“Audiophile” Hi-Fi Journalist Defends Expensive Cables, Admits He Believes in Magic

On the What Hi-Fi? site – a well known UK audio equipment review site – journalist Andy Madden wrote today an interesting defense of expensive audio cables. But he essentially states that he believes in magic, and doesn’t care about any kind of realist analysis of the issue:

You can put whatever research you want in front of me, all the measurements in the world aren’t going to stop me from having the opinion that all digital cables do not sound the same. There, I said it.

This is a serious problem in audiophile journalism. People get so convinced that their beliefs are true, that they refuse to accept any possibility that they are wrong. Frankly, this is irresponsible for a journalist to approach any type of item or content that is reviewed with this sort of pre-conception.

This journalist believes in magic. Note that he expressly talks about digital cables. While there is a possibility that there can be tiny differences in analog cables, this is simply not possible with digital cables, whether they are USB, HDMI or Ethernet.

What Hi-Fi? has lost all credibility. This said, at least they actually published this article; many other sites and magazines have journalists whose attitudes are similar, but who are ashamed to admit it.

Also, read Do Cables Make a Difference to Audio Playback? where the editor of What Hi-Fi? responds to my comments, and I show that even the top recording engineers don’t use fancy cables. And Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music is a Marketing Ploy. And read about how What Hi-Fi? reviews cables; see how, in one case, they just posted the same review text for two different cables.

Dragon Dictate for OS X Keeps Getting Better: Read my Macworld Review

I’ve been dictating, and using speech recognition software, for more than 15 years. Over the years, I’ve watched as Nuance’s Dragon Dictate for OS X has improved. I reviewed Dragon Dictate 4 for Macworld, and found its accuracy to be noticeably better than with the previous version. And they’ve added a transcription feature that lets you transcribe recordings of any voice, not just your own.

But you should probably read the full review…

Richard Powers on Intelligent Life on Other Planets

From Richard Powers’ moving science fiction story Genie, available as a Kindle Single (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

Let us assume that there is, indeed, sentient life in one or another part of remote space … What on earth are we going to talk about? Hello, are you there?, from us, followed by Yes, hello, from them–will take two hundred years at least … Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.

See also my review of Richard Powers’ novel Orfeo.

Update: As Laurent mentions below, this is a comment from The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas. Looking back at the story, I see it is cited as such. (I had highlighted it on my Kindle, and grabbed the quote from my Kindle page, without being able to see the context.) Great quote nevertheless.

How to Listen to Music in Stereo

I’ve always been surprised that most reviews of standalone speakers or iPod dock speakers don’t mention stereo separation. Those sorts of speakers only provide stereo sound if they are right in front of your head; even then, the speakers might not be far enough apart. The same is true with sound bars. They’re not very wide, and they don’t provide true stereo imaging. Even if you have two speakers, if they’re not far enough apart, then you don’t really hear stereo.

In an interesting article on Cnet, Steve Guttenberg asks Do you ever get to really hear stereo sound? He has a point. Most people either listen to devices, such as those I mention above, that don’t have good stereo separation, or they don’t have their speakers set up correctly to really hear stereo. Do you?

I listen to music in stereo, in both my office and in the living room. Here’s a picture from my office from when I recently bought new desktop speakers. These speakers are set up for “near-field listening,” where the speakers and my head are roughly the points of an equilateral triangle.

Miles midnight

Guttenberg says the speakers “should be at least 24 inches apart when you’re sitting a few feet away.” I think there must be more separation than that, and, in my setup, the speakers are about four feet apart. I could move them a bit closer together — perhaps a foot — and still get good separation, but not much more than that. However, if the speakers are too far apart, then the separation becomes too noticeable. It’s a tough balance.

But you also need the speakers to be at almost exactly the same distance from each ear; if not, you’ll hear one louder than the other, and it won’t sound like true stereo. This is not a problem if you have a listening setup with a single seat for a listener, but once you get into a room where more than one person will listen, either none of them will be in the center and hear stereo, or one person – the one in the center – will hear stereo and the others won’t.

Guttenberg also discusses the height of speakers. He says they should be “near the seated height of the listeners’ ears to produce the most accurate stereo imaging.” Actually, what is important is that the tweeters be at the height of the listeners’ ears; this is because high-frequency waves are very small, and they don’t spread out very much from tweeters. Low-frequency waves, coming from larger speakers, spread out much more, so their height makes less of a difference. And with subwoofers, you can place them almost anywhere in your listening room, because the waves at those frequencies are so long.

