Thursday, April 3, 2014

Neil Young's Pono. Hype or the real deal?

So has anyone heard about the new Pono player that Neil Young is touting? It sounds like a really great idea. It is this brand new device that will solve all of the problems that music industry engineers have been facing since... Well... Since we went digital? This is another device that is a solution searching for yet another problem. On top of that, it's kind of this bulky triangle thing that may be uncomfortable in your pocket, almost impossible to exercise with, and really only good for if you are in your car, or sitting in your living room. Plus at $200 (if you contribute to the kickstarter campaign $399 otherwise) I am sorry to say but, wow, what an overpriced device.

Look, I am all for good/great/amazing sound. My hobby is sound engineering, and I have been doing it for at least 15+ years. I am not a complete expert, but I know a bit more than the average person to speak with a little bit of authority. My summation so far without listening to the device? 

Please don't fall for the hype.

Just dealing with your normal music that you purchase from your preferred online retailer, they want you to believe a few outrageous claims. 

MP3s sound worse than CDs? 

I want to address this right away, even before I listen to the Pono. See, it's kind of funny that I am hearing all of these celebrities talking about MP3. As I was listening to the commercial... I mean campaign video, I kind of chuckled to myself because I remember when MP3's were the underground, man. Napster, anyone? I remember that if you wanted to convert this giant, bulky .WAV file you had to MP3, not only did you need a lot of time, you did it through the command prompt and had to know a lot of commands to make it happen. And that was after you ripped the CD, which took a while because of the slow speeds of CD-ROM drives in those days. Back in those days, a low bitrate was really all most computers could handle when it came to playback. I remember my lowly computer struggling to reproduce the encoded sound. Then, you had to have a really good and tightly written player to play the MP3 back. Winamp was the player of choice because before AOL bought the software it was written by a guy who knew sound and had the most efficient code. So yeah, BACK IN THOSE DAYS. 

I know, I sound like a broken record. 

Is CD quality good enough? Well, that's a hard question to answer because there are several factors that go into reproducing good/great/amazing sound. First, there's the quality of studio, the quality of producer and sound engineers, encoding, and then after the content is delivered, there is the quality of the playback decoder, and equipment to include cables and speakers.  I just purchased the new Demon Hunter album from Google Play the other day and guess what the encoding bitrate was? 320kpbs. This has been the new standard for a while now. 320kpbs is approaching what is considered lossless. To explain the term lossless, I have to explain what it means to encode something to MP3. When you encode something with the MP3 standard you are basically carving away sound to make the resulting file smaller and more manageable. However, you have lost sound. MP3 is a lossy format. Now while some of the sound is lost, most of it you would have never heard to begin with, but there is a trade off because at a low sampling rate some sound that is audible is lost. You lose definition. Think of it as looking through a dirty windshield. 

So at 320kbps, you get a more defined sound because you are taking many more samples. Plus, since 320kpbs is so close to lossless sound, the only sound being lost is truly inaudible. CDs are lossless... sort of, but that is another discussion and I know that I probably have lost most of you already, but hang in there for one more explanation. CDs being digital don't capture all of the sound that the studio records.

So, I went through this long winded explanation to say that Neil Young is claiming that the Pono is an amazing product because they push the limits and break past the barrier of what CDs can capture. However, there are still all of those factors I listed above that can affect the outcome of sound. I would predict that before long we will hear of some content delievery service where you can buy better quality sound that will only work on the Pono, but it's just my guess. Don't forget we live in the day and age where you can be charged a hefty price for data. Streaming services like Pandora or Spotify make a trade off to deliver music that sounds ok but doesn't kill your data plan at the same time. The better the sound, the more data is required. 

Speaking of trade-offs, that 320kpbs album that I got from Google Play is probably more than twice the size of a 96kbps encoded album. The more defined sound you get, the more space it takes up. Normal MP3 audio is typically sampled at 44.1kHz and 16bits, the same as CDs, however the Pono boasts 192khz at 24 bits, but if you understand binary math, the amount of data that is captured is not just incrementally more, its exponential. The resulting files could be up to 8 times larger for marginally better sound. So the 64Gigs of data the Pono can store will get eaten up pretty quick.

The last point I will make is actually in favor of the Pono. 

To play the music back, they are probably using state-of-the-art hardwarein the Pono, I hope. Because there is a whole 'nother problem after you encode the music. You have to decode it back into audible sound. There is a lot of technical talk about encoding and decoding but that is the name of the game if you really want to understand why the amazing Nexus 5 cellphone costs $350 dollars retail and the Pono costs $399. While I do believe the price of the Pono is incredibly inflated, I also believe they are using the best hardware you can find. But is it worth it? What is the state of your amplifier, speakers and cables? You may not notice the difference at all unless you spend thousands more to even hear it. If you don't understand all of this technical mumbo jumbo, what do you rely on? Well, Neil Young hopes you will believe what musicians say because they must know, right? I mean, they make the music after all, they have to know what they are talking about. They have to know all of this tech speak! Well, sadly, while some do, most don't. So you pretty much have to blindly trust that what people are telling you is the truth. 

There are many people that believe Monster Cable, Beats, and Bose make superior products. 

How do you know? Have you taken your devices a part and analyzed the guts? Do you understand technically what is going on? Or is it because of celebrities? Surely, they know what they are talking about. The price tag? Because if it costs a lot, it must be better, right? Or is it because you hear a difference? You WILL hear a difference when you shell out $399 for this device, because no one wants to feel stupid for paying so much! The Pono may sound great, but I'm going to stick with my good ole' Zune HD. Yep, that's right! The product that everyone loves to make fun of because Microsoft didn't market it very well, but I will put it up against the Pono any day when you get one. That is unless you are an audiophile, then you may have the equipment that can reproduce the sound.