I had just recently watched a couple speeches and interviews by Neil Young because I wanted to understand exactly what he was doing. I heard a lot about PONO, but just hadn’t taken that time.
Short answer: I’m no fan of MP3s and I have to constantly struggle to remind clients that MP3 is not a master format! But as far as PONO goes, I am dissatisfied with Young’s argument, and his whole approach. His argument is not at all well constructed, and rests on a number of subjective qualities. He’s appealing to emotion much more than science, and using his position as a rock god to sell us just another box.
Young’s ability to discuss the technical aspects is limited, even though he seems to come off as knowledgable in certain places. He’s attempting to make the marketing of Pono understandable for “mom”, and says he’s not after the audiophile market. But he does such a poor job of translating the tech speak into street talk, so much so that he clouds the issues at hand with unnecessary terms and analogies.
The other thing that irritated me was that Neil Young is after “echo” from the 1960s and 1970s. OK, great… then use better echo chambers… don’t sidetrack the discussion about audio resolution with your pining for echo…
On the technical side, you and I both know that tapes from the earliest days of recording probably do sound great, but only if they are well maintained and the technology exists to play them back. But tapes deteriorate over time, and there’s not much we can do about that. If you don’t have a playback system that honors the quality of those original tapes, then it makes no sense to invest in hi-resolution transfers.
I see the argument for PONO on three fronts – pre-CD music, CD music of the 80s-90s, and then the hi-res capabilities we have today.
For pre-CD era music, all we have are the tapes. If those tapes are well conditioned, then can be recaptured at high resolutions. If the tapes aren’t available, then all we have is the best capture that was done (if it was done at all) during the entry into the CD era.
For CD-era music, if it was recorded on ADAT at 48khz or 44.1khz, then that is all we have. For those that continued to use analog tape, then the issue is the same as for pre-CD era music (see above).
For present day music, we’re sort of spoiled, but it still depends on the choices the artist and studio make, and whether they buy into the science of higher resolutions.
Science of Higher Resolutions
I’ve read dozens of arguments on this. Nyquist rates, theorems, psychoacoustics, etc. As a small studio owner, I have had to consider all of this. I’ve just decided more is not better. I record at 44.1khz, 24 bit for very specific reasons. I want the headroom that 24 bit offers (though I am still conservative when setting levels). I don’t want to do sample rate conversion back down to CD 44.1khz (to avoid artifacts). I’m also managing hard drive space and have a system that works for now. I can not justify the larger storage requirements for such little return.
And unfortunately, CD is inevitably what people want when they leave here (much to my dismay). I’d much rather give them a 44.1khz 24 bit master for direct upload and distribution online on Bandcamp. Clients here are often not that sophisticated and barely understand the leap it takes to mix music and put it on CD, let alone any of the underlying specs. Hi res 192khz and up is awesome for The Black Keys or Decemberists, which I see are PONO artists.
Bluetooth vs Wire
One of Neil Young’s arguments is that Bluetooth is no replacement for a wire. He makes several claims that you need to replace a wire with something at least as good. If all he is talking about is dusting off your old speakers from the garage, he can do that now without PONO. This is where the argument gets murky and the elements of the signal chain are not clearly defined in Young’s argument. Storage and file size (a function of the sample rate and bit depth) get confused with the pathway audio takes through a digital wireless connection.
Remember, radio is wireless too, and people really seem to like listening to the radio. Whatever we might say about the Loudness Wars and broadcasting compression, radio is still a wireless medium that carries a great deal of the artist’s recording. Confusing audio fidelity with transfer speed and computer processing speed (which is now extremely high) is not helping anyone.
In the PONO promo pieces I watched/heard, it seemed to me that Neil Young really just needed to spend some of his hard earned money on a good speaker system and not bother going into the tech business. I was even surprised when – in one segment – he admits that Pono sometimes has glitches, but they are OK glitches. Huh?!!?