I also agree with Guttenberg that headphones are not very realistic. I enjoy listening to music on headphones, but I do understand that it’s not the way the music should really sound. The music is in your head, and the right and left channels are all the way to the right and left of the soundstage. Often, if a specific instrument is mostly one one channel[1], it will be too far from center on headphones, even if it sounds acceptable on speakers. For music to sound “right” on headphones, it would have to be mixed for that type of listening.

What about live music? If you’re attending a concert with unamplified instruments – say, an orchestra or string quartet – then you’re hearing the sound as it should be (though it’s not “stereo;” it’s true surround sound). But if you attend a concert with amplification, you’re listening to speakers. Unless you’re centered close to the stage, you’re not hearing stereo at all. If you’re far back in an arena, you’re hearing a blend of all the speakers, and are unlikely to notice any instruments that are more weighted to one channel or the other, for the same reason you may not be hearing music in stereo at home.

I very much appreciate mono recordings. In fact, since I’ve discovered the great mono mixes of the pre-stereo days, I’ve realized just how artificial stereo sounds. Perhaps, some day, someone will invent a holographic speaker, where you only need one speaker to hear music that surrounds you. If so, you won’t need to worry so much about speaker placement. But until then, if your speakers aren’t set up correctly, you’re not hearing the music the way it was mixed.

Take some time to try out your speakers in different setups: in different positions, with more or less space between them, and with different amounts of space in front of walls. If you have speakers next to your TV, try distancing them from the screen. Start by moving them a foot or two, then try moving them as much as possible. Find the right balance; you may find that your music sounds very different indeed.

Neil Young Is Confused

Okay, I swore to a friend that I wouldn’t keep harping on about Neil Young. I have nothing against the guy; he made some great music back in the day, even though I’m not especially a fan of his music.

But this 68-year old musician, who suffers from tinnitus, and most likely some hearing loss, thinks he can tell everyone that only he knows how music should sound. I’ve written about Pono – his new high-res music service and player – and pointed out how some of the numbers cited are bogus. I’ve also explained why high-resolution music is a marketing ploy.

But today I read an interview with Neil Young which suggests that the guy really is confused. Speaking with Spin magazine, Young discussed his forthcoming album, A Letter Home:

Well, A Letter Home is going to be very confusing to people because it is retro-tech. Retro-tech means recorded in a 1940s recording booth. A phone booth. It’s all acoustic with a harmonica inside a closed space, with one mic to vinyl. Directly to vinyl.

An interesting approach, and one that a few other musicians have used in recent years. But here’s where Young seems to lose his grip on reality:

You can make a lo-fi, analog record, direct to vinyl, transfer it to 192 [kHz], and you have a high res copy of a lo-fi vinyl record.

There’s a word for this, Mr. Young: bullshit. Neil Young is suggesting that by up sampling a poor-quality recording, you can somehow magically transform it into high-resolution audio. Nope; that’s not how it works. In fact, that’s what audiophiles – the ones who believe there is a difference between CD-quality audio and high-resolution audio – are worried about. There have been many cases when retailers claimed they were selling recordings in high resolutions, yet these were simply upsampled from CD quality, or even worse.

To understand what this means, let me give you an easy-to-understand analogy. Unless you’re sitting far from your TV, you can see the difference between DVDs and HD videos. Imagine upsampling the DVD video from the DVD quality – 480 or 576 lines, depending on whether the DVD is in NTSC or PAL format – to 1080p, or HD. The video won’t look like it’s in HD; it will still look like a DVD (albeit a bit better). But with audio, it won’t sound any better at all; it’s simply using more bits for the same music.

If Neil Young thinks that’s how high resolution music works, he truly is confused.

In Praise of the Mac mini

I’ve seen a couple of articles recently wondering when the next Mac mini will be released. It’s been a while: the last update was in October, 2012, nearly a year and a half ago. Since its introduction in January, 2005, the Mac mini has seen refreshes roughly once a year, give or take a month; this is the longest time this model has gone without an update.

overview_server.png The Mac mini is small, quiet, unobtrusive, and it’s a mini-sized powerhouse. It’s the first Mac that I’ve owned that is, essentially, invisible. Mine currently sits on my desk, behind my 27″ Thunderbolt display, and I neither see it nor hear it. It’s more than fast enough for my work, and it’s flexible, in spite of its diminutive footprint.

