I love Neil Young.
The man is a legend, still producing superb, passionate music after decades in the business – and it sounds great, to boot. His 2010 album “Le Noise” was nominated for the 2011 Dynamic Range Day Award, and would have made a worthy winner.
I also share his passion for great audio. Neil has been kicking up a storm recently raising awareness of the problems with mp3 and other data-compressed audio formats – if you’re a regular reader you’ve probably seen my article on why mp3s suck and know I whole-heartedly agree with him that mp3 isn’t good enough.
So, you’ll probably imagine I’d be delighted that Neil has released his own “Pono” audio player, offering ultra-high resolution audio to anyone who wants it, right ? Especially since I’m so happy about the new, more dynamic masters that are starting to appear on sites like HDTracks ?
Well, yes and no.
Let’s deal with the “Yes” first – the sales pitch is great. Pono gives you the highest-possible resolution copies available (currently) of your favourite music, on a portable player that also plays every other digital format.
Now let’s look at the details.
The advantages of HD audio
Pono offers lossless audio. This is a Good Thing and will result in audibly better quality for some people with some material. Pono also offers 24-bit files. Again, for some people this may give a better-sounding result.
Compared to an mp3, I’d choose lossless 24-bit audio every time. So far, so good.
Money for nothing ?
You can already get lossless playback on existing audio players, using formats like FLAC or Apple Lossless. Not from the iTunes store yet, but there are signs that it’s on the way.
And meanwhile, you can buy a CD and rip it to a lossless format yourself, no problem – no new player required.
So why do we need a Pono player ?
This means that Neil’s justification for the new Pono player has to be that CD quality itself isn’t good enough – and he tries to back that claim up with hard maths.
The Pono player offers a staggered 24-bit 192 kHz audio playback in comparison to CD’s more familiar 16-bit, 44.1 kHz – that’s more than 6 times more data, which is where Neil’s soundbite that “CD only gives us 15% of the original signal” comes from.
The problem is, that’s BS.
Signal, not noise
Yes, 24/192 has six times more data, but with digital formats it’s not the data that’s important, it’s the music – the information. Any data that doesn’t contain useful musical information is just noise.
And the question is, how much data do you need to acurately record all the music ? How much bandwidth do we need to devote to the noise ?
Neil says we need every last ounce of that 24/192 signal for the music, but there’s powerful evidence that 16/48 is perfectly adequate for the vast majority of humans, and even that higher sample rates might make your music sound worse in some situations.
(And before you flame me saying that 24-bit sounds better than 16-bit and you’ve heard it for yourself, recording and mixing is a different story – we’re talking about final delivery formats here. The truth is that most people can’t hear the difference between 24-bit audio and a well-mastered, properly dithered 16-bit signal.)
The real numbers
So I would say that at worst, CD actually already contains more than 90% of the music – for people with the very best hearing. That’s a far less compelling statistic than Neil’s misleading 15% figure.
Personally I find that 48kHz only gives a 1 or 2 percent improvement in quality over 44.1 – and as for 96 kHz or even 192 kHz – most mics don’t even pick up that stuff !
Digital to analogue conversion ?
So far Neil is just playing fast and loose with the numbers to make his point, and I’m actually not too worried about that – the more people who listen critically to mp3s and start asking for an improvement the better, in my book.
I do question the need for buying a new player just to get the benefits of lossless audio and inaudible high frequencies – but I guess that’s just another case of “let the buyer beware”.
But where the Pono anouncements get really worrying is with the talk of a new “digital to analogue” conversion process, which is supposed to put the “missing” information back into CD audio.
We’ll have to wait to hear this in action, but it smells like snake oil to me. Whatever is “missing” in 16/44 audio is gone forever, and the same applies (with bells on) to mp3 and other lossy audio formats.
My concern is that just like overly-contrasty, overly-sharpened video “up-scaling”, extra digital processing to try and make CD audio sound “more analogue” is nonsense by definition, and is doomed to only sound worse than the original – especially if it’s applied to the clipped, distorted casualties of the loudness war.
And the fact that the person being quoted as backing up Neil’s claims for Pono is Flea, the bassist from the Red Hot Chile Peppers, a band who have repeatedly inflicted some of the worst-sounding CDs in recently history on us (in my opinion) just makes my teeth hurt with the irony, quite frankly.
I couldn’t agree more with Neil about the soul-sucking effect of poorly-implemented lossy compression on our music, and I love that he’s taken the bull by the horns to get the word out !
I’m entirely un-convinced that 24/192 will give us the 85% quality increase he’s claiming, though. And trying to put this imaginary missing element back into existing CD audio is just nuts.
Neil Young’s heart is in exactly the right place, and I applaud his passion and motivation for the cause – but his maths is way off.
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