August 9, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Neil Young’s Pono Music Faces Two Big Obstacles

pono hd audio player neil young

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 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.

These obstacles can be surmounted, and surely, Neil Young’s well-deserved reputation for being awesome will help. But they’re obstacles nonetheless.

 (Letterman stillframe courtesy of the Jethro Tull forum)

  • Curlypaws

    But won’t the record companies be looking forward to selling our music to us all over again? Because it won’t come for free – and apparently paid music downloads are declining. And it doesn’t have to be the very highest bit rate masters – something better than the awful quality of a 256Kbps file would be a start. It would be nice to even reach CD quality in generally available downloads. The big problem is that most people don’t value high quality music, and will happily settle for what is currently sold.

  • Crindy

    I’ve never bought into the whole anit-compression thing. Even if you have the uncompressed .wav file, you’ll need top-notch equipment to even notice the tiny difference between it and a 320kbps mp3. And don’t even get me started on having to worry about disk space needed to hold a whole full bit-rate collection…

  • Watts

    I think disk space is increasingly a non-issue. An album in FLAC or ALAC seems to run about 200-500M; 3 albums per gigabyte may sound wasteful, but you can get 2 terabyte external hard drives for under $100 these days. iTunes can transcode to 256K AAC when it syncs to an iThing, and I presume that capability’s present in other players/ecosystems. (Assuming you’re not using one of the cloud-based systems for portable players.)

    While my own (probably none too well-controlled) ABX testing strongly suggested to me that I can’t reliably tell the difference between 256K AAC files and uncompressed CD audio, I’ve decided I’d rather have things in uncompressed form simply because it’s not space-prohibitive to do so and I’d really rather have bit-for-bit copies of my CDs available. (And I do have pretty good equipment, although whether it’s “top notch” is pretty subjective.)

  • Name

    16/44.1 already IS high definition. And… spacializers are just a trick. They do not increase definition.

  • Anonymous

    want to bet this ends up like SACD or DVD audio? a bunch of moneyed farts will run to buy the devices, everybody and their grandma will reissue the usual suspects (led zep, stones, assorted boomer stuff)… and by 2020 nobody will remember or use the damn thing

    the app or widget for improving sound in your system is a good idea, but is niche as well

  • princehints

    1.. The main thing your missing is the quality of the D/A conversion and the speakers. The difference between your ipod or macbook soundcard and a pro audio soundcard is staggering even on consumer grade speakers/headphones.

    2. If they did want to remaster works at a higher samplerate/bit depth, they would not need a new proprietary format. Wav and aiff are capable of 24/192

    3. “spacializers” or other signal processing is just a trick, not a step toward hd audio, and beyond surround sound applications, is only degrading the integrity of the producers and engineers work

  • Anonymous

    Yes, and there has not been a single study to date where, with any statistical significance, higher rate/width can be differentiated from 16/44.1 under otherwise identical conditions. It’s good old fashioned snake oil. I’m sure Neil thinks he can but let him test that under controlled conditions.

  • Anonymous

    1. Actually it is not staggering at all. It can barely be distinguished, if at all, by the best ears. Converter technology at the level of today’s devices is near perfect as far as can be determined from legitimate testing.

    3. This is not true of systems that do stereo to binaural conversion (a form of spatial processing) well. What you hear on ‘phones is nothing like what the mix and mastering engineers created on their speakers in their listening environment. Good stereo to binaual conversion, and it is not difficult to achieve that with DSP in today’s smartphone hardware, can restore a quite plausible version of that original perspective remarkably well. It can also be used to enhance but that’s a matter of season to taste which I consider a perfectly valid users choice. The goal of reproduction is not accuracy. That can be satisfactorily defined in theory but not achieved without signal processing and without succumbing to individual and conditional variability. The goal instead is plausibility. (There is a better word than plausibility that better conveys a high implied quality of belief but I can’t for the life of my come up with that word.)

  • Deer Man

    Consider the case of the “Purple Chick” project, specifically catalog of The Beatles. As a fanatic for their recordings over the last 25 years, I have meticulously collected various formats and can speak honestly and intelligently about the benefits and drawbacks of each.

    My first exposure was via original vinyl releases from the sixties (a mix of American with some British imports) thanks to some old neighbors in Dallas. I transferred these to cassette and studied the songs for about three years. Then the much-ballyhooed CD revolution took place and I spent hundreds reacquiring the same releases in “pristine digital remastered format.” While I could hear much cleaner details in the recordings, something essential was lost in the highest end of the audio spectrum (I suspect due to the 16-bit limitations of those re-releases).

    Eventually the mono masters were released and those sounded significantly better than the first versions on CD, yet 16-bit audio can only sound so great.

    Finally a friend suggested that I check out the Purple Chick Recordings. This is a grassroots project where fanatic listeners remastered the closest version to the masters of the Beatles catalog, primarily via first edition vinyl recordings (both mono & stereo versions for each release). The Purple Chick records are all in FLAC format which is one of the few truly lossless formats: no frequencies are discarded whatsoever.

    When I listen to the Purple Chick on my decent THX-certified studio monitors, I can suddenly hear parts of the high-end that are nearly invisible on all other formats. Harmonies, percussion and subtleties of the cymbals are clearly evident.

    The best way to describe the difference between the FLAC versions and all others is this:

    Imagine standing in a room for a concert with your favorite band. When listening to CDs or MP3 versions, the ceiling feels like it’s just above your head and everything feels very tight and a bit claustrophobic.

    Now imagine seeing that same performance in a cathedral or symphonic hall where the voices and higher frequencies suddenly drift from above in a sort of divine revelation.

    I would certainly like to see more bands receive the Purple Chick treatment to help listeners develop their critical listening and appreciate the truly outstanding recordings still available out there.

  • Deer Man

    The fundamental idea Neil is proposing is indeed very sound (haha): Bring listeners as close as possible to the Master Tape experience. The problem is there is no standard way to provide that access.

    BTW the Purple Chick project I describe above is 100% freely available and distributed online so the “monied farts” aspect doesn’t necessarily apply.

  • Anonymous

    I’m with you on that.

  • Guest

    I agree. I’m mix records – probably for a few folks you are familiar with. I a/b my wav prints against iTunes converted mp3s just to make sure I’m not losing anything and to compensate if I am. The difference even on my very expensive system and acoustically accurate space is very little, though certainly noticeable. Except in the case of particularly bright mixes with a lot of +16khz content.

    The compression thing that audiophiles SHOULD (and often are, to be fair) be concerned with is dynamic range compression, not data compression. That’s a vastly more noticeable degradation.

  • Russ Hughes

    But you miss the biggest issue – 99% of the music buying public don’t give a toss about the quality… next

  • karishma

    But you miss the biggest issue – 99% of the musicbuying public don’t give a toss about the quality.

  • Anonymous

    “assorted boomer stuff”. LOLz. Awesome.

  • Anonymous

    While I agree with you on the Master Tape experience, I don’t think that a little portable player with headphones is the way to do that.

    He should aim for it to be a home setup type of system. I don’t see there being a big market for a portable player. Most people are in transit while wearing headphones. Are you going to really hear the difference Pono vs. AAC on a moving subway? Really?

    There is already a Master Tape experience. It’s called vinyl.

  • Paul Neyrinck

    I recommend the author consult with a digital audio professional before publishing inaccurate information about audio quality issues. You can find a lot of knowledgeable folks at, for example.

  • mark

    What is the problem with hi rez. flac files at 24/192 or dsd files?, are pono files going to be any better?

  • kvashee

    There is actually solid scientific evidence that hi-res audio is not meaningfully different from CD. You can see several studies cite din this link:

    I am involved with an initiative that attempts to address fundamental stereo issues which we believe cannot be corrected with via higher resolution or new gear. Our approach is to add indirect sound — the sound of reflections – to address this. Our initial tests show that when this is done even 128K MP3 files can sound as good as CD or 96/24 in double blind tests.

    You can see some feedback on the technology at SpaceLab who conducted some A/B listening tests in August

  • kvashee

    There is actually solid scientific evidence that hi-res audio is not meaningfully different from CD. You can see several studies cited in this link:

    I am involved with an initiative (Maya) that attempts to address fundamental
    stereo issues which we believe cannot be corrected by going to higher
    resolution or by cool new gear. Our approach is to add indirect sound — the
    sound of reflections – to address this. Our initial tests show that when
    this is done even 128K MP3 files can sound as good as CD or 96/24 in
    double blind tests.

    You can see some feedback on the Maya technology at SpaceLab who conducted some A/B listening tests in August

  • sophisticated giraffe shirt

    Why not just use FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec)?

    It’s the best quality you can get.

  • Elegant elephant

    I don’t know why many people don’t notice the difference between FLAC and MP3, maybe it’s my headphones but even with my laptop’s speakers I can tell the difference in quality between the two formats. What I have indeed noticed is that that quality difference varies a lot from the specific Artist/Album/Song/Source of the music.

  • Dana W

    I’ve waited years for a real high capacity solid state MP3 player.

  • RouteNote
  • Matthew McKellar

    Derp, deleted. wrong discussion.

  • Matthew McKellar

    I’m late to the discussion. But through my MS-50 speakers, yeah, it is a staggering difference in audio quality between the iPod and a SoundBlaster card playing ALAC. The difference is quite pronounced when using a decent circumaural headset.

  • Matthew McKellar

    I don’t care about the ecosystem. If the hardware delivers, ill get one to play my own library.

  • Mix YezPittleIck

    Got a demo? Or a product? I well understand the importance of this especially for ‘phone listening which is way far south of what a mixing/mastering engineer hears in the studio. I want to hear on phones what he hears there.

  • kvashee

    Yes a demo (not web based) that shows how good MP3 or CD can sound going through the Maya DSP

  • Mix YezPittleIck

    It’s a shame you haven’t made it accessible. Sorta difficult to assess your claims.