001.pngThe model I use is a late 2011 version; I’m out of date by one generation. But there’s nothing in the more recent Mac mini that would make a difference to me, except, perhaps, USB 3. I have a number of Thunderbolt hard drives, so I get plenty of speed with them, but it would be nice to have the option to use the faster-than-USB 2 connections with lower cost drives.

When I got the Mac mini, I tricked it out as much as I could, planning on keeping it as long as possible. I didn’t care as much about the price tag as I did about longevity. So I got the fastest processor available at the time, and I got a 256 GB SSD, along with a second internal 750 GB hard drive. I initially got the base 4 GB RAM, but upgraded it to the maximum 16 GB. There’s nothing I do on my Mac mini that stresses the computer, and only rarely do I tax it to the max. The only times its processors get a workout are when I convert music or video files; ripping a DVD with Handbrake takes a while, and it would be a bit quicker if I had a faster processor, but it’s not something I do often enough that it’s a bother.

I was just thinking the other day that, while I’d probably buy a new Mac mini if it were released soon, I really don’t need one. (I’d move the existing one to a different room and use it as a server.) As we’ve reached the stage where megahertz no longer matter, it’s hard to find something that this computer can’t handle. Naturally, if I did video editing, or used other apps that require a lot of CPU exertion, it would be different, but for 99% of Mac users, the mini is more than enough.

The Mac mini is also a very popular computer. It’s widely used in its server version, and it’s the computer of choice for people who set up dedicated computers to manage their media libraries. It’s versatile, small, and inexpensive, and while it’s not going to win any design awards, like the latest Mac Pro will, it chugs away in the background, doing everything I need. The Mac mini may be one of the best Macs Apple has ever made, because it just gets out of your way and lets you get to work.

Music, Not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy

High-resolution music has been in the news over the past few days. Neil Young’s Pono, recently announced, is a new music player designed to play high-resolution music files.[1] Pono will also have a music store; users will be able to buy high-resolution music files and sync them to the Pono Player, in a process that could be as seamless as using iTunes and an iPod.

High-resolution music files cost more than other digital downloads, and cost more than CDs as well. But are they worth the money? Can you hear the difference between a CD and a high-resolution music file?

The answer is most likely no. While there may be a small number of people who have the necessary audio equipment and good enough ears to hear this difference, those people are few and far between. Most people cannot even tell the difference between a high-bit rate MP3 or AAC file and a CD, let alone a high-resolution file.[2]

But digital music purveyors market high-resolution music in an attempt to make purchasers think that they are special, that they may, indeed, be one of the few people who can hear the difference between CDs and high-resolution audio files.

So what exactly is high-resolution music? Why couldn’t it sound better than CDs? And why doesn’t it? You can’t test the subjective experiences of listeners, so how much of that experience is just an expensive placebo effect?

Some Terminology

For any discussion of high-resolution music, it’s important to clear up some terminology. When you see high-resolution music files, you may see them described as, for example, 24/96. This means the music in the files is 24-bit, and 96 kHz. While high-resolution music comes in a number of different levels of quality[3], I’m going to focus here on the most common high-resolution files, which are 24/96.

Let’s begin by explaining the specifications for audio CDs. The Red Book standard[4] specifies not only how CDs are manufactured, but also how recorded music is formatted for them. Audio CDs contained two-channel linear PCM audio [5] at 16-bit and 44,100 Hz; this is commonly abbreviated as 16/44.1. There are two elements here: the bit depth, which is 16-bit, and the sample rate, which is 44,100 Hz.[6]

Bit depth affects the dynamic range of music as well as the signal-to-noise ratio. The dynamic range of music is the difference between the softest and loudest parts of the music. A good example of music with a very broad dynamic range is Mahler’s third symphony. Listen to the final movement, and you’ll hear some very soft sounds as well as an extremely loud sounds. Or listen to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven; it starts with a soft acoustic guitar and builds up to a fuzz-box crescendo.

The bit depth is essentially the number of variations a recording can choose from in a given slice of time. 16-bit audio allows for a range of 65,536 possible levels; 24-bit audio increases that to 16,777,216 levels. However, between the threshold of hearing and the threshold of pain, humans cannot distinguish enough of these volume differences for this to be noticeable.[7]

The second number in our pair is the sample rate: this is the number of “slices” of audio that are made per second, and are measured in Hz (Hertz). 44.1 kHz means that the music is sampled 44,100 times a second; 96 kHz means it is sampled 96,000 times a second. The sample rate primarily affects the range of frequencies that can be reproduced by a digital music file.

