Why Neil Young's New Pono Music Player Doesn't Make Any Sense

Why Neil Young's New Pono Music Player Doesn't Make Any Sense

Neil Young is a lover of music, and so he has embarked on a well-intentioned quest to improve the quality of digital music. His Pono player is based on a good understanding of the problems with digital music — but its prescription for a solution only half-way makes sense.

As I discussed in a post last September, crappy music files are surely a scourge, but the solution is to advocate for a return to CD-quality audio, not for the absurdly high-rate audio proposed by Young and others. CD quality sound is based on science, and going higher-resolution scientifically doesn't make a difference.

This isn't the fault of the player per se, but the whole idea behind the player is to provide a home for "Pono" files with soaring resolutions. There are other considerations that make hardware good, and we're not debating that Pono may or may not have these. But like the high-resolution audio jargon we first heard about last year, there's something fundamentally misleading about the underlying ideas behind some of Pono's audio quality claims.

Just read through the Kickstarter and look for science. Or let me save you the trouble: There isn't any. The benefits listed under the "audiophile" section of the FAQ are all about hardware — not about the sampling rate and bit depth.

We've asked for more information from the folks at Pono. When they provide us with scientific evidence which proves that 192kHz/24-bit audio is better than the 44.1 kHz/16-bit CD-quality standard, we'll let you know.


Comments

    Seems odd to refer to music quality as resolution, I'd use the term bitrate

      Actually, it makes sense. Resolution is about how much a thing you are measuring is sampled, whether you're measuring that sample rate in pixels per square cm, or angular resolution (as done with lenses), or samples per second.

      Why?
      Digital Audio is a snapshot of the waveform, so the more snapshots you get, the more accurate the reproduction.

      And I'm pretty sure it's recognised that CD audio doesn't encompass the full audible spectrum, and was a compromise to fit Beethoven's 8th (or whatever it was) onto a CD.
      But I thought the real push of this project was to get away from volume "normalised" recordings which is something everyone (even non-"audiopholes") can support.

      Last edited 12/03/14 2:34 pm

        Audio resolution refers to bit depth, the number of snapshots is the sample rate. Bit depth dictates dynamic range, it's questionable whether more than 16 bits of dynamic range are useful outside of recording sessions.

        The claim that one of Sony's figureheads simply wanted the CD standard to fit Beethoven's 9th in its entirety is largely unsubstantiated and likely to be an urban legend. The story has more elements to it which you can read about.

        And, since you mentioned it, CD audio does actually encompass the full range of human hearing because it was designed to. It's sample rate is sufficiently high, by roughly a factor of 2, to capture the upper critical frequency accepted to be around 20kHz. The problem is more to do with filtering the signal in the space of about 2kHz to prevent alias distortion fold-back into the audible range--this was a big problem for 1980s digital filter technology, but has more or less been abated with the advent of high rate over sampling in most applications and equipment.

        That had to do with the physical size of the cd, not the sampling rate or bit depth.

    A higher sampling, even if not perceivable by ear still makes those physical changes which result in better response causing the music to have more clarity.

      Read about sampling theorem, particularly the work of Claude Shannon, then you'll realise that more doesn't simply always mean more. It's very well understood that higher sample rates don't equate to a higher perceived quality.

    CD's sound dirty and fat, perfect for modern contemporary music. This does kind of make sense for classical and things like that, but not much else. I think we can all agree that MP3's are gross.

    I will play you some P-Funk on Vinyl LP, and then I will play it to you on wankHz/69-bit digital audio. You will be begging for the needle to be dropped on the spinning black circle.

      That's not because vinyl produces better sound, it's because it distorts the audio to produce a warmer sound, which we tend to find pleasing. It's also equalised before being pressed, where digital audio relies on an downstream equaliser. There's no question CDs produce wider range and cleaner audio than records, that analysis was done to death when audio CDs first came out.

      You can get the same colouring as your record player with careful work on the equaliser. There are a few guides for it around.

    This product is utterly pointless and a waste of resources to produce, market and sell. Apart from its disrespectful shape, the whole concept of trying to convince the unaware that by playing something recorded at 24bit/192 kHz through simple off-the-shelf D/A converters, bass heavy/cheap/unreliable cans, all whilst train surfing or dodging cars, that they'll have some utopian aural experience is a complete joke. It belongs in the hall of other audiophile nonsense like magical sonic stones or or mystical cables that apparently imorove ones listening experience. I love Neil's stuff, but god is he a total moron.

