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 Evolver.fm 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.