I just came across this article from the Los Angeles Times talking about Neil Young’s new high-quality music company, PonoMusic. The goal of the company is to create portable music that has a quality as good as the master recordings (meaning it is not compressed). The PonoPlayer will cost a hefty $399 and will be able to hold between 1,000 and 2,000 high-quality albums, which implies that this player will have a rather large hard drive, because high-quality songs are much larger files when compared to their compressed counterparts.
The debate over compressed file formats as a standard in the music industry has raged ever since Apple created iTunes over ten years ago. Prior to iTunes and the iPod, the only way you could listen to music on the go was through a Walkman cassette or CD player. Those had their obvious disadvantages, namely the inability to carry around a lot of music. Once Steve Jobs announced the introduction of the iPod, the music industry was changed forever. Suddenly, people could carry around thousands of songs in a tiny little device that could fit in their pockets. However, the technology of the time did not allow for very large storage in small packages, which led to the need for the compression of songs. The article by Randy Lewis on the LA Times claims that MP3 files contain a mere 5% of the digital information originally supplied by the master recordings. While that may have been true in the 1990s, it is not nearly that bad today. Originally, the bit rate for MP3s was around 190 kbps. iTunes now sells their music at 256 kbps, and CD quality is 320 kbps. (iTunes does not use MP3, they use Apple lossless compression, or m4a, which is much better than MP3.) There are also several other sites online where you can acquire digital downloads of 320 kbps. I assume iTunes is heading in that direction now that the technology is available for larger capacity i-devices. The problem with higher kbps recordings is they take up an enormous amount of valuable space, and technology can only allow so much space in so small a space. According to Matt Komorowski, who has compiled a data table of prices per gigabyte over at his website, 1 gigabyte effectively cost $193,000 back in 1980. The price of 1 gigabyte in 2000 was around $19, and by 2009 was down $0.07. As technology has advanced, the price of storage has dropped dramatically.
Anyways, my point with all this yammering about the history of digital music and storage is to point out that there has been a large debate over the past few years between digital media and physical media. There are many people who claim that vinyl is as close as you can get to live because a vinyl record is an actual analog copy of the sound waves created during the recording. But we must remember that the vinyl records of the 1970, 80s, 90s, and up to today are of a much better quality than the first record made by Thomas Edison in 1878. It only makes sense that the future of digital records will be superior to that first introduced in the late 1990s, and it will be better than what is being offered today. Neil Young is merely trying to bring good audio quality back to the music industry. There is now a whole generation of people (my generation) that has grown up with headphones jammed in their ears, and they know very little about what a high quality recording sounds like (much less high quality music, but that’s a different problem). I think we will begin to see a move towards higher quality digital downloads, but only as the capacity of the portable music players increases. As the price per gigabyte continues to drop, it will be much easier to fit thousands of high quality songs and albums onto a smartphone that fits into your pocket. Neil Young is just trying to speed that process up a bit (don’t laugh too hard over that one).
Here is the link for the LA Times article by Randy Lewis: