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Price and prejudice: Pono’s ongoing uphill battle

  • I thought I was done writing about Pono (for the time being) but no, now that the post-CES haze has cleared, a few mainstream publications have begun to take potshots at Neil Young’s dreams of a better audio world.

    James Covert of The NY Post claimed that (unnamed) product engineers behind Pono are yet to be convinced that hi-res audio offers any “significant technical advantage over CD quality”.

    Michael Lavorgna of Audiostream immediately called bullshit on Covert. Who are these product engineers? Do they work for Ayre Acoustics, the company charged with designing the PonoPlayer?

    In his piece for Gizmodo, Mario Aguilar claimed that the science behind hi-res audio’s superiority makes no sense and that anyone who hears a difference between a 24bit/192kHz take on Norah Jones and the CD equivalent is suffering from confirmation bias.

    Thankfully, Michael Fremer of Analog Planet took him to task as only Michael Fremer can. To summarise the technical angle of Fremer’s riposte: the digital-to-analogue conversion process relies on filtering to remove high frequency noise; those filters can mess with the time domain information to which our ears are extremely sensitive. With CD quality audio encoded at a sample rate 44.1kHz, the filters ‘ring’ and smear information at the very top of the audible band. However, encode music at a higher sample rate, say 96kHz and the filters are moved out of audible range, thus vastly reducing smearing and ringing.

    Mr Fremer’s listening experiences mirror my own. That all other things being equal, the differences between CD quality audio and hi-res audio are discernable. If you don’t hear it, you don’t hear it but to claim that others who do are somehow imagining things, as Mr Aquilar did, is quite the leap to make. For what it’s worth, I’m not down with Neil Young’s in-car auditions either but with either the PonoPlayer or my numerous home hi-fi configurations, I enjoy the occasional slice of hi-res material.

    Pono_RustNeverSleeps

    I’d contend that a certain standard of playback equipment is required to peel apart the differences between 16bit/44.1kHz and 24bit/96kHz. You’re probably not going to hear it on your iPhone driving stock earbuds. Besides, that outcome is moot: the D/A converter chip inside the iPhone tops out at 16bit/48kHz which means you’ll need Onkyo’s HF Player to hand off ones and zeroes via the Camera Connection Kit to an outboard DAC. Hardly a handy proposition for the curious.

    At home you’ll need a hi-res capable DAC – an AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.2 or Meridian Explorer are great places to start – feeding an amplifier and loudspeakers; nothing too fancy but something better than a UE Boom or (Heaven forbid) your laptop’s in-built speakers. I said as much in my previous article on Pono: “Mainstreamers: get better audio gear before going Pono”. And no, I’m not talking thousands of dollars. A few hundred bucks, maybe a thousand, will see you right.

    If you want instant joy, the PonoPlayer (US$399) is a good starting point (review here). Marry it to a pair of Sennheiser Momentum for initial headphone use and then drop it into a two-channel system as transport / DAC when funds allow.

    This might well be your typical mainstreamers position on all things audio: they’ve heard about Neil Young’s push for better sound through hi-res audio and they’re curious as to what all the fuss is about. However, they want to hear it for themselves (before committing funds to better hardware); I note that listening first hand is something that our friends at Gizmodo or the NY Post have yet to do.

    Try this with one of your non-audiophile friends: sit them down in front of your home system and play them a Redbook and hi-res encoded versions of the same album. Beck’s Mutations or Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps are good starting points. Let your friend sit there for as long as he/she likes.

    Pono_Mutations

    Not that hi-res audio is a night and day improvement on Redbook but let’s assume your friend hears the same better image specificity and clarity that you enjoy. Let us now assume that they have sufficient funds to buy a system similar to that which you own and that they don’t think that being an audiophile is somehow an elitist pursuit or a haven for freaks or the socially inept.

    In his recent article for Pitchfork Mark Richardson closed with a comment that chimes nicely with my own thoughts on the matter, that better hardware should be your first priority: “Regardless, we’re talking about perceived differences many magnitudes smaller than those that come with, say, an upgrade to a headphone that costs $50 more. Good sound is worth paying for if you can afford it, just make sure you start in the right place.” A shame that Richardson detoured via some very questionable reasoning to get there.

    A grand don’t come for free. Let’s not be glib here: it’s a LOT of money for a new headphone rig or home setup. Some people will see the benefits of carrying a second device whose sole purpose is the playback of pre-loaded music, the audible benefits of which outweigh the inconvenience of it a) being something else they have to carry and keep charged and b) not being capable of connecting to streaming services like Spotify or Tidal.

