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Is Neil Young’s Pono player complete pony ?

by Ian Shepherd


 
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.
 

Enter Pono

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.

BUT
 

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.
 

Summary

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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9 Responses

  1. The MP3 is a compromised standard, developed to accommodate the limited disk capacity and slow baud rates of the past. With gobs of space available now, and much faster download speeds, it makes sense to raise the bar. Listeners should be able to plug their iPod into a good sound system and hear the same quality that engineers hear in the studio. I agree that an essential ingredient is a D-to-A chip that’s up to the task, one that can take full advantage of the 24/192 format.

    I commend Neil for pushing ahead on this. It’s about time.

  2. Keith Handy says:

    If you could graph “quality” vs. “perceived quality”, the line would be a curve. A thing that has 10x more resolution than another thing isn’t going to be perceived as 10x better.

  3. John says:

    24/192 is too far.

    24/96 is a MUCH more widespread standard.

    24/192 takes up crazy amounts of disk space for, many times, nearly zero audible benefit.

    Regardless 192 is pointless if everything was tracked / mixed / mastered at 96, and I hope this player doesn’t upsample for no reason if that’s the case.

    Snake oil!

  4. Bill Andersoot says:

    The author of this piece has no clue.

  5. Taava says:

    I’m on board 24/192 even if it’s me and a bunch of geezers in line when Pono goes on the market. The comparison in my opinion is like watching a movie on a regular screen at the theatre then seeing the same one 3-D. It’s having the fullest sensory experience available, audibly, short of going to a concert. And I doubt Pono listeners will be using ear buds.

  6. harelose says:

    I recently discovered this loudness war when the latest releases of my favourite sounded worse everyday (U2, REM, Muse, Coldplay, The Killers etc).
    If you listen to 80s-90s CDs or 320 Apple AACs they sound brilliant. In fact 80s-90s 320 Apple AACs sound better than 2010 CDs. So, the problem is not the bitrate. It is the dynamic range.
    I understand the need of compression in bad small speakers because in these devices 80s-90s CD sound dull but not for HI-FI systems.
    I think that there should be two kind of remasters. One for Ipod, Iphone, Spotify and another one for HI-FI systems.

  7. ShanRose says:

    I have a Cambridge cd player that ups sales to 384 kHz

    Sacs also extracted the most inomatiom from. Cd format

    Unfortunately ll this is totally stec on iPods etc where te musuic is heard thru earphones harlose is right

    There hold be kinds of maters

    One for portable musuic the other for audiophiles

  8. dBruce says:

    The author of this piece has no clue.The greater sampling rate vastly improves sonics. I have even heard the differences with software to decode the stored music. Think harmonics, think what type of violin. This can easily be obtained with higher resolution formats. Analog live music is the only uncompressed format. Higher sampling rates bring us closer to that.

  9. Denis says:

    It is funny to hear people mention what is the point of 24/192 when it is recorded/mastered in 24/96? There are a lot of albums recorded to tape, mastered to 1/2″ and then converted to 24/192. 24/96 never entered the chain.

    It is also interesting to hear people talk about frequency response when talking sample rate. There is more to music then just frequency response and dynamic range. What about transients? Why do we trust dithering to return a signal back to analogue quality when no DAW plug in to date can emulate the sound of a tape machine 100% accurately?

    I do agree though – engineers today have a LOT to answer for. Also, if a CD says “remastered” find the original. It will sound nicer.

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