Neil Young has more money than God. And he has an army affectionately known as “Rusties” after his 1979 album “Rust Never Sleeps”. And when Neil takes a stand on a subject, a lot of these folks stand up and salute. Now Mr Young is well known for his position on social issues and let me be listed among those that admire his work in such endeavors. But as well intentioned as he may be, he has now run afoul of “The Naked Audiophile” by introducing a new audio format he refers to as “Pono”.
From his website:
Pono means righteous. It is a Hawaiian word, the one, the pureness. On behalf of Pono, we thank you for helping us give music a voice. You have helped to set the stage for a revolution in music listening. Finally, quality enters the listening space so that we can all hear and feel what the artists created, the way they heard and felt it.
This is done when the artist makes the best available, wanting to share it with you. It happens when the artist lets you hear and feel more than what is on your CD or MP3 of any song. CDs and MP3s are derived from the original masters, and now, with the PonoPlayer, you can finally feel the master in all its glory, in its native resolution, CD quality or higher, the way the artist made it, exactly. That’s the beauty of Pono.
It’s been a long time coming. It was not easy getting this far, but you made it happen by supporting Pono’s vision for better listening. We have been working with the labels, with the artists and producers, and we will continue to do that. We go to the source to find the best and bring it to you. Pono wants to preserve the history of music, in all of its beauty and expression, for all time. Forever.
There is a way to do this right, and we are going to do it. We will be sharing how we will do this with you over the next few months, while we build your first ever PonoPlayers. We are going to do some revolutionary things. We will make music available in a way that has never been done, a way that allows for constantly attaining the best listening experience.
Thank you to the artists, the recording companies, big and small, and most of all, thanks to you music lovers for making this happen with your amazing support.
Thanks for listening,
OK. Huh? What did he say?
Well first I have to “Pony” up $400 for his proprietary player. I guess I don’t want to miss out on such a revolutionary leap in audio technology. But then, I have to buy all new tracks which have been specially processed in high resolution in order to experience this audio bliss. And even though the Pono player will play my lossless WAV or FLAC files, they are apparently not high enough resolution. And all my MP3 files? Well certainly they are out of the running.
This may be a good time to discuss all this hu ha about lossless files and compression and digital Vs. analog. I could fill a book with the latter question alone. But my role here is to cut to the chase and give my vast and well deserved audience just the facts. So once again I will resort to my old friends the factoids:
Factoid #1: It can be scientifically shown that there is no audible difference between music recorded digitally using high rate / high quality compression (such as MP3’s or Pono) and lossless formats such as WAV files. What’s the more, once you digitally divide a waveform into fine enough parts, and have enough storage to keep them and play them back accurately, it effectively becomes a perfect analog copy. It makes engineers really nervous when you tell them that everything is really analog anyway. They turn blue and jump up and down.
Factoid #2: Read factoid #1 again out loud. And no jumping or turning blue. Here is an excerpt from a beautifully written article by Brent Butterworth over atAudiophile Review which helps to make this point clear:
Many audio enthusiasts describe the effects of MP3 much as they would describe the effects of dubbing audio onto analog tape, which has a deleterious effect on almost every aspect of audio quality (frequency response, dynamic range, signal-to-noise ratio, distortion, etc.). It doesn’t work that way. It’d be more useful (although not literally accurate) to think of MP3 and other lossy codecs as introducing random elements. The lower the bitrate (i.e., 128 kbps vs. 256 kbps), the more random elements are introduced, and the lower the audio quality. The frequency response and dynamic range are essentially unchanged, there’s just more junk in the signal.
That’s because MP3 works not by reducing dynamic range or frequency response, but by discarding data that’s less likely to be heard. It breaks an audio sample down into multiple frequency bins; analyzes them to find out sounds that are unlikely to be heard (for example, a 1.1 kHz tone at -20 dBFS adjacent to a 1 kHz tone at -3 dBFS); then reduces or zeroes-out the number of bits used to encode those relatively inaudible tones. You’ll still hear that loud -3 dBFS tone in almost all of its original glory, minus or plus the slight level error that MP3 might introduce. Of course, that’s a greatly simplified explanation; if you want to dig deeper, try this site.
Here’s another way to think about it. Imagine the audio signal as a wall-size painting. Then think of MP3 as a kid with a BB gun. If the kid starts shooting the picture in random places with the BB gun, and you’re viewing the painting from 20 feet away, you probably wouldn’t notice the first few holes. As dozens of holes appear, you’d eventually start to notice them, but the overall content of the picture would remain unchanged – the color would appear the same, the black and white levels would appear the same, and the objects depicted would still be easily recognizable.
By the time the kid empties the entire 650-shot magazine of his Red Ryder, parts of the painting might be missing enough canvas that its colors and shades start to shift, and certain elements pictured in the painting become unrecognizable. That would be roughly analogous to encoding MP3 at 32 kbps, as compared to the 128 kbps I’ve used here and the 256 kbps bitrate now used for most commercially distributed MP3 downloads.
So Mr. Young, the emperor has no clothes. And, if as all the Rusties out there contend, your Pono files do sound “better” (whatever that means), it is not because of the Pono format, but because the man behind the glass is paying more attention when the boss is in the studio.
And who knew Rustoleum works so well on rusty audio files as well as rusty audiophiles?
Oooh so sorry…