Don't Buy What Neil Young Is Selling

Don't Buy What Neil Young Is Selling

Neil Young's "high resolution" PonoPlayer goes on sale for $US400 today. You shouldn't buy it. The recalcitrant rocker isn't wrong for wanting to reclaim audio quality in the digital age, but in the service of that goal he's peddling junk science, and supporting expensive gear and music files you don't need.

For the last few years, Neil Young has been been the most visible proponent of what's called both "high resolution" and "high definition" audio. These huge audio files theoretically sound much better than any other digital files that have ever existed before. To put that sound in the hands — and ears — of the people, he created the PonoPlayer, a triangular portable music player that promises only the highest of fidelities. He's not alone. Last week at CES, Sony announced a whole battery of new high-resolution audio products, led by an absurdly expensive $US1200 Walkman, loaded with hardware that's supposed to optimise the reproduction of the music loaded on it.

At the most basic level, the push for high resolution audio is rooted in reality. By adopting digital formats like the MP3, and the lossy encoding of the music streamed by subscription services like Spotify, we've sacrificed audio quality for convenience. A music lover should care about improving their audio quality by using better files.

That's fair! But from there, the arguments for high-resolution audio fall apart.

The science doesn't make any sense

Though the term is used loosely, high resolution audio is generally meant to refer to music that has been digitally encoded at very high sampling rate and bit-depth. Specifically, it means music encoded at much higher rates than even the CD-quality digital standard that was adopted decades ago.

Here's a chart from Pono describing various levels of audio quality. At the very bottom, you've got the lowest quality streaming files, in the middle you've got 44.1 kHz/16-bit CD quality standard, and at the top, you've got absurdly high-resolution files that are encoded at 192 kHz/24-bit.

Don't Buy What Neil Young Is Selling

The rationale behind high-resolution audio is that by maximizing the sampling rate and bit depth, you also maximise audible detail and dynamic range in the music you're listening to. This sounds great on paper, but in practice it's an absolute fantasy.

The CD-quality standard — which Young and HRA proponents say isn't sufficient — wasn't adopted randomly. It's not a number plucked out of thin air. It's based on sampling theory and the actual limits of human hearing. To the human ear, audio sampled above 44.1 kHz/16-bit is inaudibly different.

Still, this demonstrated mathematical truth does not stop people from claiming that they can hear the difference on higher quality audio. The evidence for Pono's greatness begins with a video testimonials that were posted on the Pono Kickstarter page. Young used his industry connections to put the PonoPlayer loaded with high definition audio tracks in the hands of famous musicians, who all freak out and say Pono is the best thing they have ever heard.

This proves nothing. I'm not calling Norah Jones and Dave Grohl liars, but I'm saying that they're succumbing to confirmation bias, that natural impulse to hear or see what it is you want to hear or see. If Neil Young thrusts a gadget in your hands and says, "Listen dude, you are not going to believe this shit," you are probably going to hear exactly what Neil Young wants you to hear.

Of course, there's a scientific way to overcome confirmation bias, called double-blind testing, whereby you are presented two alternatives randomly in such a way that you have no idea which is which. There are some problems with double-blind testing, but it's generally accepted as best practices, especially when it comes to evaluating something as elusive as audio quality.

Though Young and Pono have failed to produce double-blind studies on the benefits of high-rate audio or their music player, inquiring minds have taken the time to do it. In a 2007 paper published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, Brad Meyer and David Moran outline the results of a study in which they presented a large sample of "serious" listeners with a double blind test comparing 44.1 kHz audio from "the best high resolution discs we could find." The goal was not to show which was better, but simply to find out if people could even tell the difference.

"None of these variables have shown any correlation with the results, or any difference between the answers and coin-flip results," they write in their conclusion. Later they note, "Further claims that careful 16/44.1 encoding audibly degrades high-resolution signals must be supported by properly controlled double-blind tests."