And the combination of the two determines the size of audio files. A CD can contain up to around 80 minutes, but if it were encoded at a different bit depth or sample rate, it would contain less music. A four-minute piece of music on a CD takes up 41.1 MB; at 256 kpbs (AAC or MP3), it takes up 7.5 MB. But jump to a 24/96 file and it is around 138 MB, though, using lossless compression, it can be shrunk by about 1/3 to 1/2 of its original size.

Is Bigger Better?

This is where the marketing comes in: bigger is always better. It could seem logical that higher numbers would result in better sounding music, but this isn’t the case. Let’s take the bit depth. 24-bit music, according to the marketing department, sounds better than 16-bit music. Yet 16 bits are more than enough to cover what human beings can hear.[8] Too broad a dynamic range can be harmful; if you set the volume to hear the quiet parts of the music, the loud sections could burst your speakers, and hurt your ears.

And that sample rate? Interestingly, CDs use a sample rate, as we saw above, of 44,100 Hz; not a random number at all. This number was chosen because the highest frequency that humans can hear is around 20,000 Hz. According to the Nyquist theorum[9], the sample rate of music must be at least twice the maximum frequency that humans can hear. Since it’s best to leave a little bit of wiggle room, audio engineers took 20,000 Hz, multiplied it by two, and then added bit of padding, just in case.[10] Most of us don’t even hear up to 20,000 Hz: and, as we age, our hearing deteriorates. I can’t hear above around 12,000 Hz; you can test your hearing here.

Yet high-resolution audio files at 96 kHz can reproduce sounds up to around 48,000 Hz. Dogs can hear sounds that high; but not humans. In fact, it’s very likely that your stereo system cannot reproduce sounds at such levels. Most standard stereo equipment reproduces sounds from 20 to 20,000 Hz. So for ultrasonic sounds to be reproduced, every element of the audio chain needs to be able to reproduce these sounds. If your amplifier can go up to 40,000 Hz, but your speakers or headphones cannot, no amount of voodoo or magic can make high frequencies audible.

While it is certainly possible to have stereo equipment that can reproduce ultrasonic frequencies, you’ll never hear them. Yet, very high sample rate music files can actually cause distortion. As an article on xiph.org[11] says, “If the same transducer reproduces ultrasonics along with audible content, any nonlinearity will shift some of the ultrasonic content down into the audible range as an uncontrolled spray of intermodulation distortion products covering the entire audible spectrum.” There are a lot of $10 words in a sentence, but what they mean is that very high sample rates — in this case, 24/192 — can actually make music sound worse; harmonic distortion can occur when the ultrasonics intrude on audible frequencies.

On top of that, hardly anyone can distinguish music at high sample rates from CDs. A number of blind studies have proven this, time and time again.[12]

“Music as It Was Intended to Be Heard”

One of the biggest marketing arguments for high-resolution music files is that “this is how music was intended to be heard.” Pono Music says, “[Musicians] want their music heard and experienced the way they brought it to life with great care and commitment, in the studio.”[13] This is how the music was recorded; this is how engineers heard it when they edited the music. Therefore, this must be better.

Two elements separate the recording studio – or, more correctly, the engineer’s control room – and home listening spaces. First, control rooms have high-quality monitors (speakers) which are neutral, and which are designed to provide the best possible audio fidelity. Second, control rooms are completely soundproof rooms with no parallel surfaces and completely absorbent walls. Again, they are designed to have no obstacles to reproducing the music as it was recorded. But you won’t have that at home, unless you have a very expensive listening room (and there are some people who go to this expense).

Some websites sell high-resolution files under the moniker “studio masters.” And, in fact, these files are studio masters; what engineers used in the studio. But that doesn’t mean that these are files that we should use when listening to music, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’ll sound the same on home audio systems.

There is a very simple reason why engineers use high bit depths and sample rates when recording music. Digital music involves a lot of calculations; when you make changes to music, with equalization, speed changes, etc., you are multiplying and dividing numbers. When mixing and mastering an album, an engineer performs thousands of operations to alter sound. Each one of these calculations — to simplify — leads to numbers being rounded off. The bigger the numbers, the less of a chance there is for rounding errors to affect the music. But this doesn’t mean that we, as listeners, need the same types of files. We don’t manipulate these files; we may change volume, or even use some subtle EQ, but that’s it. Nevertheless, many vocal audiophiles will provide a number of reasons why they need to listen to music files that contain sounds that they simply cannot hear.

