October 4, 2012 at 2:31 pm

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

neil young pono

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).

The only thing I’m commenting on here is the long-running audiophile demand for 24/192, and their pushback against any scientific testing that shows it’s useless.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr/NRK P3)

  • flo

    ever heard of flac? …

  • AJRussell

    FLAC is just a lossless compression of CD quality audio. So although it doesn’t degrade the material in the way that MP3 compression does, it doesn’t improve on (or have bigger numbers than) CD quality audio at 16bit/44kHz.

  • http://twitter.com/TonyFaulkner3 Tony Faulkner

    Not impressed by Monty Montgomery’s commentary about 192k and hi-res in general. He has minimal experience of how 192k native recordings sound. We have been recording hi-res nearly 20 years and it sounds great. Where is the problem in 2012? We can record hi-res uncompressed files, we can store them, we can play them. They do not require any new disc formats. I smell more of an attitude problem than anything technical.

  • http://www.facebook.com/xiphmont Monty Montgomery

    Tony and I had a long discussion over private email prior to his post above. With his permission, I’ll post both our messages. Of course, he is welcome to do the same.

    My mind about high-res is easy to change. All Tony [or anyone else] would need to do is identify one of his own high-rate recordings from a downsampled copy using a solid methodology.

    Tony, the high-res recordings you make sound fantastic, but it’s not because of the high rate. Its because of simplicity, good equipment and your skill as a recording engineer.

    [note: edited for tone until Churchill would approve]

  • Radicalsoundguy

    I am afraid that Mr Montgomery has not a clue of which he speaks. There is an astounding difference between 24bit/192 than a conventional CD recording. I am an audio engineer and have played comparisons to folks who don’t know a thing about music, and that can all hear a huge difference. Kudo’s to My Neil Young and his undying passion for fantastic sounding Audio. = Everyone deserves amazing Audio.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Waldrep/745727210 Mark Waldrep

    FLAC is simply a free lossless codec and can be applied to standard definition recordings like CDs and HD-Audio recordings such as those that my label AIX Records produces. We actually include 2-channel FLAC files on the ROM sections of our discs…from 96 kHz/24-bit sources

  • AJRussell

    Hm, ok, interesting. Would I be able to get (buy?) one of those high res FLAC files from you for a listen?

  • Rich Costey

    Tony, whom should you believe: Monty, or your lying ears?

  • Warren

    Well done Neil Young; But! It would be good if you were to offer a scale of samplings softwere players and hardware to match. 768KHz with 32 bit word length in wav format ( no compression ) would be a start. Much 24/192 through computers and servers has limitations. Abandoning the commercialisation of music by MP3 and Apple and similar software codecs is necessary for the preservation of music. There are many who would appreciate the best that digital has to offer; If you are going to do it then do it properly. Have a scale available without compression. Many FLAC files at 24/192, when converted to *.wav uncompress at rates of 8:1; how anyone can say this is lossless compression is laughable; Many sites that claim to offer high definition music actually utilise horrendous compression ratios. Await your site with much anticipation.

  • Hifi_Bob

    “There is an astounding difference”. So astounding that all previous attempts to market it have been dismal failures.

  • Bob Rock

    As an engineer I must bring some facts to the readers in order to help fellow music lovers get the best out of their music listening experience.

    The article states:

    “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.”

    Here are the facts:

    1. It is exponentially superior” not “inferior.” I can only hope it was a typing error.

    2. MP3 throws away 50-95% – so there is tremendous room for improvement

    3. The low-end suffers the most in mp3 format (you don’t miss it on silly Apple headphones) but you do on a good system with bass or in the club/bar.

    4. Harmonics above the normal human hearing range (20khz) add to the experience (psychoacoustic effect). That is you can’t easily identify the sounds/frequencies, but when you remove them you do “miss” them.

    5. Beats headphones don’t even try to “sound good.” Beats just increases the bass using EQ, which kids like. When you boost bass with EQ, you introduce distortion – it sounds worse. Banging? Yes. Sound better? No. You want it louder, turn the volume up, not the EQ. Also, when you change the EQ, you change how the artist wanted you to hear their music. They spent thousands of dollars making it sound exactly like they wanted it (mastering).