This is how you do science. It's incredible to me the lengths that educated and intelligent people will go to say that they're somehow endowed with hearing powers that necessitate a level of audio encoding that's demonstrably impossible.

The hardware is unnecessary

Let's set the bitrates aside for a moment. We can all agree that better audio quality is a good thing for everyone, so who cares if the rates are way higher than what we need? It will be better! This might technically be true, but the push for high-resolution audio that defies science creates an irrational obsession with hardware we don't need.

First of all, high-resolution audio files take up enormous amounts storage space. A "high resolution" 96 kHz/24-bit file is roughly three times larger than a CD-quality 44.1 kHz/16-bit file. And if you aren't currently using CD-quality files, it's about 24-times larger than what's considered a decent quality MP3. If you have a large music collection, storing any significant amount of high-resolution audio requires a huge amount of storage space, for which companies like Sony want to sell you $US1000+ hi-res music players that are basically network attached flash storage.

Moreover, the push for high resolution audio leads people to think they need more expensive hardware than they do, from high-resolution players like the PonoPlayer and Sony's rebooted Walkman, to outrageously priced headphones, speakers, amplifiers and other gadgets.

I'm guilty of this as much as anybody else. Back when Sony announced its (relatively) cheaper $US300 high-resolution Walkman last fall, I marveled at it, and thought to myself, "I kind of like the idea of a cute standalone music player that's designed just for my music files." And from a gear lover's point of view, I still feel that way.

On a more rational level, though, I'm actually sensitive to claims that the Pono Player's circuitry is superior to the circuitry of your average music player, which in the case of most people is our smartphones. In audio the quality of the gear you use does often improve the sound. That's why people pay big bucks to record in fancy recording studios that have fancy completlety analogue circuits. From the Pono's product description:

This portable audio player uses circuitry taken straight from Ayre's own top-of-the-line products, costing tens of thousands of dollars, for unparalleled sound quality and unrivalled listening pleasure.

The question then becomes if the better circuitry on these players is really worth $US400, or the inconvenience of carrying around an entire device dedicated only to music playback.

I think for a moment it's worth addressing my own headphone use. The cans I use on a daily basis cost $US300. Do I think a good set of headphones sound better than a bad set? Definitely. But I also know that you can get good quality sound from a set of $US80 Grados, and that the reason I spend more money on headphones as actually for build quality, comfort, and aesthetics. Much of it doesn't have anything to do with sound at all.

The point is that you don't need fancy hardware to make music sound good, and that no amount of hardware will make your ears hear better than what the limits of biology and physics.

Neil Young's heart might be in the right place. Unfortunately, he's put his considerable connections and resources behind a tone-deaf movement.

Image by Sam Woolley


Comments

    You make it sound like sound in the real world is not sampled at an "infinite" rate and and frequency. Its my understanding that infra sound, though inaudible, affects how you hear the audible frequencies.

    And how do you explain the people who still swear by vinyl? Surely you should be convincing them to rip their stuff to MP3 because, as you claim, no one can tell the difference. Oh wait, all of them claim things like "warm non sterile sound"

      Giz seem to pretty happy "bashing" Hi Res audio at the moment and Ill wager that none of articles are written by people who've taken the time to properly experience it.

      This chap has written a pretty good piece on HiRes and what it is/isn't here

      http://benchmarkmedia.com/blogs/news/15197197-what-high-resolution-audio-is-u-not-u

      and I really like this from the end

      "Audiophiles have eagerly embraced High-Resolution Audio formats, but many have not experienced the full capabilities of these new formats. They would do well to focus on acquiring playback equipment with true high-resolution performance. 24-bit audio provides no benefit if the power amplifier can only deliver 17-bit (103 dB) signal to noise ratios. Likewise, high sample rates are useless when played through speakers having an 18 kHz top end.

      A good CD played through a high-resolution system easily outperforms a High-Resolution Audio recording played through a low-resolution system."