However, if someone really wants to provide “music as it was intended to be heard,” they’d do a lot better to look at the mastering process that’s been destroying music in recent decades. Colloquially known as “the loudness wars,” music producers, prodded by record labels, use dynamic compression to increase the overall volume of music, making it sound horrendous. Since, in general, louder sounds better, or brighter, when you compare two songs, producers have been cranking up the volume to make their songs stand out. But string together an albums worth of overly loud tracks, and it’s fatiguing. But it’s a war of attrition, and our ears are the losers. No high-resolution files will make this music sound better, ever.[14]

Also, mastering is often done by someone other than the recording engineer, and someone who may not have been involved in the recording process. So is this music truly the way the artists and engineers intended you to hear it?

Listen Better

As I said in the title of this article: music, not sound. There is a small minority of music listeners who are obsessed by the idea of obtaining “perfect” sound. They go to great lengths, and great expense, to try and reproduce the sound that one hears in a concert hall. By focusing on sound quality alone, it can be easy to neglect the music. Such people may get frustrated if the music doesn’t sound good enough, and find it hard to become immersed in great music.

I’m a music fan. What I want most of all, is good music. Some of my best listening experiences have come on tinny record players or booming car stereos. If the music is good, then the sound quality is less important. This said, without getting obsessive, there are a number of ways you can make your music sound better without maxing out your credit card.

For portable listening, start by getting rid of those white earbuds in a bundled with your iPod or iPhone. Get better earbuds, or get proper headphones. With headphones, you get what you pay for, up to a few hundred dollars. After that price point, it gets a bit iffy.

If you listen to music on your computer, get rid of those little desktop speakers and hook up a real stereo. I strongly recommend getting a good DAC — a digital-analog converter — because the sound card in your computer is probably not great. (Though no DAC will help if your amplifier and speakers are poor.) I have a DAC between my Mac and my amplifier; I find that it does make a difference, providing a more detailed soundstage.

And if you’re listening to digital music — you’re reading this article, so I assume you are — make sure it is at sufficiently high bit rates. Apple’s iTunes Store sells music at 256 kbps, which, for nearly everyone, is indistinguishable from uncompressed music. If you use MP3 files, go for 320 kbps; it should sound just as good as CDs as well.

But unless you’re willing to spend as much money on your stereo system as you do on your car, and set up an acoustically-controlled room, there is simply no way that high-resolution files will make any difference to the music you listen to. Lots of people try and convince you that there is a difference, but most of these people simply want to take your money. And you have to ask yourself: of the ones who aren’t asking for your money, how many are desperately seeking validation for the very large sums of money they’ve spent on something modern science tells us they cannot hear.

  1. http://www.kirkville.com/whats-the-point-of-pono-and-why-are-ponos-numbers-bogus/  ↩
  2. I consider high bitrates to be at least 256 kpbs for AAC or 320 kpbs (or VBR V–0) for MP3 files. Check whether you can hear the difference: http://www.kirkville.com/can-you-really-tell-the-difference-between-music-at-different-bit-rates/  ↩
  3. The most common high-resolution music files are 24/48, 24/88.2, and 24/96. Pono will offer files up to 24/192, and some companies sell files up to 24/384.  ↩
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compact_Disc_Digital_Audio  ↩
  5. Linear pulse-code modulation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulse-code_modulation.  ↩
  6. One must not confuse bit depth and bit rate, which is used to describe how much data is in a music file per second. For example, 256 kbps means that there are 256,000 bits of data per second of music.  ↩
  7. See Is Bits Really Bits?. And, how about a test? Check whether you can hear the difference between music at 16 bits, and the same music downsampled to only 8 bits: The 16-bit v/s 8-bit Blind Listening Test. I got 7 out of 10 when I did the test; that’s better than random.  ↩
  8. Dynamic range is quite complicated. See this article for more detailed information than you probably want.  ↩
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nyquist_frequency  ↩
  10. There are also some other technical reasons why that specific sample rate was chosen. “Professional video recorders were originally used to prepare CD master tapes because they were the only recorders capable of handling the high bandwidth requirements of digital audio signals. Because 16-bit digital audio signals (and error correction) were encoded as a video signal, the sampling frequency had to relate to television standards’ line and field rate, storing a few samples per scan line. […] With three samples per line, 490 x 30 x 3 = 44.1 kHz, it is just right. […] Therefore, 44.1 kHz became the universal sampling frequency for CD master tapes. Because sampling-frequency conversion was difficult, and 44.1 kHz was appropriate, the same sampling frequency was used for finished disks.” Principles of Digital Audio, Sixth Edition, Ken C. Pohlmann. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)  ↩
  11. https://people.xiph.org/xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html  ↩
  12. See, for example, The Emperor’s New Sample Rate.  ↩
  13. http://www.ponomusic.com/#faq Or Try for yourself.  ↩
  14. See The Future of Music and, for a more technical explanation, ‘Dynamic Range’ & The Loudness War. And The Dynamic Range Database is a list of more than 50,000 albums, showing their relative loudness.  ↩

