the difference.
    The misunderstandings on this are astounding. Neil is telling the truth and everyone will figure it out when they actually listen.

  8. Wow, whoever said 24/192 is “inferior” in sound to 16/44.1 is clearly not an engineer. However that little line of BS aside, there’s a strong argument that only someone with trained ears listening to very specific sounds is likely to be able to tell the difference.
    In my opinion anything over 24/48 is overkill for humans, and my “opinion” in this case is based on having a Ph.D. in EE/Signal Processing with additional studies in neurophysiology. Your dog and cat might go for the 192, but not you.
    What we do often forget is that hardly anyone listens to CD-quality music anymore – so-called high quality 320kbps mp3 files are still about 25% the information bandwidth of 16/44.1. So just going to redbook 16/44.1 would actually be a huge improvement over what most people are listening to now.
    What does matter in the long run is the size of the files compared to network bandwidth – for musicians to make money from recordings again we need to be able to go to stream-only formats with instant access to the music over any network anywhere, and having files be 3-6 times larger than needed is a waste of bandwidth.
    However just to show Neil there’s no hard feelin’s please be on the lookout for The Human Operator’s Dubstep cover of Cinnamon Girl.
    – Tungsten

  9. this current generation does not know what their missing listening to compressed (mp3)
    music. the cell phone audio transmission is also crap (very compressed).

  10. As a musician & producer, I applaud Mr. Young’s efforts. The digital age, for all its wonders, has made us very lazy listeners. MP3s are convenient, but not great sounding, but no one can really tell because of the tinny earphones and computer speakers people are listening to. The younger generations seen to know little of “hi fidelity” because they’ve never experienced it. Most people don’t know what they are missing, so won’t really care about Pono, even if it can improve their listening experience, because they will still play their Pono files over crap earphones and music systems.

  11. Did you read Monty’s article?
    Take a 24/192 file, downsample it to 16/44 and then say you can hear a difference. The differences you are describing are more likely to be due to different masterings of the music, which is completely different from saying 24/192 is better than 16/44

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