      In each case, double-blind testing would expose the absurdity of all of it. Vinyl sounds good because it's highly compressed (limited), which is EXACTLY the same process used in the "loudness wars" those same vinyl-lovers will tell you is ruining music. As for "infra-sound", CD sampling rate is more than double the frequency limit of human hearing in order to eliminate (or minimise) those kinds of issues. As soon as someone uses the term "warmth" or "analogue warmth" in their argument, they lose me. It's not something they can define, it is simply the embodiment of their confirmation bias.

      I had a friend whose stereo system was worth more than $20,000 in 1985. Each component was hand-made by a company who only did that one thing - pre-amp, power amp, etc. In 1986 we did some testing using Sony's then top-of-the-line CD player (he worked for Sony at the time), his Linn-Sondek turntable running through his $12,000 hand-made pre/power amp and his obscenely expensive, hand-made, floor-standing speakers with their hand-lacquered drivers. Yes, the vinyl sounded ever so slightly better but back then CD technology was little more than a year old and everything available on CD had been taken from analogue master tapes. I am confident that if we repeated that test today using a modern CD player with a high quality DAC playing modern, all-digital recordings, the CDs would probably win out. After all, jus think for a second what a vinyl record is - it's a lump of plastic with some wobbly grooves cut into it with a sharp, pointy needle running across it and setting up vibrations which are electrically transferred to an amp and speakers. It is absurdly primitive and after even just a few plays it will lose far more fidelity than it would in the conversion to high quality MP3.

        Warmth is just extra mid-range. Try it with an equaliser on your computer, you'll see what it sounds like. Quite a lot of people like it (I'm not one of them) because it makes the high sounds less shrill by comparison.

        In valve audio the warmth is distortion.
        Even though distortion for a purist is bad it does give it character.

          "Warmth is distortion", when it comes to valve's this is correct. Valve's don't clip when amplified above the DC rails, rather it inverts the wave form, unlike transistors which simply output DC when they amplify above the rail voltages of the output stage. Also, valves amplify different harmonic frequencies, in comparison to transistors.

          As far as sample rates go, bull s h i t ! Studies have confirmed that humans simply cannot perceive a difference above 44k, and are simply guessing. Brad Meyer and David Moran from the Audio Engineering Society did a study in 2007. Subjects sat at a chair and listened to a SACD/DVD-A sound source directly vs piping through a 16bit/44.1kHz A/D/A device. Subject were asked which source was superior. Out of 554 trials, 276 picked the pure SACD/DVD-A source. That is 49.82%, and is pretty much 50/50 chance. http://drewdaniels.com/audible.pdf

            It's not just the clipping thing and transistor amps can be designed to soft clip as inverting valves amps do. Though they can still drive dc but its blocked by the output transformer. Which is also one of the factors for the distortion mainly in higher frequencies as transformers are quite bandwidth restrictive and noisy.

      People still listening to vinyl would be well off to record the result using a high-quality ADC and converting it to high bitrate MP3 if all they cared about was the sound.

      The sound of vinyl isn't objectively more similar to the master from which it was made than a CD is. People variously listen to vinyl because they like the particular way it sounds, they like the physical object, they like the sociocultural aspects, and so on. There is a chapter from a book called 'Record collecting as Cultural Anthropology, and indeed an an entire book about record collecting called Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age (written by two sociologists).

        That's my view. Technically vinyl isn't as good but it's up to the user what they like. If you like the vinyl sound just say it. Don't invent reasons to try justify it. I know valves are well pretty crap these days but I do enjoy the sound of them. Hence why I have 2. Well 1 really the others a hybrid.

    To all those who are undecided on Hi Res audio, I suggest you look up your local HiFi store (proper retailers still exist, Im not talking about Harvey Norman or JB HiFi here) and ask them for a demonstration.

    It might be from a Hi Res file or SACD and it will be on a suitably equipped HiFi system and you can decide for yourself.