Another Pono Post: Where’s the Classical Music? and How Can Anyone Trust Neil Young’s Damaged Ears?

I’ve written about Neil Young’s Pono recently (here, here, here), and a commenter to one of my posts made me realize something. While Neil and his friends are waxing so effusively about high-resolution music, why are they ignoring what is probably the largest segment of the high-res sector: classical music?

Pono seems much more interested in studio music, and the testimonials in the promotional video all discuss how much better things sound, but often compared to what the musicians are used to hearing in the studio, on the type of audio equipment that few people own. What about classical music? Here, it’s not at all about the studio, but live recordings in concert halls. I would think that, given the classical music market and high-resolution music, this genre wouldn’t be slighted.

Also, why is the video on the Pono Kickstarter page showing people listening to Pono in a car? Seriously? They’re all so excited listening to the music, but in an environment that is totally unadapted to listening to serious music. It makes no sense. And the testimonials of the musicians in the video sound just like something on the Home Shopping Network. We have no idea what they were listening to, what formats were used as comparisons to the Pono sound. And did they do blind tests, or were they simply told which is which, so they could be prepared to think that Pono was better?

Also, Neil Young is known to have tinnitus, and some hearing loss; so how can he hear the differences in these different formats? As he has said, “I hurt my ears and they’ll never be the same again.” I’m sure that many of the aging rock stars in the promotional video also have hearing loss; it’s what happens to musicians. So people should trust what they say?

See also: Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy.

The Pono Kickstarter Campaign and Neil Young’s Fans

I’ve written about Neil Young’s Pono here and here. I mentioned that the use of a Kickstarter campaign suggests that investors aren’t ready to put their money into something like this.

However, in just 24 hours, the Kickstarter has exceeded its funding level. Asking for $800,000, it has already gotten pledges, as of the time of this writing, of over $1.3 million. That’s pretty impressive.

However, when you look closely, you see that what is driving this interest is Neil Young himself. It’s likely that most of the pledgers are hardcore Neil Young fans. Look in the right-hand column at the different Pono models available. The Neil Young and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young “signature” models are sold out; only one the other artist models has sold more than one hundred (Pearl Jam), and the next highest is Tom Petty with with 104 sales. It’s odd, though, that the Crosby, Stills & Nash model hasn’t been popular, with only 34 sales.

Also, while those numbers look impressive, it only adds up to – again, at the time of this writing – around 3,000 units sold. There’s no limit to how many of the standard units will be sold, and it will be interesting to see how many people go for this device at the end of the Kickstarter. Even if 10,000 people buy it, that’s still just a blip in the larger market of music player sales.

See also: Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy.

What’s the Point of Pono? And Why Are Pono’s Numbers Bogus?

When Neil Young first touted Pono – his soon-to-maybe-be-real music service and player – it was all about a better file format. The Pono format was supposed to be better than existing formats, but, at the time, Young gave no details about it, other than saying it would be very high resolution. The Wikipedia page set up after Young first announced this is called, in fact, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pono_(audio_format).

Now that the Pono Player has been announced, it’s clear that either Neil Young’s idea made no sense, or that he was never really talking about a new audio format at all. The Pono Player will play high-resolution FLAC files – up to 24/192 – but will also play all those other files that we already have: MP3 (which Young has derided constantly), AAC, Apple Lossless, WAV, AIFF and FLAC. In fact, after making such a kerfuffle about a new format, the Pono website says this:

We want to be very clear that PonoMusic is not a new audio file format or standard. It is an end-to-end ecosystem for music lovers to get access to and enjoy their favorite music in the highest resolution possible for that song or album.

