October 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Neil Young’s High-Resolution Audio Format Could Make for Better Interactive Apps

We’re re-running this article from 2012 because it’s even more relevant now that Pono has launched:

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 exists as to 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.

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

  • 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!

  • Anonymous

    Good points overall. I have a conflicting evidence about points 1, 3, and 4 though.

    First, Monty outlines the reasons why 24/192 is actually detrimental to music playback in the above article. The 44.1 kHz sampling rate is a sufficient sampling rate for today’s technology. Anything higher than a 48 kHz can be detrimental for the sound quality as the ultrasonic (read: frequencies above that of human hearing) can cause intermodulation distortion to get into the audible frequencies and effectively ruins the sound quality.

    Were the benefits of 24/192 music so “exponentially superior,” anyone would be able to take a 24/192 track, downsample it to 16/44.1 and be able to tell the differences immediately. Try doing exactly that with an ABX test, or better yet, a double blind test, and the differences are hardly noticeable.

    Second, if you analyse the spectrum of any MP3 file (Spectro or Audacity programs come to mind), you will be able to see that the highest frequencies are cut out, making them “suffer the most,” not the bass. Typically, through a V0 LAME MP3 compression format, 16 kHz and above are cut out for the most part.

    Third, humans have an upper limit of 20 kHz of hearing unless you are a young person, who typically have a hearing range slightly above that. Adding anything above 20 kHz is inaudible. As mentioned in the above article, that would be the equivalent of claiming that humans are able to see ultraviolet light, and we cannot.

    “Get the full quality, uncompressed file – uncompressed is the key.”
    A compressed lossless format (e.g. FLAC, APE, ALAC, etc.) is just as good as uncompressed lossless in terms of data storage; there is no loss of any information.

    Lossy compression (i.e. MP3, AAC, WMA, etc.) are detrimental to the sound quality.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.emerson.777 Daniel Emerson

    “Second, if you analyse the spectrum of any MP3 file (Spectro or Audacity programs come to mind), you will be able to see that the highest frequencies are cut out, making them “suffer the most,” not the bass.” This has been my experience in listening to MP3s too. The more the lossy compression, the worse the high frequencies sound. Cymbals, for instance, are a good indicator.

    As for the formats listed at the end of your post, Windows have both lossy and lossless WMA available as options. Unlike Apple, they didn’t give each a different file extension, which muddies the waters.