      If you want a first hand experience of confirmation bias, sure!

        And your experience with it is?

          Let's see...

          I have degrees in science and mechanical engineering, I've recently done consulting work for an Australian Hi-Fi speaker company, I've been to the trade shows and listened to everything going (though not Young's toblerone), and I've waded through twenty years of industry marketing bollocks.

          But that's beside the point, the science is in and people (even "audiophiles") can't tell between hi Def audio and a good cd. You aren't a superbeing. This isn't an isolated study either, it has been repeated many times with many different products.

          Show me a contradictory case which isn't anecdotal evidence.

          Last edited 13/01/15 12:28 pm

            Thanks for putting all that out there. I wasn't trying to be an ass.

            To share, I have degrees in audio engineering and computer science, Ive worked actively with high end audio dealers and manufacturers in addition to running my own recording studio. I am also a self confessed audiophile.

              If you are so well endowed with this degree and that degree and run your own studio, then you could at least take a moment to recognise the importance of double blind testing and applied statistics, or did you not learn these things?

            You say the science is in and even audiophiles can't tell the difference. Would you mind pointing me to the relevant studies (or at least a few of them). I went hunting for some but only turned up one (which agrees with what you said). I'd be really interested to get the others. (If they are in paywalled journals, that's fine - I should be able to get them anyway through friends who are still working at universities).

      Often they have the better hifi systems plugged into better quality speakers and have all the settings adjusted correctly. Every business will want to sell the most expensive. Example is how JB/HN used to use standard RGB cord on some TV's and HDMI on others. Or even if they were all on HDMI the picture settings were on the wrong settings in the lower-end whereas the high-end TV's had the correct settings.

      tl;dr Make sure you're not being scammed.

      Most of those demonstrations use audio sampled at 44.1Khz, which has been the acceptable standard for as long as CDs have existed. I used to be an audio technician working live stages, and I don't see "hi res audio" taking over at all, when that means new amplifies, new music re recorded at the higher sample rate, and not to mention the proportionately larger digital storage required. For most people, .mpeg-3,.wav,.flac/alac(for Apple users) will do just fine through a nice home amplifier and home hi Fi systems

      One of the problems with that is that SACD and regular CDs are frequently mastered differently. To really test whether it is possible to tell the difference between Hi-Res and 44.1/16 audio you need to either:
      1. Create an SACD and a standard CD from exactly the same master and then do a valid blind test (e.g. ABX, inserted alternative sample, etc) or...
      2. Rip an SACD and resample it to 44.1/16 and then blind test those

      If it isn't blind, it isn't valid.

    Hi Res audio has its place, just not in the portable music market. We use high sampling (96k and above) when recording music, as it helps a lot when it comes down to mix time and you need to mix 100 tracks into stereo. You get less artifacts and a better sound.

    But for an already mixed track? Well there is a difference but it is tiny, and to hear it you really need a seriously amazing audiophile stereo, in a perfect room....at which point you may as well play the music on LP which is better again than digital audio. (which is what most hardcore people do these days, just look at vinyl sales)

    As for portable audio, well any tiny perceived gain you get from listening to high res audio is going to be negated by the environment around you, the headphones you're wearing etc. It's not worth it. If you want a "night and day" listening experience in a portable device, then ditch the mp4 and m4a files and go straight for either lossles (flac) audio or an uncompressed WAV file.

      at which point you may as well play the music on LP which is better again than digital audio

      What kind of measure of 'better' could you possibly be using to come to this conclusion?

      To hear the difference, (between 44/96) you are guessing, as this study showed...
      http://drewdaniels.com/audible.pdf

      Last edited 16/01/15 5:16 pm

      Vinyl better. You make me lols

        I would bet that blind folded, on a good system, (minus the obvious record noise "crackle, hiss and hum") you couldn't tell the difference. There is now a generation of people adapted well to listening to digital music (noise free), don't get me wrong, I love Vinyl, I grew up with it, but its just a marketing gimmick now.

