Sunday, April 5, 2015

Neil Young's Pono Music Player Gives Listeners A More Visceral Music Listening Experience!

I've been an audio engineer, producer and artist for over 20 years. I have 15 Billboard top 40s to my credit among many other accolades for my work. For those that are claiming that music originally recorded to tape and then mastered to high definition digital (88.2 KHZ / 24bit or higher), or music recorded and mastered in high definition digital is virtually imperceivable from the sound of a 320 kbps MP3 or standard CD I invite you to watch the Google talk "Lost in Translation" by Andrew Scheps. You can find it here. https:­/­/­/SXbH­-yzGNfg

I have done several blind tests (casual not scientific) with people ranging in age from 18 to late 40s using 256 kbps MP4s from the iTunes store played on an iPhone 5 or 6 vs. the high definition equivalent (88.2 KHZ / 24 bit or higher) played through a Pono Player on a standard car system in a Toyota Prius, which is the type of environment most people listen to music in these days when not using ear buds. In every single case the listener knew immediately which version they were listening to and in fact the differences the listener experienced were not subtle but extreme. I have no ax to grind and I don't work for Pono this is just an account of my experiences.

In my experience high definition audio that is recorded and mastered properly does sound better than a compressed audio file and usually sounds better than a standard CD depending on the genre of music (modern R & B and Hip Hop probably enjoy the least benefits due to the amount of low bit rate samples used in the production of the music). There are several reasons why this is true that have nothing to do with whether you can hear above 20 KHZ (which I can't). One reason has to do with how the audio is filtered at the high and low spectrum of the audio file which Andrew Scheps explains much more eloquently than I can, another reason is simply how PCM encoding works. Think of PCM encoded digital audio as a series of snapshots, the higher the resolution the more "snapshots" of the audio get sampled over time during the digital conversion process so the audio is less stepped and therefore carries more of the original information from the source. This makes the audio within the frequencies that most of us can hear sound richer and smoother among other things. In layman terms my experience has been that the lows sound tighter and more defined, the highs sound crisper, reverb tails have a better decay and ambience has more depth. Over all the sound is just richer and it seems to create more of a total body experience when played on even an average external playback system. The difference I've found is very perceivable even by the casual listener in most cases. In other words you don't have to be an audiophile or music professional to enjoy the effect of having higher resolution files played on a high end audio player.

However I will agree that the differences are more obvious when listening to albums that contain songs with more dynamics than those that have been brick wall mastered but the difference is apparent regardless. Also I have to point out that admittedly part of the difference in audio playback quality between a Pono and an iPhone is that a Pono Player is designed to be a high end audio playback device which uses higher end components and is much more well thought out from an engineering perspective, so of course it's going to sound infinitely better than a phone. But that's the point of owning a high end audio playback device like a Pono so that all your audio files regardless of resolution and file type sound better. This is why I am so dumbfounded by the very ignorant, negative comments some reviewers have made about Pono. Especially given that any device that gets people listening to better sounding audio whether it be an MP3 or a Wav file at 192 KHZ / 24 bit only helps increase peoples love of music right? And the cost? Well $399 for a high end audio player that actually makes every file type sound infinitely better and comes with 128 GB of storage with a 64 GB removable media card is a bargain. Especially when you take into consideration that an iPod Touch with 64 GB of memory is $299, doesn't play back high definition audio and doesn't have nearly the quality of components or engineering that a Pono player has. I guess the question is do you want your audio files regardless of resolution to sound a lot better or do you want a player that sounds mediocre but also has a mediocre camera and plays games?

So before you read into some of the recent negative press on Pono or high definition audio check out Andrew Scheps Google talk and then do some listening tests of your own and see for yourself. I personally think high end audio players like Pono combined with high definition audio could bring back the excitement and value to music that seems to have gotten "lost in translation" over the past decade. There is no reasons why high definition audio and better audio playback devices shouldn't become part of our mainstream culture in the same way that HD video has. Audio is the only area in consumer technology that has actually gotten worse instead of better. I think it's time for music playback to catch up with the rest of the consumer media world.