      But it's a $400 music player.. It's hardly the device that your average person is going to buy!
      The target market already have high end headphones.
      And I still come back to the fact that this player is secondary (as are the sampling and bit rates) to the actual point of getting access to recordings with no dynamic range compression. You certainly do not require "Golden Ears" or high end gear to distinguish the difference between an uncompressed and a compressed dynamic range.
      The rest is fluff to help differentiate these recordings from the standard fare as well as to grab some media attention and that's just fine.

        Exactly. Audio nuts are already likely satisfied; while John Citizen is apathetic towards what high rate/depth is or why he should use it. A lot of the remainder have a device that can store and play high rate FLAC if they so wish. So who else is really left? I can't imagine too many. What's the point of marketing something that's got limited prospective growth at all? He's on a crusade; he wants to get this out to as many people as possibly given his rhetoric. Yet, no one is streaming high rate audio for obvious reasons and that's where the market is going, so you're only left with the outliers and die hards with these sort of products. As someone else has said, he's barking up the wrong tree.

        Neil expressed that his primary concern is "resolution", and that the criminal tactics of some producers/labels regarding dynamic range is "a separate issue". You don't appear to understand the concept of bit depth either. Having ready access to 24 bit audio doesn't mean a less compressed signal. A 24 bit recording rendered to 16 bit will not sound more compressed; it will sound the same under normal everyday conditions. Dynamic range compression is applied by choice by recording engineers and radio stations at all bit depths for good reasons, but as you know it's heavily abused. During recording, more bit depth in means a higher SNR and potentially headroom. You want the best SNR you can achieve during recording to mitigate disastrous digital clipping and normal noise induced by quantisation distortion and equipment hardware. The pro-audio community have known this for a long time and given processing power and storage capacity increases, using 24 bit is not a concern anymore, it's essentially a given meaning everything you listen to likely begins it's life as 24 bit, 96 kHz. With the correct noise shaped dither however, quantisation noise on a 16 bit word can be effectively negated to areas less sensitive to the human ear.

        Further, most off-the-shelf equipment doesn't even exhibit the 96 dB range that even 16 bit audio yields. In extreme/ideal settings, with good, well tuned equipment in isolation one could perhaps argue for more dynamic range. But it's still odd to somehow think that someone will buy this thing (assuming they have a brain) and then plug it via unbalanced line out into their semi-pro grade equipment which can't even reap the so called benefits because of SNR circuitry limitations. People to tout this sort of drivel don't understand DSP, digital filters and sampling theorem which is disappointing because it's the same fundamentals that power and provide their leisurely existence in the palm if their hand every day.

      Disrespectfully shaped audio players are the worst.

    "Why Neil Young's New Pono Music Player Doesn't Make Any Sense" this got me clicking on this article, because it was a pretty strange statement, backed up with no research.

    I have been listening to 24bit/192 kHz music for some time now, and there is a call for it, many sites actually have these sorts of files up for purchase, because they do actually sound better.
    that being said, there are also a few points which i think people are misunderstanding. The actual player itself is a mode of storing and carrying such files around with you and being able to play them, through nice quality headphones or using the line out so it can be connected to your hifi equipment or even your cars audio. If you watch the actual promo video, Neil Young is previewing the pono system via a hook-up in his car. there are many ways to play 24bit/192 kHz files, even mobile phones can play 24bit/192 kHz flac files, so the player is not the issue (although yes the shape may leave something to be desired) The whole idea is aimed at people who want to listen to better quality audio, and these people would not go to all the effort in setting this up to be used with shitty quality headphones, so it's not targeted to the masses at all, they have itunes for that, this is simply a way for people to choose the quality of the music they want to pay for, rather than having iTunes decide.

    so in short, yes it does make sense, you only have to look at the artists such as Thom Yorke, or Trent Reznor to see that they are thinking about their listeners and providing several forms of music for people to choose, MP3, CD, Viny, HD Flac, Wav.