    This seems like another entry in a long and venerable list of audio scams, like the special green markers to paint around the edges of your CDs,or scattering little wooden disks around the room, or Monster cables.

    I question bang-for-buck. As was already mentioned in an earlier comment, if the equipment you have can't play it, then you aren't hearing anything different. So this means buying more new hardware.... specialized hardware.....expensive hardware.

    And yea, frankly, for the slight difference I *might* hear.... I don't care enough to go spending that kind of cash.

    I suggest people read this article by Monty of Xiph (i.e. the guys who brought you Speex, Vorbis and Opus encoding formats).
    The extreme summary is: 192/24 is good when doing recording, processing, mastering and so on because it reduces loss of fidelity at each stage of processing. It is probably bad in a portable player and in actual released music because the additional frequencies are inaudible but artifacts induced in equipment by those inaudible frequencies are not necessarily inaudible.

      It's a good article.

        ...that gets cited every time someone writes an article on hi-def audio.

        Including Gizmodo authors...
        http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2015/01/sony-walkman-reborn-again-as-a-1200-hi-res-audio-handset/

          Yeah, it is one of the more significant articles on the topic because it is very thorough, and because Monty really is an expert in the area of digital audio psychoacoustics.

    Whilst I agree with the thrust of this article, I'd point out that the Pono Player is not really that expensive. In fact, for a device with the potential to store 192Gb of music, I think it is probably the cheapest option. A Pono with a 64Gb microSD card will set you back around US$420 and give you 128Gb of storage, which is the equivalent of two iPod Touch devices, which would cost you US$598. Next to a US$1500 Cowon Plenue 1 it looks like an absolute bargain.

      Was gonna say this. It's not actually a bad price for the hardware. The music store seems like a massive ripoff but hardware wise for what it is it's pretty well priced!

      But yeah. I love my FLACs and audio gear but 192KHz/24Bit is completely and utterly unnecessary for home listening... 44Khz/16bit is more than fine.

        Agreed. If I was looking for a dedicated MP3 player right now (Right now I've got my GNote 4 with a FiiO USB DAC - Bulky but quite effective) I would absolutely consider this. Personally, I probably wouldn't go for the Pono store, because FLACs ripped from a CD is enough to sound good in my mid-high range earphones. But the player's hardware is certainly better than any phone will provide.

    Mario seems to imply that a $300 set of headphones sounds no better than a $80 set.

    In headphones, $80 is considered cheap, and $300 is considered mid-range to beginner-hi-fi, depending on the brand.

    With a decent source (16/44 FLAC or 320kbps MP3 is fine) a $600+ pair of headphones is going to sound better than all of them.

      My guess is his 300 Dollar headphones are either SOL Republic, Marley, or Beats. They're all 300 dollars, and all actually worth a third of that.

    @Archfiend

    I work at JB, and I will tell you that the only reason they use different cables for the TV Displays, is that they all need to be running the same video signal, which is usually a single foxtel box, which is then sent to a splitter and run out to all of the TV's. It would cost far too much for the company to have a set top box or bluray player with HDMI cable for every TV, so sadly we end up with a ever degraded signal as it is all run off 1 (yes 1) Foxtel Box. Jb are not told to sell you more expensive products, they steer you towards the right product in the price range you are after, and are only told to push for extended warranties, as thats where they make extra profit.

    I think the thing to remember here is, that the people writing these articles for this website have some distain for the idea of HD-Audio, which is fairly apparent with the spate of articles which offer cut and paste links but no real personal experience. Quite sad to see, but they obviously get off on starting comment wars, and sitting back to watch the debates unfold.

    So lets not play the game, or add fuel to the fire, if you are into the tech, thats good, if not, thats also good. It's all about choice!!

    my guess is that some people are 'superlisteners' much the same way we have 'supertasters' & because of this it's kinda impossible to understand how they must hear/taste the world.. I know my hearing is pretty shot; mainly because of a lifetime of music festivals & raves.

