The Cinch Review

Neil Young’s Pono is Launched, and Fidelity in Digital Music Gets Debated

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Pono Player Neil Young Digital MusicChampioned and promoted by Neil Young, Pono is here (at least for those willing to cough up the dough on the Kickstarter campaign).

Content for the PonoPlayer will be sold by the PonoMusic online store. The CEO of PonoMusic, John Hamm, promises “studio master-quality digital music … the way the artist recorded it.” Fundamentally, this means it will be capable of playing audio in the lossless FLAC format at 192 kHz and 24 bits, versus the 44.1 khz and 16 bit audio of CDs, and versus the MP3 and other compressed digital formats which strip data from those CD quality recordings to make the files more quickly downloadable and portable. However, the Pono player will still play those lower-resolution formats as well.

The concern about the impact of what’s missing from MP3 files versus the CD versions is reasonably familiar, but the idea that people need to hear the music at this even greater resolution of 24/192 has been more the purview of very serious audiophiles up till now. If there is some debate over whether the human ear can notice the difference between a 320 kbps MP3 file versus the lossless data at CD quality, then the debate over whether the difference between CD quality and 24 bit/192 kHz is genuinely tangible seems even more difficult to sort out. One may sense that it sounds better, but is that due to the higher resolution, or to the stirred expectations of the brain, or perhaps just to the above-average original quality of the particular recording itself? I would be open to being convinced, but there are practical issues: recordings at that resolution have not been very easy to obtain, and take up substantially more space on a hard drive when you do obtain them. (And the issue of re-buying things you have re-bought many times before is not an insignificant one.)

In the end, a PonoPlayer is not going to make recordings better, but will give people one way of hearing recordings in a variety of formats and resolutions including the very highest available. Pono does nothing, in and of itself, to address an issue oft-lamented in these pages, namely excessive loudness, aka the abuse of dynamic range compression (which is not compression of data as in MP3 but the compression of sound in the mastering). It’s a process that has been overused for well over a decade in the record industry in order to make new releases sound “brighter” or “punchier.” This flattening out of the inner dynamics of recordings is very tangible, once you identify it, and seriously impacts one’s long-term enjoyment of the music—whether you have identified it or not. The medium of vinyl, which for physical reasons does not permit as much dynamic range compression as the CD, has enjoyed a comeback partly for this reason.

Another caveat about the PonoPlayer is that it is still basically about people listening to music through headphones or earpieces, although the Pono will be able to be played through speakers as well. Listening through headphones can be very enjoyable, but another thing that’s been lost in this portable, digital age is the broader physical experience of feeling music through every nerve in one’s body. That’s one of the qualities inherent in live music, and it shouldn’t be something that is entirely abandoned when listening to recordings.

In any case, for at least getting people talking about the quality of the music they are hearing, Pono is a good phenomenon.

As an addendum, yours truly has to say that it is outrageous that in 2014 one cannot go online and buy one’s music in one’s preferred level of quality, rather than being compelled to download it in the inherently inferior MP3 form. At the very least the whole industry should be set up like it has been by the folks at Bandcamp, where you can download the music from the artists participating in MP3 or in FLAC or just about any other audio format.

The hard times suffered by the music industry shouldn’t simply be blamed on digital piracy, I think, but also on the longstanding and mufti-faceted failure of the major commercial purveyors of music to work from the premise of providing the best possible product to their customers. “They’re stupid, so give them crap,” is not an inspiring mission statement, nor one that makes long-term success either likely or deserved.


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