    Ultimately, if you actually listen to the HD quality files on the correct equipment, you will notice the wider range of sounds and headroom, it's that simple. and there is science behind it, but to be honest, sometimes facts and figures mean nothing, it's your ears you must trust.

    hopefully iTunes will start changing and providing better quality files, and giving us, the users the option.

      With respect, I think you're living in the clouds. The irony of him showing off the capabilities of this thing in a car is baffling, almost hilarious even. It's a car. The single worst place to really hear nuance and subtlety, yet pono will save the day. Dream on.

      People will believe anything that affirms their preconceptions without checks or balances. If you hear all of these "wider sounds" and "headroom" then you'd probably be surprised to find that ABX tests show you're about as likely to pick a high rate lossless recording to a low rate one as calling a coin flip correctly. In other words, your mind is more deceiving than you'd come to probably accept.

        nothing wrong with him having the demonstration in his car, obviously he has higher quality speakers and setup than the average car sound, and after all, Neil Young is a bit of a character, makes sense for him to do such a thing.

        I am not one to believe the hype of something, but i trust my own ears, and it appears so do many others, so much so, that this kickstarter has not only met its goal in a few hours of $800,000, but is actually hovering above $2,000,000 now, pretty evident that there IS a call for better quality audio options, and it's exactly that the OPTION, if you are happy paying for a lesser quality product, or you can not personally tell the difference that's great for you, but just look at all the industry professionals willing to get behind this idea.

        If you are happy watching movies on DVD, and can't tell the difference compared to say a 1080p Bluray, that's also your option/choice, but at least have the option available.

          It's pretty much proven in audio that if you expect something to sound better, it will. I can't remember the exact engineer but there's a famous story in the pro audio community where someone (maybe Neve? I don't remember) was documenting an EQ and then realised at the end it was turned off, despite the face that he'd nailed what it was supposed to do. Our ears lie and you'd never get anywhere as a sound engineer by trusting them!

          Let me preface this with a :)

          nothing wrong with him having the demonstration in his car, obviously he has higher quality speakers and setup than the average car sound
          Quantify this. You probably can't. This car setup is the perfect place to for him to 'switch' between audio and tell the listener what to listen for and verbally affirm and deny their uncertainties. This is pure experimenter bias and is just wrong on so many levels.

          so much so, that this kickstarter has not only met its goal in a few hours of $800,000, but is actually hovering above $2,000,000 now
          Kickstarter with Neil Young's name in it in it. Idea seems logical to the unaware. Multiply by inevitable support from die hard fans. Recipe for easy funds. It's hardly surprising that this has traction ($2,000,000 is actually pretty small to be honest), but its 'success' has nothing to do with its real validity. It has to do with its apparent validity, which is a far simpler sell. The argument roughly equates to "more dots make a better wave to bring you back to that analogue warmth". It's a wrong argument because it doesn't take into account what I have written below.

          pretty evident that there IS a call for better quality audio options, and it's exactly that the OPTION
          There need be no "OPTION" at all. It's a waste of processing power and power in general. There need be more diversion and proactive intervention towards other problems audio and music faces like copyright/redirection of profits and dynamic range compression tactics by record labels.

          if you are happy paying for a lesser quality product, or you can not personally tell the difference that's great for you
          It's not about "me being happy". There's a visceral beauty in reality. You assert 'quality' as if you understand how digital systems work and as if quality is defined only by your own misinterpretation of these well understood systems. Briefly, the normalised sinc function takes care of "quality" all the way up to the critical frequency. The concern is in the design of the low-pass filter, unless you deliberately oversample which is already done by even the cheapest and nastiest of modern D/A converters. You can represent ANY sinusoidal function, simple or complex with 100% accuracy if you sample at twice the desired maximum frequency. This was worked out in the 1950-60s before digital audio was even seriously considered. Bit depth need be only high enough to maintain a satisfactory SNR with the intended playback and recording equipment. Noise shaped dither improves SNR even further to the point of imperceptibility no matter what setup one constructs. The best part is one can educate themselves on these pure facts with relative ease.

          but just look at all the industry professionals willing to get behind this idea
          These "professionals" haven't educated themselves because their job isn't in designing equipment or understanding the concepts of DSP. Instead, they write, produce and perform music all at damagingly high volumes for the masses and then after the show hop into Neil's car and go for a joy ride. They aren't in a in a position to really comment based upon one experience in a car, nor can their aural recollection from the studio be accepted as it's is marred by rather narrow boundaries memory. You need real ABX testing to be sure of anything claiming to be better regardless of what it is.