    6. If you want good headphones, buy Sony MDR-7506′s. Apple’s headphones are not even worth commenting on.

    Bottom line, 16-bit, 44.1k uncompressed is the perfect mix of sound quality/file size. The people who came up with that format knew what they were doing. So the problem is mp3 is bad, not that CD quality (16 bit/44.1k) is not good enough. Compression specifically is the problem. mp3 was born in a world of slow dialup internet connections so it made sense. MP3 on an iPod is not necessary. Get the full quality, uncompressed file – uncompressed is the key.

    Happy listening!

  • Dan MacFadgen

    This was an excellent clarification. So my impression on the issue overall would be that we record with the highest resolution our gear can handle since substantial processing and storage is accessible and inexpensive. Keep everything in that native state and deliver the final mix in the highest level of resolution that today’s reproduction equipment can deliver… sounds like that will begin changing soon with Neil Young’s assistance.

  • Christopher Montgomery

    I assume you’re aware that the very best ADCs and DACs in existence reach only 21 bits of actual signal depth. Even in the world’s best 24 bit DAC– those last three bits are pure noise. Most are several bits worse.

    …unless my satire detector is malfunctioning, in which case, well played :-)

    It reminds me of the famous copypasta:

    “Hearing the difference now isn’t the reason to encode to FLAC. FLAC uses lossless compression, while MP3 is ‘lossy’. What this means is that for each year the MP3 sits on your hard drive, it will lose roughly 12kbps, assuming you have SATA – it’s about 15kbps on IDE, but only 7kbps on SCSI, due to rotational velocidensity. You don’t want to know how much worse it is on CD-ROM or other optical media.

    I started collecting MP3s in about 2001, and if I try to play any of the tracks I downloaded back then, even the stuff I grabbed at 320kbps, they just sound like crap. The bass is terrible, the midrange…well don’t get me started. Some of those albums have degraded down to 32 or even 16kbps. FLAC rips from the same period still sound great, even if they weren’t stored correctly, in a cool, dry place. Seriously, stick to FLAC, you may not be able to hear the difference now, but in a year or two, you’ll be glad you did.”

    For those who don’t realize it, everything in those two paragraphs is completely made up.

    And for anyone seriously requesting 32 bit recordings of music from the 1960s… analog reel-to-reel tape recording technology of the era was only the equivalent of about 11-12 bits deep. It reached ~ 13 bits in the mid 1980s before digital took over.

  • Anon

    If music continues to be produced with excessive dynamic range compression, limiting, and poor EQ choices just to be “as loud as possible”, no amount of resolution or high end equipment and software can make it sound good. And unfortunately the majority of music is produced that way.

  • taco_sniffer

    Are you mentally ill? Data does not degrade over time. IT’S NOT THE SAME AS ANALOG INFORMATION.

  • RetroWreck

    This might influence change and allow musicians to open a world of less compression and more creativity of sound. We would all benefit from this future outlook.

  • Roger Dahmes

    i do stream 24/192 hdflac and i like it ,but my dad(who is a bit deaf) liked cd over hdtracks because its sounds too clean(24/192) and loss of bass(no loudness) but for me its much better 24bit reveals more than 16bit ,i play this to connect my laptop to my teac dac (the only troubles with this is you put extra voltage of 5 volt via usb through the audio signal and sounds a bit brassy)but my collection of rush hdtracks sounds better than my sacd’s of rush (i heard things i did never heard before) so normal people dont buy this only the audiophile

  • Juhani Korhonen

    It was supposed to be something completely new and unheard of. Instead, they have branded standard FLAC file format, developed a clumsy player for it and established a web store to sell FLAC format files. Where’s the innovation? Frankly, I didn’t expect any. I’m sad that Neil Young is part of this branding business. He shoud’ve sticked to his model railways and not to become a joke at the end of his otherwise brilliant career.

  • h2k

    Complete BS. Files stored on a reliable storage medium don’t lose their bits. Does the spreadsheet you used for budgeting lose data cells over time?

  • h2k

    I find the difference astounding as well on most carefully transferred analog master to digital file. To become an audiophile does require some listener training. Most people don’t really care and that’s why the HD market is not so strong. If you listened to a lot of today’s pop music, 8 bit would probably be sufficient.

  • Anonymous

    Of course it’s complete BS, that’s what copypasta is! The original author was trolling, but it sounds just convincing enough that there are people who vehemently believe it for no other reason than it supports their beliefs about digital audio.

  • Anonymous

    This is all very simple.

    When a high-rate believer, using material and equipment of his own choosing, can’t identify the high res file from the ‘obviously’ inferior low-rate version beyond guessing, I’d have to be an idiot to call anything other than bullshit.