Friday, March 14, 2014

Someone's selling all your heroes, and they seem so tame

I've had a deep emotional connection to Neil Young's music since I was a young 'un. Just a huge huge fan.

But now Neil is turned entrepreneur / evangelist for "high quality music", launching his own PONO music player.

I have to admit, I was expecting something amazing. But it's just a Toblerone bar that plays FLAC files!

Holy spumoli, Neil, what gives? 1997 called and they want their technology back! I guess I had so much respect and appreciation for Neil that I just assumed PONO would actually be an amazing step forward.

But it's not.

First off, you don't need to spend $400 to get a player that will play FLAC files. Your phone will do that, if you just feed it FLAC files.

Second, for most people using earbuds or cheap headphones, the sound differences between MP3 and FLAC will be negligible.

Third, probably the biggest sound quality issue in modern music is that bands are getting their music mixed with very little dynamic range and little concern for traditional audiophile qualities, because most folks download / stream the music into earbuds anyway.

It is true that the company making PONO's DAC (the thing that converts the zeros and ones in the FLAC files to amplifiable sound) is built by AYRE who makes an excellent asynchronous USB dac, but I can't tell much about the quality of PONO's dac from their webpage.

The PONO DAC can also handle Hi-REZ files (CDs are 44Khz, HI-REZ is like 96 or 192 Khz), but that is not very relevant in a portable player when you are wearing Beats by Dre headphones!

With a good asynchronous DAC, quality amplification, and physically separated high quality speakers, HI-REZ audio can sound amazing. You can also clearly hear that CDs ripped into FLAC files sound better than when they are ripped into MP3 files.

But the target audience of PONO is extremely unlikely to be using it that way.


John Covil said...

I mostly agree, but resolution is about bit depth, not sampling rate. The question as to whether there is sufficient quantisation error in CD-audio to notice a difference between 16-bit and 24-bit seems an open question to me. As you said, it seems far more likely you'll notice the difference in: mastering, speakers and (pre and power) amps.

As for the sampling rate... the engineer makes me want to fall back on Shannon-Nyquist and say 44Khz should be adequate. I think the problem with CD audio (apart from the factors I mentioned) is that a cheap player will suffer from a higher bit-error rate. I think a good player and DAC will read-ahead and perform more error correction to get (closer to?) a bit-perfect decoding to the analog stage, but I haven't looked deeply into that.

I agree that most people won't notice on their preferred playback mechanisms. Then again, I just started spinning vinyl in spite of my engineering instincts (although I think getting an LP may be the best way to get some classic recordings as re-mastering old masters for CDs seems inconsistent).

TM Lutas said...

Meh, PONO is just a piece of the puzzle to make a viable market for better equipment. PONO has to succeed on its own terms enough so that when the next piece in the chain shows up, it can be co-marketed and then the two products work better together.

Angry Alex said...

You're actually a fan of someone I've heard of. That's different