          If you are happy watching movies on DVD, and can't tell the difference compared to say a 1080p Bluray, that's also your option/choice
          I'm sorry, but the video resolution comparison holds no water. 1080p was developed because one day, everyone suddenly needed a personal home theatre and studios always need a new format to make profit; the two are always married. The DPI of a big screen needs to be higher to accommodate the physical size of screens and the fact that the size of a lounge room is, for the most part, a constant parameter. i.e. people are still at the same distance. When DVD came out, it's unsurprising that everyone jumped at its apparent quality, because the only thing to compare it to was S-VHS, at most. Then, suddenly, televisions went from 26" to 42" then 55" in the space of 5 years or so. What else was there to do? There's a case for higher video resolutions, but like audio, the human eye has its own limits that are now being discovered with new age tablet displays that wield 300+ DPI densities. Further, video data is in the order of 10x the storage requirements to that of audio, so it's no surprise that it's still in developing. Audio on the other hand has limits that need far less storage and processing abilities.

          You see, we're imperfect creatures, who've evolved to interpret information within a limited range with respect to electromagnetic and sonic radiation and you need to accept that. You wouldn't argue that we should increase the sensitivity of CMOS sensors to incorporate gamma rays or x-rays just because it could somehow maybe improve colour response would you? You wouldn't (and couldn't) take footage at 192,000 frames per second just to film The Lord of the Rings, just because it would make the video more closer to reality. Audio is NO different.

          tl;dr
          Please educate yourself. I mean this in the most polite way possible. No sarcasm.

    I believe the idea is that this is the format studio recordings are often in? To reduce this requires digital interpolation - which can be done to a high quality, but WILL alter the sound in some probably for all intents be imperceivable.. or maybe not.

    I also think it's pretty dumb.. If anything, go lossless. And even then.. You can do that on any smartphone.. And why is it a triangle?

      Studio recordings are made in LPCM WAV (nearly all the time), which is essentially the same format, minus error correction, you find on a interleaved Redbook CD. If the audio was made in 24/192 LPCM for recording and mastering, then down sampling to 16/44.1 LPCM for pressing or digital release done properly won't affect the quality of the final product for listening purposes to any measurable degree. The signal will include all the frequency content up to 22.05kHz (well beyond perception) with a SNR in excess of 96dB at the ears most sensitive regions. The sinc interpolation method used by D/A filters is fully capable of achieving this for a discretely sampled band-limited signal all the way up to the critical frequency. And yeah, triangular prisms I don't even.

        I understand that the format is fine, but the format is irrelevant. I understand all the technical points, and also understand the way interpolation is performed when downmixing from 196/48/etc etc to 44.

        I would never say it's anything at all anyone would realistically EVER notice, but in reality it still equates to a mathematical loss of data, which cannot result in anything but quality loss, audible or not.

    Speaking as an Audio Engineer for 23+years, working with high profile artists/tours (no name dropping here), I can attest to the fact that quality does and always will matter.

    People still buy Vinyl records, because the sound is simply better, and if you want a digital version, you can record that into digital at 24/192, and you will get very close to that high quality vinyl sound.

    Whenever this topic comes up, you will no doubt see many, ...lets call them passionate people, trying to pass off their perceived audio knowledge, based on reading internet articles, not actual experience. Those who do have experience and who are behind this push for higher quality music such as say Dave Grohl, do know what they are talking about, if you have any doubts, perhaps watch the Sound City documentary. saying that "they write, produce and perform music all at damagingly high volumes for the masses" seems to just be a way of discrediting some very intelligent people who i have personally worked with.

    At the end of the day, this debate will all come out in the wash as they say, and in the end quality will win, so embrace technology, move with the times and allow yourself to enjoy and experience new things, rather than having lengthy babble from internet enthusiasts (Geeks/Nerds) who are clearly angry at the world in general.

    By the way, the Car test as we call it in industry, is actually one of the last things we do after mixing and mastering an album, you play it in a car, which is an isolated space, to pay attention to the final mix, sort of a real world test if you will.

      I know I'm just repeating myself here *facepalm*, but you, despite 23 years of experience, like some others, appear to have zero understanding of how digital audio operates and how it can achieve greater accuracy than analogue. This is a shame, because of all people, it is you who could do with some knowledge on the subject and further, you who could be doing the educating.

      People still buy Vinyl records, because the sound is simply better

      There is absolutely no point in comparing the sound of vinyl to that of digital for the sake of "betterness". People buy vinyl for other good reasons you didn't mention such as surface noise (warmth), tangibility and the general, romance, shall we put it, to the format itself. Warmth of vinyl isn't just it's ability to record (potentially) up to 100 kHz, it's all of the aforementioned things that amount to its attractiveness to the eyes of creatures who like to hold and feel real things. Therefore, the sound between vinyl and CD is purely different, not better, and going by numbers, CD is already better. Better implies closer and more accurate to the original recording with lower noise and better linear frequency response up to 20kHz. In this case vinyl is NOT more accurate than 16/44.1.

      After decades of research, vinyl has been concluded to not have any greater physical capabilities to CD for accuracy. If when comparing two copies of the same audio, one on CD and one on vinyl, it is shown to be the opposite then in every instance it has been demonstrated to be the fault of the mastering process. This is a far more important issue: making good mixes and masters for the intended format. This doesn't happen nearly as often as it perhaps should.

      and if you want a digital version, you can record that into digital at 24/192, and you will get very close to that high quality vinyl sound

      In continuation to above, why 24/192? Why not some other higher figure? Why don't you just keep on going? With floating point now, it's almost becoming meaningless. What is the real SNR of vinyl anyway? No greater than perhaps... 70-80 dB not accounting for the listening environment. A well produced CD is more and though 96 dB is the accepted maximum, even greater dynamic range can be achieved with noise shaped dither above 120 dB. The real problem as you would know are the desires to make things louder for commercial reasons. With CD, the dynamic range is MORE, but the format has been abused, not because it's limited in some way.

      Those who do have experience and who are behind this push for higher quality music such as say Dave Grohl, do know what they are talking about, if you have any doubts, perhaps watch the Sound City documentary.

      Dave is certainly a legend and a great guy. But that doesn't automatically mean he's qualified to speak upon the subject of high sample rates and bit depths for the purpose of audio production. He can only go by anecdotes and other audio misconceptions that despite 23 years of experience, you also don't seem to be aware of either. This is, as already mentioned, the biggest shame.

      seems to just be a way of discrediting some very intelligent people who i have personally worked with

      No, it's purely an observation. It's true. Their ears are weathered. This is normal. They play music loud because it's awesome to do. That is rock and roll. I would trust them for advice on music, gear, life experience and appraisal, but not for a quality assessment above and beyond anyone else out there. It's been shown plenty of times to that even those most sensitive/experienced within audio, don't sense differences between 16/44.1 and 24/192 with any degree of certainty more than any other person in the world. If they claim to, then it's more about ego and unchecked beliefs.

      At the end of the day, this debate will all come out in the wash as they say, and in the end quality will win, so embrace technology, move with the times and allow yourself to enjoy and experience new things, rather than having lengthy babble from internet enthusiasts (Geeks/Nerds) who are clearly angry at the world in general.

      You may be right; 24/192 might just become the standard one day, or maybe we'll still have senseless thinking driving even higher rates in the future. However, here you are misrepresenting quality once again. Quality is when a reproduction is closer to its original within a certain boundary of accepted limits. Why is it that most analogue gear is spec'd up to about 25 kHz? Because anything above this is superfluous. So, why do you pedal for a digital system to capture 96 kHz sound with a sample rate of 192 kHz? Again more samples does not provide for more accuracy within the audible range, so long as the signal is band-limited.

      By the way, the Car test as we call it in industry, is actually one of the last things we do after mixing and mastering an album, you play it in a car, which is an isolated space, to pay attention to the final mix, sort of a real world test if you will.

