Neil Young Introduces High-Quality Music System

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:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/posts/la-et-ms-neil-young-pono-music-20140310,0,328753.story#axzz2vbTkDz9V

7 thoughts on “Neil Young Introduces High-Quality Music System

  1. eheter

    Here is a great piece on digital audio, and the myths surrounding the same:

    http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep07/articles/digitalmyths.htm

    There is a bit of engineering-speak in it, but it’s still understandable enough for the layman. The upshot of it all is that there is no inherent reason why you cannot perfectly reconstruct an analog signal with digital data. The technology exists to do it now, but there is some resistance. And as you mention, the size of the files is another limiting factor, and until we replace the current Flash memory with a higher density technology, it will continue to remain so.

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    1. bryanmorey94

      It is interesting that the article focuses on the problems with the actual recording of the music. It seems that the only thing separating the consumer from amazing sound quality is the cost of good recording equipment, and that was a problem even in the analog days. Many of the bands and studios in the 60s and 70s were just plain cheap. Look at Abbey Road- frankly they were a crap recording studio back then. And as much as it pains me to say this, almost all of Yes’ albums sound terrible because the recording was so bad (there is no bass on them, even on the original vinyl). Bands were cheap then and they are cheap now, and I think that it will only get worse since music is essentially free these days. People can download music freely without consequence, so there is no incentive for bands to spend money on good digital equipment. And, those are all problems at the production end; we still have all sorts of roadblocks on the consumer end, namely the price of devices and how much they are able to hold.

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  2. Bryan, what a great post. You made this clear even to me, a technological dunderhead. I can never keep the various formats straight or what the difference between one or the other is. Thanks!

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    1. bryanmorey94

      Not a problem, Brad! There are so many different compression formats that it is difficult to keep them all straight. The important thing to remember is the more a song is compressed the worse it sounds.

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  3. Standards for archiving analog audio are 96 kHz sampling with a 24-bit depth, yielding 2 GB for one hour of sound. This is more than twice CD quality, and it’s worth remembering that CD audio sampling (44.1 kHz, 16-bit) is itself capable of reproducing frequencies that exceed our capability to hear by a factor of two. MP3 technology has become very capable, to the point where it is very difficult to tell in a file running 190 kbps or better that it isn’t a CD. I think Pono’s a bit nuts. As a music-loving non-audiophile, I’d rather invest in the experience of listening, which is why I like vinyl for the house, or in the convenience of listening, which is why I like MP3.

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    1. bryanmorey94

      Craig, at this point I would agree with you that the Pono idea is not all that great. It is apparent that Neil Young is trying to appeal to the audiophiles, as the costs of this technology far outweigh the benefits ($399?! give me a break). I do think, however, that as technology progresses it will become easier and cost efficient to create handheld devices with enough storage capacity to hold master audio quality recordings, but we are certainly not there yet.

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      1. Bryan, I think you’re right. I take some issue with Pono’s claim about delivery of master quality recordings, and worry for Neil’s sake that it’s so much marketing. How, for instance do you define “master”? Is it the original master tape? No matter how it’s digitized — and let me assure you there is hot debate among audio archivists regarding every single step of this process — you will still be left with a “compressed” (i.e., the analogue signal fit to a digital bitstream) derivative. One thing that can’t be packaged is the original experience of listening. My experience hearing Love’s Forever Changes on vinyl for the first time cannot be replicated by Pono, even though the sonic spectrum might be increased many fold.

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