Neil Young's "high resolution" PonoPlayer goes on sale for $400 today. You shouldn't buy it. The recalcitrant rocker isn't wrong for wanting to reclaim audio quality in the digital age, but in the service of that goal he's peddling junk science, and supporting expensive gear and music files you don't need.
For the last few years, Neil Young has been been the most visible proponent of what's called both "high resolution" and "high definition" audio. These huge audio files theoretically sound much better than any other digital files that have ever existed before. To put that sound in the hands—and ears—of the people, he created the PonoPlayer, a triangular portable music player that promises only the highest of fidelities. He's not alone. Last week at CES, Sony announced a whole battery of new high-resolution audio products, led by an absurdly expensive $1200 Walkman, loaded with hardware that's supposed to optimize the reproduction of the music loaded on it.
At the most basic level, the push for high resolution audio is rooted in reality. By adopting digital formats like the MP3, and the lossy encoding of the music streamed by subscription services like Spotify, we've sacrificed audio quality for convenience. A music lover should care about improving their audio quality by using better files.
That's fair! But from there, the arguments for high-resolution audio fall apart.
Though the term is used loosely, high resolution audio is generally meant to refer to music that has been digitally encoded at very high sampling rate and bit-depth. Specifically, it means music encoded at much higher rates than even the CD-quality digital standard that was adopted decades ago.
Here's a chart from Pono describing various levels of audio quality. At the very bottom, you've got the lowest quality streaming files, in the middle you've got 44.1 kHz/16-bit CD quality standard, and at the top, you've got absurdly high-resolution files that are encoded at 192 kHz/24-bit.
The rationale behind high-resolution audio is that by maximizing the sampling rate and bit depth, you also maximize audible detail and dynamic range in the music you're listening to. This sounds great on paper, but in practice it's an absolute fantasy.
The CD-quality standard—which Young and HRA proponents say isn't sufficient—wasn't adopted randomly. It's not a number plucked out of thin air. It's based on sampling theory and the actual limits of human hearing. To the human ear, audio sampled above 44.1 kHz/16-bit is inaudibly different.
Still, this demonstrated mathematical truth does not stop people from claiming that they can hear the difference on higher quality audio. The evidence for Pono's greatness begins with a video testimonials that were posted on the Pono Kickstarter page. Young used his industry connections to put the PonoPlayer loaded with high definition audio tracks in the hands of famous musicians, who all freak out and say Pono is the best thing they have ever heard.
This proves nothing. I'm not calling Norah Jones and Dave Grohl liars, but I'm saying that they're succumbing to confirmation bias, that natural impulse to hear or see what it is you want to hear or see. If Neil Young thrusts a gadget in your hands and says, "Listen dude, you are not going to believe this shit," you are probably going to hear exactly what Neil Young wants you to hear.
Of course, there's a scientific way to overcome confirmation bias, called double-blind testing, whereby you are presented two alternatives randomly in such a way that you have no idea which is which. There are some problems with double-blind testing, but it's generally accepted as best practices, especially when it comes to evaluating something as elusive as audio quality.
Though Young and Pono have failed to produce double-blind studies on the benefits of high-rate audio or their music player, inquiring minds have taken the time to do it. In a 2007 paper published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, Brad Meyer and David Moran outline the results of a study in which they presented a large sample of "serious" listeners with a double blind test comparing 44.1 kHz audio from "the best high resolution discs we could find." The goal was not to show which was better, but simply to find out if people could even tell the difference.
"None of these variables have shown any correlation with the results, or any difference between the answers and coin-flip results," they write in their conclusion. Later they note, "Further claims that careful 16/44.1 encoding audibly degrades high-resolution signals must be supported by properly controlled double-blind tests."
This is how you do science. It's incredible to me the lengths that educated and intelligent people will go to say that they're somehow endowed with impossible hearing powers that necessitate a level of audio encoding that's demonstrably unnecessary.
Let's set the bitrates aside for a moment. We can all agree that better audio quality is a good thing for everyone, so who cares if the rates are way higher than what we need? It will be better! This might technically be true, but the push for high-resolution audio that defies science creates an irrational obsession with hardware we don't need.
First of all, high-resolution audio files take up enormous amounts storage space. A "high resolution" 96 kHz/24-bit file is roughly three times larger than a CD-quality 44.1 kHz/16-bit file. And if you aren't currently using CD-quality files, it's about 24-times larger than what's considered a decent quality MP3. If you have a large music collection, storing any significant amount of high-resolution audio requires a huge amount of storage space, for which companies like Sony want to sell you $1000+ hi-res music players that are basically network attached flash storage.
Moreover, the push for high resolution audio leads people to think they need more expensive hardware than they do, from high-resolution players like the PonoPlayer and Sony's rebooted Walkman, to outrageously priced headphones, speakers, amplifiers and other gadgets.
I'm guilty of this as much as anybody else. Back when Sony announced its (relatively) cheaper $300 high-resolution Walkman last fall, I marveled at it, and thought to myself, "I kind of like the idea of a cute standalone music player that's designed just for my music files." And from a gear lover's point of view, I still feel that way.
On a more rational level, though, I'm actually sensitive to claims that the Pono Player's circuitry is superior to the circuitry of your average music player, which in the case of most people is our smartphones. In audio the quality of the gear you use does often improve the sound. That's why people pay big bucks to record in fancy recording studios that have completely analog circuits. From the Pono's product description:
This portable audio player uses circuitry taken straight from Ayre's own top-of-the-line products, costing tens of thousands of dollars, for unparalleled sound quality and unrivaled listening pleasure.
The question then becomes if the better circuitry on these players is really worth $400, or the inconvenience of carrying around an entire device dedicated only to music playback.
I think for a moment it's worth addressing my own headphone use. The cans I use on a daily basis cost $300. Do I think a good set of headphones sound better than a bad set? Definitely. But I also know that you can get good quality sound from a set of $80 Grados, and that the reason I spend more money on headphones as actually for build quality, comfort, and aesthetics. Much of it doesn't have anything to do with sound at all.
The point is that you don't need fancy hardware to make music sound good, and that no amount of hardware will make your ears hear better than the limits of biology and physics.
Neil Young's heart might be in the right place. Unfortunately, he's put his considerable connections and resources behind a tone-deaf movement.
Image by Sam Woolley