    This latter point is where I think some of the mainstream press’ Pono/hi-res pushback could be better focused.

    pono_players

    Pono’s hi-res downloads’ biggest challenge isn’t technical ignorance, it’s price. Perhaps that’s what James Covert at The NY Post intended to say: that hi-res downloads just aren’t worth the money. Your friend who heard the difference between CD Beck and hi-res Beck? I bet he baulks at the $25 asking price! After all, he probably already owns the CD so he’s looking at $25 per album for what can best be described as a minor improvement. Remember: CD quality isn’t hell to hi-res audio’s heaven and $25 isn’t marginal money.

    The background context plays an important role here too. $25 for a hi-res download might have played well in the market ten or fifteen year ago, but (Japan aside) CD sales are in a downward spiral. Streaming is the future of music consumption and it exists in the here and now. Music purchases are trending downwards whilst the number of streaming subscribers are headed in the opposite direction.

    [Side note: I think that conversion rates from free Spotify to premium Spotify are still too low to lend long-term viability to streaming services].

    Lossy streaming Spotify is US$10/month but it can’t compete sonically with hi-res – Neil Young is right about that much. But with the advent of lossless streaming services at $20/month, hi-res downloads begin to look extremely long in the tooth for even the most curious onlooker. US$25 per hi-res download might be fine for you or I because we are audiophiles and we want the best. We are idealists.

    I’m currently chomping at the bit for the all-new, hi-res Pono version of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. I already have the Redbook version of this new 2015 remaster – it’s clearly superior to the (frankly dreadful) 5.1 mixdown that been for sale over at HDTracks since 2011 – and now I’m keen for a 24bit/96kHz encode of the same. That’ll be another US$18. That’s what it’s like sometimes to be an audiophile: it’s the pursuit of (a subjective) best. We spend our hard earned cash because we aspire to some ideal. That doesn’t make us elitist as long as we maintain a hold on pragmatism.

    Pono_RemainInLight

    Flipping it around, CD quality audio isn’t THAT far behind hi-res in terms of audible satisfaction, particularly if you own a more modest system. That’s the pragmatist in me talking. Moreover, US$25 for one hi-res download hardly looks attractive next to US$20/month for Tidal Hifi.

    Let’s go back to our hi-res-curious pal, who, by his very nature is a pragmatist. With a budget of $500 per year for music, would you recommend he dump it all into hi-res downloads at the Pono store or HDTracks, netting 25 or so albums, or would you recommend he first set aside $240 for a year’s worth of Tidal Hifi, leaving the rest for hi-res downloads or vinyl. Personally, I’d go with the latter: Tidal first, hi-res downloads second.

    Hi-res audio will likely reach a much wider audience once it meets the world of streaming. A world where $40 doesn’t buy a couple of album downloads but a month’s access to a large library of hi-res titles. Meridian have since shown how this is will soon be possible through their MQA technology that (as I understand it) folds hi-res information below the noise floor of Redbook bit-/sample-rate encoding.

    Audiophiles are rightfully excited by what the future may hold but in the here and now, Neil Young isn’t ploughing that field of opportunity. (Yes, I’m a fan too).

    Purposefully sidestepping discussions about mastering and provenance, CD is good but hi-res audio can sound better. I wish that Neil Young’s message were the same. Instead, the Pono promo campaign attempted to rubbish CD quality. That’s ironic when you consider that much of the music for sale in the PonoMusic store is encoded at 16bit/44.1kHz.

    Pono_Dylan

    Pono’s success is predicated on 1) a hardware player that offers tremendous audiophile appeal but whose crossover potential is questionable; and 2) a downloads store in a world that’s full steam ahead with the superior value-for-money and convenience of lossless streaming subscriptions. I suspect THAT’s why the likes of Gizmodo, Pitchfork and The NY Post are troubled by what Neil Young is selling. I just wish they’d say so instead of pushing flawed technical arguments or hiding behind the anonymity of industry insiders.

    If you’re curious about hi-res audio, and if you haven’t already, get an entry-level amplifier and a pair of loudspeakers. Buy them second hand if you have to. Get a USB DAC and feed it with a lossless streaming service (Qobuz or Tidal) or load a PonoPlayer with CD rips and have it feed a nice pair of headphones. Once you’ve got Redbook sounding good then it’ll be time to investigate hi-res downloads.

    Being pragmatic against the backdrop of audiophillia’s inherent idealism is one way to sidestep the negative Normans of the mainstream press and draw newcomers to a world of better sound.

    Further information: Pono Music

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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