      Yeah, and there are other 'real world' tests you can do outside of a car too to fault find a mix and one should attempt to test on many platforms before it's bounced. This is why you probably have more than one pair of monitors when you mix as well. Truth be told, the car is a great place to test any mix because that's one place it will be heard, a lot potentially. Here's my question though. If I gave you the option to test your mix in only one of two cars, yours or mine, which one would you pick? We both know the answer don't we. Why? Because you know your car and it's sound. There people don't know Neils car and it's sound. If they wanted to be really sure, then they'd ask to hear it in their cars too. People don't think along these lines however.

        wow, this guy really is an (internet enthusiasts), just because you overload people with semi-tech talk, doesn't make it any more valid than other comments. you should really stop re-quoting and trying to pick apart other peoples genuine posts, it just creates negativity where there need not be any. I have a friend who does that, needless to say he had many issues, and i no longer waste my time trying to talk with him.

        Options for audio are already out there, and will start to change. no matter if YOU think they need to or not. Apple already have a few options in their so called (Mastered for iTunes) range, including what they call "Apple lossless".

        Then CDs were created there were inherent flaws in the technology, i won't bother explaining this, you can google for more answers, hence why technology is starting to find new ways of capturing audio, There was the SACD a few years ago, but these required new players to play back the discs, this did not make it big, because people would not want to buy new equipment. With the advent and popularity of online ordering and delivers methods of music these days, it's the prefect storm for delivering higher quality audio for those who wish to have it. ...but like almost everything in history, there will be those who do not understand, or simply like to argue for their own reasons or validation..... most of which will end up along in nursing homes rambling on about the good old days ;)

        Let this be the end people, just go and enjoy the music in any and all ways you desire.

          Jenny, I have every right to voice my concerns as you do yours. I'll begin firstly by paraphrasing Grohl himself: Music will always be, regardless of what technology there is.

          We've been for the better part of over 100 years been trying to perfect sound. What is "perfect sound"? To those during Edison's time, perfect meant attending one of his successful "listening tests", which you can read about--it's actually quite fascinating stuff. If your personal idea of perfect sound is vinyl, then so be it! I have no qualm with those who prefer vinyl. My problem is with those that perpetuate unsubstantiated untruths because of their extremely limited understanding of things which have been shown and validated not only in theory but also in practice. "Quality" is the primary one, especially the real definition of what the concept of quality actually means.

          People get so fixated on things such as sample rates and bit-depths without focusing of what actually matters to music production: the performance itself, the social dynamics of the performers be it in the studio or on stage, the amount of compression, and whether the master is designed to fit the end media like a glove. People don't talk about these aspects nearly enough. No instead they become part of the meandering rhetoric of a community that believes that somehow the mathematics of sampling theorem and thermal limitations of real analogue equipment can be somehow exceeded to make everying "better" by just increasing the numbers, that there's some sort of magic in doing what to the seems largely logical. None of this is remotely close to being the "semi-tech talk" as you so crudely suggest. Yet again do I have to point out a degree of blatant and unrivaled ignorance here that's beyond perplexing.

          Some other responses:
          1. Mastering for iTunes was dangerously overdue. Despite it's low sales results, the concept is sound, because it upholds the notion of efficiency: getting the absolute most out of what you have even if it's from a lossy media.
          2. Apple Lossless is isn't anything more than what FLAC has been doing for a long time now. Oh, how has it been selling by the way? I'll give you a hint...
          3. Please elaborate as to the current flaws of 16/44.1 that CD uses. I'd love to hear your interpretations.
          4. SACD is simply a different way to encode a signal discretely. Many purport it to be superior to LPCM but this is still contentious, and as you pointed out, nobody wants to buy another Whitney Houston album if they don't have to.
          5. Delivering "higher quality" digital audio is, as I've argued, a matter of diminishing returns. It's not a matter of unchecked beliefs, misrepresentations or misunderstandings that I'm sad to admit are so entrenched, and so unwavering, that I personally have little hope that any degree of education could possibly assist "'those who (actually) do not understand".

    Of couse the beginning equipment eg: pono player of audio fidelity is important.However the other two pieces of equipment in this audio situation THE AMP AND THE SPEAKERS .The amp is only the middle factor amplification (part two).The speakers part three is most important as to the pick up eg: CD ,mpeg player etc,haven't read anyone mention this .maybe that is a given.I wonder will any computer play such high bit rates or do you need pono to play such. Amen.

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