Monthly Archives: March 2014

Neil Young’s Pono: an advance in digital music?

Thanks to the just-launched Kickstarter project, there are now firm technical details for Neil Young’s curious Pono project, which aims to solve what the musician sees as the loss of audio quality caused by the transition to digital music:

“Pono” is Hawaiian for righteous. What righteous means to our founder Neil Young is honoring the artist’s intention, and the soul of music. That’s why he’s been on a quest, for a few years now, to revive the magic that has been squeezed out of digital music. In the process of making music more convenient – easier to download, and more portable – we have sacrificed the emotional impact that only higher quality music can deliver.

There is a lot about emotion and the spirit of music in the pitch; but ultimately while music is art, audio is technology. What is the technology in Pono and can it deliver something markedly better than we have already?

Pono has several components. The first is a portable player:

  • 64GB on-board storage and 64GB SD card
  • 8 hour rechargeable battery
  • Software for PC and Mac to transfer songs
  • Two stereo output jack sockets, one for headphones, and one a line-out for connection to a home hi-fi system
  • Ability to play FLAC, ALAC, WAV, MP3, AIFF and AAC at resolutions (at least for FLAC) of up to 192Khz/24-bit. 

The Pono player will cost around $400.00, though early Kickstarter backers can pre-order for $200 (all sold now) or $300.00.

There will also be a Pono music store “supported by all major labels and their growing catalogues of high quality digital music”. The record companies will set their own prices, but high-res (24/96 and higher) music is expected to cost between $14.99 and $24.99 per album. Individual songs will also be available.

Here is the key question: will you hear the difference. Here is what the pitch says:

Yes. We are confident that you will hear the difference. We’re even more confident you will feel it. Everyone who’s ever heard PonoMusic will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic. Especially when they listen to music that they know well – their favorite music. They’re amazed by how much better the music sounds – and astonished at how much detail they didn’t realize was missing compared to the original. They tell us that not only do they hear the difference; they feel it in their body, in their soul.

Count me sceptical. There are two ways in which Pono can sound better than what you use at the moment to play music – which for many of us is a smartphone, a CD ripped to a hard drive and played from a PC, Mac or iPod, or streamed to a device like a Sonos or Squeezebox.

One is though superior electronics. Pono is designed by Ayre Acoustics, a high end audio company, and you can expect a Pono to sound good; but there is no reason to think it will sound better than many other DACs and pre-amplifiers available today. As a dedicated audio device it should sound better than the average smartphone; but Apple for one has always cared about audio quality so I would not count on a dramatic improvement.

The second is through higher resolution sources. This is a controversial area, and the Kickstarter pitch is misleading:

On the “low end” of higher resolution music (CD lossless, 16 bit/44.1kHz), PonoMusic files have about 6 times more musical information than a typical mp3. With ultra-high quality resolution recordings (24 bit/192kHz), the difference between a PonoMusic digital file and an mp3 is about 30 times more data from which your player reconstructs the “song”.

We need to examine what is meant by “musical information” in the above. The Pono blurb makes the assumption that more data must mean better sound. However, just because a CD “lossless” file is six times the size of an MP3 file does not mean it sounds six times better. Listening tests show that by the time you get to say 320kbps MP3, most people find it hard to hear the difference, because the lossy formats like MP3 and AAC are designed to discard data that we cannot hear.

What about 24/96 or 24/192 versus CD format (16/44)? Advocates will tell you that they hear a big difference, but the science of this is obscure; see 24/192 downloads and why they make no sense for an explanation, complete with accompanying videos that spell this out. Most listening tests that I am aware of have failed to detect an audible difference from resolutions above CD format. Even so, audio is subtle and complex enough that it would be brave to say there is never any audible improvement above 16/44; but if it exists, it is subtle and not the obvious difference that the Pono folk claim.

The irritation here is that digital music often does sound bad, but not because of limitations in the audio format. Rather, it is the modern engineering trend of whacking up the loudness so that the dynamic range and sense of space in the music is lost – which seems close to what Neil Young is complaining about. The solution to this is not primarily in high resolution formats, but in doing a better job in mastering.

Why then do so many well known names in music praise the Pono sound so highly?

While I would like to think that this is because of a technical breakthough, I suspect it is more to do with comparing excellent mastering from a good source to a typical over-loud CD or MP3 file, than anything revolutionary in Pono itself. If you have a high-resolution track that sounds great, try downsampling it to 16/44 and comparing it to that, before concluding that it is the format itself that provides the superior sound.

The highest distortion in the audio chain is in the transducers, speakers and microphones, and not in the digital storage, conversion and amplification.

The Pono Kickstarter has already raised $550,000 of its $800,000 goal which looks promising. Even if the high resolution aspect makes little sense, it is likely that the Pono music store will offer some great sounding digital music so the project will not be a complete dead loss.

That said, who is going to want Pono when a tiny music player, or just using your smartphone, is so much more convenient? Only a dedicated few. This, combined with the lack of any real technical breakthrough, means that Pono will likely stumble in the market, despite its good intentions.

Within the crazy audiophile world we are also going to hear voices saying, “you should have used DSD”, a alternative way of encoding high-resolution audio, as found in SACD disks.

Fun with amplifiers: classic Naim versus modern Yamaha integrated

Every year in an English country hotel near Melton Mowbray a strange but endearing event takes place.

