Better sounding music

Neil Young has a new venture called “Pono“, which is marketing a high-resolution portable audio player and online music store. This got a warm reception on Kickstarter, raising more than $6 million. I don’t expect most casual listeners will care, having been lulled into the cheap convenience of MP3, iTunes and streaming music. What HAS surprised me is the “audiophile” response, which is generally negative. The reaction seems to either be “Meh!” or “snake oil salesmen!”.

My first surprise came from the HT Guys, who run a terrific podcast about home theater.  These are ex-Sony guys who worked on (I believe) digital theater sound systems, so I think they know something about high quality audio.  When they talked about Pono, their basic question was “why?”  What we have is good enough, you probably cannot hear the difference, what’s the point?

I figured the folks at HydrogenAudio.org, an online forum that focuses on high quality digital audio stuff, would be all over it.  They were, but in a very negative way.  I haven’t really found anything positive yet.  Here’s one thread.  The general objections seem to be this:  uncertainty about music pricing; emphasis on 24/96 or higher recordings won’t really show people better sound, but will cost more; will the recordings actually be better quality that what is available now; why won’t they sell us non-lossy music now for a reasonable price?

Here’s another review: http://audiophilereview.com/audiophile-news/more-thoughts-on-pono-one-week-in.html.

So, what’s the big deal?  Did you know that you are used to listening to low-quality sound?

People have different ideas of “best” sound.

  • For some, vinyl records will always be best – pure analog, warm sound, plus more space to print art and notes.  Sorry, not for me.  That warm sound is RIAA equalization, which bumps up the low-end of the spectrum to account for shortcomings in the playback.  Turn up the bass on lots of stuff, and it sounds better.  Plus, ticks, pops, warps, skips – remember those?  Remember having to clean your record before you played it (if you cared about that sort of thing?)  For awhile, though, people actually spent money on decent turntables, receivers or amplifiers, and quality speakers.
  • CD.  Very high quality copies of recordings, perhaps limited depending on how they are produced.  Not “master” quality, but pretty good.  Oddly, CD brought with it compact size, and portable players and earphones became the rage.  Now you didn’t need big speakers and a receiver, just a CD walkman.  People had great quality in their hands, and were already getting used to lower quality.
  • High bitrate MP3 or AAC.  This is today’s digital download standard (iTunes, Amazon), although a surprising amount of lower bitrate stuff (128k) is still sold.  This uses generally perfected algorithms to remove “unneeded” parts of music recordings and shrink the size of the recording file to a small number.  Many people cannot hear the difference, or don’t know what the deficiencies are.  If you listen on earbuds, or even in most cars, this is probably good enough.  But, you have the world at your fingertips with an iPhone, iPod, computer or little digital player.  Convenience trumps quality.
  • Lossless digital files.  FLAC, APE, WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless, and others.  These created a smaller digital copy of a recording, without removing any musical information.  These are available in a number of quality levels, from CD (16/44.1k) to “audiophile” (24/96k, 24/192k, etc.).  The two numbers express how the audio is sampled; higher is supposedly better.  Engineers will quibble about the “best”.  The rest of us may not be able to hear the differences.  There are a small number of online sites that let you buy lossless music: HDTracks.com is one good example.  However, it is hard to buy mainstream, CD quality lossless music.  People like me end up buying the CD, then make the lossless digital files from the CD.  There is no good standard for getting copies of the album art and liner notes that come in the CD case.  Everyone does it a different way.  Lossless files take much more space on a listening device, another drawback.

Music streaming sites like Pandora, Spotify, iTunes Radio, iHeartRadio use lower quality lossy streams.  Kind of AM Stereo quality – not quite FM.

An interesting wrinkle is that the recording industry doesn’t always sell us the best copy of their work.  It took years for them to figure out how to “master” CDs that wouldn’t sound like fingernails on a blackboard for some people.  Sometimes, the original tapes they had were in rotten shape.  So, when they have an incentive to go back and re-do an old recording for new technology, sometimes they find better source tapes, or spend the time to eliminate noise and distortion, or otherwise produce a better “master”.

I hope that Pono is great, and causes some people to return to caring about higher quality music reproduction.  I’m not holding my breath.

If you’ve gotten this far, maybe you care.  I avoid buying digital music from iTunes or Amazon because it is lossy.  I buy CDs and rip them using iTunes into Apple Lossless format.  Some music goes on my iPhone, the rest is played on our main music system using Apple TV.  I’ve experimented with FLAC, but find a fair amount of uneven support for it on different devices that support DLNA (my TV, audio receiver, Blu-ray player).  Most of the IOS DLNA or FLAC apps I’ve tried haven’t been very good, but I haven’t tried most and don’t like to pay.  So, today I convert the FLAC files I get into Apple Lossless using dbPowerAmp.

Another cruel reality – as humans age, their hearing range decreases on the high-end.  They can still appreciate good sound, but can’t hear some of the detail that younger people can, if the recording includes it!

-JFS

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