So, if the Pono Player is simply playing existing file formats, what’s the big deal? It’s not the first portable player able to play high-resolution files. The Fiio X3 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) can play files in the same formats, and it only costs $200. Granted, it has limited storage, but you can add a microSD card for up to an additional 64 GB. (128 GB microSD cards should be hitting the market soon as well.) The Pono Player will have 128 GB, though only 64 GB is in the player; another 64 GB will be on a microSD card.

Apparently, the big deal behind the Pono Player is its little light:

The PonoPlayer will show you, via its user interface and a special “light” (to indicate a certified PonoMusic song) exactly what quality level you are hearing – when you are hearing Pono quality, and when you are not. If the light is lit, then the music you are listening to is Pono-certified as the best available quality.

But Pono gives some very confusing information, which is simply deceptive. In their FAQ, they say:

On the “low end” of higher resolution music (CD lossless, 16 bit/44.1kHz), PonoMusic files have about 6 times more musical information than a typical mp3. With ultra-high quality resolution recordings (24 bit/192kHz), the difference between a PonoMusic digital file and an mp3 is about 30 times more data from which your player reconstructs the “song”.

Early in that section, they talk about “PonoMusic files,” but information about their store suggests they’ll be selling music in various formats, not all of which will be 24/192; some will only be CD quality. And the claim of “about 30 times more data” is just snake oil: most of that “data” is inaudible (you can’t hear about 20 KHz, and probably not even that high), and the “30 times” comes from a deceptive calculation. On the Pono website, they discuss the following qualities:

  • CD lossless quality recordings: 1411 kbps (44.1 kHz/16 bit) FLAC files
  • High-resolution recordings: 2304 kbps (48 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
  • Higher-resolution recordings: 4608 kbps (96 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
  • Ultra-high resolution recordings: 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files

They’re making their calculations based on compressed MP3 files (using 256 kbps) and uncompressed high-resolution files. All of the 24/96 files I have in my iTunes library come in at about 2,000 – 3,000 kbps, because they are compressed, as are the FLAC files that are mentioned above. That’s about half the actual bit rate, because FLAC compresses about 50%. But if the Pono people quote uncompressed bit rates, yet still say these are FLAC files, they’re simply lying. (For example, 1411 kbps is the bit rate of uncompressed CD quality files, in either WAV or AIFF format, not in FLAC format as the Pono FAQ says.)

Here’s an example; it’s in Apple Lossless format, which offers essentially the same level of compression as FLAC:


So what’s the point? As I said in my previous article about Pono, is the setting up of a high-resolution music platform, which may have the impetus, through Young’s name and those of other musicians, to dethrone existing players. While the high-res music sector is very small, it does represent a demographic willing to spend a lot of money on music.

(Also, the initial Pono press release said that the device would hold from 1,000 to 2,000 albums; the press release was corrected to say that it can store from 100 to 500 high-resolution albums. It’s hard to get something like that wrong, but they managed.)

Pono is being deceptive in its marketing, and this, to me, is a big strike against them. They’re selling something that doesn’t matter to most people, and they’re trying to convince others that it does matter. The only way they can do this is to be truthful, not manipulate numbers to suit their message.

Update: It’s interesting to see how out of control the marketing is for the Pono. If you read the thread on the Computer Audiophile forum where the press release was initially published (and why was it published there first?), you’ll see a number of areas where information is unclear, and corrected. The capacity of the device (not 128 GB, but 64 GB with a 64 GB microSD card), the number of albums it can hold (which I discuss above), and more. I’ve done a lot of work in marketing, from both sides – working for companies and as a journalist – and this sort of confusion is rare.

I’m also a bit confused about the terminology they use when describing the device. They say:

The PonoPlayer has two output jacks. The first is a normal mini-stereo output specially designed for headphones and is meant for personal listening. The second is a stereo mini-plug analog output specifically designed for listening on your home audio system, in your car, or with your Sonos Connect — so you can share the PonoMusic experience with your friends and family.

What is the difference between a “mini-stereo output” and a “stereo mini-plug analog output?” I think they’re the same. The former is a standard 1/8″ headphone jack, and the latter is, most likely, a standard 1/8″ headphone jack, perhaps at a higher level to use with other devices. So why call them different things?

See also: Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy.