Neil Young made a big splash when he brandished a yellow object on Late Night With David Letterman last year. This was the mystical Pono audio player, inspired by Young apparently seeing a woman listening to music white earbuds presumably connected to an iDevice, and lamenting that she would never know top-notch sound quality.
Update: We’ve learned a bit more since this story posted.
Young and Pono hope to save the digital generation from the compressed audio files it loves so well. There’s truth to the assertion that most people listen to compressed audio on subpar speakers and headphones, but the jury is still out on whether HD audio is the answer.
Depending on who you believe (we’ve published opinions from both sides of the debate), high-definition digital audio, which has failed in the larger commercial market every single time someone tries to do it (DVD-A, SACD, HD Tracks, etc.), is either the one thing that will save us all from horrible sounding music or total hokum.
Pono is one of two phantom “we will fix everything in 2013″ music services we’ve been trying to highlight — the other is Beats Music, which we previewed here. As for Pono, we haven’t been able to wring any information out of it, and we’ve been trying.
Still, there has been some action on the Pono front. On May 24, the company tweeted, “Still working on it! Thanks for your patience, folks.” Then came two more tweets, over a month ago, about Neil Young visiting high-end speaker manufacturer Meridian — a strategy that makes sense, given that we also uncovered that Pono is pursuing club owners to try to install itself on speakers there.
That’s about all we know about Pono at this point. Even then, we know enough to see two major problems facing Neil Young as he tries to save us from compressed digital music.
Obstacle 1: Where Will The Music Come From?
As I noted in this Wired.com article five years ago, 24-bit master exist, somewhere, for most of the music being released these days. Mixing engineers use 24- or even 32-bit audio to tweak albums on digital consoles before bumping it down to 16-bit 44.1 kHz files for CDs, and then those files are typically compressed into AAC files (iTunes), MP3 files (Amazon), or a variety of formats including Ogg Vorbis (Spotify).
When I wrote about how these 24- and 32-bit audio files were the labels “ace in the hole,” I assumed that someone like Neil Young would eventually come knocking, and try to grab those high-resolution files to sell them either through established stores like iTunes, or through a new HD store like the as-yet-unreleased Pono ecosystem. That’s easier said than done. Not only have I since heard that these files aren’t the easiest things to get at, but music services have a hard enough time paying the pipers as it is, without having to hunt around for 24- or 32-bit versions of every song they want to offer, especially when they need at least 15 million or so tracks before anyone will want to shop or subscribe.
The other, more scaleable option would be to take the existing 16-bit 44.1 kHz masters and apply some sort of digital wizardry — a plug-in, essentially — to process them and make them sound better. Various companies, SRS being one example, have been doing this for years — adding “spacializers” and other sonic enhancements designed to make the music spring forth from speakers or headphones in a way that’s supposed to sound better than whatever the engineers managed in the studio.
So Pono has two options here: It can painstakingly scour the world for high-resolution audio files on an album-by-album basis, or it can apply a digital effect to its entire catalog before distributing the songs, essentially doing what SRS and others do on the fly, but in a canned way. The former would be difficult and expensive, while the latter could undermine the message that these files are somehow closer to analog vinyl. After all, it would just be another digital effect — and isn’t the point here to get away from “digital?”
To be fair, Pono could apply some kind of audio processing to achieve better (or at least more interesting) sound than what we get from today’s sources. Even the high-definition detractor who contributed this piece, Monte Montgomery (of Ogg Vorbis fame), conceded that “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.”
Fair enough. Still…
Obstacle 2: How Will People Play That Music?
Apple’s iOS devices, which are specifically the ones Neil Young wants to address, support the following audio formats natively, according to Apple: “AAC (8 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), HE-AAC, MP3 (8 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX, and AAX+), Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV.”
Adding Pono to that list would be probably be impossible, especially given that the Pono store or service, when it surfaces, will compete with iTunes.
That doesn’t mean Pono can’t offer high-definition music on iOS devices. Apple iOS devices can support Apple Lossless files up to 24-bit/48kHz, but not the 96 kHz ones that most audiophiles are talking about when they talk about HD music. That means that Pono, if it’s going to truly be high-definition, will be restricted to 48 kHz, or else will have to rely on something like this fictional module or Pono’s own hardware.
However, there can be a Pono app if Young and company are taking the second route mentioned in the above section — the one that would be about applying some sort of digital signal processing to the same 16-bit 44.1 kHz CD masters used by CDs and other music services. That approach would be even further away from the audiophile sense of HD audio, but at least people would be able to play it without buying a separate device. It would also mean that the music would take up about five times as much space on your iPhone as Apple’s compressed files do, assuming that after applying signal processing, Pono applies lossless compression (if it doesn’t do that, the files will be even bigger). Time to delete some photos, in other words.
The best solution to this second obstacle appears to be convincing people to buy a new piece of hardware, like the one Neil Young showed off on Letterman. We haven’t heard it, but we know Beck liked the way it sounded. Still, getting people to buy another device just for music, when they’re so used to just plugging their headphones into their iPhones and Androids, presents another challenge — including that it would be difficult or impossible to do that and offer Pono as a subscription. Instead, it would have to be a download store like iTunes or Amazon, just when people are reaching for the cloud.
(Letterman stillframe courtesy of the Jethro Tull forum)