    I'd like to address the whole "most people can't tell the difference, therefore no one can" thing. Let's start this by saying that I acknowledge the reality of confirmational bias. yes, it's a thing, yes, it's real and people do tend to hear and see what they want to see and hear.

    However, none of the double-blind tests that I've heard of have been with conducted with professional musicians or sound engineers. Actual experts. People who get paid money, some of them VERY BIG money, for their ability (natural gifting or trained skill) to hear things very clearly and to pick up on the minutest of subtleties in an audio track.

    As an analogy: if you developed a new running shoe, and got an accurate sample of the population to test it, most of them are going to reach their top speed in it. However, most of them probably would have reached a pretty similar top speed in their normal running shoes, or with bare feet. Some of them would have reached a similar top speed in a pair of thongs. This is not a fair reflection on the new shoe, because these are just ordinary, untrained, unfit, average people. If you want to get a real idea of how good your new shoe is, you give it to Usain Bolt, or another professional runner. Why? because they are trained. They are fit. And they are more likely to reach the limits of the shoe before they reach the limits of themselves.

    tl;dr?
    if you want to test something that's subjective, why not ask test it on the experts in the field?

      You make a good point: the results of blind tests can only be reasonably applied to the population from which the participants are selected.

      Here's one test which compared hi-def and 44.1/16 audio with audio experts:
      http://www.aes.org/e-lib/browse.cfm?elib=14195
      I've only read summary information on that paper, because I don't have access to the paper itself. Summary info and commentary indicates that the conclusion was basically that no-one (including audio experts) could differentiate between direct hi-def audio and hi-def audio that was digitally resampled at 44.1/16 and then converted back to analog. That means the participants failed to detect the difference between 44.1/16 and hi-def, but also failed to be able to detect a whole additional round of analog to digital and digital to analog conversion.

      You're right in that there are a lack of these kinds of studies though (using expert listeners). One challenge, I think, is that some expert listeners are heavily invested in the belief that they can tell the difference so may be less eager to participate in well-designed studies (e.g. 'I know I can tell the difference so why would I need to do your test?'). It would be good to see more of these tests though.

      I believe that at least a couple of the users over at Hydrogenaudio can reliably differentiate 320kbps MP3 from CD audio on some particular tracks by having a very good (and well trained) ear for MP3 artifacts. I don't know whether that performance holds for other more modern codecs, or for high-res audio.

      Edit: Just wanted to note that I'm not saying that expert listeners can't tell the difference, but agreeing with you that more information is needed before really making that claim strongly.

      Last edited 13/01/15 4:43 pm

    There's no cash prize on offer, but anyone happy to just get street cred can submit to this listening test:

    ...prove that you can reliably hear a difference between CD, 320kbps mp3, and any higher resolution format, and we will write a glowing, feature-length article about you

    http://www.trustmeimascientist.com/2013/09/03/think-you-have-golden-ears-take-the-scientist-challenge/

    I find this article really problematic. Although I'm certainly not going to start defending the likes of Monster Cables, the arrogant suggestion that anyone spending any kind of money on Hi-Fi gear is just being conned is ridiculous. I understand that the author may genuinely not be able to hear the difference between $80 and $300 pairs of headphones, but then to imply that no one else could possibly have better hearing than him is pretty strange. I work as a sound mixer and designer, and I'm known to have pretty sharp ears, but even I know people whose hearing is far superior to mine.

