Pono, Hawaiian for Snake Oil

ImageI wrote a scree yesterday indicting Pono for all kinds of crimes.  I put it aside.  Like one of Lincoln’s unsent letters, it will cast its heat alone, sitting on my google drive like a hot stone, until that too passes into ether.

Much of my anger came from frustration — in my professional life as an audiovisual archivist I have some sense of the limited capabilities of high resolution audio — and also a lack of information.  I had believed Pono, the high-res audio player Neil Young is backing to rectify what he regards as decades of digital’s abuse of music, was set to use a proprietary format, and would essentially be a platform for selling new releases of old albums that could only be played on Pono.  This is not the case.  PonoMusic will be using FLAC, an open-source audio codec that’s been around nearly as long as folks have cried “foul” at MP3.  FLAC is known as a “non-lossy” compression scheme, meaning that while it will compress the source audio file (whether that file is a high-resolution WAV or merely CD quality), the information it dumps in compression isn’t the actual audio data but rather the metadata that describes the audio and makes it work on various playback systems.

So it’s not in the music file but in the guts of the Pono player, with its advanced circuitry and digital-to-analog conversion system, where the magic happens that Young and Pono’s engineers are claiming.  Which, given the range of gadgetry out there to reproduce sound, makes me shrug my shoulders.  What’s nice to know, though, is that Pono will play those higher-res FLAC files that often inhabit a bandcamp page (as well as WAVs and, for those of us who are unwashed, MP3s).

While I’m no longer out for blood, Neil Young and his Pono provoked my ire in a couple of other ways.  In interviews regarding Pono, Young has suggested that if you’re not listening to high-res audio, and doing so on a player like Pono, that you’re not really listening, that you have a tin ear that can’t truly enjoy the music because of the digital garbage in lower-res files.  There are a ton of counter-arguments here, but I think Neil’s old man snarky-ness in itself is disappointing.  Despite his reputation, he IS a part of the big music business, and has sold to dedicated fans the same record on LP, then cassette, then CD (often multiple re-masterings), then MP3.  To tell them now they need fork over another $15-$25 for the new high-res release and $400 for a player compromises his integrity and smacks of money grab.

It also ignores the fact that most people treat music as a part of a larger experience, whether they’re cranking Pandora through the earbuds at work or enjoying a Sunday morning with a Zeppelin gatefold.  Listening context and setting are everything.  But let’s say you do want to experience what Neil’s talking about.  Good luck.  The real elephant in the room not being mentioned here is the playback system, and by that, I mean the amp and speakers (and listening space, for that matter) Pono might use to reproduce the audio, to actually push the air to your ears.  Without good reproduction, and I mean very, very good reproduction (and in this context headphones just don’t count), Pono’s reproduction of high-res audio — and we’re talking about a sampling rate up to 4x CD quality — is no better than my iPod shuffle.  Will PonoMusic sound great? Sure, if your playback system has a few thousand dollars in it.  Would it hold up to a taste test against a well-mastered CD or higher-quality MP3 played back on a solid but cheaper system? That’s a shootout I’d like to see.

Further reading from the stalwarts at CNET:

http://www.cnet.com/news/sound-bite-despite-ponos-promise-experts-pan-hd-audio/

About Craig Breaden

By profession, Audiovisual Archivist, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Loves his family, puttering around the house, and hearing the chimes at midnight.

Posted on March 30, 2014, in progressive rock music and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this, Craig. It is rather annoying that Pono is just going to be using the same lousy file formats that we already have available. iTunes recognizes almost all formats (but sells the poorer quality ones), so Pono won’t really be offering anything new. Also, when it comes down to actually listening to the music, it really depends a lot on how good your speakers and sub are. All music sounds like crap on earbuds and headphones. You can’t really tell a difference between compressed and uncompressed files when listening through headphones. There is no imaging, no pant-leg shivering bass, so spending all sorts of money on expensive music that will sound exactly the same as the cheap stuff is just a total waste. Audiophiles are going to have a stereo that sounds good, and they will probably be listening to vinyl. The more I read about Pono, the more I see that for the average listener, it really is a waste, and it’s a technology that audiophiles aren’t going to waste their time with.

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  2. FLAC is lossless and is therefore irrelevant to the sound quality issue. What it comes down to then is the hardware. And from what we know about Pono they are making every effort to ensure it’s best on class. There is every reason to expect Pono will sound great regardless of the confusion evident in this article.

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    • Mark, I think you’re right, Pono will sound great, as would a number of other systems with advanced DACs playing back high-resolution files over high-quality amps and speakers. The question is will it sound appreciably better than other players using other formats (for instance an iPod playing back a higher resolution MP3 or WAV) if played back on a shelf or even mid-level component system. That’s a hard sell in my eyes.

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  3. Thanks, Craig. When I need to switch to something new, I assume you’ll let me know what! I get so confused by all of these formats.

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  4. “the information it dumps in compression isn’t the actual audio data but rather the metadata that describes the audio and makes it work on various playback systems.”

    No, FLAC encoding doesn’t dump any information from the file, metadata or otherwise. Do you think that information is lost when you ZIP any ordinary file? It just stores all the data in a more efficient way; rather than retaining every literal element one after the other, it stores a description of how to reconstruct the elements — but what you end up with is exactly the same thing.

    This is separate to the issue of whether Pono is actually doing anything useful. I contend that even on a high-end system, this hi-res audio will be indistinguishable from CD quality audio. On the other hand, if the albums sold on Pono are remastered versions that have not been dynamically compressed to within an inch of their lives (i.e. the loudness wars) then they may indeed sound better. But not for any of the reasons Neil Young is preaching about. And they will still sound better when I rip them to 256kbit AAC and play then on my iPhone.

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    • “Dump” is probably a poor rhetorical choice. But I, like you, don’t believe that FLAC is the issue here. On the contrary, I think what FLAC does is great, and I’m glad Pono is using it. And you’re right regarding dynamic compression, which is the real culprit that Neil and company should be calling out. Thanks for the thoughts. If you want to expand on them, let me know — I’d be glad to post as an article. It’s a good discussion.

      Craig

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