Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Could Pono Really (Really) Make Digital Music Sound Better?

In my last post about PonoMusic I expressed skepticism about whether their music files would actually sound significantly better, and criticized them for what I consider misleading advertising as it pertains to "high-resolution" digital recordings. I also promised to keep an open mind, and today I want to entertain the possibility that PonoMusic might end up being a good thing for sound quality despite my skepticism.

So far all of Pono's marketing as it pertains to the sound quality of the music they will be selling has focused on the sampling rate and bit depth of digital recordings. Again from their FAQ:

No.  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.  The music in the PonoMusic.com store is sold and downloaded in industry standard audio file formats.  

The PonoMusic Store uses FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) audio format as its standard, for compatibility, although the PonoPlayer can play most popular high-resolution music formats from other sources.  PonoMusic has a quality spectrum, ranging from really good to really great, depending on the quality of the available master recordings: 
•    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
In short, what this is telling us is that Pono will not be offering any kind of breakthrough in digital music technology. 192 kHZ/24bit PCM digital audio has been available in some form or another to consumers at least since the introduction of DVD-Audio nearly 15 years ago. There are already other digital music retailers that offer high-resolution digital music files for download. Likewise, the FLAC format is something of an industry standard for lossless compressed audio (although someone might want to alert Apple to that fact).

This is actually a good thing. The last thing we need at this juncture is a new digital format that isn't compatible with other players or current stereo equipment. Pono has not reinvented the wheel here, and there is no reason why they should. The music from their store will likely work with the equipment you already have (if you are an iTunes user you'll need to convert those FLAC files to something like AIFF or Apple Lossless files, but that is a topic for another day). In addition, their player will play the digital files you already own, as they have promised support for most varieties of PCM based audio files, including the kind Apple currently sells. In my view these are both sensible choices.

So if PonoMusic will not be offering anything new under the sun, why do I hold out hope that their product might actually lead to better sounding music for consumers? The answer, ironically, lies with the precedent set by Apple with their "Mastered for iTunes" program. Mastered for iTunes is a set of tools and best practice standards that Apple has made available to labels to create better sounding iTunes music files. I encourage you to read PDF Apple has made available on mastering music for iTunes, as it contains a set of common sense guidelines without excessive marketing hype. It suggests to me that Apple has a very good understanding of what some of the real problems with current digital music are: namely, excessive use of dynamic range compression and digital clipping. It has been my experience that the care that goes into making music sound its best at the mastering stage matters more (much more) than the eventual sample rate and bit depth delivered to the consumer.

It has long been my view that the mastering process is the critical phase in music production that really needs to be addressed and improved. By and large it is at the mastering stage where sound quality is really getting messed up these days. I applaud Apple for taking steps to address this problem.

If Pono were to issue a similar set of guidelines to labels on best practices for mastering audio for PonoMusic, I think there is a real possibility it could result in better sounding digital music releases. Were Pono to leverage its influence to urge labels to ease back on dynamic range compression, avoid digital clipping, and not apply excessive frequency equalization, it would result in audibly better sounding music and differences that really could easily be heard even at CD level (44.1kHZ/16bit) resolution. Perhaps they could create some catchy name like "PonoApproved" for digital albums that meet their sound quality standards.

Now, to be clear, I don't have any special reason to think this will happen, and given Pono's exclusive focus to date on sampling rates and bit depth as the drivers for better sound quality, I am not particularly encouraged. But some precedent for this kind of thing does exist. Also, if PonoMusic is successful, it could push other digital music retailers like iTunes to offer higher quality, lossless, downloads as an option for consumers. All these things would be very welcome developments, and I'm happy to wait and see how things shake out before issuing any final judgement on Pono. I remain skeptical, but I wish Neil Young and Pono luck in their stated goal of making digital music sound better. If they are serious about it they must take steps to demand better sounding masters from record labels, and if they succeed in doing so we all stand to benefit.

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