    I have a 5.1 sound system that's worth about $7000 which I adore, and I spent hours and hours 'auditioning' it and others before buying it till I was satisfied. And even then, I know there are people for whom the high frequencies of my system are too harsh, the response profile of the speakers is not flat and 'transparent' enough, and who would pay double or triple what I've spent to be satisfied. I don't dismiss them as suckers, even though I can't always hear what they are hearing. I have respect for the awesome fidelity of their ears. There are people who you can sit down in front of a high end system, and they'll tell you the brand of speaker AND the amplifier. This exists. It's not a con. And the idea that NO ONE can even hear the difference between an MP3 or a CD is laughable. Consumers already have higher-than-CD quality music in the form of Blu Rays and SACD. Once again, you think that people that can tell the difference between a DVD and a Lossless 90/24 DTS Bluray are believing the hype? Come on. But yes, someone playing a BluRay on their laptop and wearing their Beats headphones plugged into the laptops crappy DAC and headphone amp will probably not be able to tell the difference.

    Back to the author of the article, apart from the quality of his ears, what kind of music is he listening to? If he's just listening to hip hop, then fair enough. Perhaps the issues of fidelity and dynamic range may not be quite so relevant with material that has been sampled from vinyl and compressed to hell in the mastering process. Even so, there are people that will want a high end system for whatever kind of music they like. But certain kinds of content 'stress' an audio system more. And @hazzzaa is right, talking about supposed 'double blind' tests that are

    I also find it hypocritical this general Gizmodo bias against high fidelity audio, considering this same publication consistently loses its shit over 4k television. I have a Full HD 50" Plasma, and I realised that if I sit more than 2 metres from my TV I can no longer resolve the full resolution. Try it. Put a pixel-by-pixel black and white checkerboard image up on your screen, and see how far back you can go before it turns to grey, and you can't make out the grid anymore. Any point past that, increased resolution is irrelevant. And no ones watching their TV that close. Yes it's impressive to get right up to those 4k TVs at CES and see how sharp the image still is, but don't tell me THAT isn't a con. What the hell is the use of that?

    I'm getting flashbacks of the digital camera megapixel wars of the Noughties. *twitch* O.x

      Yeah, I remember those days: paying $800 for a 4mpx camera.
      The digital camera wars are actually *more* interesting, because there are a lot of really important variables that get ignored by a lot of people (e.g. colour depth, noise, JPEG compression, etc.). I guess you could liken those to variation in DACs and amplifiers though in these arguments.

        I'd be surprised if Neil Young and Dave Grohl could really hear the difference - their cochleas would be totally shot from decades of amplified performances (on top of normal ageing).

          I agree, to be honest. I know that when I tested the maximum frequency I could hear (using electrostatic speaker, tube into ear, the whole works) I was sorely disappointed (and I've been wearing earplugs to gigs for the last 15 years).

    From my experiences the cut off is 96kHz 24 bit audio. There definitely is a heighten clarity of the vocals and instruments with High Res Audio even with the use of iTunes and my stock 2012 MBP. And it would be nice if places like the iTunes store offered an option for high res audio to be downloaded along side AAC.

    If you are seriously interested in HRA then you should subscribe to the "Dr AIX" newsletter on RealHD-Audio.com (no affiliation). It is written by Dr. Mark Waldrep who is a record producer who only produces high quality audio. He writes a lot but the main points that I have picked up in his newsletters are:

    1. Every step of the process has to be high resolution or you are wasting your time. Taking a CD recording and boosting it up to "high resolution" format does nothing to improve quality. Similarly, doing a double blind test using $2 headphones with high resolution sound files will not help either. It has to literally be high resolution from the actual instrument to your ears.

    2. Most high resolution audio is missing a step as above. A lot of music being sold as high resolution comes from low resolution or CD quality source files sold as high resolution audio. This apparently includes Neil Young's collection of music

    3. There have been no, zero, none, zilch studies that have done double bind testing with full high resolution audio from instrument (or singer) to the listener's ears. Dr Waldrep is going to conduct one this year so it should be interesting to see and should settle the debate. Any tests proving either side of the argument are flawed in some way.

    4. Vinyl is not high resolution even though it is analogue - there are physical limitations as to what information can be stored and read from a platter and these are way below what is possible with digital audio.

