Neil Young appeared on 'Late Night with David Letterman' last week and unveiled a prototype of a new, high fidelity, portable music player called Pono.
Pono is most definitely not just another 'MP3 player'. Pono is a music player that not only plays standard MP3s but also uncompressed, high-quality 24 bit / 192KHz recordings - as if hot out of the studio oven. A player for audiophiles then.
For those of you that don't know, the ubiquitous MP3 is a compressed audio file format. The various types of MP3 are created by subtracting information from the source audio by taking advantage of psychoacoustic phenomena and essentially ninja-ing your brain, all for the sake of smaller files. But let's not get too nerdy, for an extremely 'comprehensive' explanation pop to Sound on Sound.
Uncompressed (or lossless) audio isn't like this, the audio being untainted on its journey from
It's as close as you can get to the fully detailed sound of a record without lugging around vinyl, tape or turning up uninvited to the recording studio and making a scene.
To give you an idea of the amount of information missing in an MP3, the average CD quality audio file (which itself is a step down from the fidelity of major studio recordings) is around 40MB and a standard MP3 encode will reduce this to just 4MB.
As reported by Rolling Stone, the new Pono distribution service and it's accompanying hardware will seek to introduce music fans to record label master recordings and "save the sound of music". This isn't the first we're hearing of Neil Young's campaign for hi-fi. Back at the beginning of the year Young spoke at length to All Things Digital, explaining his plan to change the appreciation of digital music through distribution. He'd even spoken to the late Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. on the matter.
Public reaction to Neil Young and his new Toblerone brick of wonder could go many ways. My own response is that what he's trying to do is fantastic. Audio fidelity is a slight geekery that the average music listener should appreciate; we aren't all audiophiles but what we do all care about, is music that makes us feel something. Higher quality music makes you feel it, really feel it, and it's a message that should be spread.
As I've mentioned before on this site, I was happy for most of my teens to carry around and enjoy an iPod with the tiniest MP3s I could possibly find. The more tracks the better, right? However, after working in a studio for some time (where fidelity is everything) I've come to understand that there's simply a more enjoyable way to listen to the music I love - by listening to uncompressed files. Bigger is definitely better.
On the other hand, I think there may be a lot of people that might not appreciate Neil Young's tone:
We might have a musical crusade on our hands.
High quality music as a selling platform is nothing new. Mostly it hasn't worked: SACD, DVD-A, DAT and many other forgotten audio formats, all in caps. Occasionally, dressed in the right outfit, it can work. Travel on a London tube and play 'count the Beats headphones' and you'll see what I mean. However, how far sales of Dr. Dre Beats could be attributed to listeners seeking hi-fi, over those seeking a fashion accessory (and those only wanting to hear exaggerated bass)
could be argued at great length. Some more cynical folk could say that Pono might just be another premium audio brand launched to sell us something that nobody really cares about.
What I think will happen, is that Pono will become a successful niche product. Audiophiles will respect it but the average consumer won't see the point. For now, I think it's important that Pono and the hi-fi crusade exist, as it's important for more music fans to at least be aware of what uncompressed audio is (and experience it) and then make the decision for themselves. But, the idea of mainstream adoption of uncompressed audio will be grass in the wind until more renegade musical stars and influential companies push the idea of hi-fi in the digital domain. I am of course talking about Apple. As digital distribution of music steadily becomes the main method (it's still not the most popular way to buy music), largely due to iTunes, it's difficult to think of any other company in world with more of a say in the future direction of music and its fans.
I stopped buying music from iTunes several years ago when I decided that I only wanted to own uncompressed music, ripped at full resolution from CDs. I wanted to be sure I'd be listening to the best version I could, whatever I was listening on. I actually culled my MP3s, losing music I had previously. I was perhaps being a little bit elitist, but since then I do think I've enjoyed my music more. StrangeIy then, I'm buying more CDs than at any other time in my life. I have however, found myself wishing I could get new music now. The truth is I'd love to return to iTunes.
Convenience is a natural part of technological progress, so why can't quality be? Music and how we listen to it is one thing that hasn't progressed in a while. Apple has made small movements towards better sounding music; they now provide music at higher bit rates than ever before and are encouraging makers of music to master for iTunes. It's just a shame that these songs experienced on devices not designed to output high quality music through tiny, razor-like ear buds, by so many. I think the CD will eventually join the list of dead formats and the only reason this would be a shame is if high fidelity music died with it.