Monday, July 07, 2014

Musicians React To Pono: What Are They Hearing?

There is a real medicine show quality to this Pono promo video featuring famous musicians (David Crosby, Sting, Dave Grohl, Elvis Costello, James Taylor, Tom Petty, etc.) testifying to the life altering impact of Ponomusic. Each one has just been apparently blown away by a comparison between a hi-rez Ponomusic file and either a CD quality file or an MP3, or maybe an iTunes file (it's not totally clear what they've been listening to, and no context is given).

I never want to put myself in the position of saying what other people do and do not hear. I especially don't like to suggest that someone has been taken in by the power of suggestion. So let me be clear: I have no idea what these guys did or didn't hear, and I am not trying to imply their reactions are anything but 100% genuine. I'm also not saying they were suckered into believing they heard things that weren't real.

But as someone who has spent a lot of time comparing the sound quality of various digital resolutions, it is hard for me to accept that these reactions resulted solely from listening to music files with increased sampling frequency and bit depth alone. I have to believe something else is at work here. Quite possibly the different versions they heard were represented by different masterings. I don't  know, and it's not like Pono provides any concrete details.

All other things being equal, the difference between hi-rez (24 bit) digital and CD quality digital (16 bit/44.1 kHz) is just not that profound. I'm not saying there aren't differences (there are) and I'm not saying those differences can't be heard (they can under the right circumstances). It's just that the difference is very subtle and difficult to hear, even for extremely experienced listeners with excellent hearing.

Don't believe me? Here's three different music files, each the same 30 second sample of Nick Drake's "Hazey Jane II." The first is a 24 bit/96 kHz version that I downloaded from Universal music. The second is a CD quality (16 bit/44.1 kHz) version that I generated from that same hi-rez version.* The third is a 192 kps MP3 created from the hi-rez version. Listen to each of them (preferably using some sort of ABX tester to make the test blind). Make sure whatever device you listen on is capable of 24 bit/96 kHz resolution (you might have to change the MIDI settings on your computer). Decide for yourself if the differences between them match the hype you see in Pono's video. Personally, I do not hear it.

"Hazey Jane II" (24bit/96kHz)
"Hazey Jane II" (16bit/44.1kHz - aka "CD resolution")
"Hazey Jane II" (MP3 192kps)

1 comment:

Pete Bilderback said...

*Full technical details for the geeks.

The 16/44.1 file was created from the 24/96 version using Audiofile Engineering's "Sample Manager" program. Sample rate conversion from 96kHz to 44.1kHz was done using the iZotope resampler set to highest quality, followed by dithering to 16 bits using MBIT+ dither.

The 192 kps MP3 was created from the 24/96 file using LAME 3.98 with encoding quality set to highest.