    My feelings are that the human ear can hear better than CD quality music if it is presented with a reasonably well built system. I think that a well done double blind test would be able to show this.

    Even though I have a noisy commute and don't have noise blocking headphones, the good quality headphones that I do have radically improve the listening experience and I can easily tell the difference between a compressed mp3 file and CD audio and naturally prefer listening to the latter.

    Don't spend 1000 on a new player spend that money on a good dac. Amps or speakers and you'll get a sound improvement with out having to get a new music library.

    I still remember when I built my first good set of speakers and the difference they made. Hearing details I'd never heard before. All off good old cd. I was amazed. As the years progressed and so did my knowledge and skills I've built many amps. Speakers and recently a dac. And every setup has its own unique properties. Some of the higher distortion amps actually sound better than the lower distortion ones in the end dont believe the hype get what sounds good to you not some one else. And like all things shop around.

    That being said a track I'm familiar with. I can hear the difference between mp3 and cd. But there is a point where you get so good you can't tell the difference anymore.

    I have some sacd and the tracks on them do sound better than the cd equivalent but I think these particular ones it's down to mastering rather than higher bit rates. So it's something I'm still sitting on the fence with.

    Last edited 14/01/15 9:07 pm

    Analogue and vinyl compression is NOT the same as digital compression. And it is NOT easily replicated in the digital world. And not all compression is evil. Compression does NOT equal the loudness war. Limiting or hard compression just to get louder but at the expense of dynamic range is why there is such a push back on the loudness war. Analogue and vinyl sounds are very music and are not eliminating the dynamic range. It's a false comparison at best.

    I record music at home and normally demo at 48kHz/24-bit. Sometimes when I know I need to demo fast and dirty to get a song structure down, I'll drop to 44kHz/16-bit, because I KNOW I'm going to use multiple RTS plugins across my buses and as a result increase my CPU load towards it's limit.

    I'm not going to explain the details; if you're not experienced in guitar tones, you probably wouldn't understand the examples anyway; but take it from me: The difference between the two bit-rates is VERY EVIDENT.

    Guitar tones and cymbals are sucked of their brilliance and is muffled at 44/16 when compared to 48/24.

    So yeah, there is without a doubt, definitely an aural difference.

    The science is interesting, but a lot of it is over my head.

    I paid considerably more for Creative Jukebox Zen Xtras when they were new (around $600USD each) because of their lossless capabilities (WAV), no DAC, and the ability to upgrade the hard drives to 160GB. I've gone through around a dozen of these units since around 2002 (mostly used). They were discontinued long ago, and even decent used ones are getting hard to find. Their weaknesses are the audio out jack (which breaks off the board and shorts out 1 channel) and the expensive batteries which don't usually last a year (needed to transfer music and update firmware from the computer).

    There are very few affordable and comparable options available for music with mass storage today. My wife and I compared several iPods through my car stereo, after converting WAV to Apple's lossless format - and frankly, they all sound terrible (muffled and no volume) compared to the Zen Xtras.

    I have several terabytes of music, which was all ripped to WAV (for the Zen Xtra) and FLAC files from the original CDs with EAC. The CDs are long gone. I can't justify the cost of hi-def audio files. And my music tastes are as old as I am, which makes being able to carry my music in the car necessary.

    So my question is whether it's worth $400USD for the PonoPlayer - if all I'll use it for is FLAC files through my older (and in my opinion, much better than the newer models with midrange controls) Alpine car stereo? I have an older MTX amp (before their quality went south), dual MTX subs, and Eclipse speakers. It's not a top of the line system, but was close to it when purchased. I'm more interested in the storage capabilities, and something without a DAC which drastically changes the sound of the music. (IE: I don't want my music sounding like a polymorphic ring tone.) Anyone had a PonoPlayer for a while now to vouch for it's durability and sound with WAV/FLAC files?

    Any and all advice is greatly appreciated.

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