Called variously the HiFi Wigwam Show (after the forum that runs it) or the Scalford HiFi Show (after the hotel where it takes place), this is a show where most of the exhibitors are enthusiasts rather than dealers, and the kit on show includes much that is old, unavailable or home-made – like these stacked Quad 57s from the Sixties.

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I turned up at Scalford with a simple experiment in mind. Take a classic pre-power amplifier from thirty years ago and compare it to a modern, budget, integrated amplifier. What kind of differences will be heard?

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The classic amplifier is a Naim 32.5 preamp powered by a Hi-Cap power supply, and a 250 power amplifier. Price back in 1984 in the region of £3500. The Naim was serviced around five years ago to replace old or failing electrolytic and tantalum capacitors.

The integrated is a Yamaha AS500 80w+80w amplifier currently on sale for around £230.

The source is a Logitech Media Server (Squeezebox Server) with a Squeezebox Touch modified to work with high resolution audio up to 24/192, and a Teac UD-H01 DAC. Speakers were Quad 11L, occasionally substituted with Linn Kans for a traditional Linn/Naim combination. A BK Electronics sub-woofer was on at a low level to supplement the bass.

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A QED MA19 switchbox was used to switch instantly between the two amplifiers. Naim NAC A4 cable was used throughout.

Disclaimer: this was not intended as a scientific investigation. Level matching was done by ear, and there were several aspects of the setup that were sub-optimal. The system was in a small hotel bedroom (as you can see by the headrest which forms the backdrop to the system) and thrown together quickly.

Still, the Naim amplifier is both highly regarded by many audiophiles, and also considered somewhat coloured, this failing more than mitigated by its pace and drive. The Yamaha won awards as a good budget amplifier but is not really anything special; however it has the benefit of modern electronics. These two amplifiers are very different both in age and (you would think) character.

A benefit of the setup was that both amplifiers were always on. Unless you knew the position of the switches and how they were wired, you could not tell which was playing. It was irresistible; when visitors asked which was playing I switched between them and said, you tell me.

Again, this was not science, and I have no tally of the results. Some visitors confidently identified the Naim and were correct, and an approximately equal number were incorrect. Some said they simply could not hear a difference, and two or three times I had to prove that the switchbox was working by twiddling the controls. A small boy who probably had the best hearing of all the visitors declared that there was no difference.

Note that I did reveal the identity of the amplifiers at regular intervals, so listeners typically listened sighted after listening blind.

Of those who expressed a preference, the Yamaha and Naim were each preferred equally often. Some said the Yamaha was slightly brighter (I agree with this).

There were two or three who expressed a strong preference for the Naim, but the consensus view was that the amplifiers sounded more alike than had been expected.

The sound was also pretty good. “I would be happy with either” was a common remark. I would have preferred to use high-end speakers, but the Quads proved delightfully transparent. Most visitors who heard both preferred the Quads to the Kans, which sounded thin and boxy in comparison, though I do wonder if after thirty years the crossover electronics in the Kans may need attention. It was easy to hear the difference between high quality and low quality sources. I used some of the high-resolution files which Linn kindly gave away as samples for Christmas 2013, along with other material.

A few reactions:

Tony L: The most amusing room for me was the Naim 32.5 / HiCap / 250 blind-test vs. the Yamaha AS500. That was great fun, and yes, I picked the AS500 as better. Twice. As did another ex-32.5/Hicap/250 owning friend. Ok it was through a nice easy to drive pair of Quad 11Ls, but you’d be amazed by how close they sounded!

YNWOAN: I heard the Yamaha/Naim demo and had no difficulty hearing a difference between the two with the Yamaha sounding rather ‘thin’ – even at the low levels used.

Pete the Feet: How cruel can a man be? Pitching a recently serviced Naim 32.5, Hicap and NAP250 against a paltry Yamaha £250 integrated. Not much difference but the Yamaha had the edge.

Some felt that the Naim was compromised by the stacking of the power supply and pre-amp on the power amp. There was no hum and I am sceptical of the difference moving them apart, or using acoustic tables, might have made; but of course it is possible. Another interesting thing to test would be the impact of the switchbox itself, though again I would be surprised if this is significant.

How much should you spend on an amplifier? Should all competent amplifiers sound the same? These are questions that interest me. I set up this experiment with no particular expectations, but the experience does make me wonder whether we worry too much about amplification, given that other parts of the audio chain introduce far more distortion (particularly transducers: microphones and loudspeakers).

A more rigorous experiment than mine came to similar conclusions:

How can it be possible that a basic system with such a price difference against the  reference” one, poorly placed, using the cheapest signal cables found, couldn’t be distinguished from the more expensive one?

And, most of it all, how come the cheap system was chosen by so many people as the best sounding of the two?

Shouldn’t the differences be so evident that it’d be a child’s game to pick the best?

Well, we think that each can reach to its own conclusion…

One further comment though. I love that Naim amplifier, and do not personally find something like the AS500 a satisfactory replacement, despite the convenience of a remote control. Is it just that the classic retro looks, high quality workmanship and solid construction convince my brain into hearing more convincing music reproduction, provided I know that it is playing? Or are there audio subtleties that cannot easily be recognised by quick switching?

Unfortunately the audio industry has such fear of blind testing that these questions are not investigated as often or as thoroughly as some of us would like.